Following a warm introduction from the host, there was a faint click-clack of a low-heeled boot followed the performer to the front of the room. The audience clapped in anticipation, wondering what they should expect to hear from the person in front of them. Danez Smith cleared their throat, put their mouth to the microphone, and let out one of many jokes of the evening.
Smith, who goes by the singular pronoun they, is a black, queer poet from St. Paul, Minnesota. The Pride Student Union hosted them at the Queer Poetry Jam on Friday as the featured performer. The event was an open mic night at the Reitz Union in honor of Pride Awareness Month. About 10 students of all backgrounds and levels of experience performed their pieces. Although the style of poetry differed, ranging from theatrical spoken word pieces to satirical comments on society, the one unifying element was the experiences they all faced as LGBTQ+ individuals.
As a founding member of Dark Noise, a collective of poets dedicated to creating space for people of color in the industry and co-host of “VS,” a poetry podcast where writers can discuss their ideas, Smith is a prominent member in the writer’s community. They also received numerous honors including the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry and is a finalist for the National Book Award for Poetry. Smith is no stranger to hard work. This is evident in their writing.
Smith started off by warming the audience up: cracking a few jokes, releasing the tension, slowly taking command of the stage with their relaxed confidence. Once everyone was comfortable, they launched into just over an hour of wonderfully crafted poetry. Poem after poem, Smith captivated the audience.
The topics ranged from the presidential administration to transgender rights to best friends. Letting out pithy truths like they were cracking a whip. Wedging pop culture references between heavy metaphors. Getting into character, splicing words with tongue pops and “Mhmmmmm”’s and boisterous “GIRLLLLL”’s. Garnering sighs of shared pain and crackles of laughter from the enraptured audience. Letting their voice go from a shout to barely a whisper. Letting their melody go from singsongy to brassy, rounding out their voice, letting the words out like a marble circling the drain.
The words, although delivered with ease, were contemplative and introspective. They seemed to come from a life of observing the in-betweens. A common thread that ran through Smith’s poems was honoring these crevices of life.
In a poem called “My President,” Smith played on the current trend of calling things we love “my president” from Rihanna’s makeup to a good plate of food. Smith recounted the things in their life that were their president: “my grandma is my president and her Cabinet is her cabinet.”
After the show, I joined the swarm of people in line to buy Smith’s most recent book, “Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems.” With the same sincerity of their poetry, Smith informed me of their upcoming collection of poems about friendship — titled “Homie” and set to release in Spring 2020. When asked if they think they have grown since the first book, they answered, “I sure hope so.”