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Poem of the Week - 12/30/2020 - '& even the black guy's profile reads 'sorry...' by Danez Smith

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

For the last ‘Poem of the Week’ feature for 2020, I decided to pick a poem from one of my new favorite poets I happened to stumble upon through reading the many collections I got my hands on during quarantine earlier in the year—Danez Smith.

Danez Smith is arguably both one of the most noteworthy and lauded poets in America today. Smith, a black, queer, non-binary, and poz poet, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, where they were raised by their mother and grandparents (Smith goes by they/them pronouns). After graduating from Central High School in St. Paul, they went to UW-Madison as a First Wave Urban Arts Scholar, graduating with a BA in 2012. After college, their work took off, and they never looked back.


Starting in 2013, Smith has published two chapbooks and three poetry collections. The second collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, published in 2017 (and the collection where today’s poem is pulled from), was a National Book Award Finalist for Poetry, winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection, and winner of the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award. Their most recent collection, titled Homie (but not really—if you read the collection, you’ll understand what the real title is and why I say this), has become one of the best-selling poetry collections of the past few years and has been lauded by publications as large as The New York Times, The Star Tribune, and Publishers Weekly.


On top of all of their award-winning poetry collections/chapbooks, they also wear many other hats. They are a founding member of Dark Noise Collective, a co-host of the Poetry Foundation-sponsored VS podcast with Franny Choi, and writer of other sorts of prose and essays, with their work being published widely in outlets such as Buzzfeed, The New York Times, PBS NewsHour, Best American Poetry, and Poetry Magazine, amongst many others. They have also appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert as part of a performance with the rapper Macklemore. They have twice been a finalist in the Individual World Poetry Slam, received a Pushcart Prize, been featured as part of Forbes’ annual ’30 Under 30’ list, and have been the recipient of fellowships from the Poetry Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Montalvo Arts Center, Cave Canem, and the National Endowment for the Arts.


As you can tell from their resume alone, Smith knows how to write some pretty fine poetry while also being able to balance all sorts of other artistic endeavors. Not many poets in today’s U.S. poetry scene can say the same, and Smith has built all of this with an eye towards the future, working on several festivals and boards of directors, including the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam in 2014 and the poetry non-profit Split This Rock today.


Smith’s work often focuses on themes of race and racism, police brutality, queerness, friendship, loneliness, love, living with HIV, and loss. While those may sound heavy in terms of subject matter, Smith often writes with such wit, humor, sarcasm, and biting satire that their collections are beautiful pieces of work, the melancholic lines usually wrapped in a proud layer of remembrance or a call to arms for people of all races.


But let us now focus on Smith’s poem that I chose for this week’s feature: ‘& even the black guy’s profile reads sorry, no black guys,’ a poem from their second collection Don’t Call Us Dead.



The poem, at its most basic, is simple: it’s a meditation on love and dating in the twenty-first century, with its title a reference to online dating, mostly done via apps on our phones. Since Tinder, along with numerous other dating apps such as Bumble, Grindr, and Hinge, took off in 2013, there have been numerous anthropological studies done of the vast amount of dating profiles out there, and one dark fact that is extremely prevalent but rarely acknowledged in the full light of day is how many profiles exist with such messages as ‘I do not want to date black guys or girls’ written in their bios or taglines. The people who post such things on their profiles often delude themselves into thinking this kind of behavior isn’t racist, simply telling themselves and their friends that ‘they just have a taste, and black people aren’t it.’ It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what’s wrong with that sentiment. The title and subsequent poem then brings the study of dating a little bit further, noting that, as a non-binary individual who is queer, Smith sometimes has trouble finding black men who want other black men or individuals, an appalling fact in today’s society. If black men can’t even like men of their own race because of society’s whitewashing/racist disposition to black individuals, what does that both say about said men and society at large?


Examining the poem further takes away a little bit of the sting though—from the injustice referenced to in the title, and the general melancholic and dark feeling of the body of the poem, there is light and hope and the possibility of love wrapped up in it all by the end of the fifth line. Whether Smith, as the speaker, is talking to themselves, saying ‘you are beautiful & lovable & enough,’ or to all others who are reading the poem and need to have some light through the darkness of their personal struggles (‘…& so--you pretty you--am i.’), the poem ends on a rather upbeat note compared to the darkness at the beginning.


The images of flowers and gardens and a room full of light in the first two lines also seem to call to mind warm, cheery thoughts for the readers of the short poem, but when you look at the words and compare them to the title, and see the resemblance between the messages of the two separate parts of the same poem, that pervading sense of melancholy underneath it all streaks through the poem. By also saying, in the third line, that Smith sees a man whom even they cannot love when looking at themselves, how are others supposed to love them? It speaks to that age-old sentiment about being able to love yourself before being able to love others, and if you can’t even love yourself for who you are, how can you expect a partner to fully grasp how best to love you?


The mixing of melancholy and grief and inner peace and love makes for a tantalizing little poem, and this is just one example of the many in Smith’s catalog that is able to blend juxtaposing emotions so perfectly.


If you would like to read more of Smith's poetry, check out links to place them on hold: Don’t Call Us Dead here or Homie here; or, buy them locally from here and here.

 

‘& even the black guy’s profile reads sorry, no black guys'


imagine a tulip, upon seeing a garden full of tulips, sheds its petals in disgust, prays

some bee will bring its pollen to a rose bush. imagine shadows longing for a room

with light in every direction. you look in the mirror & see a man you refuse to love.

small child sleeping near Clorox, dreaming of soap suds & milk, if no one has told

you, you are beautiful & lovable & black & enough & so — you pretty you — am i.

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