The musician and poet reflect on improvisation, performance, and finding God in their work
It’s a very fine line: the boundary that separates a good song from a good poem. There’s rhythm and a solid beat; a refrain that sticks in your head. A grip on emotion, bars and verses. Performance, with all the stops. Nikki Giovanni said it well. “Poetry and music are very good friends.” It seems like serpentwithfeet and Danez Smith could be too, based solely on their first conversation.
serpentwithfeet was born Josiah Wise in Baltimore, Maryland. He began his musical practice in the classical realm, singing with the boys choir, training for the opera house. It’s a christening that presents itself rather plainly in his solo work. serpent makes music that’s full of drama: It’s very dark or very light, grounded in vibrato that comes and goes. There’s the mundane—domestic, queer love, for instance: Me and my boo wear the same size shoe / Boy, you got my trust, ‘cause I’m like you. It’s treated with the same thoughtfulness, the same lyrical care, the artist takes to depict spiritual grief, spiritual lust, devotion: I used to stuff myself to the gills / And climb this hill / Then grin when the grass called my step heavy / My way to punish the earth for asking me / To live this long.
Danez Smith has that same range. The poet hails from St. Paul, Minnesota; they realized a love for acting there early on. Smith’s fondness for the stage translated naturally to spoken word. Although they might be best known for their books—notably, Don’t Call Us Dead, and Homie—Smith possesses a one-of-a-kind command over the audience. They gesticulate, nearly relentlessly. They crack jokes and they shout. They leap seamlessly from elation to heartbreak—from heartbreak, to every other corner of emotion there is. Smith writes about queerness, from grappling with a positive AIDS diagnosis, to frequenting gay bars, to finding love or cruising in Oakland: I ride my bike to a boy, when I get there / what we make will not be beautiful / or love at all, but it will be deserved. They write about Blackness in America, and the joys and traumas that come with it. “alternate names for black boys” is composed in the form of a list. Among its 17 propositions: oil heavy starlight, monster until proven ghost, gone. Complex matters become straightforward lines in Smith’s hands—rich and raw, regardless of whether they’re written or said aloud.
Morgan Becker: How did you each come across the other’s work?
serpentwithfeet: I’ve been aware of [Danez’s] work for years. I was surprised that they knew who I was.
Danez Smith: I remember seeing his name one time, and I was like, ‘serpentwithfeet, that n—’s a poet.’ I have an ex who’s a really big fan of yours, so that was my first chance to truly geek out about your music. Slowly but surely, I started realizing that everybody cool in my life was a serpentwithfeet fan.
Like any good artist, have a Google Alert on my name. You had talked about reading Homie with a publication over at Harvard. I was like, ‘Oh shit! This n— knows who the fuck I am?’
serpent: Of course. I remember reading one of your poems years ago. I kept finding your work, and people kept sending it to me—you know how that happens. I’m like, ‘I read this before. Okay, I’m gonna buy the book. I’m gonna buy another book.’ I feel like I quote you so often.
Danez: I quote you often. I’ll be across the room from my new boo, like [singing ‘Derrick’s Beard’] Come over here / Missing your beard.
Morgan: When did you first start to write?
Danez: I had a lot of difficulty writing when I was a little kid. Around junior high, I started keeping these journals that had raps—little things that I don’t think I knew to call poems yet. I was a weird kid. I’d be like, ‘This is how I think time works,’ and I’d draw little diagrams.
In high school, my theater teacher [taught us] Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That’s how myself and a lot of other students started writing poems—under the guise of these ‘monologues’ for shows that we were building. It was back in the early aughts, so poetry was also coming back; it seemed like there was a national resurgence of spoken word. One day, some poets came to our school for an event, and we all kind of turned to each other, like, ‘Oh fuck, that’s what we do! But better!’
serpent: I was terrible at math and science in school. But I loved—what do they call it? Language arts. Around high school, I think I had that aha moment. We had been reading all of the standard literature, which I think is great—The Odyssey, all that. But I was like, ‘I don’t understand what’s going on. Like, please, somebody help me.’
I had heard of Toni Morrison, but I never thought it was appropriate for me, because I was young; but in that class, we had to read Sula. I remember understanding it. Understanding the literary devices, the symbolism—all the shit that I never got before, I got with that novel. We had to write about it, do a whole dissertation. My teacher was like, ‘Something opened up for you.’ That was the moment when I realized I really enjoy language and novelists. Everything else—no shade to the other books—I was just like, ‘I’m checked out.’
Danez: When did the writing and the music touch for the first time?
serpent: I decided I wanted to perform live. There were venues that said, ‘You gotta do original music.’ I was like, ‘I’ll just do covers.’
You can’t book a show without original music. It was born out of necessity.
Danez: Who were you trying to go in and sing?
serpent: I was definitely singing T-Pain and J. Holiday songs.
serpent: That is definitely what I was doing! I was really inspired by Janelle Monáe and John Legend. And still, I’m a fan of them both. I remember playing a lot of Janelle Monáe’s music while I was trying to figure out, ‘What am I writing? What is my sound, what is my voice, what is my perspective?’ I was trying to determine how to be a singer-songwriter-performer. I had to jump into it.
