- Biographical and Critical Essay
- The Body's Question
- "Something Like Dying, Maybe"
- "Minister of Saudade"
- Life on Mars
- "My God, It's Full of Stars"
- Writings by the Author
- Further Readings about the Author
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
- The Body's Question (Minneapolis, Minn.: Graywolf, 2003).
- Duende (Minneapolis, Minn.: Graywolf, 2007).
- Life on Mars (Minneapolis, Minn.: Graywolf, 2011).
- Tracy K. Smith, "Survival in Two Worlds at Once: Frederico García Lorca and Duende." The Academy of American Poets [Web., accessed 23 March 2013].
In just three books published in an eight-year period, Tracy K. Smith has developed and honed a style of poetry that joins the main current of contemporary American letters. Her work, though, has a certain eclectic, innovative pull all its own, so that as much as it is a part of poetry today, it also is contributing to shaping what poetry can mean or become. Smith's poetry is often interior, but it remains inviting; it is travelled and cosmopolitan, yet forcefully local and present; it looks back and uses memory, but it is always facing the future. And in the future her concern is a kind of engaged but not stark, agenda-driven political consciousness.
Born on 16 April 1972 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, Tracy K. Smith was the last of five children. Her father, Floyd Smith, an optical engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope, and her mother, Kathryn Smith, a teacher, raised their family in Fairfield, California, where Tracy attended Fairfield High School. In her interview with Joy Stocke and Lauren McConnell, Smith related that growing up she felt as though she was both part of a large family and an only child because she was eight years younger than her nearest sibling. Smith also talked of how she gained a love of language from her parents:
My mom used to talk about how my dad wooed her with poems and love letters when they were in their early twenties, and so I've always imagined that I must have gotten my love of language from him. He was someone who was always reading and pushing us to read.
But my mother was somebody who had such a gift for storytelling and mimicry. She would say, "Oh, I was in the store today and I ran into this man, and he"--then she would go into the character of the man.
And I think there's a part of me that does that. I think that sense of language and hearing voices and imagining the lives inside those voices must be a huge part of what draws me to poetry. That really comes from her. And when she would tell stories about her father, whom I knew a little bit when I was a child, he seemed like that lively, ebullient kind of personality with an ear for the sounds of speech and the ability to step into other characters. So I think it's from both my parents.Smith went on to study English at Harvard where, at nineteen years old, she involved herself with the Dark Room Collective, a group of African American writers around the greater Boston area, established by Thomas Sayer Ellis and Sharon Strange, which counted among its participants Natasha Trethewey. Smith graduated with her BA in 1994 and returned home to California for a year to be with her mother, who was dying of cancer.
After the death of her mother, Smith entered the MFA program in creative writing at Columbia University, graduating in 1997. She continued to struggle with grief, as she told interviewer Charles Henry Rowell:
. . . I was writing almost exclusively about the loss of my mother, trying to enter that experience in ways that would give me a certain kind of surety or grounding. I wanted to explore my relationship with her in ways that didn't always necessarily end with death, yet the death was all I could think about, all I could really take seriously.Little of the poetry Smith produced at Columbia made it directly into her first book. The many poems she left out of the collection may be regarded as the necessary sacrifices for refining her style and voice. When she left Columbia she was awarded a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University (1995-1997). In the next few years she began her teaching career in New York at Marymount Manhattan College and Medgar Evers College.
Another important step in Smith's development as she worked on her first collection of poetry was a trip that began as "a frivolous vacation" to Mexico in 1998--a country, she told Rowell, that "saved my life as a writer":
. . . While I was there a hurricane interrupted the vacation plans so I ended up moving from a coastal resort town called Akumal to the inland city of Mérida. And as much as Mexico is like another world because the landscape and people's relationship to it are so different from what we're used to here, I was also impacted by what seemed to be the philosophy of everyday life. There was vitality and a resilience that confounded all of the jadedness that characterized my life in the States. I felt like my ears were opening and I began to really hear people. . . .
