Devil’s Lake


Interview with Jayson Smith

Q: There’s this conversation of what black writers/writers of color are responsible for when we come to the page. This big idea that says we have to write about black struggle in a way that forces us to speak for an entire race. What are your thoughts on that when you come to the page? In what ways do you find yourself accepting or rejecting this idea?

Then this brings me to the question of who am I even writing for? Who am I writing to soothe or make comfortable?

The longer that I’ve gone in my journey with poetry the more I’ve realized that this idea is stupid. The poem is always going to tell on me, right? So if we are thinking about this in terms n terms of what the black writers are responsible for, first we have to think about what a “black” poem is. And that’s complicated because no one has a real definition of what blackness is. I think that when you are working as a writer of color, or coming to the page as someone with a marginalized perspective, whatever you are actually trying to write about is going to tell on you as an individual. There are a lot of issues in my life that I write about that are directly to, and informed by my blackness. But just because my blackness is the operating agent in the room doesn’t mean it’s the only thing I can talk about. So the idea that I have to explicitly and specifically lean on identifiable tropes of blackness is outrageous. If you really think about it, the only people who need those strict definitions what it means to be who I am in this skin are people who are outside of this world of blackness. Then this brings me to the question of who am I even writing for? Who am I writing to soothe or make comfortable? Black sadness is profitable. Black death is profitable. The entire American project is founded on the idea of how close we can be to death on a daily basis. So of course, as a black writer, that’s going to be the first thing that people ask about. I just think that as black writers, we owe it to ourselves to live in our fullness. Vievee (Francis) said something about Greg (Pardlo’s) book Digest. She said that he dared to be a fully realized black man on the page. I’ve really been thinking about that ever since she said it at Callaloo (a workshop for writers of African descent and of the Diaspora). What does that mean for all of the people who are going to come in contact with his book? I think about what it means to be a fully realized anything. That means that there is complication, that means that everyone has to look different. We have to honor the fact that the complications of the individual self is going to make a strong case for the poem, for the narrative, for whatever we are trying to say.

Q: You have so many people who support you, love you, who want to see you alive. How important is community in your creative process?"

I depend on community for almost everything, really. Community is how I grew to understand the landscape. It’s how I grew to understand my value as an artist. It’s how I learned that I had value value that didn’t just come from what I had to offer or from how agreeable I could be in a room. Community saved me in a lot of ways because it taught me how to stand by myself. I think that living in New York, the idea of community gets twisted. It’s very easy to be lonely and alone in New York City. So the idea of community that makes the most sense for me is having a core group of people who are able to see me in every light—as a person, as a writer. People who are able to hold me accountable who check in with me and check up on me. That pushes me to do the same for them. These people are my solar system’this small set of people who keep the engine moving. That’s important to me. I need people to keep me going, people who keep me fed.

Q: You’ve recently been granted an artist residency with Urban Word (a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of young writers through various forms of poetry, prose, and musicianship) in New York City. I wish you could have been one of my Urban Word mentors back in the day! How does being a mentor fuel your art?

As poets, we deal with our feelings 24/7. Our job requires vulnerability. What greater way to honor that than to know who brought me to this space, to this moment?

Honestly, some of my mentors saved my life. So being a mentor is scary for me because whatever I do or bring into the space could be that important to a person. I think it is a big responsibility because I carry a lot of people with me. I’m really referential in my work, and in the way that I talk about the work too. That’s intentional because I never want to walk into a space and have people think that I happened in a vacuum. I want people to know where I came from. I want people to understand who I am reading and who I am in community with, who I’m dreaming with’who I am understanding the world with. We wear our people on us, every time we come into the room or the page. As poets, we deal with our feelings 24/7. Our job requires vulnerability. What greater way to honor that than to know who brought me to this space, to this moment? That’s what being a mentor (and being mentored) does for me. It reminds me that I owe people, that I have to be responsible.

Q: You’re at NYU right now majoring in choreography and performance studies. Does your dance background ever intersect with your life as a writer? Does it affect the way you write, at all?

I think it affects the way I use space. I think that my brain organizes space differently because of it. My dance background forces me to think about how bodies move in space and that transfers to how I understand gaps on the page. I’m really interested in negative space and in how things line up visually. In dancing, there is a kind of silence that happens between bodies that happens on the page too. I have to respect that gap as much as I do the words. I’m interested in the way that things align. I’m the kind of person that has to consider line breaks even in the prose poem because it’s that important to me. It registers to me as a tick in my process. But the poems wouldn’t be mine without it.

Q: What are you working on right now?

I am working on the new issue of Union Station Magazine. I have a reading coming up! It’s happening on November 16th at the Union Square Slam in NYC. I’m working with the LA Review of Books. They are doing a studio lab series called Voluble where poets and other artists create projects and craft talks. So I’m one of the curators for the week and it’s launching next fall. I’m also working on my manuscript and that’s scary. It has a shape, which also means that it has gaps, which means I have to fill them. But I’m excited! It’s chugging along. I want to have it done by the end of the year, hopefully. And since you asked, you can find my work at! Poems, readings, workshop listings. All of that!

JAYSON SMITH is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and Callaloo fellow. His poems appear or are forthcoming in journals such as Day One, Twelfth House, The Rumpus, MUZZLE, and boundary2. In addition to being an Urban Word NYC mentor, he is poetry editor at Union Station Magazine, co-curator for Poets in Unexpected Places and reader for The Atlas Review. He lives in Brooklyn and on Twitter.