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DOGBYTES Interview: Clint Smith

Clint Smith is a writer and doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the National Science Foundation. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His writing has been published in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Guardian, Boston Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He is the author of Counting Descent (Write Bloody, 2016) and was born and raised in New Orleans. Hear Smith read alongside Casey Rocheteau and John Warner Smith, April 19 at The New School.

Tell us about the inspiration behind your book, Counting Descent.

The book is born out of a moment where, after Ferguson, my political sensibilities began to shift—as I believe they did, to some extent or another, for many of us. I began thinking of the marathon of cognitive dissonance that is growing up as a young black person in this country. How does one wrestle with the ever-present tension of navigating spaces—perhaps your home, or maybe somewhere else, where you feel loved, affirmed and celebrated—and then going out into a larger world in which you are constantly rendered a caricature of someone else’s fear? The book is attempting to hold that tension, and explore how that often complicated duality shapes the experiences young black people have as they come of age.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

I always come back to an essay by Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” where he rebukes the young artist who says, “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet.” Imbued within that sentiment is a sense that the lives, voices and experiences of black people do not constitute an artistically legitimate or worthwhile literary endeavor. What Hughes is saying, I think, is that one should not fear that writing about the trials and tribulations (or the joy and celebration) experienced by black people will place them lower on the literary hierarchy simply because it’s not about the trees, the flowers and the mountainous landscape. If one feels compelled to write about such things because they are beautiful, which they certainly are, that’s fine. But if one is writing about them and not something else and that’s predicated on the idea that the something else isn’t worthy of engagement for “serious” artists, then I think that’s a problem. As Hughes said, “An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.”

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year; what made you decide to read it?

Oh, man. I read Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and thought it was one of the most stunning novels that I’ve ever read. The concept of writing an intergenerational narrative of the African diaspora from not only one, but two different extensions of the same lineage is so ambitious, and yet she pulled it off flawlessly. Everyone should read that book.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I’ve recently attempted to begin meditating consistently. I’ve tried it on and off over the years but with no real discipline. I’m beginning slowly, with just 5-10 minutes each morning, and hope to build my way up to something more significant. We don’t realize how little time we allot to simply sit with ourselves. When I realized that, I found it deeply unsettling. I’m hoping to be better about that moving forward.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

History. I’m profoundly interested in studying history and how it shapes the landscape of our current sociopolitical landscape. When you understand the trajectory of American history in particular, everything around us makes sense. The reason certain communities look one way and other communities look another. These were because of decisions that people have made through public policy, and often violence. The more time I spend engaging with the history of our country the more it influences my intellectual and political sensibilities.

When you’re not reading, writing or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy and money?

I’ve come to really enjoy running in a way I didn’t always. I played soccer my entire life and throughout college, and I was trained to think about running as a means towards a specific utilitarian end. When I was done playing, I had to recalibrate my relationship to exercise generally. It took some time, but I think I’m finally in a place where I value the act of running itself in addition to the way it makes me feel afterwards. I’ve also learned that a good audiobook takes my mind off how long I’ve been running and simply allows me to get lost in the duality of the story and my own breathing. I’m currently listening to Teju Cole’s Open City which I’ve read before, but is so wonderful to hear read aloud.

What advice you would give to emerging poets?

It’s an interesting question, because I still feel as if I’m still an emerging poet myself. I mean that in the sense that I still feel like I’m finding my footing as a writer and have a lot more muscles to stretch in order to more concretely understand my own literary sensibilities. What I would say, for any writer, is to read across genres. Fiction and non-fiction. History and social science. Longform journalism and haikus. All of them inform how I write, how I situate myself as a writer in the world, and help me to remember to reject the ways that the world can often create false demarcations between them.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

Oh, that’s interesting. Well “French fry” was my first word (or two words) as a child and I still think that there are few things better in life than a really good French fry. I don’t anticipate that will change anytime soon. In terms of the converse, growing up, I fervently believed that I would become a professional soccer player, and when I got to college, I realized that Louisiana, where I grew up, is not exactly a hotbed of soccer talent against which to measure your skills. I didn’t get much playing time in college, but ultimately it was the best thing that could have happened to me because it forced me to determine who I was beyond the soccer field, and that’s how I became more serious about writing.

What life experience has most shaped you as a writer?

My parents’ dining room table, the annual summer reading competition put on by the New Orleans Public Library, Hurricane Katrina, and Ferguson.

What year(s) did you attend the Cave Canem retreat? What are some of your favorite memories from those times?

I attended the Cave Canem retreat for the first time last year, and there simply are no words to explain what it means to be given a space where you feel as if you don’t have to explain the scope of who are you, whether it be in the poem or in the interpersonal dialogue of the workshop. I wrote the sorts of poems that previously, I didn’t feel I had the space or permission to write, and that was incredibly freeing. I’m looking forward to getting back.

Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit and Arc & Hue. Her chapbooks include the upcoming Never Been Lois Lane; 7 x 7: kwansabas; and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali. Tara holds an MFA from New England College and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her poems, essays and short stories have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, including Essence, Poetry, NYLON, Octavia’s Brood, Bum Rush the Page, Black Nerd Problems and The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop. Tara currently teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago. Hear her read Friday, March 3 alongside Cameron Awkward-Rich, Hayes Davis and Nathan McClain.

What was the most challenging aspect of finishing your most recent book, Break the Habit?

The most challenging aspect of finishing the book itself was sifting out poems that were not essential to the final sequence. I do plan to publish them. Some of them already are published. It kept changing, but there are more poems that I did not include in the book.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last year; what made you decide to read it?

Don’t Explain: A Song of Billie Holiday by Alexis DeVeaux. I’m finishing an essay on poetic representations of Billie Holiday for BILLIE 101, an anthology celebrating the singer’s 100th birthday. DeVeaux wrote the first book-length collection on Holiday. The second one was the YA poetry collection Becoming Billie Holiday by Carole Boston Weatherford, which came out in 2008.

What can poets do to promote social justice?

If you are a poet, you should be using your skills to sharpen people’s critical thinking skills, including making a variety of perspectives more visible. If a poet has other skills, use them. For this reason, I have consistently returned to Sonia Sanchez’s “For Sweet Honey in the Rock.” We have work on so many fronts that needs to be done if we want our communities to endure. If you can teach, teach more people how to read, teach other young people how to teach. Most academic programs fail to teach pedagogy. Teach outside the academy. Learn some new skills that have little or nothing to do with poetry that can meet people’s human needs.

Name one of your influences outside of literature or art.

The small town where I was born and raised—Kankakee, Illinois. It’s where I met so many people in my grandparents’ tavern, different schools, and I became curious about art in my childhood. My love affair with the library developed there, and my mother taught me to read there. I still love that a river runs through the town. Even though I don’t live there now, it motivated so much of what I wanted to do as a writer.

What’s something you tried recently for the first time?

I visited a friend at the hospital, and I got to be the first person to see her newborn child. There is something awe-inspiring in seeing a vulnerable, new life and greeting it.

When you’re not reading, writing or teaching, how do you spend your time, energy and money?

At this point, taking a walk or sleeping, but I do enjoy visiting with old friends and former students from classes and workshops that I’ve taught. Lately, the money has been getting spent on good food and comic books.

What advice would you give to emerging poets?

The best thing a poet can do besides maintain their health is to keep writing. I have been talking to my students (and writing friends) about how life is not slowing down for any of us, and whatever happens to us can get in the way. You must make consistent, persistent efforts to keep writing and releasing work into the world.

What’s something that as a child, you assumed would have changed by now, yet hasn’t; what’s something you assumed wouldn’t have changed, yet has?

As a kid, I had hoped to see more mixed-race kids like me. I’m glad to have grown up to see someone like Barack Obama come into prominence. His mom reminded me very much of my own mother.  Unfortunately, I think too many people think that means racism isn’t a problem or that this means people will lose some sort of cultural grounding. I’m hoping that complicates people’s understandings of humanity and race, especially as white supremacists become simultaneously bolder and more afraid of becoming obsolete.

What life experience has shaped you most as a writer?

I think having my first job as a page at the Kankakee Public Library. Being involved with nonprofits, working at other libraries, poetry slams, women’s groups, going to college, and becoming a professor—all of these experiences were fed by my love of libraries. I fell in love with words at the Kankakee Public Library, and it was one of the few places I walked to alone as a young girl. That quiet, contemplative space filled with so many words is different from what home can look like for a lot of children. At this point, I am a huge supporter of libraries and the work they do to provide information and combat censorship.

What year(s) were you at the Cave Canem retreat? What are a few of your favorite memories from those times?

2002, 2003 and 2005. I am still struck by how overwhelmed I felt at the opening circle during my first year when the retreat was still based at Cranbrook in Michigan. I met Akua Lezli Hope there, after writing to each other for a couple years. I was blown away by so many talented writers there—many of them before their first books dropped—Adrian Matejka, Christian Campbell, LaTasha Diggs, Cherene Sherrard, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Treasure Redmond, Doug Kearney, and many other folks who were accomplished in other areas. One night, a bunch of people got together and listened to Richard Pryor albums, and A. Van Jordan ended up writing a poem about Mudbone. I ended up writing the poem “Switch” because I was really engrossed in Lucille Clifton’s poem “move” from The Book of Light. I am also sad that some of the people that I met at the retreat are no longer with us—James Richardson, Reginald Lockett, Phebus Etienne, Reetika Vazirani. My first year there was the most memorable for me, and I’ve been running ever since, it seems.