Danez: Who do you consider to be some of your musical ancestors? I feel like your work is undeniably Black—but it does feel very much like a new Black sound. I think lyrically, I can hear you doing very n—ish things that I love. Using our vernacular, and things like that, right? It’s beautiful. But sonically, I’m like, ‘I can’t place this.’ Nowhere outside of somebody’s dream world! So it’s cool to know that T-Pain and J. Holiday was what you was really trying to do. [laughs]
serpent: I’m so thankful for my artistic community, because they constantly affirm me and let me know that my pocket—my center—is going to be different from some of the things that I enjoy. I have to be reminded: I may love what is ‘Top 40,’ but my music is going to come out differently. I had to lean into me doing my own thing.
Morgan: What role does performance play in your work?
Danez: I mean, my entry into writing was via performance. I would call myself an actor when I was young, way before I would self-identify as a writer. The early days were all spoken word. Writing was more of a consequence of wanting to be [onstage]. It’s kind of similar to what serpent was saying earlier—if you wanna be in the poetry slam, you can’t go up there and read your favorite Maya Angelou. You have to come with your own shit.
That even charged the way I wrote. I wouldn’t just be writing for the page, I’d be thinking, ‘Ooh, imma do this with my hand when I say that. Imma do this, and imma do that, and it’s gonna affect people in that way.’ I still [see] writing, even for the page, as a type of performance—even though, you know, a n— got books now. Performance is any art that expects a reaction. I’m giving a script to the reader. It’s not just about what I do with my body, but what type of feeling, emotion, thought, or secret I’m trying to implant into the mind. Into the bodies of those who are gonna interact with this work.
Spoken poetry is the oldest art, you know? N—s couldn’t read—a literate society is a new phenomenon. Poetry was cats showing up and speaking into the square for everybody to hear. It was the sort of storytelling folks had to pass down verbally. For me, poetry is still the most alive when it’s performed in front of a crowd. I think I write good things, but my poems will never be as good on the page as they are when I speak them—because I am a bleeding, living thing! I can remember the times in my life when I was the audience, being eternally transformed by something that was going on onstage. I don’t think I’ve done my job if you don’t laugh, and cry, and get a little angry. Performance, to me, is like proof.
“I have to be reminded: I may love what is ‘Top 40,’ but my music is going to come out differently. I had to lean into me doing my own thing.”
serpent: I love performing. Bringing Erykah Badu in, because she’s brilliant. She said, ‘Artists need some kind of stimulating experience a lot of times, which crystallizes when you sing about it or paint it or sculpt it. You literally mold the experience the way you want. It’s therapy.’
Recording is like perfecting a moment, and performing is like giving it out to the universe. I like thinking about recording in the studio as this one medium—but I like to think of the song as animate. Animate, porous beings that have their own lives they want to express. It’s really rewarding seeing that onstage. I don’t consider myself a writer writer—because there are writer writers, like Danez, and Yrsa Daley Ward, and Dante Collins. People who just eat the page!
[Through performance], I’m really able to let the songs live—be the beings that they are. I let that spirit take me, and pull me. The art of improvisation is really important to me. I’m often thinking about Bobby McFerrin’s work, and Nina Simone’s work, and how they never do a song the same way twice. Jasmine Sullivan—I think she follows some of that Black tradition of letting the song tell you what it needs. I have songs that you’ll hear one way on Apple Music. But when I do it live, I’ve changed the words. I like that relationship to music. I’m listening to it, rather than it listening to me.
Danez: I just want to say—you be eating the page too, though. I had to disappear for a little while, just before this interview, to listen to some of my faves. I still cry hearing ‘A Comma,’ and ‘This Hill.’ Fuck you! [laughs] In the most loving way. It’s a roller coaster of emotions.
There’s a lot of crap songwriting out there. Like, yes, Luther Vandross is a bad enough singer to say, Baby, baby, baby, baby, baby, oh, baby / I love you / Yeah, I really do, and you feel something. But even in that same song, there’s such brilliant writing that the music has to climb on top of—or else it would just be mumbles. And we Black, we already know. N—s go to church and just start moaning and shit. And that’s powerful! We listen to songs in other languages that we can’t understand. They still move us. It’s just because of the emotion of the singer. But when you’re listening to a song in a language you do understand…
serpent: I think one goal of mine as a creator is to become less heavy-handed. To trust. I always ask myself, who is the audience? Do I trust that they’re gonna get it?
When I’m writing, I’m thinking about Black people that get where I’m coming from. I don’t need to tell you what time of day it is. I’m assuming that you know. And if you don’t, then you’re gonna ask your neighbor, or you’re not gonna like the song. Over the years, I’ve given myself more and more permission. That’s that. I’m assuming that you’re there with me.
