We sit down with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith to discuss the ideas that drive her writing. Considered among the best poets of her generation, Smith won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for her collection, “Life on Mars,” which melds science and science fiction with the discoveries, failures, and oddities of the human experience. She reads poems from her past collections and from her forthcoming book, “Wade in the Water,” to be published in April 2018.
Anna Drezen: Poet Tracy K. Smith’s work quote “contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths, all to better understand what makes us most human.” It’s pretty much all you can ask of a poet, right? Well that was part of the statement offered by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden that pronounced Tracy K. Smith as the next United States Poet Laureate, a tenure she began in September 2017. Smith joins a great lineage of Poet Laureates including Robert Frost, Rita Dove, and Billy Collins, whose collective goal is to foster a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. Smith studied at Harvard, where she joined the Dark Room Collective, a reading series for writers of color. She went on to receive her MFA from Columbia University and in 2012, Smith received the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her third collection of poems, “Life On Mars.” In 2015 she published the memoir “Ordinary Light” which was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. So she, she knows what she’s doing. You know, she kind of rules. As if that weren’t enough, she’s also the director of Princeton University’s creative writing program. Princeton. It’s sort of like Harvard but in New Jersey. It’s a good school. American Masters was fortunate enough to have Tracy K. Smith join us in the studio for a conversation about her work.
Michael Kantor: Hi it’s Michael Kantor here in the booth with Tracy K. Smith welcome.
Tracy K. Smith: Thank you.
Michael Kantor: So congratulations on becoming, being named the U.S. Poet Laureate. For those who don’t know what does the U.S. Poet Laureate actually do?
Tracy K. Smith: Well the Poet Laureate is charged with raising the public awareness of poetry in whatever way comes to mind. The official tasks involve giving a reading in the Library of Congress in the fall of the year and closing the year in the spring with a lecture on some poetry related topic. But in between those two events there is a whole mechanism for supporting other projects that might help to get people thinking and talking about the relevance of poetry to their everyday lives.
Michael Kantor: And I imagine there’s a lot of sort of university tours and lectures and so on. But, speak about how you try to bring poetry to places outside the academic tower.
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah, well I spend a lot of my time visiting campuses and going to reading series and book festivals. But I, which I love. But I also am eager to hear what the conversation around the very same texts and the very same voices might sound like at a farther remove from those places. So I’m looking forward to visiting some, you know, rural communities or communities that self identify as being under-served in terms of literary programming and, you know, sharing my own work and also the work of other poets whose voices represent different aspects of what it’s like to be alive at this moment and in this country.
Michael Kantor: What’s your take on how the Internet has changed everything? Obviously the word itself is still, you know, there’s poetry slams, there’s rap music, there’s all kinds of innovative use of language. But I’m curious about how, now that there are no more bookstores around, how poetry is surviving.
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah I think it’s, you know, it’s a complex question in a way. On one hand it’s really exciting to have access to so many voices in so many parts of the world. You know, at the touch of a keyboard. There are wonderful archives of poetry: The Academy of American Poets, The Poetry Foundation, a host of journals and magazines where you can find work of established and emerging writers, archives of poets reading and talking about their work. These are things that you used to have to go to a library and do pretty extensive research to get your hands on and now you can just kind of tuck into your phone and find this stuff, which I think is remarkable. I also, as somebody who grew up before technology really took hold, I feel a little bit nostalgic for the analog era: the time when reading meant sitting down with a book and the kind of quiet intimacy that that fostered. I think that there is fundamentally something that can be alienating or isolating about being alone with a screen and having access to a flood of unfiltered information. When I really get going on this topic I think that it’s done a lot to change the way that we relate to other people. I think it’s done a lot to change the degree to which we do and don’t participate say in conversations anymore. I think it’s done a lot to change our vocabulary for private moments and like the inner life because silence is something that need not characterize any moment in the day; we can always fill it up with something that know beeps and flashes and purports to be giving us something. I’m really conflicted about that. I think the Internet is also, you know, fundamentally a marketing tool. I can’t write an e-mail without seeing a pair of boots that I’ve looked at at some point. And what I really think that’s doing to language is changing the terms with which we consider ourselves and others and changing them into terms that reflect the demands and the values of the market as opposed to emotions, curiosity, empathy. And I really regret that. I think poetry and literature are great, you know, antidotes to that.
