"We Are Not Singularly Defined by the Things That Kill Us": A Conversation with Clint Smith
Clint Smith III began writing his poetry collection, Counting Descent, in August 2014, shortly after Mike Brown was killed and the protests that started in Ferguson began to spread into a nationwide movement. Since then, he has been named the 2014 National Poetry Slam fellow, given two TED Talks that have been viewed collectively over five million times, and been published in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Guardian, and Boston Review, among others. Published in September 2016, Counting Descent is a collection that presents a stunning portrayal of the traditions and lineage of pain and joy in the black American experience.
Our staffer Alison Murphy talked with Clint about this collection, the intermingling of art and protest, and decolonizing creative writing.
I always like to talk about titles, so let's talk about that first. Can you talk about how you chose the title Counting Descent and what it means to you?
Sure. The theme of the book is largely thinking about lineage and genealogy, in a macro and micro level context. In a macro level context, what does it mean to be a part of the black literary tradition, the black political tradition, what does it mean to be American, to be from Louisiana, to be from New Orleans. And on a micro level, what does it mean to be my grandmother’s grandson, my father’s son, my sister’s brother, what does it mean to be a partner, what does it mean to be a friend, a teacher, a member of community. So it’s thinking about what lineage is in both of those contexts.
Descent is also a play on political dissent, which is obviously in large part a response to so much of what has been happening –– as the book is –– over the last three or four years. The epigraph is a quote by Ralph Ellison from an interview he gave with The Paris Review, and it says: “I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest.” One of the projects of this book and part of my larger artistic and intellectual project is expanding our understanding of what it means to engage in political work, how it can move beyond thinking about being civically or politically engaged or being an activist as simply meaning picketing or marching in the street, but instead to recognize that so much of what represents dissent happens in those micro communities and those micro moments. It’s when your cousin says something racist at the dinner table and you decide to say something instead of just letting it go by, it’s when you’re in your classroom as a teacher and you decide to orient your pedagogy toward the real lived experience of your kids instead of pretending that those things don’t exist. So trying to think more of political work in a broader context, and the confluence of those things is where the idea for the book’s title came from, and that same theme, the wrestling between the macro and the micro, is also reflected in the title poem of the book. When I wrote that poem, I realized that this was going to be the sort of centerpiece of the entire manuscript.
Let’s talk about the epigraph that you mentioned, by Ralph Ellison. Did this book start with that idea, of the marriage between art and protest, or is it something that happened more organically, where you noticed the theme in the poems you were writing, and decided to build on it?
Yeah. I think like many people, I was deeply bothered and emotionally overwhelmed by everything I saw happening, and what it meant to wake up every day to see people who looked like me being killed and then nothing happening. And I was trying to figure out what my place was in this nascent, burgeoning social movement, and I started thinking about what the role of the writer is in this socio-political moment. And you know, the best teacher of those lessons is history, so I looked back in the black literary tradition specifically and read a lot of different folks who had a lot of very different ideas and conceptions of what it meant to be a writer engaged in the political landscape. You know, Amiri Baraka will say something different than Countee Cullen, who will something different than Langston Hughes, who will say something different than Toni Morrison, who will say something different than Audre Lorde. It’s something that we’ve wrestled with the entire history of our country: what does it mean to speak with urgency to the lived experiences of your community without compromising the artistic integrity of your work? And I found Ellison to be really thoughtful on this issue, because he points out how it’s not just black artists that are engaged in “political work.” We often get pigeonholed into it, but Dostoyevsky is as political as anyone, and so is Keats, and so is Yeats, so are all of these folks. To be an artist and to be a writer is to operate in the realm of the imaginative, and when you operate in the imaginative, you are in a sense imagining a world beyond the context of the one that exists now, and that in and of itself is a political act, and it is an act of protest. You are protesting against the world as it is, and seeking to imagine it as something different.
This is something we’ve been thinking about a lot at GrubStreet lately. We’re going through an incredibly interesting and transformative political time, which is both exciting and intimidating to engage with as writers. Are there other people you feel are doing this well, whether it’s within the creative writing space or other artistic spaces?
