Photo: Rachel Eliza Griffiths
"Everything that is meaningful or perplexing to me as a person is a source of inspirtation for my poems. Poetry is my tool for making sense of the world around me."
tracy k. smith
tracy k. smith
Tracy K. Smith is the 22nd United States Poet Laureate. Appointed to the serve in the role by the Library of Congress in 2017, Smith was confirmed for a second term as Poet Laureate in April 2018. In the same month, she released her 3rd collection of poetry, Wade in the Water: Poems. Smith is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book, Life on Mars. She is currently a professor of English at Princeton University. We were honored to talk to her about the new collection, her American identity, and the 30th anniversary of
the Dark Room Collective.
In June 2017, the Library of Congress announced you as the Poet Laureate Consultant of the United States, or what is commonly referred to as the US Poet Laureate. You were just appointed to serve a second term 2018-2019 in this role. Can you tell us about your experience in serving as US Poet Laureate? What are your hopes for your second term?
I have the strong belief that poetry puts us in touch with our deepest and most urgent feelings, and that talking together about what poems make us feel and think can foster an immediate yet profound kind of exchange. Traveling to small towns in rural communities throughout the country, and discussing poems in a range of settings, has been a meaningful project, which I plan to continue throughout my second term.
The theme for this issue of Auburn Avenue is “The American Story, A.D. 2018.” Aside from being the country’s poet laureate, how do you view your identity as an American?
I feel most passionately invested in the things that anchor us to one another, to the earth, and to our own deep inner voices and inner lives. I am interested in the things that we as 21st Century humans can learn by admitting to our own vulnerabilities, and being attentive to the vulnerabilities of others. I see myself as an American invested in fostering this sense of attentiveness and vulnerability via the language of poetry.
Your new collection of poetry, Wade in the Water: Poems features some of your most powerful work to date. Can you describe some of what is being communicated with this collection?
I see Wade in the Water as a book about compassion. It looks back toward history in an attempt to ask why maintaining a compassionate regard of one another has been, and remains, such a difficult endeavor. And it attempts to look courageously at the present, to see what love and compassion might be capable of healing and restoring.
Some of the poems have a spiritual quality, particularly in the first part of the collection, and many of them conjure very real emotional responses. Is there any one or select few that hold special significance for you?
They all have helped me to ask different questions, and to explore different public and private events that have to do with race, with justice, with love and fear. The experience of attending a traditional ring shout, which is described in the title poem, put into perspective many of the other poems and the questions they explore.
“The United States Welcomes You” is a standout. Can you provide commentary about the creation of this poem?
The first few drafts of that poem were written from the perspective of the “suspect” in the poem—the person being interrogated, who stands “arms raised, eyes wide.” But it was difficult for me to be critical of that person, who in many ways is the victim of others’ mistrust and fear. It was only after I switched perspectives, and wrote the poem as though I myself were interrogating the poem’s subject, that I seemed to get somewhere that felt revelatory. It became a poem about mistrust, and it begins, in the final lines, to suspect that such a stance of pre-emptive fear is dangerous to us all.
You traveled to Georgia in preparation for Wade in the Water. Specifically, the title poem of the new collection was inspired by attending a ring shout in Liberty County, GA; you cite the poem as being “for the Geeche Gullah ring shouters.” What was it like experiencing this event? How did it influence the creation of the poem? The Ring Shout is a powerful tradition of love, praise, history and community. It celebrates belief in a higher power, as well as a resourceful vigilance in the here and now.
Several of the poems reckon with some of the most heinous and troubling events in our country’s history. “The Greatest Personal Privation” gives voice to the enslaved and “I Will Tell You The Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It” is an epistolary undertaking featuring the voices of African American Civil War soldiers. How was the process of excavating these stories and their relevant documents for the collection? The recorded history of slavery privileges those with power, the slave owners rather than the enslaved. So encountering the primary sources of letters written by black soldiers in the Civil War, and depositions they and their family members gave after the war in an attempt to claim pensions, was a revelation. It brought that history to life in a remarkable way, giving me direct access to these people’s voices, their pleas to the US Government, and their intimate addresses to other members of their own families. It also cemented for me the sense of dignity, honor and faith that blacks had in, as one voice put it, “in the cause of freedom and humanity.”
This April marked the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What is your analysis of the life, legacy, and impact of Dr. King?
King’s crusade was inclusive of all of humanity--all disenfranchised groups in America and abroad. He was fearless in working toward urging American democracy to live up to its professed values of freedom and justice of all. It remains as true now as it was in King’s time that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
This year also marks the 30th anniversary of founding of the Dark Room Collective. Can you share some of your fondest memories of the DRC?
Hearing Michael S. Harper read his poems and talk about having studied with W.H. Auden. Picking up Yusef Komunyakaa from Logan airport. Walking with Ntozake Shange and her young daughter from their hotel to the reading venue. Interviewing Ishmael Reed. All of it was a profound education in and apprenticeship to the vital and ongoing tradition of African American letters.
Later this year, an anthology edited by you—American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time—will be released. What can you share with us about this project?
American Journal gathers 50 contemporary American voices, each writing in a different way about what it means to belong to this vast and varied nation. It’s a collection of poems for people who love poetry, people returning to poetry after a long time away from reading it, as well as people who don’t yet have any experience with the art form.
Overall, who or what inspires your poetic voice?
Everything that is meaningful or perplexing to me as a person is a source of inspirtation for my poems. Poetry is my tool for making sense of the world around me.