Michael Kantor: So the theme for our season, this season of the podcast is revolutionary writers. And I wonder how you think poetry might provoke change or challenge people in 2017. It’s such a crazy world we’re living in and how can words be powerful?
Tracy K. Smith: Oh gosh I think they’re some of the most powerful tools because they, they shape the way that we think. And if we stop and ask questions of the language that’s coming at us and we scrutinize it and we speak back to it in a way that says these terms are not sufficient, then I think the ways that we act can also change. You know that’s really I guess an Orwellian idea. I think about his wonderful essay “Politics and the English Language” which talks about the relationship between language and thought. I think poetry is beautiful because a good poem can’t be built of shoddy, overly familiar, easy, binary language. It’s nuanced. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s language that requires you to slow down and listen. It’s often, because it does behave in a way that’s unusual and associative, it requires you to surrender the logic and the control or the knowledge based part of the brain that wants to take charge and to say, ‘Okay if I’m going to get somewhere with this poem I’ve got to learn how to understand it. I’ve got to follow the directions that it points even if those directions don’t make linear sense.’ I think that’s a great skill to have because it means that you are able to cede authority from time to time and imagine that listening in a different way can get you somewhere that you want to be.
Michael Kantor: I also find, at least personally, it stimulates close reading. You read something two or three times to say, ‘Did I really understand it the right way?’ or ‘What are the other nuances there?’ I think that’s sort of an exciting thing to be doing.
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah we don’t do that all the time.
Michael Kantor: No, you don’t do that with the news.
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah, I know. Yeah. I mean you read it in three or four different times and you get three or four different layers of experience, right? The first, when I read a poem the first time I’m just listening to what I hear, I’m listening to what I made to feel. And you know the subsequent readings allow me to say, ‘oh this poem is also speaking to these other events and sources,’ and subsequent readings allow other things to emerge. Then you go away from a poem, you live, and then you come back decades later and it does completely different things to you.
Michael Kantor: Tell me about how, if you’re teaching a class or giving a lecture, how do you get people who might not be excited about poetry excited about it?
Tracy K. Smith: Well I try to, I think one of the things that becomes a barrier to people embracing poetry is perceived difficulty, and one way that that difficulty announces itself is sometimes by a lexicon that’s foreign. You know so when I’m teaching introductory classes I like to begin with really contemporary poetry that, you know, is communicating in the vocabulary that we live in now. And when students begin to feel that, you know, these texts do things that are worth kind of listening to, it’s easier to move backward and say, ‘okay well this poem is going to behave a little bit differently because it was written in a different time period. And yet, let’s you know observe the things that it enacts and the things that it brings to mind for us as readers.’
Michael Kantor: Tell us, when did you get interested in writing poetry? What, did you have a first big break or do you remember your first poem?
Tracy K. Smith: Well I do, well I don’t remember my first poem. I was a kid who liked, you know, I loved rhyming, and I loved language, and I would, I would write little things all the time to entertain myself and other people. I do remember the first time I sat down and said, ‘I’m going to write a poem that doesn’t do those things. I’m going to write a poem that comes from a different place.’ And it was after having encountered Emily Dickinson for the first time – her poem that begins, ‘I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody, too? Then there’s a pair of us. Don’t tell.’ And you know reading through that brief poem I felt spoken to. And I wanted to be able to answer back. And I wanted to be able to tap into whatever it was that felt like wisdom that poem was transmitting. I wrote a bad little poem called “Humor” that was about you know the nobility of this thing that we rely on so often in life. And I remember having another moment of feeling really like I had chosen to claim poetry as a, as a vocation when I was in college, when I was 19 or 20 years old. I was reading Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” for one of my classes, and I felt so transported to a place and a landscape and a set of cultural reference that were completely foreign to me, but that language made feel so present and so graspable. I liked how that poem took something. You know, in the poem it’s literally a pen. The poem begins, ‘Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen rests snug as a gun.’ And that sense of political calling and I think opens the poem gives way to something that has more to do with history and memory and land and digging through that material to get somewhere and to offer something, preserve something. I wanted to be able to do that. I wanted to, I didn’t know what my material was but I wanted to be able to start with something, like a pen, and get to a completely transformed vision of what was possible, of what, you know, what the world that lay before me offered or was asking of me. I remember writing poems in workshops that I took soon after that, and feeling in a way similar to how I felt when I was a little kid enjoying the language, and then in part feeling that familiar wish to say something important. And I think I was lucky that I had teachers who honored that even though the poems that I was writing probably weren’t very good. But they honored that wish and guided me and my classmates to keep trying and to keep reading because that’s really how poets learn.