We are in a remarkable moment. For black artists specifically, writers and poets and visual artists and filmmakers are doing really incredible work –– look at the work that Ava Duvernay is doing, the work that Ta-Nehisi Coates is doing. Those are two folks who are at the forefront of their respective industries. Ta-Nehisi wrote “The Case for Reparations,” and what’s remarkable about that is that he had this idea that was kind of a caricature of itself almost. People would be like, “Reparations? That’s crazy!” It was only taken seriously in very small academic circles. And then you had Ta-Nehisi, who coalesced all this history, social science and personal narrative into this one remarkable piece that brings this otherwise caricatured thing to the forefront of policy discussions. And now you have Chuck Todd asking Bernie Sanders on Meet the Press what he thinks about reparations, which is something that before Ta-Nehisi wrote that would never have been a serious question in a presidential primary. It represents this idea of writers and thinkers and artists pushing beyond what feels politically possible or even politically palatable. My job is not to be a Senate aide and to think about what we can pass in legislation. My job is to say let’s look at the totality and the holistic arc of history, and let’s look at what’s been done, and let’s look at what that problem is and what needs to be done to remedy it, or to even acknowledge it.
You look at Ava Duvernay and –– I don’t know how she has time to do all this stuff, but she’s making Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time, Queen Sugar, and all of these things that represent the plurality of the black experience, which is really important, and a wonderful thing about this moment –– you have so many different writers who have so many different idiosyncrasies and ways of thinking about the world. It’s bringing attention, I hope, to the diversity and the plurality of the black experience, and how there is not a singular black experience. There are different facets of who we are that exist beyond the diasporic, that are really fundamental in shaping who we are, and it’s important to bring that to the floor. That’s why it’s important to have black queer writers, and black trans writers, and black women writers, and black first generation writers. Because our experiences are all very different, and it’s important for all those stories to be told, and listened to. I feel very lucky that a lot of them are my friends and my peers, artists who are doing incredible work finding that balance between illuminating the violence that black people have experienced while also not becoming trapped in only writing about the violence we’ve experienced. The goal is to capture and to humanize and give a name to so much of that violence, but it’s also not to become overly consumed with it, and to forget that there are other parts of our lived experience that define who we are. We are not singularly defined by the things that kill us. That’s a really important thing.
You mentioned being pigeonholed politically, and black writers being expected to write about political issues, or having their work politicized. How do you deal with that? Obviously this is a collection that engages directly with those issues, so it’s a choice that you’ve made in this book, but how do you deal with it in general?
You know, I don’t feel pigeonholed. I think that I have made a specific choice about these things I want to write about. My broader intellectual project and commitments are toward understanding why the world looks the way that it does today, specifically in regards to inequality. And it’s impossible to look at inequality and stratifications across the country unless you are also going to look at race. It would be intellectually and morally disingenuous to do so. Right now I’m writing up an ethnographic study about a group of white women that are on probation in Massachusetts, so I’m thinking about inequality in a myriad of different ways, but the thing to understand is that race is a deeply important part of that story. You can’t look at people who are suffering from opiate addiction, and look at the differentiated response to this public health crisis, and what opioid addiction response is now compared to crack addiction in the 80’s, [without understanding that]. Even though it’s not about black people, it’s about race, because this country’s history is deeply tied to systemic racism. And unfortunately too few people are committed to talking about that beyond the periphery. So for me it’s a choice.