Mexico is such a presence in the book because so much of my ability to return to poetry as someone who was interested and able to make poems was shaped by my initial experience in the country. It felt like it was a bit of a risk, as an African-American without a Mexican heritage, to engage so directly and unapologetically with the landscape and those voices and elements of that language. But it was the only way that I was going to want to make poems.Smith married the artist Igor Solis in 2000 (divorced 2005).
Smith's first book, The Body's Question (2003), was selected by her fellow Dark Room Collective member Kevin Young earlier in 2002 as the winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. In his introduction for the volume, Young writes of his first encounter with Smith's poems:
The poems seemed to come out of nowhere, like a powerful voice you might not expect from a slight frame; there was no hint of divadom, or trendiness; indeed, I wasn't sure how old or how young, even how male or female the singer was. For if the poems here are sure of anything, they are sure enough not to worry overmuch about who's talking when--we are, for all their sensual beauty, in the presence of poems unafraid to be without a body, all language and light.In her interview with Rowell, Smith discussed her title:
The title was something that came to me only after I started thinking of my individual poems as a unified body of work. I realized that, more and more, the poems were valuable to me as sites of questioning and exploration rather than for their ability to lead me to answers or resolutions. Once I allowed myself to enter into unknown territory with no clear idea of how to get myself through or out of it, I felt much freer and much more willing to engage with difficult material. . . .
The body is also rather important, thematically, in the book. Only two poems in the book deal directly with the death of my mother; however, that is something that informed a lot of the writing of the poems that make up the manuscript. One way or another, I was still grappling with the idea of the body as a site for experience, memory, and loss. . . . I think I saw the poems that made up The Body's Question as my first steps back into the world of the living; my first attempts to consider myself as an adult, and to think about the body as a site of discovery and joy.The poems in this book investigate, and in doing so uncover not one overriding solution but a great variety of possible solutions and answers, none of which comes easily, none of which lacks meditative depth even when ostensibly simple. Smith elects to examine the body, its movements, its habits, even the liminal spaces through which it moves, in which it gets caught in transitions.
Smith does not shy away from dream and death. In the first stanza of "Something Like Dying, Maybe," the opening poem, Smith seems to be exploring the relationship between these two transitional states with the muted restraint of aquatint vision in sleep:
The poem offers no concise conjectures to be proven. What is it, after all, that resembles dying? One possible answer is that it is self-identification and acceptance that seems to occur in the dream. Then again, maybe being drawn away from the strange serenity of that environment from without, once more into waking, offers a more appropriate comparison. Is the intimacy of another body that which makes certain experiences akin to, but not wholly as, death? There are no sureties; the predominant sense is that Smith is entirely comfortable making gestures toward the possible, rather than holding on to the definite.
This style of inquiry pervades The Body's Question, even as the inquiry turns outward from the centralized embodiment of the poet herself toward the bodies of others. A sequence of six poems, all of which bear the title "Gospel," touches on accounts of immigration to the United States by six different Mexican men, whose names--Manuel, Miguel, Luis, Juan, Alejandro, and Jesús--form the second parts of the titles for each of the poems. Although these poems take a clearly political stance, they do not risk abstraction. They strongly maintain the connection between body-politic and body-actual, which often gets lost in the posturing of didacticism.
"Gospel: Luis," for example, begins with this sinister scene of crossing:
I'm now thinking in very specific terms of who is affected by things that happen here in America. I think my whole sense of poetics has changed. I'm very much interested now in poems that, without being didactic, engage in the kinds of social and political ideas we must confront--ideas and realities that, if ignored, will have a tremendously negative impact not only on us but on people who are deeply interconnected with us and our way of life.