Michael Kantor: Now over time have you perfected a sort of way to to invite the muse and to sort of get things going? I remember in our Maya Angelou film, different folks were talking about, you know, she likes a sip of whiskey or a sip of Bourbon or Rye. You know, everyone was saying that she, she always wrote longhand and I’m curious about how do you get into it?
Tracy K. Smith: Uh Huh. Well I used to love what felt like a ritual, when I was younger and I had no kids, sitting in the middle of the day – that was my favorite time because it felt like the rest of the world was doing what they had to do and I had stolen this you know this really coveted moment to do what I wanted to do – and listening. I now have kids and so I write when I can. I’d still like writing in the afternoon. I like sitting by a big window and being able to look out at the natural world when I get stuck. When I’m thinking about something that is emotional or something that I need to investigate by means of a metaphor, my first impulse is to look out that window and see, ‘what are the trees doing? what are the birds doing? can they help me translate this into a better language or a better set of images?’ I love being able to scatter a bunch of books around me that might be helpful. I’m always, and I think poets do feel invited by the voices of other poets, and I’m always reading and waiting for that thing to happen which is my ability to listen and absorb the delight is superseded by the desire to kind of speak in concert with this other voice or answer back. So reading and writing are really kind of concomitant acts for me.
Michael Kantor: But like an athlete or say a musician or something, do you use a special pen or do you wear you know you like to be in sweat pants or whatever is there anything special that way or it doesn’t really matter.
Tracy K. Smith: You know there isn’t. I used to have these beautiful black sketchbooks and fountain pens. Now I like to write on my laptop so I can see what the poem looks like on the page, so I can make rash editorial decisions. Sometimes it’s detrimental, but then you have to work to re-encounter whatever was lost or removed. And, I guess in some ways I feel like if I can do this thing without any required ritual I’ll be safer. You know I can I can say, ‘I’ve got two hours. Let me just sit down and see what happens.’ I need to be able to listen to something that sits beyond the voice in my head. And so I need to be able to kind of go in word and also be very attentive to whatever might be out there. And, I want to be in the kind of condition that allows me to get to that place quickly because my kids will be home from school soon or you know I’ll be required to become another version of myself after too little time.
Michael Kantor: Well you’ve won pretty much every prize there is for poetry, right, The Pulitzer Prize, etc. What, what are you working on now?
Tracy K. Smith: Well, I’ve just completed a new collection of poems called “Wade in the Water,” and those are poems that are really wrestling with notions of love. I have a lot of love poems in my first three books but this is a book that’s thinking about love as compassion, love as the ability to regard a stranger as another self, you know – something that we constantly fail or refuse to do. It is a book that’s looking toward history as sites for some of those opportunities or missed opportunities. And then also thinking about kind of the day-to-day the Quotidian, when we see others and have the opportunity to make a choice about how to take them in.
Michael Kantor: Would you read one for us?
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah I was just going to say maybe I’ll read the title poem if that’s OK. This is a poem that was written after watching a ring shout in Georgia by a group called the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. And one of the performers in the, you know the hall where the performance was taking place walked up to me as I entered the space and said, ‘I love you.’ And she didn’t just say that to me. She said it to the person behind me and the person behind that person and on and on saying it, ‘I love you,’ and giving a really beautiful hug and I was so deeply moved by that. You know we live our lives with this huge kind of like shell that we, you know, we maintain out of necessity and there’s a real weight to that, and having someone say, ‘I love you. I see you. I want to give you something,’ was so beautifully overwhelming. So this is the poem that came out of that. Wade in the water. One of the women greeted me. ‘I love you,’ she said. she didn’t know me but I believed her. And a terrible new ache rolled over in my chest like in a room where the drapes have been swept back. I love you. ‘I love you’ as she continued down the hall past others strangers each feeling pierced suddenly by pillars of heavy light. ‘I love you’ throughout the performance in every handclap, every stomp. ‘I love you’ in the rusted iron chains some one was made to drag until love let them be unclasped and left empty in the center of the ring. ‘I love you’ in the water where they pretended to wade singing that old blood deep song that dragged us to those banks and cast us in. I love you. The angles of it scraping at each throat shouldering past the swirling dust motes in those beams of light that whatever we now knew we could let ourselves feel new to climb. Oh woods. Oh dogs. Oh tree. Oh gun. Oh girl, run. Oh miraculous, many gone. Oh Lord. Oh Lord. Oh Lord, is this love the trouble you promised?
