his debut collection of poems, Counting Descent (Write Bloody Publishing, 2016), won a Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is currently a staff writer at The Atlantic, and his articles, essays, and poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Poetry Magazine, The Paris Review, and many other publications. Last month, we spoke about his path to writing and publishing, the importance of community, how he writes across and blends different genres, and what studying and crafting poetry taught him about prose.
Nicole Chung: I’ve enjoyed and learned from your writing on so many subjects, from history to education to soccer, and I am also a great fan of your poetry. Can you start by talking about how you became a writer, in all these different genres? What first drew you to it, and in what form did you begin?
Clint Smith: I was always drawn to poetry from an early age. I remember in third grade we were tasked with writing a poem about a color. I wrote a poem about the color gray. It went: “I really hate the color gray / it reminds me of a rainy day / gray, I really hate that color / it’s annoying like my little brother.” My teacher came over, looked at the poem, and said, “Clint, that was beautiful, You could be a writer when you grow up.”
Now, for all I know, she said that to every kid in the class—maybe it was just part of her pedagogy, that affirmation—but it’s been more than twenty-five years, and I still remember that moment. Both as a teacher, and as a writer, I am reminded that the most important thing I could ever do for my students was to affirm them and tell them when they’re doing something well. Sometimes as adults we can take for granted that kids, for a variety of reasons, might not hear affirming words, especially in a scholarly context, all that often. Even as adults, when people affirm us in our work, it feels great; often you then become even more invested in the work. That moment, my third-grade teacher telling me that I could be a writer, planted something that made my imaginings of what a life as a writer could look like something not fully new, but something that felt like a possibility.
As an adult, in 2008, I had an internship at a publishing company in New York City. At the time, I was a sort of disillusioned English major at Davidson College—we were reading the Western canon, and while those writers have value and are important in their own ways, I was struggling to connect with them because they felt so distant, like poetry could only look one way. When I was in New York, one night one of my friends said we should go to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. Every Friday for decades, this legendary cafe has hosted a Friday night poetry slam. It was this room full of Black and brown and queer people—I was like, this is a poetry reading? I’d never seen spoken-word poetry live, I’d never seen poetry performed live at all. I’d just never experienced art or literature in that way; I never knew words could do what these poets were doing. One poet had written about living with cerebral palsy, and I left that room never thinking about disability in the same way again—it was this radical experience that transported me, gave me a more intimate sense of living in someone else’s body in a way literature hadn’t done before. I left thinking, I don’t know what this is, but I want to do it.
I had been a soccer player all my life. I was on the college team, but didn’t play a lot—so this also happened when I was 19, having a kind of existential crisis: Who am I if I’m not a good soccer player? I took all the energy I’d put into sports, and put it into writing. I started going to readings, I started a poetry group at college. I kept practicing and writing a lot of bad poems for many years.
“I’d never seen spoken-word poetry live. I left thinking, I don’t know what this is, but I want to do it.”
After graduation, I moved to DC to become an English teacher, and I was on the DC Poetry Slam team. One of my teammates was Elizabeth Acevedo. We were all young twenty-somethings who came up in this genre, in this space, trying to figure out who we were as writers; it was a generous, generative space to do that. The community fostered me, artistically and politically.
In grad school, I started submitting poems for publication. I got on this listserv that would send out a list of places soliciting work from writers. I sent poems everywhere, and they started getting picked up, first by very small places and then larger lit journals. Around this time, I started becoming more active on Twitter—I would write threads that were essentially Twitter op eds, putting them in conversation with the books I was reading—this was a moment when I think people were searching for historical context when it came to issues like housing discrimination, for example. An editor at The Guardian asked me if I wanted to turn a thread into an essay, and I was kind of scared at first, like “I don’t write prose”—but my partner said, “All your threads are prose!”
So I started working on pieces, and submitting more places. Other editors started paying more attention, and then one day in 2015 Nick Thompson reached out to me after a thread I’d written about Tamir Rice and asked if I’d be interested in expanding on that for The New Yorker. It was kind of funny, because that same week I’d gotten a rejection letter from The New Yorker for one of my poems. I know I’m lucky that these major publications took a chance on me.
