At only 28 Smith has already developed a reputation as both an electric performer and an award-winning author. Their second and latest collection of poems, Don’t Call Us Dead, has been shortlisted for the National Book Award in Poetry and has received The Four Quartets Prize; their performances, popularized on Youtube, have earned them a base of dedicated fans, of the kind that most poets can only dream. At the start of the year, in response to Smith’s growing fame, The Guardian featured a profile of the poet, focusing on their coming of age, artistry, and aspirations.
While Smith’s work deserves to be bought and read, as well as heard, their performances are widely available online. Two of their most well-known poems, “dear white america” and “alternate heaven for black boys”, offer a nice introduction to their work for those who are interested. Mini reviews of two of their four books are also included below: one of their two chapbooks, Black Movie, and one of their two collections, Don’t Call Us Dead.
Interested in adapting cinematic techniques into poetry, as well as playing with the conventions of popular genres, the experimental poems of Black Movie examine topics such as state violence, Black rage, and collective trauma through the lens of film. The poet namechecks famous movies, imagines life as a kind of horrific screenplay, and makes a montage of sharp and incisive images. The versatile range Smith exhibits in this slim volume is astounding, as is the fact that they wrote it while still earning their MFA.
Beginning with an extended meditation on the traumatic effects of police brutality in America, Don’t Call Us Dead consists mostly of short poems that address the emotional toll of racism and homophobia upon the lives of queer Black men. At once impassioned and deliberate, Smith writes poems of great insight and intelligence; their attention to bodily experience makes their poetry read as hyper-relevant to our time, while their reflections on American social life are penetrating. It’s rare to read poetry this great, especially when written by a poet near the start of their career.