Ploughshares is pleased to present Danez Smith with the twenty-sixth annual John C. Zacharis First Book Award for their book of poetry [insert] boy (2014, YesYes Books). The $1,500 award, which is named after a former president of Emerson College, honors the best debut book by a Ploughshares writer and alternates annually between poetry and fiction.
This year’s judge was John Skoyles, Ploughshares’ poetry editor. In choosing the award-winning book, Skoyles said: “The powerful perceptions in Danez Smith’s [insert] boy are matched by its powerful language. When we enter this book, we enter a world; when we hear its voice, it is not that of one person, but a range of people. The content is both unified and singular, and the variety of forms, each shaped to perfectly contain its subject, is dazzling.”
[insert] boy started off as Smith’s senior thesis at University of Wisconsin, and they kept working on it after graduation. “I knew I wanted to speak to different kinds of ‘boyness’ that I existed in, and was having trouble figuring out what the book was or needed to be until [insert] boy sorta came out of nowhere and stuck.”
It was in a high-school theater class that Smith first began to write seriously. “I had written little things here and there beforehand, some little raps and poemish things,” Smith said. “But it wasn’t until my teacher, Jan Mandell, showed us some poems from Def Poetry and some other places that I even knew poets were still alive.”
Early on in their poetry career, Smith said they were inspired by the “power and bravado” they were surrounded by and saw performed. “Now? I don’t know if one thing inspires me,” Smith said. “Maybe just living, maybe my people, maybe love and fighting for it, but it is what I do. I’m not inspired to write. I write.”
Smith’s poetry often encompasses social justice—including race, gender, and sexual orientation—and they believe there is no such thing as an apolitical poem. “Everything makes a statement,” they said. “I know, for me, there is a great utility in poetry that can help, even a little, reshape the world around us, maybe offer some fuel to the ones doing the work.”
Smith is the winner of the 2016 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry. They are a 2014 Ruth Lilly-Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellow, a Cave Canem and VONA alum, and a recipient of a McKnight Foundation Fellowship.
Their work has been published in Poetry Magazine, Beloit Poetry Journal, and other publications. Smith’s second collection of poems, “Don’t Call Us Dead,” is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in September 2017. They are currently working on poems not tied to a specific project and are interested in writing in genres beyond poetry such as screenwriting, fiction, and “weird genre-less things.”
Smith went on to say: “The biggest thing I’m working on, in honesty, is me. I think I’ve been doing a lot for the last few years and I’m looking forward to sitting down for a second and thinking about where I’m ready for this life to take me. That might be the biggest project in my lap right now.”