NC: It’s interesting that you brought up Twitter, because writers often ask me if I think they need to be there. It’s not something I feel comfortable saying is strictly necessary, and honestly it can be a tough place to recommend, but, like you, I can point to so many opportunities I might not have gotten without Twitter.
CS: Yeah, also I think Twitter feels different now than it did in 2015 when I started being more active there. It felt less noisy, like a place where you could think and wonder out loud. Part of that just changes when you get a larger platform, of course, and part of it is the space itself. I don’t use it the same way I used to. One does have to be judicious in how they use it, how often, etc.
There are so many different pathways to becoming a writer. But I know my career would look very different without Twitter. It makes a difference, which is not to say you have to be super active or use it the way everyone else does. But it can be useful to have a presence there, to let people know who you are and what your work is like.
NC: Once you started writing and publishing prose, what happened next for you?
CS: I started freelancing pretty often for The New Yorker. More editors would see my work and ask me to write for them. My PhD was centered on race, education, incarceration, history—you know, you spend all those hours in the library, and freelancing was a way to put those ideas in conversation with the social and political moment we were experiencing, and the growth of BLM as the huge social movement it became.
My first poetry book, Counting Descent, came out in 2016. At some point I realized I didn’t want to be an academic, at least not right now; I wanted my work to be in conversation with and for a more general audience. To be sure, there are many academics who do this well, but I thought journalism was the best space for me to work in at this moment in my career. I had freelanced quite a bit for The Atlantic, and last summer they offered me a job as a staff writer.
NC: What was the initial spark that made you feel you had to writeHow the Word Is Passed?
CS: In 2017, in the span of a few weeks in May, the city of New Orleans—my hometown—took down some Confederate statues that had stood there for ages. I was looking around, watching these statues come down from my home in Maryland, and thinking about what it meant that I grew up in a city where there were more homages to slaveholders than to descendants of slavery. The names and symbols in honor of people who had enslaved human beings were stretched across the landscape of the city.
“If it were up to me, in everything I write, we’d spend a lot of time setting the scene—what does this person look and sound like? Where are we, and what does the air feel like?”
So I started writing into that space, thinking about memorialization and history. In poems I wrote about it, there was space where I could wrestle with these questions without having to arrive at firm answers. It was a space where I did a lot of my thinking as part of my writing process. And then I started wondering, Who are the people in New Orleans and in other places trying to tell a different story?
I thought, at first, that I might write a book of poems where each poem was about a statue in New Orleans. Then I thought, no, I might need more space than a poem would allow. I started writing short essays, then longer ones. I started going to these places. I wrote three extended meditations on place that I thought might be the first chapter of a book, and felt myself getting closer.
Then I went to Monticello—which wound up being the actual first chapter—and went on a tour focused on enslaved people at Monticello. I saw these two women in the group having a very visceral reaction to what the tour guide was saying. Now, the idea of walking up to a group of strangers and asking them questions runs counter to my general ethos, but I mustered up the courage and spoke with them for maybe forty minutes, and it was so important because it put the book on a completely different trajectory.
I realized that it couldn’t just be my extended meditations and reflections on history and place; that it needed to be in conversation with those of other people experiencing these places. Who we are, what our identities and backgrounds and politics are, all of these things animate how we experience a place. I realized this book needed a cross-section of voices—the people visiting these places, the people telling the stories of these places—and that was the moment I knew what the book was going to be.
NC: Your first book of poetry, Counting Descent, is a favorite of mine. What is it like working in prose as well as poetry, even blending the two? Does your approach vary a lot depending on the genre?
CS: Being a poet shapes the way I write prose. Sometimes an idea begins one way, say as a poem or an essay, and then demands something different from you as a writer. Being a poet trains you to pay attention to the granular—like how the best photographers can capture the most quotidian thing in a way that makes you look at it in a way you never have. I think the best poems do similar work, focus on an object or a moment or an idea and give attention to the most intimate details of that thing in order to help you see it in a way you hadn’t before. Some novelists do that, too—poetry trained me to write this book, but some of the best writers of literary fiction demonstrate what it means to give characters depth; I think Toni Morrison embodies that more than anyone.
