Poetry Unbound

Danez Smith

i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense

Last Updated

December 17, 2021


Original Air Date

December 17, 2021

In a poem brimming with love and nostalgia for winter, a poet leaves California to return to their Minnesotan homeplace, a place where winter makes sense, where sadness makes sense, where the isolation that’s at the heart of humanity can be met with a landscape that can contain it. Here, solitude is looked at with wisdom and necessity. A season can deepen the human experience. Joy finds new expressions.

Guest

Image of Danez Smith

Danez Smith is a Black, queer, HIV-positive writer and performer from St. Paul, Minnesota. They are the author of Homie and Don’t Call Us Dead, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Transcript

[music: “Praise the Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Pádraig Ó Tuama: My name is Pádraig Ó Tuama, and I lived in Australia for four years. And when I was moving back to Ireland somebody said to me, “Oh God, you’re going to miss the sun. You know, you’ll be there in all that long, gray year of Ireland.” And I remember realizing in the moment how wrong they were. I was really looking forward to getting back to the Irish climate. I know not everybody loves it, but I do. I don’t mind 10 months of gray and lots of mist and rain, because there’s something nurturing about it for me. I’m so used to it. There’s something about walks in the drizzle that I’ve always loved.

[music: “Praise the Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

“i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense,” by Danez Smith:

“o California, don’t you know the sun is only a god
if you learn to starve for her? i’m over the ocean

i stood at its lip, dressed in down, praying for snow.
i know, i’m strange, too much light makes me nervous

at least in this land where the trees always bear green.
i know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful.

have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?
the sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun, everything around you
is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you.

it’s so sad, you know? you’re the only warm thing for miles
the only thing that can’t shine.”

[music: “Bivly” by Blue Dot Sessions]

I laughed out loud, the first time I read this poem. I thought it was magnificent. It’s such a magnificent poem about place and point of view, and seasons and time, as well. Danez Smith is an extraordinary poet because they take old styles of poems, sometimes, a sonnet or a style like this, which is a certain kind of what’s called “pathetic fallacy” in poetry, where the internal workings of the poet are manifested in the external workings of the season and in the external workings of the weather; so if a poet’s sad, it’s raining; if the poet’s happy, the sun is out. And that’s called pathetic fallacy, in poetry.

And Danez Smith takes that idea and turns it around and really says that actually, it’s the external environment that can allow for all kinds of changes internally, and that it isn’t about the internal projecting weather outside, it’s about the temperature and the climate and the changing seasons of Minnesota that can project all kinds of human emotions on the inside. How could you know about these kinds of experiences, about being human, unless you’d stood on a frozen lake? is one of the things that this poem is playfully saying.

It’s not saying that everybody has to have those same experiences, but it is, in a playful way, I think, creating a tension, to say not everybody wants to live in permanent summer. I love the playfulness of speaking to California, here — “o California, don’t you know the sun is only a god,” and then this lovely question: “have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?” It’s magnificent and playful, as well as queering the idea that everybody wants the same thing, that sunshine, permanent sunshine, is what everybody wants all the time.

[music: “Gambrel” by Blue Dot Sessions]

There’s all kinds of things that Danez Smith says in this poem, about Minnesota and about California. And about Minnesota, Danez says that it’s “where sadness makes sense” and where you can starve for the sun; where you dress in down. It’s a place of snow, a place of frozen lakes, kind of a winter light, and a kind of a resting place for sadness and a place of more isolation — less densely populated.

California, then, is a place of the ocean and a place where, they’re saying in this poem, sadness doesn’t make sense. There’s an implication that Danez Smith’s experience of California is a place where sadness doesn’t land — where there’s too much light; where, in the place where trees are always green, it can imply that things don’t die. And what is it like to live in a place where there isn’t a cycle of life and death and life and death that’s going over and over?

And I think that’s a very clever thing to say. In a certain sense, California has become a way of speaking about a fantasy about everything being perfect and that everything being perfect wouldn’t be perfect. Of course, people in California have places for their sadness and have ways of understanding the cycle of life and death throughout the year, but this poem is holding a certain kind of tension to say it’s worthwhile examining the idea that everything should be great all the time; that a circular nature to a year and a circular nature to the seasons and a circular nature to our experience of the world is really worthwhile for understanding our place in the world.

[music: “The House You Wake In” by Gautam Srikishan]

Sadness is such a theme in this poem — obviously, from the title, and then the word “sad” is repeated then, at the end: “it’s so sad, you know? you’re the only warm thing for miles.” I think it’s really worthwhile considering what the word “sad” means and what isn’t being said in this poem. You know, sad can mean unhappy, but originally, the word “sad” could also mean that you’ve had too much of something and that you’re missing something else. And in this poem, sadness and beauty and gorgeousness are all part of the same thing. There’s something about the exquisite skill of, perhaps, standing on a frozen lake where everything is reflecting the winter sun, and it’s light, and it’s gorgeous — and then, if you stay too long, it will kill you. There’s a knife-edge of beauty and isolation and sadness and a certain kind of aloneness that’s all being held up here. It’s such praise. And what’s so important is to say that this kind of sadness that Danez Smith is speaking about is part of the everyday human experience, is part of the human condition.