In the lead-up to her second collection, Duende (2007), Smith garnered a Rona Jaffe Foundation Award in 2004, and a Whiting Award in 2005. Her more politically engaged sense of poetics culminates in this book, for which she won the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. The title, Duende, comes from an Andalusian word used to describe the distinctive characteristics of cante jondo, or deep song. More crucially, Smith's conception of duende derives from the Spanish poet Frederico García Lorca's lecture titled "Theory and Function of the Duende," delivered in 1933 to audiences in Buenos Aires.
Lorca situates his ideal poetic experience outside the influence of the Muses. Rather than descending from high atop Parnassus, duende rises up from that which lies beneath. Lorca's duende is not an unobtainable force to be grasped at in vain; it is to be had. And, for him, "all that has dark sounds has duende." These dark sounds are channels, roots, which burrow deep into the ground and open their capillaries to bleed up and out what is true, what is real in art. To wrestle with the duende--and it is always a struggle--is almost, for Lorca, a turn and a charge head-on into some shadow of existence long left behind.
In her essay "Survival in Two Worlds at Once: Frederico García Lorca and Duende," Smith writes that "we write poems in order to engage in the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves--our real selves, the ones we barely recognize--more completely." Duende, then, is the name Smith bestows upon the force that compelled her to reconsider her sense of poetry and ultimately expand its scope to such a degree that it cannot help but encompass the strife and unrest of the socio-political milieu to which she complicitly, though clearly not contentedly, belongs.
The poem "History" begins the collection. The opening lines of its "Prologue" suggest a strong political charge:
Accompanying this new content with its bleakness, its drear and deep emotion, are new rhythms and a richer, darker lexicon than that found in The Body's Question. Duende, ultimately, is not just a means to finding new subjects; it is the mode of conveying that new content. One of the key operating principles of this mode is desire. While duende stirs with longing, Smith calls its lack saudade--a Portuguese term that denotes a pining away for something not present, but irrecoverably embedded in either the past or future. Smith's poem "Minister of Saudade" portrays a vivid scene of dilapidation and absence in Pelourinho, an ancient city within the Brazilian coastal city of Salvador. Smith pares down her language to short, heavily stressed words to suggest an inexorably eroding world:
Somewhat ominously, "An old woman and a boy sit in a doorway / At the top of the hill in Pelourinho," and the woman's mouth "Chews the corner of a towel like an engine." Thirst, the thirst for substance, embodies the significance of saudade as perpetually unfulfilled, unquenchable want. "This woman wants your beer, / And she rises to her feet to prove it." Smith's narrator briefly but poignantly reminisces about Igor, a bygone love, silently addressing some remembered version of him: "Igor, I wake in my hotel / And hear your steps / Disappearing down the corridor." Recovering, she indulges the woman who evidently joins her at the bar:
In 2007 Smith met Raf Allison, an assistant professor at Bard College with an interest in twentieth-century American poetry. The couple had a daughter, Naomi, in 2009, and married in 2011. Smith dedicated her next collection, Life on Mars (2011), "for Raf."
Memories are certainly invoked in Smith's Life on Mars, for which she was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. In his review in The New Yorker (August 2011), Dan Chiasson first considers Smith's title. For the poet's generation the mid-century interest in Mars and the idea that life could exist on the red planet had become a joke:
The Viking images of the planet's surface made it look as inhabitable as cat litter. David Bowie had a great, disillusioned single called "Life on Mars?" in 1973 (it inspired Smith's title), about a girl forced to sit through the unendurable Hollywood fare of her parents' childhoods--cavemen, cowboys, Martians, and the like. Wherever we were headed, in the vast, fathomless future, it wasn't going to be outer space: the prospect of "Life on Mars" was just another relic of our dreary life on earth.As Chiasson notes, the collection "is Smith's wild, far-ranging elegy" for her father, who died in 2008. The Bowie lyrics trigger a chain of associations, as Smith skillfully handles and interweaves science, pop culture, and recollection.
