Can poetry express what it feels like to live in a divided nation?

In the introduction to Tales of Two Americas, John Freeman writes, “America is broken. You don’t need a fistful of statistics to know this. You just need eyes and ears and stories.” Throughout National Poetry Month, we’ll be sharing work that speaks to that brokenness—and offers hope for its redemption. Below, selections from the anthology from Danez Smith and Natalie Diaz.

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Danez Smith is the author of [insert] boy, winner of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the Lambda Literary Award. Danez was awarded a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Their second poetry collection, Don’t Call Us Dead, was published by Graywolf Press in 2017.


i’m sick of pretending to give a shit about what whypeepo think

on the best days, i don’t remember their skin
the kingdom & doom of it, their coy relationship to sunlight

band-aids are the color of the ones who make the wound
& whats a band-aid to a bullet to the rent is sky high & we
     gotta move?

i have no desire to desire what they apparently have
i want quiet & peace & enough weed to last through Saturday

so now that we’re done talking about them, do you think
its appropriate to call that nigga Obama a nigga in public?

i have accepted that they who is always they will always be
looking so what’s the use in holding back my black cackle

& juke? what’s the purpose in being black if you have to spend
it trying to prove all the ways your not? i’m done with race

hahahaha could you imagine if it was what easy? to just say
i’m done & all the scars turn into ravens

the trees forget their blood memory & the city
lose all it’s teeth? when people say they’re post race

i think they’re saying their done with black people
done with immigrants, officially believing America

began when the white people demanded their freedom
from the other white people i’m post America in that case

i’m so far in the future i’m on the beaches of Illinois
souther coast of a has been empire

telling my grandkids about the dust that use to rule us

Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press. She is a Lannan Literary Fellow and a Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Artist Fellow. She was awarded a Bread Loaf fellowship, the Holmes National Poetry Prize, a Hodder fellowship, and a PEN/Civitella Ranieri Foundation residency, as well as being awarded a U.S. Artists Ford fellowship. Diaz teaches in the Arizona State University MFA program. She splits her time between the East Coast and Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she works to revitalize the Mojave language.


American Arithmetic

Native Americans make up less than
one percent of the population of America.
0.8 percent of 100 percent.

O, mine efficient country.

I do not remember the days before America—
I do not remember the days when we were all here.

Police kill Native Americans more
than any other race. Race is a funny word.
Race implies someone will win,
implies I have as good a chance of winning as—

We all know who wins a race that isn’t a race.

Native Americans make up 1.9 percent of all
police killings, higher than any race,
and we exist at .8 percent of all Americans.

Sometimes race means run.

I’m not good at math—can you blame me?
I’ve had an American education.

We are Americans, and we are less than 1 percent
of Americans. We do a better job of dying
by police than we do existing.

When we are dying, who should we call?
The police? Or our senator?

At the National Museum of the American Indian,
68 percent of the collection is from the U.S.
I am doing my best to not become a museum
of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out.
I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.

In an American city of one hundred people,
I am Native American—less than one, less than
whole—I am less than myself. Only a fraction
of a body, let’s say I am only a hand—

and when I slip it beneath the shirt of my lover,
I disappear completely.

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