Langston Hughes has this great essay that I always come back to called “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” It’s largely a response to Countee Cullen, although he doesn’t say his name. Essentially, Countee Cullen is existing in this Harlem Ren era and has become very celebrated because he is writing in the standard Euro-centric form; he’s using very high-falutin’ language; he moves away from colloquialisms. And Langston is saying, that’s fine, if that’s who you are. To be a black writer doesn’t mean you only have to write about race, or black people, or inequality. But if you are writing about something different because you feel like you can’t write about those things and be considered a legitimate artist, that’s a problem. Right? Every person should write about what they feel is urgent, and what they feel is meaningful, and what they feel is reflective of the lens through which they see the world. So, it’s great to write about trees. It’s great to write about flowers. It’s great to write about the rolling hills, but don’t write about those things because you feel like you have to, or because you feel like you can’t write about other things. I think that’s an important distinction for any black writer. Any black writer should be able to write about whatever they want, 100%. I have made a decision that I want to write about –– not the only thing, but much of what I want to write about –– is inequality, and again, you can’t understand inequality if you’re not going to understand race. So that is how I think about it.
That makes me think of the Angela Flournoy tweet about Jonathan Franzen, that all his novels are about race. He has this idea that he doesn’t want to engage with that issue of race, when really to write about any American society is to write about race. Franzen is writing about white people, so he’s writing about race, whether he realizes it or not.
You and I have in common that we’ve worked within the prison system. I know that is a huge part of what you do, and it’s very present in this collection. How has your work within the prison reform movement has impacted your writing?
It’s changed everything. I can’t even begin to elucidate how fundamental a shift I’ve felt in my own politics having spent time working in prisons. Before two years ago, I had never set foot inside an adult correctional center. I had just moved to Boston, I’d been teaching high school English, and I wanted to be purposeful and proactive in finding a way to remain grounded, and to constantly remind myself of the commitment I have to the community I seek to work on behalf of. I don’t want to get so caught up in reading Foucault and John Dewey and Rousseau and thinking about these things only in the theoretically abstract context. Theory is great and wonderful, but I don’t want it to stay in the theoretical –– I want the theoretical to inform the practice. So I thought, what are some ways I can do that? And I ended up teaching writing at a high school in Dorchester, but I was also teaching in the prisons. And it forced me to confront a lot of deeply seated unconscious assumptions that I had, that were really uncomfortable for me to come to terms with, because I think of myself as a relatively progressive, thoughtful person, and to go into a prison and realize that I was carrying these deeply seated pathologies about what it meant to be a person in prison was really unsettling to me. I quickly became disabused of those by nature of the proximity to the men, and establishing relationships with people who’ve been in prison for the majority of their lives, and who will likely be in prison for the rest of their lives. But also thinking about the physical infrastructure of the prison –– to go into it and to leave it every other week was just devastating to me. It further reinforced the idea that this is a cage, and that we put human beings in cages for the rest of their lives. The more time I spent in prison, the more that seemed crazy to me. This is morally absurd. I really think we’re going to look back at life sentences and say it is ridiculous that we put people in cages for the rest of their lives. I think we’ll look back at it the same way we look back at the guillotine, like, “Man, it’s crazy we used to cut people’s heads off.” But that was normal back then! Or public lynchings. And now, I think they’ll say, “Life without parole? How could any society operating under the semblance of human rights do that?”
So I think it’s really pushed me –– this was all happening at the same time the Black Lives Matter movement was beginning, and we were seeing all these people being killed. And also at the same time I started graduate school. Mike Brown was killed the same week I started grad school, and I started working at the prison not long after that, so my job amid all of this was to sit down and think and read about inequality for ten to twelve hours a day. So I’m getting this theoretical and historical context, while also confronting the very real implications of this history, both in the streets and in the prisons. All of those things have deeply informed and shaped and shifted my politics in a really profound way, and it’s inevitable that that would bleed into any art I create. And I think you see a lot of that in this book.
Absolutely. Something that you mentioned in one of your earlier responses was the idea of the plurality of the black experience. This has certainly not always been accurately reflected in art, and it is really exciting that we’re starting to see more of it. It’s one of the things I loved about this collection –– it was ordered in such a way that there was a narrative arc from the beginning, which was a lot about black pain, and then there’s a clear transition point where the poems start to focus more on black joy. It’s not as if the pain isn’t present anymore, but the transition gives it this hopeful and resilient arc that’s so beautiful. It’s borne out particularly by the end poem, "There is a Lake Here," a poem that presents a defiant portrait of New Orleans, not as a city defined by its pain, but by its joy. Can you talk about how the arc of this collection came about? Was it something you had in mind from the beginning, or is it something that happened naturally, as you wrote and revised these poems?