In How the Word Is Passed, I wanted to take the best of the history books I’ve read over the past several years and give that history another dimension, a sort of literary sensibility. To think about a remarkable book like The Hemingses of Monticello—that book was transformative for me—and go to Monticello and describe how it feels to be on that mountain; to walk the same land that generations of enslaved people cultivated and built; to consider that land as not only belonging to Jefferson, but also belonging to all those families who lived there across generations, and for whom it was also home. I wanted it to be informed by the best history and the best literature I’ve spent time with, and make the reader feel they are there on that journey alongside me. And poetry has taught me to pay attention and tell stories in ways that I don’t know that I would have learned otherwise.
And I love exposition. The hardest thing for me now is when I’m writing a magazine story, I want to do a lot of scene-setting, but the pacing of a magazine story has to move at a different pace than in a book. If it were up to me, in everything I write, we’d spend a lot of time setting the scene—who is this person? What do they look and sound like? Where are we, and what does the air feel like?
Another thing I enjoy about poetry is the freedom. Poems can be anything. Right now I’m working on my next book, essentially a collection of dad poems, poems about fatherhood. It’s a very different writing experience. Obviously it can be hard to write about the Confederacy and chattel slavery, and then I get to go and write a poem about the first time I heard my daughter burp. It’s good for me to have both spaces.
NC: Now that people are reading your book, has there been a particular reader reaction that has really meant a lot to you?
CS: I’ve gotten messages from younger Black folks who have said, “I wish I had this book in high school,” or “I wish I’d learned this before, this would have been so helpful for me in pushing back against lies I heard in school or around me.” As with many writers, I think in a way, I am the primary audience—I wrote the sort of book I wanted to read and teach and learn from. Younger Clint just sitting in eighth-grade social studies class in Louisiana was like, “How are we talking about Robert E. Lee and not talking about what he fought for? We’re sitting in this building named after this person who believed and advocated for intergenerational chattel slavery and not saying anything about it.” I wanted to create something that was both an aesthetic and literary experience, and also give people more tools in a historical context to make sense of our country today.
I hope this book allows people to understand how the history of slavery is deeply embedded in the landscape of this entire country. I wrote this book about eight places, but really it have been about 1,008. I hope people consider that landscape in their own specific and local contexts, and consider the different ways history can be told.
“I wrote the sort of book I wanted to read and teach and learn from.”
The book is also, in a sense, an ode to public historians. A historian writes a book that’s intense, deeply detailed, and written for an academic audience. Public historians read those books and translate that into something someone can use on a sixty-minute tour. And I don’t think it’s about which one is better, but about an ecosystem of academic and public historians and tour guides and visitors all engaging with history—we can all be in conversation.
NC: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
CS: I think the best advice, which you hear a lot because it’s true, is to read as much as you can. Read as a writer, paying attention to how writers you love are making certain decisions. Read across genre, discipline, form. Find writers you admire, study their work. How are they making the linguistic and stylistic decisions they’re making? If someone uses a word in a way I hadn’t thought of, I have a notebook where I write it down. If you’re an athlete or musician, you want to study the best—as a writer, you should also study those who’ve come before you and those who are doing things really well.
I also think it’s great to find a community of writers. When I was younger, I had my poetry slam teams and poetry collectives. Now I have some people who, for different sorts of projects, are the people who I go to for feedback, the people I can show the earliest iteration of a draft. It can be hard to find those folks, but there are a lot of online classes and workshops these days, and if you can take one you might develop a friendship with someone else in that workshop. When things open up again, go to readings and meet writers—that was a big thing for me. Take advantage of the resources that exist, learn from different people. I also have my own kind of individual book club, where I read a book and then try to listen to a dozen book talks that person gave—I find book talks on YouTube, podcast interviews they’ve done. It becomes my own mini MFA in my room. It’s always so helpful to hear writers talk about their work after you’ve engaged with it.