In our series of International Focus blog posts, leading poetry practitioners from outside the UK tell us all about themselves, slam and spoken word. This post is from Danez Smith, a poet, performer, and playwright from St. Paul, Minnesota. Danez is a Cave Canem fellow published in numerous journals and has performed on many stages grand and small. He is a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a founding member of the First Wave Hip-Hop Theatre Ensemble. We’re thrilled he has written this post for Shake the Dust!

Started in 2007, First Wave is the first, and only, program in the United States funded by a university that is targeted towards getting young geniuses of the hip-hop and poetry scenes into the classroom and back out into the world with the tools to reshape it – and be pretty darn fly at the same time. Bringing together poets, rappers, dancers, DJs, visual artist, and everything creative under the sun, our mission is to produce challenging, inspiring pieces of Hip-Hop Theatre, and to transform the realm of academia and the world as we know it. First Wave students, while extremely talented and jaw-dropping, are also some of the most dedicated activist from their home communities and once here they continue that tradition, in addition to being some of the most innovative scholars on our university campus. Their talents have taken them all around the US, performing on Broadway and at a number of major events through the country. They’ve also gone abroad to Panama, Costa Rica, Mexico, and to the UK’s own Contact Theatre in Manchester for the Contacting the World Festival in 2010.

When I came to the First Wave program during it’s first year, I had no intention of making art my life. I had done theatre since elementary school, and in high school I started writing poetry. I even got to travel a little but because of it, but when I headed to university, I thought that maybe it was time to join the ‘real world’. According to many friends and family around me, being a professional artist wasn’t quite ‘real’ enough. As time went on, First Wave kept growing as a family. We challenged each other more, challenged our surroundings more, helping each other grow as people and therefore as artists too. The possibility of making art my life became more and more real, but I was still held back by the notion that art is often secondary: that there is always something more important – that is, unless you are one of the few that is blessed with the chance to make a career out of creation. That ideology kept me from doing a lot of things, from growing in a lot of ways that I’ve missed out on, but it did lead me to some great revelations.

While teaching one day (after graduating as an education major), I realized how utterly bored my students were. We are made to teach towards test, some say for the betterment or success of our global society. The creativity of our next generation is constantly suffering the consequences for some false definition of success. What generation didn’t have its great minds, in any field, who were not great artist in their own right? What world can survive if it doesn’t teach its children to create? That’s what First Wave is about, making sure that our students are in the business of creation. That’s what I’m about, having made art my life, making sure that we nurture the artist in everyone, making sure we never forget how to create.

Read more about Danez and his work here:
A delegation from First Wave will travel to the UK for the national Shake the Dust weekend in July.