In "My God, It's Full of Stars," one of the longer poems in the collection, Smith reflects on the ending of Stanley Kubrick 's iconic film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, "When Dave is whisked into the center of space / Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light," which leads into her memory of her father: "My father spent whole seasons / Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find." Much like the streaking, indistinct aurora at the end of 2001, "The first few pictures came back blurred," almost as if clarity were out place in the unfathomable vastness of space. But:
Though it is Smith's most personal book to date, Life on Mars avoids the excesses of sentiment that characterize confession. Interspersed with elegy is the sort of metaphysical speculation the contemplation of space is so well suited to induce. In the case of "It & Co.," Smith's poetry is at its most atomized. The spare lines beg many more questions than they answer:
Smith also turns her gaze to the problems of the planet Earth in Life on Mars, remaining true to the political values she has held close throughout her career. Her poem "The Good Life" relates her personal familiarity with financial security and its converse, poverty. Noticing how "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," she cannot help but feel "nostalgic / for the years I lived on coffee and bread." This poem does not express a naïve yearning to return to an idealized "way it was," but rather a deceptively simple, keen observation on how circumstance can condition behavior. "So much of what we're asked is to obey--/ A reflex we'd abandon if we could," she summarizes in "Solstice," a meditation the 2009 presidential election in Iran and the euthanizing of geese at JFK airport. Like space, a paradoxical thing, an It both empty and full, both rarefied and dense with matter, Life on Mars is a book at once full of fanciful pondering yet grounded on earth, where whimsy tends to float away.
In 2010, prior to the publication of Life on Mars, Smith was selected to participate in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative under the tutelage of acclaimed German author and translator Hans Magnus Enzensberger. With her mentor's encouragement, Smith began work on a prose memoir, describing the development of her work-in-progress in her interview with Stocke and McConnell:
I decided to work with prose, a memoir, and started out with a big ambitious mess. It was about a formative relationship with a teacher in high school, about my mother being diagnosed with cancer, about the parts of that process, parts of the experience of her death. Then there was a chunk about my first marriage and the act of rebellion that the marriage represented. And then my daughter . . .
Then Magnus said, "You know, this is not a story about college. It's not a story about motherhood for you. It's really a story about your family and your mother is the central character in that. Get rid of all of this other stuff."
I didn't want to hear it, but I lived with it for a little bit and I think he's really right. It's a narrower story now that will involve a great deal more time in each of those moments that constitute it.
Currently, as she continues to write her memoir, Smith serves as a professor on the faculty of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, where she has taught since 2005. Smith has enjoyed plentiful acclaim, to which her many awards attest. She has also encountered a positive reception outside of poetry proper, having appeared as a featured writer for NPR's online NewsPoet series. Her progress and success to date, by all counts, point toward many positive possibilities yet to come.
Interview with Tracy K. Smith
This interview was conducted on 11 March 2013 via video conference call between John Cusatis's AP English Literature class at the School of the Arts (SOA) in Charleston, South Carolina, and Tracy K. Smith, who spoke from her office at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. Interviewers were Cusatis and the following students: Claire Austen, Nicholas Bentz, Alex Berlinsky, Liann Bova, Dante Brown, Sarah Brown, Joel Chapman, Brent Hubbard, Will Isaacson, Kenton Jenkins, Tiffany Martin, Tyler McKeown, Jana Miley, Maddie Peralta, Ashley Prentice, Savannah Segle, Callan Shattuck, Shelby Studebaker, and Julia Woodward.
SOA: How are you doing today?
Tracy K. Smith: I'm fine, how are you all?
SOA: Doing great. We're all looking forward to talking to you. We've got twenty students here, and each is going to ask one question if time allows.
SOA: First, congratulations on winning the Pulitzer Prize.
Smith: Thank you. It was a big honor and a great surprise.
SOA: How have things changed for you since receiving this tremendous recognition?
