The Library is for Yelling, Too
The poet Danez Smith read from their new collection “Homie” to a full-house gathered in The New York Public Library’s 42nd Street, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on the evening of February 5. They—Smith is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns—were joined by fellow poets and their close friends, Angel Nafis and Shira Erlichman. Like “Homie,” the reading was a celebration of friendship and a meditation on its importance in an era of heighted division and hate rhetoric.
Smith, 31, is the author of two previous collections, “[insert] boy” (YesYes Books, 2014) and “Don’t Call Us Dead” (Greywolf, 2017) which was a finalist for the National Book Award. They were the recipient of the Kate Tuft’s Discovery Award and, at age 29 in 2018, the youngest poet to win the prestigious Forward Prize for poetry.
“Homie” has garnered widespread critical acclaim in the likes of the LA Review of Books and the New York Times for its innovative and playful form, as well as its earnestness in considering how marginalized people can inhabit spaces that traditionally have been unwelcoming. Smith is black, queer and HIV-positive, and despite the collection’s universal appeal, “Homie” focuses on the place and power of friendship within marginalized communities.
A preface before the collection’s title page reads, “this book was titled homie because i don’t want non-black people to say my nig out loud.” The collection boasts the title “my nig” in bold font on the following page.
Opening the reading at a podium underneath the projected NYPL’s lion insignia, Nafis addressed the 150-person audience then smiled across the stage at Smith as she said, “It’s such a joy to be a part of your world.” The rest of the evening followed suit. The poets frequently expressed gratitude for one another and laughed loudly about their shared memories, drawing the audience in through their connection.
Nafis and Erlichman both shared their own poems about friendship. Nafis, 32, has been published in venues like The Rumpus and Poetry Magazine. She was also the recipient of a fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. As she read “Woo Woo Roll Deep,” a poem about the intricacies of female kinship, Smith made loud and drawn out “mmhhmm” sounds when lines resonated. Nafis was a confident and well-received reader. After she finished, Smith screamed, “You’re so good at poems!”
Erlichman, 35, was demurer but equally engaging. Her work has been published in the likes of Buzzfeed and The Rumpus, and her 2019 collection “Odes to Lithium,” about her experience with mental illness, received rave reviews. The work she shared touched on the necessity of friendship for those working through mental illness.
When Smith, wearing a “Stranger Things” tee, made their way to the podium the audience cheered. They began with the opening poem of the collection, “President,” which is about Smith finding power in the everyday moments and people in their life instead of the current administration.
Reading “waiting on you to die so i can be myself” was the only time that Smith’s voice wavered, revealing a more vulnerable speaker than people familiar with their viral spoken word poem, “Dear White America,” might recognize. They looked at the back wall of the auditorium as they said:
“i want to say something without saying it
but there’s no time. I’m waiting for a few folks
i love so dearly to die so i can be myself.
please don’t make me say who.
bitch, the garments i’d buy if my baby
wasn’t alive. If they woke up at their wake
they might not recognize that woman
in the front making all that noise.”
Kenyon Farrow, 46, an essayist and LGBTQ rights advocate who was in attendance, said that poem was his favorite of the night because of its candidness in considering gender expression and familial rejection. He noted, “the bravery of it was incredible.”
Their final poem “Tree,” spoke to the special power of friendship in queer communities, where friends often become chosen family. Smith’s voice picked up volume throughout the poem. When it was finished they exclaimed, “I just yelled in the library.”
The audience cheered loudly to match.