What Danez Smith is not speaking about is devastation, is suffering, is systemic pain. This is not a poem that’s praising devastation. This is a poem that’s praising certain kinds of sadness that are part of the human condition, and I think that’s such an important recognition. And, in a certain sense, what’s being said is that we should all be in a situation where we can experience the kind of sadness that’s being praised here, a certain kind of exquisite sadness that can come with recognizing: I’m part of the Earth that goes through changing cycles of seasons.

[music: “First Grief, First Air” by Gautam Srikishan]

In Irish when you talk about emotion, you don’t say, “I am sad.” You’d say, “Sadness is on me” — “ta bron orm.” And I love that because there’s an implication of not identifying yourself with the emotion fully. I am not sad, it’s just that sadness is on me for a while. Something else will be on me at another time, and that’s a good thing to recognize. So it’s good to know it, but also good not to use a kind of a language that says that this is the everything.

And I think maybe that’s part of the worry in saying, “I’m sad.” It’s an implication to say, “Oh God, I’m going to be stuck.” And I think it’s really worthwhile to find new ways to own those emotions. And that’s what so wise in Danez Smith’s poem here: that they’re saying, look at the experience of this kind of sadness and how alive you can feel in the middle of that, if you’re able to find an environment where you can trust it and be part of it and hold it with the kind of delight that they do.

[music: “Belle Anette” by Blue Dot Sessions]

Beneath this poem, I think, is a certain practice of queering, or turning things around. This poem is really wise about understanding that death doesn’t have to be avoided, and that if you try to avoid death, you’re probably going to be in thrall to something else. And there is wisdom, too, in understanding that the permanence of something is not necessarily the ultimate goal. The idea that everybody wants more and more light, and everybody wants more and more warmth, and everybody wants more and more summer, and everything should always be green — all of those things are queered in the context of this poem.

The poem doesn’t use capital letters anywhere except for “California” and “Minnesota,” not even for the letters and the first person, “I.” All the letters in this poem, apart from c and m, for California and Minnesota, are lowercase. And I think one of the things that this poem is doing is stepping back, and stepping back from something that would say, Consume, consume, consume; or, Preserve; or, Take it all; or, Make it last; or, Make it permanent; or, Stay ever young; or, Stay ever green. And what the poem is doing is diminishing the “I” and saying, be part of the world. Be part of the world where you’re at. And don’t just think, oh, there’s my favorite time of the year, and then I survive the rest.  What is it about the rest of the year that is also true for you?

And this, therefore, I think, is examining, in the deep undergrowth of this brilliant poem, what drives you? And how can you let the natural, elemental cycle of your own emotions be part of your experience of beauty? And in the context of this, I think this is an extraordinary psychological poem about the experience of containment — being contained in your environment, and also finding a way to say, you’re OK, in this sweet kind of sadness. Look at what’s possible when you can turn to that kind of experience and say, oh, this tells me something true.

[music: “The House You Wake In” by Gautam Srikishan]

“i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense,” by Danez Smith:

“o California, don’t you know the sun is only a god
if you learn to starve for her? i’m over the ocean

i stood at its lip, dressed in down, praying for snow.
i know, i’m strange, too much light makes me nervous

at least in this land where the trees always bear green.
i know something that doesn’t die can’t be beautiful.

have you ever stood on a frozen lake, California?
the sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror

all demanding to be the sun, everything around you
is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you.

it’s so sad, you know? you’re the only warm thing for miles
the only thing that can’t shine.”

[music: “Praise the Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

Chris Heagle: “i’m going back to Minnesota where sadness makes sense,” comes from Danez Smith’s book Homie. Thank you to The Permissions Company on behalf of Graywolf Press, who gave us permission to use Danez’s poem. Read it on our website, at onbeing.org.

[music: “Praise the Rain” by Gautam Srikishan]

This is our last episode of Season 4 of Poetry Unbound. But Season 5 is in the works for spring of 2022, so we’ll be back soon. To stay up-to-date on all things Poetry Unbound, visit us at onbeing.org.

Poetry Unbound is: Gautam Srikishan, Erin Colasacco, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, and me, Chris Heagle.

Our music is composed and provided by Gautam Srikishan and Blue Dot Sessions.

This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise, and This Movie Changed Me. Find those wherever you like to listen, or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

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