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Internal Revolution: Danez Smith and Cathy Park Hong

Danez and Cathy discuss the current state of America, writing as a form of protest, and humor's place in poetry and prose.

Lately, life has felt suspended between the poles of isolation and collective action, stagnation and uprising. Cathy Park Hong and Danez Smith, with both their poetry and their prose, have a way of keeping us in touch with complex truths such as these: How words can both expose what's rotten in this country and inspire revolutionary hope, how sly humor can be a path to truth, how writing is both a democratic art form and a gated community. They show us by example that complication is not contradiction, and we're grateful for it.

-Aminatou & Ann

Author

Cathy Park Hong

Cathy Park Hong is the author of the creative nonfiction book Minor Feelings: An Asian-American Reckoning, and three poetry collections including Dance Dance Revolution, chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Engine Empire. Hong is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize, the Guggenheim Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her poems have been published in Poetry, The New York Times, The Paris Review, McSweeney's, and elsewhere.

Author

Danez Smith

Danez Smith is the author of Homie (Graywolf Press, 2020) and Don't Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press, 2017), winner of the Forward Prize for Best Collection and a National Book Award Finalist.

  • Lately, life has felt suspended between the poles of isolation and collective action, stagnation and uprising. Cathy Park Hong and Danez Smith, with both their poetry and their prose, have a way of keeping us in touch with complex truths such as these: How words can both expose what's rotten in this country and inspire revolutionary hope, how sly humor can be a path to truth, how writing is both a democratic art form and a gated community. They show us by example that complication is not contradiction, and we're grateful for it.

    - Aminatou & Ann

    June 24, 2020

    Danez 

    Cathy, I feel like we should just check in as good humans. How are you doing? How have you been, both in the season of isolation and uprising and everything that we’ve been going through?

    Cathy 

    Since the beginning, in March and April, I’ve been floating in this amniotic fluid of panic and vague despair and going stir-crazy. I’m in an apartment with my 5-year-old daughter and my husband, and it’s nice because I’m never lonely. But it also sucks because I’m never lonely.

    I haven’t been able to get any writing done. It’s also been strange because my book’s out in the world. I guess that’s been one bright spot, to see people finding it as a kind of guiding light for them—especially among Asians.

    I’ve been feeling hopeful about the uprising. Every time a statue comes down, I’m like, “Yes.” The day after we heard about George Floyd, I was with a bunch of people talking on a panel, and everyone was like, “What are we going to do?” and I’m like, “There has to be a revolution.” But I felt immediately silly saying that. “Oh, here’s an armchair professor saying that there needs to be a revolution.” There needs to be one, but I didn’t think there would actually be one. I was like, is it going to happen now?

    It just detonated something. People’s consciousness detonated. Everyone’s protesting and I’m scared, but I also find it so empowering and necessary. You’ve been in it.

    Danez 

    Because it happened here!

    What I’ve been confronting is, why have I been so silly about what I consider to be revolutionary hope? Hope for revolution. You know, it’s the thing you’ve been writing about and you dream of it—but I didn’t know it was going to happen here. Especially when the city council started saying things about getting rid of the police—abolishing, defunding, whatever words they were using at the time. They’re saying it, but I never thought I would see this day, and how silly and maybe even irresponsible to not believe in these things that you spend so much energy calling for.

    I’ve been hopeful, exhausted, tired. I don’t think the uprising would have happened without Corona. In that weird way, I’ve been thankful.

    The Corona times have been actually interesting for me, too. The first two months, I was hyper. I went from dating somebody to living with them, and it was my first time ever living with a partner.

    Cathy 

    Congratulations!

    Danez 

    We’re no longer quarantining together, but we are still together. We learned a lot in those eight weeks.

    Cathy 

    I’ve heard stories about people like you, people who are sort of dating and then, oh my God…

    Danez 

    Yeah, we had been dating for a couple months and it was like, “Let’s just do it, if we’re going to just have to be inside anyway.” It was a lesson, and I love them more than ever.

    Cathy 

    That’s so sweet. That’s a happy story. I need to hear more happy Coronavirus stories.

    Danez 

    We were almost a Corona breakup, I will say that. There was a week there where it was real rocky. And I was like, no… because I know so many people who have broken up because of Corona.

    Cathy 

    And then it was a Corona make-up.

    Danez 

    It was a Corona make-up and a Corona rebalancing. 