So the book was written largely over the course of the last two years, beginning with Mike Brown’s death. Again, I really wanted to give that death a name, to give that violence a name, to make sure that it wasn’t existing merely in the abstract, and that we weren’t becoming numb to these people or to the very real lived experiences of so many people in this country.
About a year in I realized that I was singularly writing about black people being killed or black people experiencing violence. And I kind of mentioned it before, but it was important for me to remember that we are amid a history, right? The first black people were brought to this country in 1619, the emancipation proclamation was 1863, the Civil War ended in 1865, then there was the 13th amendment, and then in 1964-1965 you have the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. So only for fifty years have black people even had a semblance of legal and legislative freedom in this country. And for seven times longer than that it was absolutely, fundamentally legal on a federal, state and municipal level to discriminate against, to enact violence against, and to dehumanize black people. I don’t think we really think about the totality of that arc often enough. It’s crazy that people say, why do black people live in the social conditions they do? I’m like, what do you mean? This is the residue of an entire history that has committed itself through law, through policy, and through physical and socio-emotional violence to decimating this community. If you study history it’s very clear why black people are disproportionately affected by so many troubling things.
But what’s remarkable to me is that in the midst of such a history, black people have still deeply embedded themselves into the cultural and social fabric of this country, and have brought so much, and lived in a way that is so deeply imbued with joy and laughter and celebration. And I wanted to capture that as well. I grew up in a home in which I felt deeply loved, affirmed and celebrated. My life wasn’t defined by violence. I’m interested in that duality [in this collection]. The book is really about this marathon of cognitive dissonance to grow up as a young black child in a home in which you are loved, affirmed, and celebrated, and then go out into a world in which you are rendered a caricature of fear, in which you are stopped and frisked, in which you are followed in stores, in which you are pulled over by the police, and all these other things. But both of those things are important to speak to. And so in the second half of the manuscript, and in the second year of writing it, I tried to be a lot more purposeful about illuminating the joy, of like, seeing my parents dance in the kitchen, or falling in love, or being bad at basketball. Of just being a child. To write a poem about a child jumping rope, and that’s it. It doesn’t have to be a metaphor for something else. It can simply be that, because we deserve that.
The poems about children in particular were so powerful, in large part because black children in our society are so often denied the right to a childhood. Especially the "what the ____ said to the black boy" series. So speaking of duality, you have these poems that we talked about above where children are allowed to be children, and then these poems where this nameless black boy is being introduced, sometimes gently and sometimes not so gently, to where he’s situated in this world. Can you tell me how you first conceived of this series and how it evolved?
A lot of the poem “Counterfactual” was about the pedagogy of black parenting, and the conversations that black parents have to have with their kids about growing up in a world that is taught to fear you. How you straddle that line between ensuring that your children are not naively navigating the world, and understanding that the things they do might have very different implications for them than they do for their non-black friends, but then also ensuring that your child knows it’s not their fault, that there’s nothing they’ve done to deserve such a caricature. That’s a tough line to straddle. So I imagined in this series of poems what it might be like to have inanimate objects speaking to black children in that same vein. What would these different things say to a black boy? I wrote about fifteen to twenty of them, and these five ended up in the book. And yeah, those poems also seek to capture that tension, that duality, and that arc of saying okay, violence is real, but you exist beyond this violence.
The word pedagogy has come up in this conversation a few times, which I’m so happy about, because I work for a creative writing organization in which we are all incredibly nerdy about pedagogy. We’re currently reading the Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which I know is a favorite of yours. One of the ideas in that book –– and you mentioned this same idea earlier –– was of looking at your students as people with their own lived experiences that are as important as your curriculum, and should in fact be part of your curriculum. That strikes me as particularly important when it comes to creative writing. This seems like a particularly important time to teach people how to read and write well, given that all these studies show that it makes us better people, more empathetic to each other, more able to understand each other’s experience. So I’m curious, given your experience as a writer and teacher, what are some of your thoughts on how we can incorporate some of these ideas to begin to decolonize the way we teach creative writing?
