Invariably, my favorite part of any workshop has been the community that gets formed throughout the semester. The inside jokes, the unique intimacy, an understanding of peers that can only come from picking apart their writing. The vulnerability that comes with sharing your art leads, inevitably, to a sense of trust and camaraderie. So while I was stoked, this spring, to learn from a poet I greatly admire, I was disappointed that the workshop would last only a week. Too short a time, I thought, to develop that kind of bond. Of course, I was wrong.
Danez Smith came into the room, so overwhelmingly themself, so comfortable and ready to begin. There was no academic veneer, no stuffy posturing, no attempts to mute their personality. They had us laughing, and, on the first day of passing out poems--to the left--had us singing “Irreplaceable.” A chorus of “To the left’s” erupted, and the energy in the room was light, lively, accepting. Now, it takes me a while to warm up to people. I hold a lot back. (A friend has said of me that it takes a while to crack the shell, but once you do, you find “a pretty weird fucking bird.”) Point is: I’m reserved, upon first meeting people. But Danez Smith had me, on that second day, table-drumming and belting Beyonce. If that’s not a testament to their teaching ability, then the rest of this blog post better convince you.
It wasn’t just the affability or realness that Danez brought to the table. They forced us to reconsider our relationship with language, to step outside the comfortable. For one assignment, they had us list the poetic strategies we rely on, and a second list of all the topics that appear in our work, and then had us write poems in which we abandon those crutches. Writing those poems felt like stepping out expecting a stair, and tripping awkwardly down. Eventually, though, I found my footing, and was able to see language from an entirely new angle. Defamiliarizing myself with my language allowed me to enter a fresh, generative space. By the end of the week, I felt rejuvenated, closer to writing than I had in awhile.
Danez spoke passionately about language, life, community, and communication. The lack of pretense, the lack of a professorial guise, the complete absence of a fake-self, allowed them to speak directly to us, to the point. The cliche I'm about to offer you is that they taught me not just about writing, but about being. Their parting bit of advice for us writers, the last wisdom they imparted, was a small phrase that I don’t think I can hear enough. “You want to be a writer? Then write. Just write.”
Aiden Baker is a first year MFA candidate in Fiction at FAU. Originally from Chicagoland, she now lives, writes, and sweats in South Florida. You can find her work in The Ninth Letter Web Edition.