Michael Kantor: Thank you. Will be in a collection, in a journal?
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah the book will be out in April and that’s the title poem. The book is called “Wade in the Water.” I think that the images in that poem are really, toward the end particularly, are really rooted in the sense of the awful history of slavery that we still haven’t quite recovered from, I don’t think, as a, as a nation, and that history comes up in other aspects of the book as well. In some ways I feel like looking backwards is an instructive way of thinking, ‘how can we be better now? What can we attempt to respond to with a fuller and more generous sense of humanity?’ One Baldwin quote, and I’m going to mangle it but, ‘the past will continue to dog us until we can confront it.’ You know, he says it of course much more powerfully but I feel like it’s, it’s one of those deep bits of knowledge that we probably are born with. I feel as a parent like there are these deep things that I learn every single day and then I go to sleep and I forget them and I have to wake up the next morning and like, ‘oh right I’ve got to learn how to be patient again.’ I feel like that – the sense of not fearing, ignoring or trying to suppress the past – is something that humans are born to learn and that we do everything we can to forget. And it’s this ongoing struggle.
Michael Kantor: How did the process of writing your memoir “Ordinary Light” compare to writing poetry?
Tracy K. Smith: Oh I found it to be very hard. And I sometimes feel that poetry while hard is also something that feels like play to me. I can do it for a long time. I am versed in that particular struggle. Writing prose felt like learning a completely new language. I had to learn to tell a lot of things and then examine them on the page. Kind of like ask questions of them on the page. Talk about what they reminded me of on the page. In a poem you kind of try and act the moments of transformation without any of the connective tissue. And that’s a really crude way of talking about what a poem does, but in broad terms the forms for me presented themselves as different in that way. Once I decided that it was okay to try and do this and to say no to the poet in me that wanted to just put down an image and walk away from it, I started learning really different things about my own experience. Even events that I had written poems about revealed themselves to me in different ways because I was using language differently.
Michael Kantor: Why did you decide to write “Ordinary Light”?
Michael Kantor: When I was expecting my first – child my daughter who is now 8 – I really wanted to be able to tell her the story of my parents, both of whom are gone and so she won’t meet them. And I thought maybe writing about them would be a way of giving her this sort of testimony to who they were and who I was when they were alive. And that was the wish. Then of course I started writing and I realized this isn’t for her primarily; It’s also for me. It’s a way of being an adult who might now know the questions that the child I was when my parents were both alive never knew to ask or never had the courage to ask. I think writing about my mother and her faith and writing about losing her at a young age – I was 22 when she died – I think it also helped me to clarify a little bit of my own sense of who I am as a mother and what, what I am seeking. So when I was growing up my mother, whenever I said ‘Who are you when you were young? Who were you before you were my mom?’ She would say, ‘Well I was really searching. I was searching for something.’ And she found God. That’s what she found. But I never could understand that. ‘What were you looking for? What could you have been looking for? I don’t understand.’ Now I feel like what I told myself in writing the book was maybe she was looking for a sense of help in caring for these beautiful, vulnerable people as a parent. How do you do that? I mean the world is huge and there are so many obstacles. Maybe calling on God was the way that she felt that she could do that. Even just writing that sort of urged me to imagine that that could be a practice for me as a mother. I think I found myself saying, ‘I understand why my mother prayed,’ and then found myself praying. You know I wanted to sort of recover some of the, well it wasn’t even. I wanted to discover who my mother had been, and when she was my mother, but then I was you know just a child those, weren’t my concerns. And thinking, speculating about her then, I think it did something to deepen my sense of my relationship with her. I can’t verify some of the inklings that I kind of came to in terms of why she was who she was, what choices she was conscious of making, what she sacrificed and why, but even just speculating about that made me feel like, I don’t know like touched base with her somehow. And that was for me really. I don’t know. When my daughter is old enough to read the book, if she does, maybe it will be useful to her, but it was certainly useful to me to do that.
