Clint Smith: Du Bois, Lineage, the Zombiepocalypse, and the Role of the Writer in Difficult Times by Elizabeth Acevedo
With the recent release of his first collection of poetry, Counting Descent, Clint Smith and I had a chance to discuss his new book and his role in literature as a writer and researcher. Not only is Smith one of my favorite writers, he’s also a good friend and collective-mate, and I was fortunate to be one of the first to read his collection when it was in manuscript-form. I was so moved by his collection, and honored when he asked me to blurb his book. What I said at the time is that Counting Descent is a tightly-woven collection whose pages act like an invitation to New Orleans, to the spades’ table, to mom’s kitchen, to the kiss on a woman’s wrist, to conversations with hydrants and cicadas.The invitation in these pages are intimate and generous and also a challenge; are you up to asking what is blackness? What is black joy? How is black life loved and lived? To whom do we—this human We— look to for answers? This invitation is not to a narrow street, or a shallow lake, but to a vast exploration of life.
In a voice that echoes James Baldwin, but also declares its singularity, Smith extends: “Maybe there’s a place where everyone is both in love with and running from their own skin. Maybe that place is here.” And anywhere Smith is, often becomes a site of investigating what fear we are running from, and what love we’re running to. This interview proved no different.
Elizabeth Acevedo: Hey, Clint. How are you?
Clint Smith: I’m doing alright. Like it has for many people, the past weeks have been a whirlwind. I think we’re all processing this new reality differently and getting ready for the hard work ahead of us.
EA: Agreed. I think there’s so much at stake and on shaky ground. I’ve been turning to many different artists in an attempt to think about how to use this literary work in a meaningful way that responds to this moment in history.
And to delve into the first question, with a president-elect that has promised to change the political landscape of America as we know it, what does poetry have to offer to what may prove to be tumultuous times? What is the role of the poet right now?
CS: It’s interesting, I think, because for black artists, even before this election we were in the midst of a sociopolitical moment in which our work was speaking to and responding to the fact that our lives are precarious in this country — and really that our lives are precarious across the world. Now, we’re in a moment in which that sense of uncertainty and danger is being experienced by a much larger group of people, as we have a President-elect who threatens the well-being of wide-ranging demographic of people. I say this to say that, whether it’s police brutality, mass incarceration, or the threat of a registry for Muslims or the deportation of immigrants, we have a responsibility to challenge what we know to be unjust. We cannot let the political sensibilities of the moment compromise our ability to imagine and demand something beyond the scope of what others say is possible.
EA: I love that. “The political sensibilities of the moment compromise our ability to imagine.” You a poet. Who are you reading right now that is inspiring your imagining? And why are you reading them? What I mean to say is, are you reading to find comfort? Are you reading to find hope? Are you reading to remain fully engaged in the urgency of your work?
CS: That’s a great question, and something that I’ve been considering more thoughtfully since the election — what is it that I feel drawn to consume and why? I find myself in the strange yet incredibly fortunate position where, as a graduate student and writer, my job is larger to read, write, and think about the things that matter a great deal to me. I don’t take that for granted for a second. The challenge becomes the fact that the line between what is “work” and what is “rest” is pretty blurred. You know, I don’t stop thinking about mass incarceration, or school segregation, or housing discrimination when I leave work. Those things are not just intellectual pursuits, understanding and studying those things reflects my broader political and personal commitments. They are with me all of the time. Even if it weren’t my job to study them, I would be reading about many of these things whenever I had the opportunity. So this means that when I leave the library, I don’t just “turn it off,” I’m still thinking about it. I’m still wrestling with it. That’s my life as a social scientist and researcher. But my life is also unique in that I’m not only a researcher, I’m also an artist. So what does that mean? When I’m reading fiction, is that as a reader or a writer? When I’m reading poems, is that work or play? I don’t know that I have an answer to that, because the truth is that it’s both. This is a long way of saying that, in selecting what to read, I don’t know that I can silo my rationale in terms of comfort, or hope, or urgency, because it’s usually a bit of all those. Part of what brings me comfort is reading things that help me understand how the world has come to be.
Right now I’m reading Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well, Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises
EA: I loved The Light in the World.
CS: Alexander’s book is astonishing. I’m moving through it slowly so that I can savor every word.
EA: And Alexander is someone who also participates in many kinds of writing, and genres. I was actually hoping to ask you about compartmentalization before we got on this thread. I’m curious about genre.
In addition to your book of poems, Counting Descent, you’re also a contributor for The New Yorker, The Guardian, and you’re also a public speaker and performer. How do you find your work in different genres are in dialogue? How are they divergent? How do you know what an idea needs to become?
