Tracy K. Smith is the author of the memoir Ordinary Light and three books of poetry: Life on Mars, which received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize; Duende, recipient of the 2006 James Laughlin Award; and The Body's Question, which won the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Among Smith's other honors is the 2014 Academy of American Poets Fellowship. She directs the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.
This interview was conducted by email in late June of 2015.
Esther Lee: Would you mind sharing about the ways in which a particular mentor (or mentor poem) influenced your writing process or teaching of poetry?
Tracy K. Smith: Mentoring has played different roles throughout my life as a writer. Like lots of people, I took heart in the encouragement of my teachers all the way back in grade school. Those were the voices that affirmed my belief in the solace of words. My very first poetry workshop in college, with Lucie Brock-Broido, created a sense of wonder and magic--a kind of thrall to the voices I was encountering on the page. Seamus Heaney was a kind and generous teacher, and I devoted most of my time at Harvard to trying to steep myself in his poems, and to imitating his ways of seeing and thinking in poems. I don't think I ever came close, but that kind of devotion certainly shaped my perspective on what I am seeking to do in my work.
Henri Cole, who was also a teacher of mine in college, was the first teacher to say point blank that he found something important in my poems. I studied with him during my senior year at Harvard, and I nurtured myself on that little glimmer of belief during the strange, aimless first year after college. It was at that time that I realized it was poetry that gave purpose and clarity to my life and that I wanted to devote my life to writing poems. I might have felt that way regardless of what my teachers said, but his affirmation bolstered my determination to go to graduate school.
I think a lot of the mentors in my life have been teachers. Mark Doty was incredibly inspiring and instructive in a workshop I took with him at Columbia during my second semester in grad school. And his work on the page, and his encouragement throughout the years, long after I left his classroom, have meant the world to me as a writer and now as a teacher. I think all the time still of the incredible attention he offered each of his students, his ability to speak so clearly and so generously about student work, and his knack for guiding his students to the features that would be both instructive and inspiring in published poems. Surely my goal as a teacher is to offer some of that to my own students now.
Just a few years ago, I had the opportunity to work in a more official capacity with the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger through the Rolex Mentor and Protege Arts Initiative. We spent about a year and a half in correspondence, visiting one another, talking about work and life. It was powerfully transformative, I believe, to take in the model he offers: of a writer and public intellectual working across genres and media to interrogate and speak back to the world as he sees it. He emboldened me to commit to a book-length project in prose, which, after about five years, became my memoir, Ordinary Light.
My work as a professor of creative writing continues to be shaped by these experiences. At first, I was only conscious of seeking to emulate some of the broad techniques I'd benefitted from as a student of others. As I get older, I think I am beginning to understand how worthwhile it can be to also offer my students a vocabulary for considering what they might be seeking to get out of the work of writing not just as artists but also as people, how it might help them to deepen their understanding of things both within and outside of themselves. That strikes me as valuable for all people--whether they are serious apprentice writers or students for whom a poetry workshop is a one-time elective.
EL: Your poems often provoke larger questions about the significance of empathy--in our communities and in art. How do you envision the role of empathy in poetry?
TKS: I think that every poem invites the reader to depart from the fixed conditions of his or her life and follow along beside the speaker for a while. I think this is fundamentally what appeals to us about literature in general, though we don't always think about what we are doing as an exercise in empathy. Mostly, we like the things that books alert us to, the things they teach us to recognize, the value they add to the feelings we too have felt and the thoughts we too have thought.
When a poem urges you to follow a stranger into another person's account of what something felt like, and why it mattered (no matter whether what you're reading is fact or fiction), what it is really doing is urging you to listen, to believe, to accept another person's view of the world as valid and instructive. I think that the more we do this, the better we become at listening to actual people talking about their actual lives. The more we do this, the more fundamentally interested we become in stories other than our own. This has to be good for society, to have citizens who are watching and listening and, yes, empathizing with others who look and sound nothing like themselves, and whose lives have been shaped by different conditions, choices, and their ramifications.
The other thing that I genuinely believe literature--and perhaps poetry in particular--offers us, is a kind of mental rigor. Good literature is never content with pat, easy perspectives. And it rarely offers definitive answers. Instead, what characterizes it are questions, conflicts, dilemmas, possibilities. The work of unraveling them, of allowing them to temper our habitual sense of logic and order and possibility, enhances our capacity for grappling with the world. It urges us to distrust the simplistic and often facetious language of marketing, lowest-common-denominator politics, even the truncations which eliminate the potential for nuance in our text messages and our tweets. Literature enlarges us, and when we let that happen, we begin to interact with the world more mindfully.
EL: In thinking about poetry's capability of deepening our compassion towards one another, I'm curious about how you may perceive identity-based communities for writers. On the one hand, these communities--such as Cave Canem, Kundiman, and Lambda Literary, to name a few--can offer incredible alliance-building and mentorship for writers who are historically and socially marginalized. On the other hand, I have heard some writers express concerns about joining such communities for fear of being pigeon-holed as a particular kind of writer or they worry that participating might risk re-inscribing or exacerbating the very dichotomies they are trying to resist.
Do you mind sharing about your experiences while being a part of communities such as Cave Canem and the Dark Room Collective? What are potentially some of the gifts and/or challenges that you feel writers in these communities may experience? How might these communities continue to build on their strengths and avoid the pat, easy perspectives you mentioned earlier? What advice might you give to an apprentice writer who is seeking community?
