Danez Smith: Coding Poetry by Elli Gifferson
On November 7-8, the Minnesota State University’s Good Thunder Reading Series hosted St. Paul-born poet Danez Smith. Smith’s most recent book Don’t Call us Dead earned the United Kingdom’s Forward Poetry Prize for Best Collection and also contended in the United States as a finalist for the National Book Award. As the series’ visiting resident, Smith led three different public events: a craft talk, a poetry workshop, and a reading. As a writer, the craft talk was especially interesting in that Smith presented and discussed the techniques and stylistic choices incorporated into Don’t Call us Dead. Smith specifically emphasized the significance of understanding the code of each lyrical piece, “code” being the linguistic approach geared towards a selected audience. Throughout the craft talk, Smith presented three unique audience-concentrated methods of code: the beloved, the enemy, and the self.
According to Smith, poets implement a beloved code when the work is intended for someone in a close relationship with the poem’s speaker. The language of the beloved code is incredibly intimate and unique as poets purposefully use esoteric descriptions for certain images, rituals, and artifacts. Essentially, the speaker does not care whether or not outsiders understand the central message because the underlying meaning of the images, diction, and literary devices employed throughout the text is only fully accessible by the speaker’s beloved. On the contrary, an enemy code is targeted towards a dissenting figure who somehow acts in opposition of the speaker. The language pervades distance and is absent of any intimate warmth. Furthermore, Smith asserts that an enemy-coded poem will often use more general descriptions and will even include pop culture references. Therefore, in comparison to the beloved code, the enemy code is much less personal, which likely enhances the relatability factor for a broader range of readers.
In addition to the beloved and enemy codes, Smith also discussed the code of the self. The self code is especially distinctive in that it uses internal language, which can surface as mere reflections. During the craft talk, Smith remarked that imagining oneself as the audience is accompanied by feelings of a certain strangeness. Moreover, Smith suggested that the self code be utilized as a starting point for generating ideas rather than the foundational core of a final poem. Ultimately, Smith recommended using the self code as a basis for developing personal musings into high-quality poems coded in the beloved or enemy concentrations.
Hence, although Danez Smith’s craft talk provided listeners with many great insights into the literary techniques of poetry, Smith’s perspective and advice regarding code was most valuable to the writers in the audience. Specifically, writers learned to recognize the power of coded poetry and how to effectively apply codes to their own works. In essence, by using idiosyncratic language and style, each code enables poets to convey a different message and to fulfill a particular purpose in relation to the intended audience. May the concept of code inspire writers everywhere to thoroughly consider audience when formulating their next piece.