Smith: Well, it's put me into conversation with a lot more readers, from people like you and your classmates, to readers in other countries, to people who don't always think of themselves as poetry lovers, to poets that I've admired from a distance. And now that distance seems to be a little bit smaller in some instances. And that's exciting and a little bit daunting. I think that it will embolden me to try to keep pushing myself to take on topics and approaches that are going to be challenging for me. It's a real motivation to continue to grow as an artist because in some ways it feels, at its most basic level, like a vote of confidence, and there's a responsibility that comes with that.
SOA: Can you comment on your view of contemporary poetry? What does it owe to older poets, and in what way do you feel it has positively developed?
Smith: That's a big question. Well, I'm excited about the wide range of voices and aesthetic approaches that I discern in contemporary poetry. I feel like the range of poets that have begun to be published and to be public presences is so much more diverse in every possible way than I remember it being when I was a grad student in the nineties. I felt then as if there were about ten people that were the big poets, the contemporary American poets that I was trying to learn from. Part of that was probably an indication of my own ignorance, but I think part of it, and not a small part, had to do with the way that publishing worked. It was a lot harder for younger people to publish a first book then. I think the sense of the poets that people were watching and listening for was a lot smaller. What I love, now, is that through organizations like Cave Canem, which is an organization for African American poets, Kundiman and the Asian American Writers' Workshop, which are both organizations for Asian American poets--and there are more and they're not all ethnically based--there's a really wonderful dialogue that's happening across cultures, across aesthetics. People who have been inspired by those ten poets I mentioned--and the hundreds that came before them--are combining that knowledge with what they've learned recently in really surprising ways. So I'm excited about contemporary American poetry. I think it's in a good place.
SOA: I'm interested in the sequence of "Gospel" poems in your first collection, The Body's Question. Can you comment on your intentions when writing these early poems?
Smith: I had come to be friends with a lot of Mexican immigrants at that time, and I was thinking about bits and pieces of their stories of coming to the U.S. or their stories about family members who had done so. I was really moved by them. And I thought that those many stories were all part of one single story of people who find themselves leaving one place and coming to another because of necessity and the wish for something better. And the reality that they encounter on arrival is complicated. And I thought in some ways that story felt like the only story--the story of humans everywhere, and that's why I decided to call them "Gospels." The Gospels in the New Testament are really these four people telling the same story in their different ways. So what they remember about details is different from one version to the next.
SOA: You've mentioned that once you decided to identify yourself as a poet, you began "applying poetic tools to other areas" of your life. Can you elaborate on this change?
Smith: Oh, sure. One of the things that really inspired me about the poems that I'd read was the way that poets would look at some ordinary detail from everyday life so closely that it seemed to become something bigger than itself, something capable of shedding light in different areas of life. I loved that. It seemed almost like a magic trick that poems did. So I found that once I decided that that's what I wanted to do, that I wanted to create poems that did that, I think it pushed me to look at the world around me in really deliberately imaginative ways. I was trying to teach myself how to see the different possibilities in the things that were familiar to me. There was probably more to it than that. I was probably thinking about the kinds of conundrums that poems come upon where something that doesn't make sense in the way you think it should becomes powerful and revealing. I was probably going about my business looking for those kinds of surprises. And I'm sure that my writing in my other classes somehow changed as a result of the attention I was beginning to pay to the music of language. I think at that point the tools that I had at my disposal were a little bit more limited. But I was really trying to teach myself to think in a way that almost felt philosophical, which is what I think the best poems do.
SOA: You've said that photography taught you a lot about the importance of the image and its relationship to narrative in writing. To what degree, if any, did your background in photography influence the writing of "Letter to a Photojournalist Going-In"? Or do you relate to the subject of the poem more as a poet?