Michael Kantor: And what does the title signify?
Tracy K. Smith: “Ordinary Light” is the title and it, there’s a moment in the book where I’m spending an evening with two of my high school friends, both of whom had also lost their mothers, and we were out in an orchard under stars and surrounded by all of these trees, and I just felt something was alive – something new and understood. And I just wanted to like run back into the house. I wanted to be safe and not just back into the house but into the space where it’s just I think what I describe as ordinary light – the ordinary lamp light – and there’s a one of our mothers and they’re saying, ‘C’mon girls it’s time for you to get to bed.’ Just that, that sense of, of protection. When I was trying to figure out what to call the book I asked my colleague Edmund White, ‘How do you come up with your titles?’ And he said, ‘Well, I reread the book and I think sometimes I look for a quiet phrase within the book that might be able to open outward toward some of the larger themes that the book is is exploring.’ And ordinary light seemed like one of those things, you know? It’s not a special story but there is something, something about that sense of the past and the safety that’s gone that I think sets at the heart of it.
Michael Kantor: Tell us a little bit about your father and how his work and your relationship with him shaped your perspective on the world.
Tracy K. Smith: Well my father was an engineer. He was in the Air Force for 26 years and he had this sense of discipline and this meticulous way of doing things. He was eager to always be learning and there was an ordered – I feel like his brain was orderly. I don’t think of myself in those terms, but when I was working on “Life on Mars” I wanted to find a way into that view of experience because my father had just passed away and I missed him. I wanted to feel his closeness, and so thinking in the language that he understood and revered about my own feelings of grief and loss was really healing. So I grew up in a family that was very faithful. We went to church every Sunday and sometimes in the week as well. And this was completely compatible from my father with his orderly scientific view of the world, which I think is really magical. It seems like a rare combination. And I think that gave me the freedom, as a child, to believe and also feel like belief didn’t have to make the world small. Writing poems about my father and trying to speculate about where the afterlife has taken him was another attempt to say, ‘I want, I want the world to be even larger. And I want the God that for me governs everything to be large and strange and systematic and mathematical and everything.’ And it was a really exciting process.
Michael Kantor: In one of the poems in the “Life on Mars” collection you talk about the Hubble telescope and how the first images that came back were kind of blurry and people were disappointed and then sharper ones came in. Was your father associated with the Hubble?
Tracy K. Smith: He was. I grew up in California and after my dad left the Air Force he took a civilian job working on some of the lenses and the optics, and so he felt this really strong personal connection. He would tell us stories. ‘This is going to do you know these things. It’s going to give us this resolution. It’s going to let us see this far into the history of the universe.’ That didn’t make a lot of sense to me at 8 years old, but I remember the pride with which he talked about that – how vital this was to mankind. And I was in college I think when those first images came back, and I felt crushed when they weren’t what he told me they were going to be. And then you know a mere spacewalk later they became what they now are, which is incredible. You know these are like mind blowing images that give us a real sense of the scale of this thing.
Michael Kantor: So by the time you were in college had he passed away?
Tracy K. Smith: No, my father lived until 2008. So I had the gift of being able to have you know the child’s relationship with him where he was this hero, this larger than life person; the adolescent relationship where you know we were at odds or I just was sort of bristling to be free and subject to no one’s authority; and also an adult relationship where we kind of came to know each other as people.
Michael Kantor: And is “Life on Mars” that, which won the Pulitzer prize, is that largely inspired by that relationship or what was it about the universe and the other themes there that got you started on that?