I appreciate the way you said “decolonize.” I came into teaching in the Freirean tradition, so thinking about what it means to work with a young person to help them understand that the world is a social construction, and can therefore be deconstructed and reconstructed into something new; that the world as it exists is not an inevitability, but in fact was built this way. That’s where the historical analysis comes in. If you understand the history, you understand that certain decisions were made so that people would live in certain ways. I think that’s really essential for young people to understand in order to reclaim a sense of agency. It’s interesting, when I first went into the classroom, I was so committed to critical pedagogy. I came in, and in the first week I was like alright, we’re gonna talk about mass incarceration, and housing discrimination, and redlining, and poverty, and food deserts. And my students were overwhelmed. I was throwing too much at them. I had to step back and I realized that in order to do the work of understanding what you are politically committed to, you have to understand who and what you are committed to as a person. And that demands a sort of stealth reflexivity, and a lot of identity work. So a lot of the work we ended up doing in a creative writing context was saying, Who are you? What shaped you? What are the people, places, and things that have cultivated your sense of who you are? Let’s understand that, because before you can understand how much you are committed to mass incarceration, you have to understand how much you are informed by all of these different things that shape who you are. So a lot of the creative writing work, I think, has to happen through the lens of personal narrative, reclaiming your own narrative, defining it for yourself, not letting anyone else define it. After they’ve done that work then I think students are more able to understand their position in the world, and who they are, where they sit and where they want to sit, and that informs the social and political decisions that they make moving forward.
It’s funny, the dominant narrative in creative workshops has always been, “the focus is on the craft, not identity; the identity of the writer shouldn’t matter!” And I think now we’re seeing a shift where people are realizing, no, in fact identity does matter, hugely, in terms of how we approach something, whether as a writer or a reader.
And it’s just a false choice, right? The idea that you should have to choose between the “artistic integrity” of your craft and who you are as a person is just silly, to me.
I agree. So, this is your first book. You’ve obviously been a public figure (for lack of a better term) for a while now –– you’ve done a few Ted Talks, you’re been out there performing poetry and publishing essays –– how has the experience of publishing a book been different?
It’s wild. It’s a blast, honestly. I feel so honored every time I look at the book. It’s a very surreal experience, like, “Man, I wrote a book! And people are reading it, and teaching it, and thinking about it!” It’s a dream, honestly. Books mean the world to me, and have meant the world to me for so long. So much of who I am is informed by the writers I love, and books that they’ve written that I loved. To know that my book is on somebody’s bookshelf, or in somebody’s classroom, is really an honor beyond anything that I could ever imagine. I don’t take it for granted for a second.
This tour has been really wonderful, to meet different people who are engaging with the work and who have engaged with my other different types of work, whether it’s my essays, or journalism, or academic work, or my Twitter profile, or whatever it is. A lot of people reading my book might be first time poetry consumers, and I hope my book serves as a catalyst for them to read many other poets who are amazing, both in this larger historical tradition, but also, so many of my peers are putting amazing work into a world, and I hope they use this as an opportunity to read some of their work as well.
Well, that seems like a great note to end on. This has been such a great interview!
I appreciate it, thank you. This was awesome.
As Director of Online and Special Programs at GrubStreet, Alison Murphy works on developing new and innovative models for our online and intensive programs, as well as overseeing our consulting program. When not at Grub, Alison can usually be found at her laptop with her faithful basset hound Murray at her feet, writing about war and pop culture, or teaching creative writing to inmates in the prison system. A 2016 James Jones First Novel Fellow and graduate of the 2014-2015 Novel Incubator, Alison is hard at work revising her first novel. Her nonfiction can be found in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, PsychologyToday.com, and elsewhere.See other articles by Alison Murphy