So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

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In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, we've revived our interview series about publishing the first book. This week, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with Danez Smith, author of [insert] boy, winner of the Lambda Literary Literary Award for Gay Poetry, about finding a book title that holds all your poems, and saying 'no' to poems that you really do love.
1. How many books have you published, and where?
I have 1 full length published ([insert] boy from YesYes Books), one of the way (Don’t Call Us Dead from Graywolf Press), and 2 chapbooks, black movie from Button Poetry and hands on ya knees from Penmanship Books. 
2. Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. How did you conceive of ordering the collection?
Oh, it was an absolute mess. It started as my senior thesis at the University of Wisconsin, then changed and changed and changed as I grew as a poet and as my poems became interested in different things. I knew I wanted to try to divide the poems into topical sections in order to cover a range of topics in relationship to the body, but how was a struggle. Because of how I was structuring the book, if 2 or 3 poems went from a section, the section itself was usually dropped too. There could be a whole book of the poems not in the book that once had their place. The hardest part for me was saying no to poems that I love on their own, but just didn’t move along the book as an arc (but hey, we have the rest of our lives to put all the poems in all the books). The idea of titling the sections didn’t come until I had the manuscript for 2 years already, when [insert] boy became the title, largely because it gave me a way to hold the poems. 
3. Did you notice poetic tics once you’d put the poems together? (I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” for instance, once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the collection in a meaningful way) and which were not?
I love(d) the word all, and I also love mouths. I embraced it when it felt useful, but tried to shy away from it. Once I did that, I also tried to go through and remove as many little words (the, and, then, they, that, etc) as I could. I also have a tendacy to break the 4th wall and talk directly to the reader, which was a great tool in some places, but in others I had to realize it was just a way to give me access to the poem. It really helped me to think about the book as a meal, to consider all the tin foil and bay leaves and pans that go towards making dinner that aren’t actually on the table once it’s time to eat. 
4. How did you decide where to submit the collection? How many places did you submit?
I only submitted to places that published books I love, that made great physical products, and that I wouldn’t be upset if I accepted their contract and some other place made an offer. I probably sent it out 15-20 times before YesYes picked it up. My goal was to feel like I won a prize, even if I didn’t. My book was picked up during an open submission period, but it felt like I had won a huge prize because I really love the work that Katherine and YesYes do.  
5. What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?
I would tell myself to let the first book be the first book and not ALL THE BOOKS. I was so stressed out thinking that every banger I had just had to be in the book, but that didn’t make for a good book. You have to think about the book as one long song, not just the sum of many little ones. 
6. Has publication changed your writing or manuscript construction processes?
I think publishing that first book lifted a weight I didn’t know I felt. Its difficult to articulate, but it made me realize how much useless stress I put on the first book. It felt like a race, but PLEASE NEVER THINK OF IT AS A RACE! This is a long game we are playing here. 
7. What did you do when you heard it was accepted?
I had just got off a plane after touring around the country for a summer. I was waiting for my mom to pick me up and take me home when I checked my email and saw the acceptance. I danced and cried all around the baggage claim and in the car with my mom and at home with my grandma and maybe didn't stop for a week. 
8. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?
How much the book changed once it was accepted. There are only like 13 or 14 poems in the book that were there when it was accepted. In the year and a half from Acceptance to Publication, it was wonderful and strange to see the book they had accepted turn into a different book, or at least a much fuller, more mature version of itself. It was beautiful to watch it grow in ways new to me once the concern was not convincing someone that I was worthy of publication. 
9. What is your favorite part of your first book? 
The experience I had making it. One of the reasons I was so excited to be on YesYes is that I had heard about how well they treat their writers, which is true. I’ve heard so many horror stories from friends about their presses or their experiences with getting a book to publication, but I felt taken care of and supported in ways that I think artists must demand from their presses. If your press isn’t willing to support you and support your book post-publication, then what is the point of the press? Self-publishing is a great option for a lot of folks now-a-days, so it must be the work of the press to elevate and nurture the writer in ways only a press can. 
10. [insert] boy explores the body immersed in violence—whether that violence is at the hands of the lover or at the hands of an annihilating white supremacist society. Your chapbook black movie examines the body under the gaze. Does your second full length continue to—for lack of a better term—mine the body for material? If so, how does the body evolve in this collection?
Oh, the body is my body of work. Don’t Call Us Dead looks at the body in some new and similar ways to my previous work. It opens with a long poem that I call a better attempt at what I was trying to do in “Song of The Wreckage” in [insert] boy. It’s an imagined paradise for black men who have been murdered by some kind of violence, a heaven exclusively for the slain. I want to reclaim our bodies, even in death; to hand our joy back over into our own hands even after, or in the midst of, grief. I hope the poem does that. The 2nd half of the book mediates largely on the body, my body, in relationship to HIV. I wrote a lot of the poems in the first 2 months of finding out I was positive in the spring of 2014, but as I become more comfortable in this poz beautiful black body of mine, the conversation I have with my body in poems is becoming deeper and more nuanced in ways that are shaping the book in some hopefully powerful ways. Similar to the long poem, I am attempting to reclaim my body, our bodies, from the jaws of illness and stigma. I want this next book to make readers re-imagine their relationships to death and live, to find the beautiful and terrifying space between.  

Danez Smith is the author of [insert] boy (2014, YesYes Books), winner of the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry, and Don’t Call Us Dead, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017. Danez is also the author of two chapbooks, hands on your knees (2013, Penmanship Books) and black movie (2015, Button Poetry), winner of the Button Poetry Prize. Their work has been published & featured widely including in Poetry Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, Buzzfeed, Blavity, & Ploughshares. They are a 2014 Ruth Lilly – Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, a Cave Canem and VONA alum, and recipient of a McKnight Foundation Fellowship. They are a 2-time Individual World Poetry Slam finalist, placing 2nd in 2014. Danez is a founding member of the Dark Noise Collective. They are an MFA candidate at The University of Michigan and currently teach with InsideOut Detroit. They is from St. Paul, MN.