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah. Well it’s funny, I almost feel like this is an example of how things happen in a way they’re supposed to. So the long version of this story is that I started writing poems that were thinking about science fiction and trying to think about space because there was one poem that I had pulled from my second book – because it didn’t belong – and that poem was “Sci-Fi.” And I said, ‘Oh maybe this could be a model for a series of poems or a sequence of poems.’ And so I started trying to think in visual metaphors that had to do with space as a place and then also allowing the genre of science fiction to inflect my view of the anxieties that I have as a human being on the planet at this moment in human history. And then in the middle of that process my father became ill, seriously ill. And I understood that there was a likelihood that we would lose him. And when that happened – being in this context of you know a mystery of the universe and this sort of reluctance to accept some of the realities of the future that you know we are laying the groundwork for – that all seemed really helpful in wrestling with grief. And that also, as I said, allowed me to think about my father in terms of this language that that he was kind of steeped in. It was funny because I, it wasn’t, the poem “My God, It’s Full of Stars” that you mentioned that has this section about the Hubble was one of the later poems that I wrote for the book. And to be really honest with you I had forgotten that he worked on the Hubble for many years I guess I wasn’t actively thinking about it. And then when I was writing that poem, I said, it’s almost like he tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey dummy you remember this job I had? All those company picnics you went to? It fits into this stuff,’ and you know that was so thrilling to realize that it wasn’t just this willed connection that I was struggling to make but there was something sort of organic to imagining him in the stars.
Michael Kantor: So I thought one of the poems in there was featured in the New York City Metropolitan Subway Poetry in Motion, right? Am I correct about that?
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah that’s a really New York poem as I see it. A poem that’s kind of thinking about those, those years of like eagerly struggling to stay afloat in this city that you, you know, have long to get to. And when it was up in the subways I sometimes would get e-mails from people who were living that same thing or had a vivid memory of that day-to-day.
Michael Kantor: I was very much reminded me of my moving to the city. Would you read this?
Tracy K. Smith: I’d love to. The Goodlife. When some people talk about money they speak as if it were a mysterious lover, who went out to buy milk and never came back. And it makes me nostalgic for the years I lived on coffee and bread, hungry all the time, walking to work on pay day like a woman journeying for water from a village without a well, then living one or two nights like everyone else on roast chicken and red wine.
Michael Kantor: Thank you. That’s great. For me it was that walking to work in the hayday that I vividly remember and being handed – now you know a lot of people get paid with auto deposit – but being handed that check on that day, it was a great day. Again your upcoming collection is called “Wade in the Water” and it’s coming out in April of 2018. Why that title and speak again if you would to the broad themes there and, and history and what, what’s really driving you right now.
Tracy K. Smith: Well the love in that title poem, the love that this you know beautiful stranger was offering is something that I wanted this book to kind of like be a vehicle for you know or at the very least be a vehicle for that possibility. This is something that’s real. But then there are other, other poems in the book that I think are in conversation with that poem. There’s a long found poem called “Watershed” and it’s a poem that is based on two sources – one is an article that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in I believe it was January of 2014, and it explores chemical dumping that the DuPont chemical company was doing in Pennsylvania and the way that that contaminated the groundwater and had some really detrimental effects. There’s a chemical compound called PFOA that’s now everywhere as a result of this manufacturing choice. And I lived with that you know just the feelings of vulnerability and anger and whatever disappointment after reading that article and fear for a long time knowing I wanted to return to it as an artist and think about some way to speak to it. But I didn’t know how to do that. And then more recently I found myself spending time reading through archives of near death experience narratives that people you know share because for decades perhaps they’ve lived with this story that they think nobody else has experienced and then they realize oh there are lots of people who have believed that you know maybe on the operating table they died for a few minutes and had something happen to them that brought them to this other dimension where the terms, oddly enough, are usually love. Love is what you are in a human body to learn and that is why you will be revived on that operating table so you can go back and pick up where you left off. Water plays into some of those stories in ways that are beautiful. And so I thought pairing the scene of horror – the chemicals stuff – with this idea of love and survival and mystery. It felt really exciting to me to do that. And so I wanted that poem to speak to this other poem that’s really thinking about history and land and oppression and survival. Forgiveness. What else? I guess the other thing that characterizes this book is, if “Life on Mars” was thinking about the universe as like that’s the scale that it wanted to operate upon, I think “Wade in the Water” is trying to imagine eternity. It’s trying to imagine this tiny little fragment of eternity that we are responsible for right now. And in doing that I think there are poems that kind of take on the scale or scope of myth even just by choosing a title that might be biblical. And that Him or that spiritual wade in the water invokes for me that sense of the human life and the need to be connected to that which is eternal and mythic.