Smith: I think at first when I was writing, I thought I had to write poems based on what I knew. And I had to just keep making these really smart statements over and over again in poems. It was exhausting because I didn't really know that much, and I think when we're honest with ourselves, we don't know as much as we are curious about. I realized that image could be helpful to me. I could stop expressing information and just start looking around and describing what I saw, listening to what I saw in such a way as to hear or understand some of the emotional nuances that things have, in the same way that in a movie there's a single shot of something that can have a powerful emotional effect. It was really life changing, in a way, to bring that and apply it to my writing. But in the poem you mention, I feel like I'm trying to do that in an imagined space, imagining what this person in the field sees and how those images speak to him on an emotional level. Maybe that's based on images that I've seen, but it's also based on this fantasy of what it must be like to go out and encounter that kind of danger and that kind of strife. But I think mostly that poem is about a human connection and thinking about the difference and the distance between people.
SOA: I read in an interview that you were inspired by the article "The Littlest Human" that appeared in Scientific American. I recently read this article in my AP biology class, and I was wondering to what extent does the sheer mystery of man's ongoing evolution inspire your work?
Smith: Well, I think that in some ways that continuum of evolution doesn't go away, right? We're always thinking about our fate. I think that with a small poem that is about a single day or about relationships that are very much in the present, what a poet is doing is extrapolating and trying to imagine what the future will be, what the effects of that single present day choice or event will be? Of course, our conscious thinking is not always on an evolutionary scale. In the book I just wrote, Life on Mars, I think that comes into play a little bit more because I'm trying to imagine, on one level, what it means to be an American and a modern citizen of a society where you can kind of have anything you want. And there are ramifications to those kinds of things. What we're doing to the environment and to one another will have a huge bearing on our future in the evolutionary scale. So that was kind of fun and also mostly disturbing to think about, and science fiction was a helpful way of doing that. But what I'm mostly interested in are the local effects of the things we do. What we do to one another as private people and what that feels like.
SOA: Rock 'n' Roll music informs many of your poems, even before your latest book, which pays homage to David Bowie through its title and other references. Who do you consider to be the poets of rock n' roll, and what do you think distinguishes them as poets, or at least as great artists?
Smith: Well I'm really moved by lyrics. I think what drew me into David Bowie had a lot to do with the lyrics of the song "Life on Mars," where he's thinking about this dark spectacle of human life and, again, thinking about the things that we do to one another and what the effects of those things are, what it looks and feels like from the outside. I feel that way, too, about his song "Five Years." Other people whom I think are really wonderful lyricists, whose images I feel are just so stunning from song to song are Bob Dylan --I think a lot of people feel that way about him--and Joni Mitchell, who I guess is more of a folk singer, but a really wonderful poet. Her lyrics and images are really intelligent and moving and beautiful.
I have a poem about Frank Zappa in my second book. He's a musician whose work I learned a lot from while listening to it during certain times in my life. I think what I learned from him was the sense of variation and modulation that can characterize a work of art, not just a song. But the idea that a poem, even a poem that's firmly set in the present, in the contemporary moment, that might even utilize material that doesn't seem as serious as it could be, could have some sort of almost orchestral integrity. It can have sections that vary from one another in the way that musical orchestration has movements that are different yet somehow unified. So those are some things that music has taught me about writing.
SOA: How important is it to you that your reader obtains a specific meaning from your poems? Do you feel that a difficult poem rewards the reader more than one whose meaning is easier to access?
Smith: I guess I have different feelings about different poems. There are poems that are very clear, and I don't think that the fact that there is no struggle involved in reading them deters from the rewards they can offer. In my own writing I seek clarity in some ways, and I hope that in most of the poems there's something that's easy to understand. In my writing and in my revising, I try to ward off certain kinds of misreading--just wrong readings of the poem--by trying to give the reader some helpful information. But I know from talking to people, that not every poem is really easy to understand. I hope the poems that do ask you to do little a bit of work will make you ask, "What kind of sense is operating here, because it's not a straightforward sense?" and "What is the poem itself teaching me about how to read and understand it?" I think every good poem does that. Even a very simple-seeming poem teaches you that you can or can't take things at face value; in that way, the poem itself can be helpful to the reader's understanding. But I also provide notes in the back of my books that explain certain references or that talk about some of the public events that the poems might have been inspired by. That is intended to give the reader the same information that I had as a writer so that we can be on equal footing.