TKS: I don't think that membership in one community should necessitate that a writer must swear off all others. That's just not the way that our lives tend to work. We all belong to a host of groups that offer certain things but not others. Family feeds a side of us that friendships don't. Work validates a side of us that our romantic relationships aren't concerned with. And so on. And then there are the groups that offer what we want or need at some sort of a cost.
A young writer might leave her home base of friends, colleagues and family for an MFA, and find herself in a community of readers and writers whose social experiences and aesthetic values might be radically alien. It's a new membership that adds enormous value, but at a cost. This is not to say that MFA programs don't offer enormous rewards. They obviously do. But sometimes those rewards force a person to let go of other fulfilling features of their normal lives. I've heard so many stories from writers of color who found themselves feeling alone in spaces where their peers just weren't willing or able to accept the notion that concerns of race, culture, identity, and geography were valid components of poems.
That's why organizations like Cave Canem and Kundiman were founded. And the beautiful thing is, they work. They don't replace the MFA, but they offer what some programs don't, which is community that values and validates a writer's particular experience as rooted in cultural identity. I think that the ways in which alumni of these organizations have, through the publication of really stellar books of poems and through their own lives as teachers, had an impact on MFA programs and the canon in general is remarkable. I think it's really saved American poetry from ossifying.
But let's be honest here. The poets I'm talking about--poets like Terrance Hayes, Joseph Legaspi, Jericho Brown, Tina Chang, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Sayeed Jones, and on and on--are not merely drawing from a single set of themes or even a single kind of literary history. On the contrary, their work is built upon a broad and varied set of literary histories. Such writers' sense of ancestry defies the very categories that Cave Canem and Kundiman and other such necessary and healing organizations set out to serve. That's a beautiful contradiction, to my mind.
Even the Dark Room Collective, where I first began writing poetry, was based on the idea that we wanted to know and celebrate our literary heroes while also committing to a mastery of craft that strode boldly across boundaries of identity, geography, school and even time period. The Dark Room, like these other, newer, organizations, was in service first to the almighty power of language to make any themes, ideas, beliefs, and questions mean more. We were never a group that was fixated on ethnic identity, even as we sought to nurture or feed this sense of ourselves as black writers striving to belong to the continuum of black voices who had paved the way.
My advice to a young writer would be to look at yourself and decide what matters to you, and then find the people and organizations that will help you honor all those things. No one group is going to nail every facet of you--not if you're being honest with yourself. So don't limit your allegiances. And the most important thing, in my mind, is not gravitating only to the people and places that will serve you, but to really endeavor to serve the people you care about, to help them and their work in ways that might matter. That's not just good karma; I think it actually makes you a better writer--certainly one who is more equipped to overcome the inevitable setbacks, failures, missed chances, and temptations to revert to a greedy narcissism that are par for the writer's course.
In terms of resisting the trap of easy ideology, I think there's a built-in safety valve in place in these organizations: the emphasis these groups have on language is the very thing that can help them avoid the pitfalls of pat perspectives. The other thing to keep in mind is that communities are living things that grow and change, and their values and goals grow and change with them.
EL: For writers to "interrogate and speak back to the world," do you feel our roles as writers should necessitate work beyond the page--that is, in terms of activism or other forms of civic engagement? Do you feel poetry can serve as a direct encounter with the world that allows for meaningful change? In particular, I'm thinking of the most recent tragedy in Charleston, for instance, or controversies within writing communities, and wondering how poetry (and other forms of writing) may help influence an effective means of response, perhaps even allowing a way to move beyond a reactionary stance and making space for uncomfortable yet crucial dialogues.
TKS: I am realistic in recognizing that most writers are drawn to the form because it is solitary, it is not spontaneous, and it requires a great deal of time, quiet, and isolation. That's pretty different from what might draw someone into activism, and I don't think that every writer should or even could get up from the desk and take the lead as an organizer, even for the causes he or she might believe in. What I do think, though, is that writers--because of our ability to wring so much meaning out of language, to highlight complexity and contradiction, and to think with such resourcefulness and agility--are very well equipped to put language to work in sorting through tragedy, injustice, social unrest and political stagnation. I think that writers who are already thinking about these things (which is by no means every writer) ought to be willing to think actively about switching genres, forums, and audiences from time to time in order to speak to urgent events in such a way as to offer a counter-narrative to the Official Story, whatever that may be.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately in respect to my own work. I've written and continue to write poems that contemplate social themes like war, hate crimes, race, political power, and gender. I think writing about such topics helps me to wrestle privately with my own assumptions and beliefs, and I hope it invites the reader to wrestle with these things too.
But I am beginning to think that a poem is most likely to reach someone who is already engaged in this kind of thinking, someone who is already driven by a kind of dissatisfaction with the Official Story. What about people who might not agree with me? What about people who might not even agree that poetry matters? Lately, I've become more open to writing essays and op-eds on contentious topics--topics touching upon race and racial violence. Because those are topics that touch all of us as citizens, no matter what we believe, I want to take part in a conversation that does (or strives to do) the same. I think a lot of writers feel this way, and luckily, being a writer means you can dedicate your energies to many things at once.
There is always a road, The sea, dark hair, dolor.
Always a question Bigger than itself--
--from "Duende," by Tracy K. Smith (Duende, Graywolf Press, 2007)