    Cathy 

    It was a Corona relationship.

    Danez 

    I had some friends who were like, “Now that Corona’s here and I see you 24 hours a day, I don’t like what I’m seeing.”

    Cathy 

    I know it’s even worse for bad marriages. This virus has a way of amplifying what’s already bad, whether it’s you and your partner or you and your family. I feel bad for younger people I know who had to move back in with their toxic families. But then, of course, it also amplifies what’s rotting in this country. I totally agree that this wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic. First of all, there are no distractions.

    Danez 

    And labor, too. If you had to choose between being in the streets every day and work—there’s no work.

    Cathy 

    That’s always the recipe for protest. What was happening in Egypt and Spain, when the unemployment was really high, 20%. I think that’s the magic number, when unemployment is at about 20% that is when there’s going to be massive protest. 

    There had to be a breaking point, and then it was George Floyd. That’s another factor about protests—so far what we’ve seen with marches is that, with recent history, it’s for a day or 2 days or a couple weeks and then it’s gone. But it really seems to be sustaining itself. I hope it continues.

    Danez

    It’s sustaining and I think it was because, and even continuing into it, we have a particular relationship to stillness right now, that allows for both the ability to be out in the streets and be a body, or the digital streets, doing that kind of work if you want to. But also, to do that internal work that it really requires, too. I think a lot of us have been doing—I say “us” just because I’ve been doing it—a lot of personal work, too.

    Cathy 

    Have you been writing? Or have you been out helping…

    Danez 

    I was at actions more when it first started and now some of the continuing actions that continue to go on in the city. When it got really wild and more neighborhoody parts of the city were starting to light on fire, that’s when I switched into other modes. I was doing a lot of mutual aid, and still continue to do the mutual aids, the cleanups. For a while, I was working at a community-run, commandeered hotel that was used as a shelter. I switched into a lot of other efforts while the action turned into… something that I still supported but I was just like, “I don’t know that I need to be there to burn down that Foot Locker.”

    Cathy

    I have a funny story, talking to my mom, too. Her politics are all over the place, but she was saying the protesting is good, people need to go out there for what happened to George Floyd. And she was like, “But I’m worried about the rioting. Protestors shouldn’t be rioting.” She has a dry cleaners in Koreatown in LA, and she was like, “I’m just worried what’s going to happen to the dry cleaners.” And I’m like, Mom, I don’t think—thinking about the ’92 riots—I don’t think they’re going after the small businesses, really. The protestors were actually on Rodeo Drive, Third Street Promenade, Santa Monica Mall. A bunch of people looted Louis Vuitton.

    Danez 

    Oh yeah, get the good stuff.

    Cathy

    I know, and she was like, “Louis Vuitton? They’re looting in Beverly Hills?” I said, “Yeah, I think they looted Louis Vuitton and other luxury stores.” And she was like, “Well I have to go down there and get a bag.”

    [Laughter]

    Danez 

    “No looting, but if we are looting Louis Vuitton…”

    Cathy 

    I know… “If it’s really going on down there, I’ll be there.”

    Danez 

    Your mom and I politically line up there. It was both really exhilarating and frightening to see so many things aflame in Minneapolis. My feeling about the Subway or the AutoZone was very, very different. The burned Target didn’t make me as sad as the one busted window at the Greek-run Best Steak House. He feeds the community. I was like, “Oh no, not the window at Best Steak House.”

    Abolitionist conversations eventually invite, or just live alongside, anti-capitalist conversations, and it’s been really hard to feel both that revolutionary hope in the uprising, and also, I was like “Wow, capitalism grief is such a real thing.” Especially on a small family level, where you feel like, “I know these folks, they’re good people.” That personal relationship we have to it. 

    When you think about what will be collateral or what will get caught up in the way as things change… I didn’t really think I’d have to, in real-time, confront that grief of money, too. Even with the big stuff. They’re like, “Oh, I love that Foot Locker,” or “That was my Popeyes that burned down.”

    Cathy 

    I could understand it about immigrant small businesses and so forth. Don’t go after the small businesses. And not all of them have insurance. When their store burns down, they’re just fucked. It’s interesting how people grieve for the Foot Locker or the Target.

    I was actually at one protest, on Atlantic Ave in Brooklyn, and there was a woman speaking, she was great. There was a Chick-fil-A and a Shake Shack, and the Shake Shack was looted but the Chick-fil-A remained intact. She was like, “Don’t loot! And why do you go after the Shake Shack but not the Chick-fil-A? I don’t get it!”