SOA: Referring to your fascination with the Hubble Space Telescope images, you said that we have an "insatiable need to get beyond the edge of what we can see." Would you agree that the edge of rationality is the home of imagination? And if so, how does abandoning your rationality help you with your poetry?
Smith: Oh, that's a good question, too. I guess the terms I like to think about are the conscious and the unconscious minds. I feel like the conscious mind has to do with control and knowledge and the kind of information that we have discerned through work, and that we feel like we can own because we've discovered it in some way. And I think that kind of information plays an important role in poetry. We read and learn in that part of our brain. But I think that in order to be truly successful, for me, a poem needs to do something other than just function by way of knowledge. It has to do more than an essay does, and I think that other thing has to do with the unconscious mind and the way that it works: by association, and impulse, and sound, and surprise. Those are the things that I think many poets are trying to draw upon simultaneously with the other stuff to make a poem feel like it's alive. I don't know why I feel the rational mind and the irrational mind are different. Maybe to me the irrational mind has to do with going against sense, and what I think the unconscious mind is doing is really just listening for different kinds of sense, if that makes sense. [Laughs]
SOA: In what ways have you consciously changed your approach to writing poetry between The Body's Question and your most recent book, Life On Mars?
Smith: Well, I remember feeling like I'd spent a lot of time talking about myself in the first book, the "I" that was me. With Duende, I wanted to find out if I could write a poem that didn't do that and that wasn't also relying upon a first-person persona, which a lot of the poems in that first book also do. So I wrote a poem called "History," which sets out to think about time and history and a nation and the character of that nation. I feel like that opened me up to different kinds of possibilities within my work. It doesn't mean that I abandoned my interest in or my use of those personal forms because obviously I didn't. But I think it guided me toward a more ambitious kind of scope for a single poem.
When I started Life on Mars, I knew that public poems, political poems or poems about social events, were still going to be important to me because I felt like writing them helped me come to grips with certain difficult realities, or at least develop a firmer sense of engagement with them. But I wanted to do so in a way that didn't feel like I was merely repeating myself from my second to my third books. So the device of science fiction became helpful, and maybe the idea of using such a device was something that I, in some ways, learned how to do with this recent book. I don't know how much more beyond that I've been conscious of wanting to change. I think what happens is you read, you grow, you spend your life thinking, asking different things, and so you inevitably change as a writer. I think that's almost the more exciting part of development.
SOA: You've mentioned that your work is inspired by other art forms such as photography, music and movies. Do you feel that certain art forms are superior to others, and do you find poetry superior to prose?
Smith: [Laughs] I think that fifteen years ago I would have said, "Yes, poetry is superior to prose." But now I don't really feel that way. I think that the art forms are doing similar things differently and different things similarly. I think what they're striving to do is provide a different way of looking at experience. Those different ways use the vocabulary of those different forms, and they arrive at different kinds of conclusions. They engage us differently, and I think it's all good. I'm writing a book of prose right now. I'm finishing a memoir, and what I've learned is that it's such a different art. It's exciting because of the ability to digress, to reflect and to elaborate on the kinds of things that, in a poem, happen very quickly. A poem moves with a quick, birdlike energy and prose--maybe not all prose but the prose I'm trying to write--is slower and stealthy and muscular in a way that allows you to draw different things more overtly. It scared me at first because it was a different way of thinking about language. But I feel like I'm learning really different things. I'm writing about similar kinds of personal experience as I've written about across my three books, but I'm able to really do the work on the page of mining these experiences for what they mean. In a paragraph I can say something and kind of explore it and say, "No, maybe it's not that at all; maybe it's this." Then I can explore that second possibility, and I feel that both things can become valid in a way. In a poem I might have had to sacrifice one. I think it's just really amazing what the different modes can tend to do.
