This Monday evening, Seattle Arts and Lectures opened the first event of their poetry series at Seattle Central’s Broadway performance hall. It was a sold-out gig studded with the stars of the Seattle poetry world that began with several short performances inspired by the works of award-winning poet and performer Danez Smith, followed by a reading from Smith themself. After a short introduction by Rebecca Hoogs, SAL’s Poetry Series coordinator and associate director, musician okanomodé performed an original composition inspired by Smith’s poem “a note on Vaseline.” Representing the Bushwick Book Club, a Seattle-based organization that works with musicians to produce literature-inspired music, okanomodé’s piece was quirky, sweet, and beautifully fun. Accompanied only by a backing track played over the speakers in the hall, his voice was all that was needed to keep the audience engaged — well, his voice and the tub of Vaseline he pulled out during the last verse of his ode with a grin.
Following okanomodé was Seattle’s 2018-19 Youth Poet Laureate, Azura Mizan Tyabji. Tybaji spoke for a few moments about her experience with Smith, then read a poem of her own. Heavily influenced by Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” the poem swirled around themes of distance and history, starting with the discovery of planets in a far-off galaxy and ending in a world where “we have forgotten // all the language for ‘thank you, officer’.”
Danez Smith then took the stage — and I mean took the stage with a full-fisted grab. From the first moment they began to speak, the audience was enraptured; one can see why they have won awards for their slam poetry performances. After cheekily teasing the audience about their Seattleite manners, Smith invited and encouraged them to participate in the reading: to snap and clap, to laugh and cry, and most of all to “be alive.”
To explain their first poem, “My President,” Smith raised an eyebrow at the audience, cocked their hip, and said “listen, y’all. In 2016, white people elected the devil.” Thus launched a near-hour of some of the most wonderfully performed and written poetry I have ever experienced. There are more good quotes from their poems and explanations thereof than I could possibly have space for, but I’d like to share three especially memorable ones for a taste:
“my grandma is my president // and her cabinet is her cabinet”
“And on the eighth day, god said ‘let there be fierce’”
“The body, too, is a garment // I learned this best from the snake.”
The event wrapped up with an audience Q&A, led by Seattle’s Civic Poet Anastacia Renee Tolbert.
Smith’s poetry is viscerally inspired by their life experience as a queer, black, HIV-positive person. Perhaps the best way I can describe their work is as an insinuation into their audience’s conscience; they lay their world out so plainly, perform for their listeners so generously, that it was impossible not to be swept along with them in the journey of the night’s event. I highly encourage anyone interested to check out their work online or by getting a hold of one of their books.
Alas, I had to leave before the Q&A really began, but frankly, it says a lot that I would have stayed if I could; as a general rule, I find them to be uncomfortable or just plain boring.
Overall takeaways; I’m excited to see what the rest of SAL’s poetry series has to offer, and you should probably be too. Check out our previous article on SAL if you want to see how to get tickets — including cheap or even free ones — to their next event, a poetry performance by poet Solmaz Sharif on February 11.