Morgan: Can you speak about the religious references within your work?
serpent: There’s lots of different ways to process how you were raised. I think sometimes it’s [necessary] to discard symbolism, or language, or rituals, or whatever. But for me, I found it really exciting to repurpose the things that I inherited. That goes for [religious] language, and Sundays still being sacred to me—but it’s a different kind of sacred. Because now, Sunday is about mimosas, and being around my gay friends. When I was a kid, it was doing the church thing every week.
I’ve been finding ways to quilt, instead of being like, ‘Fuck that blanket!’ Being like, no, I’m gonna keep these. I wanna take that fabric, and add to it. Maybe trimming a little bit off the sides, but never discarding what was given to me.
Danez: I grew up in the church—my mom definitely had me up in the back with them Baptists. I reach towards it sometimes. Earlier in my career, I was intentionally trying to blaspheme a lot. I was questioning my relationship with God, or [maybe] just trying to antagonize. I saw so much of how God—who I was told was a being of love and possibility—was used as a weapon against me and other queer folk. I was like, ‘Hey, why are we all here praising this guy, if we can use him to hate, to abuse the women, to banish the queers, to hurt the children?’ It was the frustration of trying to figure out God’s role in my own life.
Religious imagery is also the first mythology that I ever knew. There’s times that I don’t even realize I’m writing some Christian imagery shit until it’s happening—or until it’s happened. Like, ‘Oh fuck, this is Mary.’ I felt like poets was always going towards some Greek shit. And I was like, ‘I don’t know anything about Icarus. I do know about Jesus of Nazareth, and Job.’ So yeah, it’s also out of comfort—feeling like [Christianity] is what I know, and because I know it, I can employ it.
Even after that reckoning—for me, the extreme of any emotion eventually becomes something holy. The extreme of anger, of ecstasy, of need, of grief. It all ends up at God. That’s why words like Hallelujah and Amen always come up [in my work]. Poetry is sometimes about stillness, and quiet, but I’m a very loud motherfucker in a lot of ways. If I’m ramping up and the energy is building, I’ll eventually always get to God. It’s maybe just a tool in my writing process. Phillip B. Williams, an editor of mine, a great poet—serpent, have you read Phillip yet?
serpent: Oh, his book is sitting right here.
Danez: You got the new one? You got Mutiny?
serpent: Thief in the Interior.
“I can remember the times in my life when I was the audience, being eternally transformed by something that was going on onstage. I don’t think I’ve done my job if you don’t laugh, and cry, and get a little angry. Performance, to me, is like proof.”
Danez: If you like Thief in the Interior, Mutiny is like… Phillip fucking killed the game.
He was the one to point out to me that I tend to bring up God in the last two lines of my poems. This is a knee-jerk thing as a writer. Sometimes I have to edit God out of my work, because that’s just how I know it’s done: ‘Well, I have nothing else to say. A bar about Jesus, Hallelujah, Hallelujah. We’re done.’ [laughs]
serpent: There you have it! I love it, [imitating Danez] ‘I have to edit God out of my poems.’
Danez: He just be showing up! One of my mentors talked about the things you gotta do just to write the first draft. Saying cold as hell sucks, but you just gotta say it, just for right now. You can edit it out later.
God is just one of those things for me. Sometimes, he’s gotta come up just so I can make it to the next thing. Maybe he don’t need to stay in there the whole time.
Morgan: How do you imagine your art will change over time?
Danez: To be real, this year’s been a blessing—but the pandemic really fucked up my dreaming for a while. On a personal level, I couldn’t write. I was so used to drawing from my people in the world. My heart moved to other shit. I learned how to skate, and that was my art for a whole year.
It could be very easy to be a poet for the rest of my life. I think that’s a worthy thing to do. I believe in poetry, and what it does for people. But I still think I should push myself more, and I hope that I have the courage to do that. To write the novel, to draft the TV show, the movie. To do the mixtape—not because I want to be a musician—but because I have a lot of fun making music. If you scour the internet long enough, you might come across the couple rap tracks I dropped in college.
serpent: Come on, rap tracks!
Danez: Yeah, you know! We had studio time one year.
The later part of my career could really learn a lot from the seeds of my artistic self. That self wasn’t scared to say, ‘I’m gonna join a dance troupe.’ That young Danez wasn’t scared to suck. They knew they had to suck sometimes, because that was the first step towards figuring it out and being great.
serpent: Word, I love that. Give yourself time and patience.
Danez: Amen. Man, that’s it. Imma do it. I don’t know what imma do, but imma do it.
serpent: Go dance. Do rap tracks.
Danez: Honestly, I think I could be the faggot’s answer to Megan Thee Stallion. Even though I think she is a bi icon, if I’m reading those raps right.
serpent: You could definitely do a skating performance. You understand? I’m here for the skating performance.
Danez: Who out here is a professional skater? I can’t do the up-and-down, grinding on rails type of skating. Mine is more like spinning in circles and shaking the ass.
serpent: All you need is some TikTok sparkles and you good.
Danez: Okay—Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak. If y’all are reading this interview, holler at me for the skate remix. Just because you said so, serpent.