Michael Kantor: So interesting to me because when I think of someone writing poetry I don’t think of someone who’s incorporating materials from the New York Times or in “Life on Mars” I saw at one point you’re sort of referencing Rush Limbaugh or some conservative commentator. Is that the way you work all the time?
Tracy K. Smith: Well that’s definitely a trend in my work. I think there are poems in every book of mine that attempt in different ways to wrestle with the social realities of being a human on the planet, and you know it’s now the 21st century, accountable to others whether or not we wish to acknowledge that. But what I think it really is is a reflection of the way that poems, writing poems allows me to wrestle with the questions that are on my mind and to dig in to the events and the voices that I don’t feel are resolved or resolvable even. So I think it’s quite natural that the social realm is one of those sites where there’s so much that that doesn’t quite make sense or so much that creates a conflicted sense of you know guilt or rage or confusion that’s often tied to culpability in some way. That’s the thing we don’t like to acknowledge. That’s the thing that to me brings that Internet Marketing home in a way. Like, I am going to click on these boots and in doing that I’m somehow implicated in these social you know events that I read about in the paper that I think are terrible. But my lifestyle perpetuates them. I think art is a really great way of wrestling with that awful reality. And maybe it changes our view of what we need and what other people mean to us.
Michael Kantor: Meaning when you click on boots whether it’s child labor in the Far East or if you’re watching a certain television station you’re helping to pay for that commentator’s salary is that what you mean?
Tracy K. Smith: All of that. Yeah you know it’s so easy for us to yell at each other as though there’s a big chasm between them and us. However you define those two categories. And what I think art teaches us is that there are all of these perhaps un-wished-for connections. It’s not a chasm at all, it’s just a little walkway. And I think it’s really useful to do that. I think poems can handle a lot more than love and joy and the changing of the seasons. It does a great job at those things and sometimes those things are so powerful that we must, you know, like sort of bear witness to them.
Michael Kantor: In closing I’m sure there are a lot of, when I think of a painter or a filmmaker I think well that’s tough to make a living. And you’ve, you’ve made a living beyond making a living. You were the Poet Laureate of our country. How do you, how would you encourage people who are interested in following this path to, to do that?
Tracy K. Smith: This is what I tell my students: Think about the ways that writing poems, which is a thing that you enjoy doing, can be useful to you as a human, can help you to sort through the urgent feelings that you live with or to parse the intellectual questions that you as a scholar are wrestling with or to bring language to something that is alive in your head or your heart. I think doing that ensures that this practice can take sort of a central seat in your life because it’s useful. It’s helping you to make sense of all the really real urgencies that drive your day to day life. And I think if that happens then there’s no reason to stop doing this thing. And I think that success in the arts has a lot to do with just keeping going.
Michael Kantor: Well thank you for joining us and thank you for encouraging everyone out there to keep going.
Tracy K. Smith: Thank you.
Michael Kantor: Would you be willing to share one last poem with us?
Tracy K. Smith: Maybe I’ll read read um – this is a poem that’s like, it’s not grand in any way. It’s a small poem and I think it reveals a small side of the speaker who is me. And I think it also in one way kind of taps into this sense of compassion that’s so hard, so hard for us to learn and maybe it’s because in seeing another person as real, it activates our awareness that we too are really ugly and flawed and vulnerable and wrong in a lot of ways. So I’ll read a poem that enacts that a little bit. It’s called “Charity”. She is like a squat old machine, off-kilter but still chugging along the uphill stretch of sidewalk on Harrison Street. Handbag slung crosswise and, I’m guessing, heavy. And oh this set of her face, the brows profound tracks, her mouth cinched, lips pressed flat. Watching her bend forward to tussle with gravity. Watching the birth she allows each foot as if one is not on civil terms with the other. Watching her shoulders braced as if lashed by step after step after step and her eyes determination not to shift or blink or rise. I think I am you. One day out of five. Tired. Empty. Hating what I carry but afraid to lay it down. Stingy. Angry. Doing violence to others by the sheer freight of my gloom. Halfway home. Wanting to stop. To quit. But keeping going mostly out of spite.