    Danez 

    Chick-fil-A treats people too nice. Hate the gays, but great customer service at Chick-fil-A.

    Cathy 

    You know I’m a huge, huge fan of your books, your poetry. I was just rereading Homie today, which I adore. I love it because it’s your very distinctive style, but as opposed to your first book, which was an elegy, it seems more celebratory and life-affirming. It seems to be written directly to your friends, your homies, your community—and this community contains multitudes.

    And it is really funny. Is humor something that you’re conscious of inserting into your work or does it come naturally?

    Danez 

    I think it was an intentional choice when I first started. I questioned why it didn’t come naturally, at least when I started to make less of a distinction between what I was doing on the page and on the stage. That was a useful dynamic for me when I was younger, coming up in spoken word. I knew how to be funny on stage. Obviously, I was like, “It’s acting. You’re just playing a character or whatever.” And the more serious or invested I got in the page as a medium, I found it really hard to be funny there. I was so dependent on physical or vocal comedy. I was like, “How do you be funny with words? You’re supposed to do something with your arms.”

    It was a challenge for a while. But, after writing Don’t Call Us Dead—I think in both of my first books I have some minor peaks of humor, but I did make more of a concerted effort in writing this, being like, “Ok, I’m funny in my real life. I know I’ve been funny in other avenues of writing, in plays or in pieces that find themselves on stage a lot more. I want to be funny. I just want to try to have some levity.”

    Homie’s really sad but it’s my happiest book. I couldn’t write something that was so sad and so elegiac again. Even though there is elegy within the work, I needed something a little bit more fun. That also felt like being myself more in poems. The type of lyric that Homie has is a lot more relaxed, or closer to how I feel like I talk day to day. I feel really at home in Homie

    In some ways it frustrates me, because I see the ways I could have pushed certain things harder, created more tension, or just been stranger. Or chose other paths through the lyric. But it was comfortable to feel like myself in this very bare-bones way for a lot of that book. It was this active thing, wanting to relax and maybe explore a personality in the work, not necessarily a voice.

    Cathy 

    It still seems very crafted, and yet there’s something much more liberated about the voice in Homie—much more freed up and also you’re giving yourself permission to go on these tangents and detours; you’re actually having a conversation. That’s hard to do with poetry. 

    I think humor is also hard in poetry. When I started, I deliberately tried to write funny poems. Before I wrote Minor Feelings, I wanted to write satirical poems about race. It was really hard. There’s something about the line break that just doesn’t give you the tonal range that I want. 

    Danez 

    Do you not think Engine Empire, though, had some humor in it?

    Cathy 

    Yes. Humor is part of my personality. I have to have humor in everything. It’s what makes a voice human. Even if I’m not trying to be funny in prose or poetry, that would be impossible. I have to have a little bit of humor. It just exists.

    I also find that more and more as I get older, I need to have irreverence, a little playfulness in any books or films that I see. I don’t distrust it, but when poetry is overly serious, overly earnest, sometimes I find that it could be a little bit oppressive at times. Or maybe I just like humor.

    What I was actually trying to do is make humor also a subject matter in my poetry. I was trying to center humor, and it wasn’t working. Maybe it was in trying to write satirical poems about race that it wasn’t working because I thought people were not getting it. You know how on Twitter, when you have a limited number of characters, people are always misreading tone? People are always getting pissed off, being like, “How dare you say that?” And you’re like, “I was joking!” 

    It’s kind of like that with poetry—something about the line break doesn’t give the tonal range that I want. Or there’s something about the lyric that’s heightened in a way that doesn’t always lend itself to humor or playfulness. I couldn’t do it. Maybe the difference is I was trying to weaponize humor in the poems, I wasn’t trying to write. 

    In Engine Empire and Dance Dance Revolution, humor was a part of it, but it wasn’t like I was trying to center it in the same way.

    Danez

    Especially Engine Empire, I would say that is so based in the humor. Did you find humor different in the essays, then? Especially, only showing up in Minor Feelings as Cathy Park Hong, and not as some speaker anywhere else. Was there a challenge in humor, especially this being your first large work of prose?

