‘Homie’: St. Paul-native Danez Smith’s poetry collection released in January 2020 finds new meaning in a pandemic

“Inspiration is a false drug,” said Danez Smith, over the phone from the safe social-distance of their Minneapolis residence. “Being a poet is mainly about being open when inspiration happens, but also being diligent.”

One of the most acclaimed young poets of their generation, Smith’s latest collection of poetry, “Homie,” shows how profound and multifaceted something as everyday as the experience of friendship can be. In “Homie,” the mundane can hold multitudes. 

Its ninth poem, “the flower who bloomed thru the fence in grandmama’s yard,” describes a flower “snug into a chokehold” by a “white picket clasping the throat.” It evolves into a black friend dealing with white oppression; a trapped flower—who is “in search of greener grass now stuck / in a guillotine refusing to guillotine.”

The poem, and the book at large, ask a few important questions: In a country overrun by discrimination and disparity where joy and intimacy are scarce—problems extraordinarily exacerbated by COVID-19—how do we deal with suffering, how do we deal with racism, and how do we survive?

These challenges are daunting. Societal and institutional failings and the menacing economic realities of the United States, especially those realities for our most vulnerable and marginalized populations and artists, are currently on full display. 

“I love great arts orgs. A lot of orgs give great grants, and that is also fucked up in the way that that also creates the really horrible economy for artists that we are experiencing right now,” said Danez. A lot of Danez’s income is dependent on gigs and readings, and their whole calendar from March to July has “gone like poof.” 

“We’re fucked because of a virus that is running around, and that isn’t the virus’ fault—that is the fault of the institutions that we as artists often find ourselves beholden to because we need them to give us our next gig and our next grant.”

Danez suggests throughout “Homie” that the answer, in part, to these difficulties we face is the redemptive power of friendship. The book celebrates this “first & cleanest love” and those who have kept Smith going, especially through the darker episodes of his life. Smith’s earlier book, “Don’t Call Us Dead,” which was in the running for the National Book Award, explores police violence and Smith’s H.I.V. diagnosis. In a poem near the end of the book, Danez praises those friends who “say my name / like it’s good news,” going on to say “i need no savior but their love.” In a poem titled “acknowledgements,” they paint an intimate picture writing “God bless you who screens my nudes, drafts my break-up text.”

The negative shadings of some friendships are also present. One poem is titled “waiting on you to die so i can be myself,” referencing how connections can sometimes prevent individuals from becoming who you are.

The celebration of friendship goes well beyond his immediate circle, too, widening to include strangers and others in the community. In “my president,” the first poem of the book, Smith celebrates “the trans girl making songs in the closet,” “shonda rhimes,” “the birds,” “the bartender,” and “the cab drivers who stop,” sweetly seeing and offering praise to a wide variety of people.

Smith got their start in spoken word, and their work has always retained the directness of performance. At a time where the performing arts are virtually canceled due to COVID-19 shutdowns, Smith’s poetry—sprung from a background in live delivery and beautifully describing the guiding light provided by those they called friends—may provide a reminder of intimacy and love to those who are temporarily physically and emotionally isolated.

After overcoming this pandemic and reading their latest poetry collection, Danez encourages those to address many of the social injustices that the book addresses and this crisis shine a light on. 

“Art is great, but people have to get up off their asses and do something,” said Danez. They continue, “Bring your money and your body and become a troop, become a supporter […] read a poem and be moved and then do something.”

“Homie” is available at graywolfpress.org.