Last month, I picked up the collection [Insert] Boy by Danez Smith and didn’t put it down for two hours. By the time I reached the end of those pages, I felt emotionally exhausted. Smith’s words are raw and unflinchingly honest. I left [Insert] Boy feeling a little more broken than I was when I’d started it. But great collections can do that to you, and this is one of those collections.
The poems in [Insert] Boy center around issues of identity, the different roles we are forced to play throughout our lives, and what it’s like to navigate the world as a queer person of color. The collection is split into six sections: [black], [papa’s lil’], [ruined], [rent], [lover], and [again]. Smith does an excellent l job of letting each section tell its own story. For example, in [black] boy, the speaker aggressively fights against the many labels forced on black men. The poem “Alternate Names for Black Boys” is written as a list and reads: “5. guilty until proven dead . . . . 15. (I thought to leave this blank but who am I to name us nothing?)” Like many of the poems in [Insert] Boy, “Alternate Names for Black Boys” isn’t afraid to transcend form in order to make a powerful statement for social justice.
One of my favorite poems in [Insert] Boy is “All Spring, We’d Watch Grandpa Rub his Knee & Complain about Rain.” It beautifully explores the complexities of the speaker’s grandfather through razor sharp details. It begins, “& then it was summer & our porch would be full of men / with names like June Bug, Turnip Seed, & Delroy” (lines 1-2). As the poem progresses, Smith paints a rounded image of these men by fully analyzing their many contradictions. At one point, the speaker says, “who beat their wives because their fathers did” (line 8), then later balances that out with “who asked their sisters to pray for them, who wept // when their daughters hummed gospel, who worked three jobs” (lines 12-13). By the end, the tension in the poem comes full circle when the speaker admits, “who we swore to never speak ill of // & promised we’d never be” (lines 20-21). The use of repetition (“who”) as well as the well-timed line breaks make this poem, and others, a compelling read.
[Insert] Boy also does a wonderful job of highlighting the struggles queer black men face in this country. Poems such as “Faggot or when the Front Goes Up” are haunting: “a boy made of sunflowers. / more tomboy than boy. / preferred the dress to the plastic gun” (lines 5-7). When the poems address issues of social justice, they do so bravely and without reservation. They’re not afraid to bite, and this is what I appreciated the most.
There’s a natural rhythm and flow to [Insert] Boy which is unlike what I’ve seen before. This collection is a celebration of black bodies, of LGBTQ people, and of the power of poetry. The poems are innovative and the cover art and interior art is beautiful. Everyone should have a copy of [Insert] Boy.
Cover of [Insert] Boy and logo of YesYes Books courtesy of YesYes Books.
Buy Smith’s collection here.
View my interview with Smith here.
*As part of my goal to promote small presses, here is some information about YesYes Books: “YesYes Books has been publishing provocative collections of poetry, fiction, and experimental art since 2011. We look for work that acknowledges and celebrates our passionate, complex, and boundless natures.
In these first five years YYB titles have received national awards including the Lambda Award for Gay Poetry, The American Book Award, the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Prize. Our titles have also been included in numerous finalist standings and best book lists such as Norma Farber First Book Award, Debulitzer Poetry Prize, The Eric Hoffer Book Award, Publisher’s Weekly Best Debuts of the Year, Boston Globe Best Poetry Books of the Year, and more.
With books that are as beautiful to hold as they are to read, YesYes Books engages an international community of writers, artists, and readers.”*