    Cathy 

    I write about it in the essay “Stand Up.” It kind of began from “Stand Up.” This is what I say every time. I was actually very depressed one day and then for a period of my life. And then I became obsessed with Richard Pryor. He was a genius. He was so funny, but also used his humor to be so brutally honest about race. I wanted to learn from him and figure out how to do that, so the inspiration for Minor Feelings came from humor.

    What I liked about stand-up was that comedians were always trying to push the boundary. There are negative ways, of course, when they do that by punching down. But Pryor, for the most part, was punching up. I wanted to push those boundaries, too. And use humor to do that. So I tried different modes; 

  • Candles
    “I hated poetry readings at the time, so in order to sabotage the sanctity of poetry, I would do stand-up instead of reading a poem.”
    Cathy Park Hong
  • Cathy

    It was from that spirit that the book began but I think it was more of an intentional use of humor, where I was using humor to disarm and weaponize—to try and get people, and try to get me, to face these more uncomfortable truths. So, I think it was more a question of intention. Humor is always important in my writing.

    Danez 

    With the prose, maybe it was easier for it to just come, because poetry, and that tyranny of the line thing, was sort of out of the way.

    Cathy 

    You have a lot more room. You have so much more room to just wander. You can be funny in one paragraph and you can be really serious in another, and just turn. It’s easier to make that turn from humor to utter seriousness. But that’s just me. There are also tons of poets who aren’t funny. I think it’s a real art. It’s a craft, too.

    Danez 

    There’s also just a lot of attitude. I’ve been thinking about the ‘cool kid’ poems and how we show up as not serious in poems and what that does.

    Cathy 

    Do you see your body of work as a form of protest?

    Danez 

    I don’t see it as that, but I guess I get that lens for work. Maybe the poems themselves. Poems can be useful in protest—they can have the spirit of it. I think poems feed the revolutionary, the spirit that sparks into that.

    I think about the urgency of a poem and how they get into the world. I don’t think a poem sitting in a submission queue for 3 months is a poem of protest. Maybe it has the spirit of one, but when I think of protest, I think of interruption and urgency. I wonder about how we put work in the world. 

    A poem written on a building feels like a protest. A poem said at a rally—a poem said into a megaphone feels like a protest. Even thrown online, the poem that you tweet out, a Facebook note even has a little bit of that, “I needed to say this right now, and I needed to connect it to other folks.” That feels like a protest to me. Otherwise, I think poems can be imbued with that spirit, it feels like it’s not about the poem but the action of it.

    I don’t know if mine are, all the time. I think some of them have started with that type of urgency and need to interrupt and be then.

    Cathy 

    I think poets can affect resistance. I was thinking about the difference between the Black Lives Matter protests that are happening now, versus the Black Lives Matter protests that were happening in 2014 and 2015. It’s kind of amazing to see even middle-aged, white, suburban mothers, who live in Nebraska, who are saying, “We need to change structural racism.” 

    That wasn’t happening. You can disagree, but from what I observed and read, it wasn’t widespread like that in 2014. I think there was a lot that happened between 2014 and 2015, and 2020. Yes, the pandemic. Yes, Trump. But also the way people think about race and the way people talk about it has changed a lot. I’m not talking African Americans or a lot of people who live that experience; I guess I’m talking about white people and some Asian Americans or people who were previously clueless. 

    A lot of that had to do with the literature that was coming out in that moment, a lot of cultural products. Yes, the big thinkers, like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nikole Hannah-Jones and so forth. But also poets. It’s all part of the mix. It’s all part of the conversation. Poets like yourself, poets like Jericho Brown or Eduardo Corral, or Franny Choi. It’s just in the atmosphere and people are reading it. 

    Uprising was bound to happen because I saw it even incubating in my classroom. The way young poets were so galvanized by the writing out there. It’s fascinating, with literature, I go back and forth. In the one sense, it doesn’t incite action—poetry is a place of stillness. You’re witnessing and reflecting on what happened. It happens in the aftermath. But then whatever you witness and whatever you write down will influence or somehow change the consciousness of future movements and future acts.

    I think it does both, it just doesn’t happen immediately. It’s not like you write a poem, it comes up on Twitter, and people are incited to action or anything like that. It takes a while and it can’t be quantified, but I think it does melt into people’s hearts and consciousness. Something happened.

    Danez 

    There’s a little internal revolution, an internal protest. That is what it is. It’s the same for all things, right? The way music galvanizes us, the way we walk out of a movie theater a different person, thinking differently. 

