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Meet 2022 Forward Award Recipient Danez Smith ’12

“I feel very lucky to come into poetry through a lens of spoken word,” Smith has said. “It requires gathering; it requires community; it requires witness. But it also requires that you have something to say once you get up there.”

August 02, 2022
Forward Award
Danez Smith ’12

Photo by Andy Manis

Saint Paul, Minnesota
Writer, Poet, Performer, Teacher
UW Major:
English

Danez Smith’s work isn’t just to write poetry. It’s also helping to create a world where people can live louder, and dream better.

“I think what I do as a poet is one small part of that,” Smith says.

Also an inventive novelist/storyteller and powerful spoken-word performer, Smith infuses purpose throughout their works about race, class, sexuality, faith, and social justice.

“I want art that facilitates liberation for Black people, for queer people, for trans folx, art that encourages resistance,” Smith has said. “It’s important for me as a nonbinary, Black, HIV-positive person to talk about how I’m happy and how I’m in love and how I expect to live a good life.”

Smith has been lighting up stages, YouTube channels, and poetry-slam championships since honing their talents in the first cohort of UW–Madison’s First Wave Hip Hop and Urban Arts Learning Community, which blends academics and activism with multicultural arts, such as visual arts, movement, music, and performance poetry.

“I feel very lucky to come into poetry through a lens of spoken word,” Smith has said. “It requires gathering; it requires community; it requires witness. But it also requires that you have something to say once you get up there.”

Smith’s poetry collections include 2020’s Homie, winner of the Minnesota Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Don’t Call Us Dead, winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection and a finalist for the National Book Award; and [insert] boy, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award for Gay Poetry.

Smith is a former cohost of VS, a poetry podcast, and the recipient of a growing list of awards and fellowships, including honors from the Poetry Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Smith has been featured by Buzzfeed, PBS NewsHour, Poetry Magazine, the New York Times and the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Smith is also a teacher, dedicating time to help rising poets, authors, and performers step into their own art forms. Smith just completed a two-year fellowship at Princeton University and recently joined Randolph College as visiting faculty for an MFA program.

“Poets — we’re not always the richest people in the world,” Smith says. “I think a lot of our wealth is spiritual and emotional, and I get great gold from being in the classroom.”

In 2022, Smith returned to the UW as a guest teacher and mentor for First Wave Scholars. Together, they staged a version of Smith’s poem "summer, somewhere," an imagined afterlife of Black boys who were victims of police violence. After two years of pandemic-forced isolation, Smith says the collaborative performance at the 2022 Line Breaks Festival in Madison was an artistic rebirth.

“That night really recharged my soul as an artist,” Smith says.

Returning home to Minnesota, Smith devoted that new energy to friends, family, and a multitude of forthcoming works: an upcoming poetry collection, a young-adult novel, a new podcast, and not one but two movies.

One film is based on Smith’s visually rich, award-winning 2014 poem, “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” The other, Smith says, is intended as “a love letter to queer elders, who lived in a world that didn’t allow them to be themselves.”

“This film is about the idea that permission always comes on time,” Smith says. “And it’s never too late to step into a new you.”

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