Baptist bishops preaching from the pulpit are poets. The wino on the corner is a poet. Grandparents who repeat oral stories from the comfort of their favorite chair are poets, too.
That’s what Danez Smith, the newest and youngest poet to receive a prestigious British Forward Prize, believes. The St. Paul, Minnesota, native is also the first gender-neutral poet to win the £10,000 ($13,083) prize for best collection. Smith, who prefers the pronouns “they” and “them,” defeated the 2018 U.S. Poet Laureate Tracey K. Smith at the Sept. 18 event.
“We all have poets in our lives,” Smith said. “Poetry is for all of us, because poetry helps us see ourselves as human. [Poems] are mirrors that help me see my flesh is actually flesh and not imagined.”
The 29-year-old's prize winning 2017 collection, “Don’t Call Us Dead,” details the poet's struggles as an African-American queer individual facing police brutality, white supremacy and their own HIV-positive diagnosis.
Smith, who was also a 2017 National Endowment of the Arts Fellow, explained they used their collection to speak to “black people, queer people, people who know what it's like to live with illness.” But Smith also hopes their work touches people who don’t fit into those categories.
“I hope that the most Trump supporting of readers stumble upon my collection and think about what it means to be queer,” Smith said. “There is a reading of the book that requires that even if they don’t know these lives, they can sit down it and consider it.”
British filmmaker, poet and journalist Bidisha chaired the judge’s panel for the competition. She said that Smith's wide range included "sexuality and desire, yearning, vulnerability, but also creativity and determination in the face of oppression, stereotyping and the threat of violence.”
While inequality and injustice are "ever-present" in Smith's work, "so are hope, liveliness and the desire to speak truth to power.”
The filmmaker added that although other poets' collections included those themes, Smith “brought them all together with a very fresh voice and a certain energy.”
One poem in the prize-winning collection, “summer, somewhere,” describes a black-men-only afterlife.
“I am trying to offer humility and peace to people that were only offered chaos,” Smith explained. “If we can't have hope and we can’t have peace, we can have it somewhere else.”
“Dinosaurs in the Hood,” which reimagines a “Jurassic Park”-like movie in a black culture context, is another favorite.
“We need to see ourselves as alive and worthy of something as silly as a movie, not just worthy of being on the news,” Smith said in describing the poem.
“Dear White America,” another poem in the collection focusing on white supremacy, reached more than 340,000 views after it was posted on YouTube in 2014.
Smith described their excitement at winning the Forward Prize.
“It was a magical experience to receive such an award in a country I don’t live in, but we share the same language," Smith, a current Minneapolis resident, said. “We really do something that extends beyond all borders. Poetry is the country that I live in and I'm happy to be in it.”
Poet Niall Campbell — a panel judge along with poets Jen Campbell, Mimi Khalvati and Chris McCabe — shared a similar sentiment about poetry’s ability to surpass borders and cultures.
“Danez writes about race and oppression in an American context — and brings the world’s spotlight there — but also, like all good poetry, it is transferable,” he said. “It is a book about love and anger, oppression and the demand for justice that will find a home in countless countries.”
More than being a recognition of Smith’s skill, the black queer poet’s win will also show other LGBTQ poets and poets of color that their work matters, Jen Campbell said she hoped.
“As a queer person with a disfigurement, I longed to see myself in the literature I read as a child and rarely did,” Jen Campbell said. “It brings me joy that not only can everyone read Danez's poetry and be wowed by their skill, but that they are now perhaps more visible to those who need to see them, and by institutions who should be paying more attention.”
Bidisha said that the diversity of the 15 poets on the prize's shortlist has already demonstrated that the “closely guarded upper echelons of poetic prestige” are becoming more inclusive.
“A poet is not an old white heterosexual male philanderer talking about what he saw on his walk,” she said. “It is a woman, a queer person, a trans person, a poet in translation, a poet in transit, a poet in exile. All that matters is voice and craft. Poetry must no longer judge by appearances or replicate snobberies or reinforce the boys' club."
Having broken into these “upper echelons,” Smith plans to focus on grinding out their next collection.
“Prizes don’t make the poet, poems do,” Smith said.