  • Candles
    “We need art. The artists are also in the streets. You’ve seen that throughout all time.”
    Danez Smith 
  • Danez

    We’re privileged as Americans to live in a place where the artists don’t end up in jail, a lot of the time.

    Cathy 

    Well, if Trump is reelected, freedom of speech definitely might be on the line here. 

    We are lucky, in that sense, and how we’re different from countries like China and Russia is that we are free to say what we want. Although there are still gatekeepers and so forth.

    Danez 

    For sure. Too much.

    Cathy 

    I guess that’s also being questioned right now. Within the last few years, it seems like the reverberations are actually bigger. I feel like it’s absolutely necessary; it has to be done. This kind of anointing a poet through the press system, that’s been the economy poetry worked in for so long. And that needs to change.

    When I think about having diversity in publishing, more black, indigenous, and people of color who are editors and so forth, I think that’s necessary but it’s also kind of like a Band-aid. Yes, we need that, but the trajectory for someone to get to that point where they’re a senior editor, executive editor is really hard for anyone who comes from a racial, working-class background. You just can’t do it. You can’t survive in the city with the kind of salary that you have. It just has to happen from the ground up. But I’m glad we’re having that conversation.

    Danez 

    Of the publishing genres, I think poetry is the one that can have it first. Maybe just how we relate, but even just thinking about how the money works in poetry, we’re working with the lowest ceiling here. So maybe we can imagine equity and fairness.

    Cathy 

    In certain ways, it’s impossible to be a poet because you can’t make any money as a poet. Poets already know that, so they already have other jobs. And I’m not talking about those academics who are poets. There are lots of people, like Lucille Clifton or William Carlos Williams. Poetry, in a way, is the most democratic form because you don’t need all the time to write a poem; you could find those little spaces and bits of time to write poems, to put a book together. Unlike, say, being a studio artist, where you need a studio space and you have to live in New York or LA.

    I was talking to my agent about this. I hate doing remote stuff and always being on Zoom, but one advantage to it is that you don’t have to live in New York. You don’t have to live in these expensive cities anymore to be an editor or a writer and so forth. So maybe in that way it can help democratize livelihoods—that you could live in a cheaper city and still be a writer or an artist or an editor.

    Danez 

    That’s the opening door, right? How do we actually pay mind to the folks who already don’t live in those places? How did we overlook Southern writers for years and also sorts of pockets where folks just get left and forgotten? And share some of this power and wealth, and change the way books are talked about and reported—and what books get talked about.

    There is such a season that we’ve been in for a while, especially in poetry, where there’s so much good stuff that is out there. And how do we make sure that we’re not shorting the audiences on that abundance?

    You probably get the essay question a lot, but is there anything from the essays that you think you feel like you’re going to take back to poems?

    Cathy 

    No.

    [Laughter]

    There’s always more to say about everything that I’ve written about. It’s more like I took everything that I was thinking about in poetry and language, and put that in prose. If I were to take anything I’ve written in prose and put it back into poetry, it’s just the continuation of my thought process. I have these obsessions with language and race and violence and capitalism. That’s always going to be in my prose. That’s always going to be in my poetry.

    I guess the difference between poetry and prose is that in prose I felt this need to explain myself, which I always refused to do in poetry. I think I was doing it to clear the air and cut the bullshit. You can’t really weaponize poetry in the same way you could do that with essays. I was just so sick of the way people talk about race, especially Asian American consciousness or the Asian American condition, that I had to sit down and write a book of prose about it, and not explain it to white people, per se, but explain it to myself and to my daughter when she’s older, and to my best friend, and to my students, and to people who are in a similar situation as me.

    It was more of a practical objective. I use this quote by George Orwell—it’s more of a paraphrase… he was saying that in times of peace, he would be writing ornamental, descriptive works, but because he was writing in a time of war, he was forced to become a pamphleteer. And by pamphleteer, he didn’t mean writing propaganda or ad copy, but he felt this need to write more directly.

    I felt this compulsion to write more directly to the time that we’re living in. I didn’t think poetry was an impactful enough medium in the headspace that I was in at the time.

    Danez 

    Thank you for that. That feels like some instruction that maybe I was looking forward to, about how to do something useful with words in this time.

    Cathy

    Thank you. It was so great talking to you.

    Danez 

    It was great talking with you.