In-Depth Look: Danez Smith – “Trees”
Appreciating poetry is often about patience: sitting with a poem, meditating on it, and re-reading it multiple times. With spoken word, we don’t always get a chance to do that. This series is about taking that chance, and diving a little deeper into some of the new poems going up on Button.
“Look, y’all: they look like slow green explosions…”
Write-up by Kyle “Guante” Tran Myhre
Spoken word is “a thing that people can do,” in that anyone can write a poem, stand up in front of other people, and say it out loud. But it’s also something deeper than that– it’s a community, a movement, a culture in which certain practices, ideas, and impulses are shared.
So we can talk about an individual poem by itself, focusing on things like structure, word choice, and performance– but we can also talk about an individual poem in the context of that culture. We can talk about how it exists in dialogue with other poems. We can talk about how the poem “works” on a slam stage, vs. in a literary journal, vs. in a cypher with a bunch of friends, vs. at a political rally. People are free to disagree with me on this, but one thing I really appreciate about spoken word and slam poetry– as culture– is this acknowledgement that context matters, that who we are, where we are, and who is listening all impact what the poem “is.”
This poem is brilliant and beautiful in a vacuum, sure. Danez is one of the best writers in the world. But what really strikes me about this poem is how it plays with context. For example, all of the names listed are real people; I know some of them, and that impacts how I hear the poem. But here’s a deeper example: people outside of poetry circles may not be aware that the phrase “poems about trees” is very often shorthand for a kind of “traditional,” MFA-informed, white-centered, aggressively apolitical poetry that is often set up as a foil for the current spoken word movement. So Danez taking the *archetype* of that style of poetry, and flipping it so powerfully, serves to also demolish the very idea that there has to be some kind of binary approach to poems, that they can either be “about trees” or “about real shit.” The poem isn’t just substantive; it’s also subversive. This is what culture-shifting work looks like.
While you’re here, head over to the Button store to check out our books and merch, including books by Olivia Gatwood, Hanif Abdurraqib, Donte Collins, Sabrina Benaim, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, William Evans, Guante, Rachel Wiley, & our newest release from Neil Hilborn!