Morgan Parker and Danez Smith discuss poetry and politics

Photo by Caroline Mao ’22   Danez Smith (left) and Morgan Parker (right) sign their books after their talk.

Photo by Caroline Mao ’22

Danez Smith (left) and Morgan Parker (right) sign their books after their talk.

BY CAROLINE MAO ’22

The sound of fingers snapping in appreciation echoed around Gamble Auditorium as poets Morgan Parker and Danez Smith read a selection of poems from their latest books on Thursday, Feb. 21, at an event organized by the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Association of Pan African Unity (APAU) Black History Month committee. Copies of the poets’ works were available for sale at the event, courtesy of the Odyssey Bookshop.

“What have we done and accomplished over the past 400 years for ourselves?” asked Nyasha Franklin ’19, a representative of the APAU Black History Month committee, as she introduced the event. “How have we survived? What is new for us; what is old? [How can we] say, ‘this is our history,’ but also ask, ‘how will we move forward?’”

These are questions, according to Franklin, that artists like Parker and Smith attempt to address with their work. She emphasized the importance of “honor[ing] love, peace, creativity and joy, for ourselves and many communities.”

Anisha Pai ’19 introduced Parker. In her speech, Pai praised “the way Morgan Parker gives herself permission to be exactly who she is,” and a number of her accomplishments. These include Parker’s poetry collections “Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night” and “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé,” as well as her soon-to-debut young adult novel “Who Put This Song On?”

Mars Early-Hubelbank ’19 introduced Smith, the author of “[insert] boy,” “Black Movie” and most recently, “Don’t Call Us Dead.” They called Smith’s work “enormously tender” and “completely and wholly sincere,” comparing it to “pulling up window blinds that have been down too long.” They particularly noted the way Smith’s work — and Parker’s — concerns itself with Black identity. “Blackness is queerness is Blackness is queerness,” Early-Hubelbank said.

After Pai and Early-Hubelbank spoke, the poets began their readings. Parker noted the dark nature of her poems in her latest collection, “Magical Negro,” which was published on Feb. 5. “I wrote a lot of these poems in 2014,” Parker said. “Because literally everyone’s dying, and I turned on the TV and I’m watching my own death.” From “Magical Negro,” she read “Search for the New Land,” “AND COLD SUNSET,” “When a Man I Love Jerks Off in My Bed Next to Me and Falls Asleep,” “Who Speaks For the Earth,” “IT WAS SUMMER NOW AND THE COLORED PEOPLE CAME OUT INTO THE SUNSHINE” and “Toward a New Theory of Negro Propaganda.”

Smith began their reading by mentioning the “tough time” of being a black person. They said, “In 2016, white people elected the devil, and that’s fine, because white people have done that a lot throughout history.” From “Don’t Call Us Dead,” they read “a note on Vaseline,” “a note on the phone app that tells me how far i am from other men’s mouths,” “& even the black guy’s profile reads sorry, no black guys” and “at the down-low house party.” They also read three of their other poems, “My President,” “acknowledgments” and “Waiting For You to Die So I Can Be Myself.”

Tasha Elizarde ’22 said Parker and Smith “were insightful and pushed the boundaries of every topic they covered in their poetry.” Elizarde also expressed a wish for “a stronger outlet for spoken word and slam here on campus.”

Both poets also spoke about a variety of personal experiences. Parker recalled opening a publishing house on her elementary school playground at age nine, although it was shut down by teachers a few months later. Connecting back to the 2016 election, Smith said, “if there’s one thing I really enjoy, it’s when we started calling everything else our president,” offering up humorous examples like “a pic of Rihanna leaving some rich man emotionally raw, or a really well-seasoned piece of tilapia.” They credit this phenomenon, along with “a really dope eleven-year old named Jonathan,” whom they met in Chicago, as the inspiration for their poem, “My President.”

After the reading, which Shebati Sengupta ’19 described as “vibrant, and so incredible,” Parker and Smith held a brief Q&A followed by a book signing. “These white people are asking me to represent all the Black people,” said Smith during Q&A. “What do I do? Don’t. You don’t have to address the bullshit people put on you.”