CS: Until relatively recently I struggled with the idea that of working across genres and mediums. I was really operating under this false notion that one had to become an expert in a specific space before moving to the next. One, the idea of becoming an “expert” in any sort of artistic context is a largely impossible task, and the arbiters of who is or is not an expert in certain genres or mediums is arbitrary and subjective, as it should be. Secondly, as you alluded to, different types of messages can and should exist in the medium most suited to its needs. It’s not mutually exclusive. It was when I first started reading a lot of W.E.B. Du Bois’ work about two years ago that I began to more confidently reject this compartmentalization. Du Bois was a poet, journalist, essayist, historian, sociologist, novelist, the list goes on and on. Seeing a scholar operate across so many different spaces — to have myriad intellectual projects contribute to his broader political project. I really resonate with that. And I recognize that some of my work will reach different audiences as well, an essay in the New Yorker might be read by a different group of people than a poem an at open mic in Southeast DC, but that doesn’t mean that one is more important than another. They’re simply different. My goal is to simply write as honestly as possible. Regardless of the audience or medium
EA: It’s like getting your words dressed. Different events require different attire but the heart of the writing is the same. That metaphor wasn’t as successful as I hope, but I do understand what you mean.
Also, I have a timer set and was waiting to see how long it took you to mention Du Bois.
CS: Du Bois is my dude! Truly though, something I really appreciate about him is how, even though he was one of the most brilliant people on the planet, he wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong.ruly though, something I really appreciate about him is how, even though
EA: He was so human, yeah?
CS: Exactly. It’s so wonderful to me, the humility to recognize that sometimes you won’t get it right, but you’re doing the best you can. And in many ways asking to the empathy and compassion from others to be able to make those mistakes
EA: Sometimes I think we’re afraid of our work being retweeted out of context or what we lose if we backtrack on an idea. But, I think the writer shouldn’t be too sure. And that means sometimes you need to admit when you were off.
CS: Right, you and I have talked about this a bit, but I sometimes worry about young writers coming up in the age of social media. I worry that their ideas aren’t given time to grow and evolve without them being subjected to torment online for saying the wrong thing or saying something but the wrong way. I can’t imagine what would have happened to me if some of the ideas I had as a young person, or even as a college student or young adult, got out into the world now. I probably would have stopped writing.
EA: Right! It’s a very reactionary time in regards to posting art on social media. I’m curious about something circling back to W.E.B Du Bois.
CS: Well certainly Du Bois, as someone who has been of incredible intellectual and political import to me. But I can’t talk about Du Bois without talking about Frederick Douglass, who is many ways in the intellectual and literary forefather for generation after generation of black writers and thinkers across the political spectrum. I mean, Booker T. Washington and Du Bois were fighting over who would write Douglass’ biography. It was that serious. Ralph Ellison has also impacted me in ways that go beyond what I can describe. Folks like Audre Lorde pushed me to be more precise and intersectional in my thinking. But also folks like Faulkner, and Hurston, and Tennessee Williams who paved the way as southern writers.
EA: What about beyond ideology? Would those same writers stay on your list if we were talking about only craft?
CS: To be honest, so much of my voice as a writer has been shaped by my contemporaries. Speaking of compartmentalization, I think you and I are part of a generation of writers, specifically writers of color, coming from the spoken word community but who are such multi-dimensional artists, thinkers, and activists. They reject the idea that they can only write in one medium, they reject the idea that their politics should be absent from their art, they reject the idea that there is a literary hierarchy we should subscribe to. Those folks have and continue to, shape my art and my politics in profound ways.
EA: I do think we are living in a dynamic time where many writers of colors are blurring lines on genres and subverting a lot of the expectations placed on us by the traditional American literary canon. And yo, you stay pre-empting my questions. Because I was just about to ask about contemporaries.
I used to be obsessed with The Walking Dead. And I was always sad that there was no character who was a writer since it seemed like the reconstruction of civilization was important to document. So, let’s imagine: zombiepocalypse happens. Oh, no! Almost everyone is dead. By some fated circumstance you are allowed to pick five of your contemporaries to carry on the work of creating literature in a post-apocalyptic world. Outside of our collective, who are five writers you would trust to carry the task.
CS: Oh man, this is really hard. I don’t know if I can do it. Like I’m stressing out on the guest list for my wedding right now so only five writers. It feels like an impossible task.
EA: I believe in you. You got this.
CS: Hmmm. Well five contemporary writers whose work I often revisit across genre are Vinson Cunningham, Eve Ewing, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Vann Newkirk II, and Safia Elhillo.
EA: That’s a great list. I’m proud of you. Last question: the people want to know, what’s next for Clint Smith?
CS: Well, I’m in the very nascent stages of beginning my dissertation, which is a series of portraits of men and women across the country who are serving sentences of life without parole. It’s going to be such a different project than the poetry book but I’m excited to get started.