SOA: How do you recognize a great poem?
Smith: When I'm reading poems and I think they're great--and often the poems I think are great are by people like Jack Gilbert, Lucile Clifton, or Elizabeth Bishop , three of my favorite poets--I think there is something that rides on sound and the effects of language and image. But I think there is also something that sits deep beneath that surface that has to do with a commitment to a philosophical perspective on lived experience. I think of great poems as somehow being about Being with a capital B: What it's like to be human. A great poem resists fads and trends and isn't embarrassed to risk real emotion. It is also built in a way that feels like it will probably stay good even ten, fifteen, fifty years later.
SOA: Some of your work seems to suggest a pantheistic outlook. You ask in "The Weather in Space" if God is "the wind or what commands it." Can you comment on how your personal spiritual or religious beliefs affect your work?
Smith: Sure. Until I wrote my latest book, I didn't really think my personal religious beliefs had a whole lot to do with my poems. I grew up with a pretty traditional church-going, Baptist background, believing that God was real. But I also had a little bit of impatience with what felt to me like the simple repetitive quality of a lot of religious doctrine. I know that I believe in something large. And I call that large thing "God." But I dislike a lot of what we have brought to that sense of God and the way that we've projected our own smallness onto Him or It. So I think the poems in this book were really trying to find a way to hold onto the sense that there is something large, powerful, mysterious, and purposeful out there that we are part of--but to make it more satisfying than the man with the big white beard that gets angry all the time and wants to punish us. So I felt like space--which is real; every day we learn more about how it works, how there is this really supreme sense of order to how stars are born and black holes are formed--I felt like space had to be connected to that sense of the largeness of God. So I put my sense of God out there, and I think that all that I don't know about "out there" helped to amplify that sense of this being and this figure.
SOA: Do you feel this Being that you talk of requires worship or recognition?
Smith: That's a good question. As I get older--I have a child, and I'm expecting two more children soon--I feel like I find myself praying and asking this Being to protect the people that I love. And I feel like the more I analyze, the more I want to not profess or proselytize, but acknowledge that there's something that I think is beautiful and real out there. Maybe that's a kind of worship. Maybe just walking down the street and feeling like you want to acknowledge that you are a part of something that you are grateful for is a kind of worship. There are probably other kinds, too, that are more public, maybe even more codified, but I don't know how much I feel that's really necessary. But this is where we get into private philosophical stuff. But, yes, as I get older I find myself wanting to speak back, speak to that source in a way, to try to say what I think.
SOA: How does your role as a professor affect your work? Do your colleagues and students provide inspiration, or do you ever feel as if it keeps you from your writing?
Smith: Well the week is short and fast so there are always times when I'm working on something for work or for my students, and I think, "If I could only have this time, I could get a little writing done for myself." But most of the time I feel very, very lucky. I teach two classes a week to really well-motivated students, and I have colleagues who are so inspiring. The people that I work with are some of the most important writers in America right now, and I have access to them week by week. Their voices, on and off the page, and their example, their model, have really taught me a lot. Teaching is also a very good complement to a writing life because it means twice a week I'm in a room with people that love poetry or are interested in it, and I get to talk about why I think it's great. I get to hear what their questions and opinions are. And I feel like I spend that time kind of codifying my own beliefs as a writer, and a reader, and articulating what I think is important and why. And I think that teaches me, too.
SOA: Along your journey to becoming a great poet there must have been many mentors that encouraged your efforts. What advice sticks with you, and what would you pass on to artists in any genre trying to grow?
Smith: Okay. People always say that you have to read and educate yourself, and I think it's really important. I think you cannot be a person who wants to write and not realize that the only way to do that is to read as much and as widely as possible, so that you can learn how it's done. Not only in the ways that you like, but also what the writing that you're not instinctively drawn to can teach you, and how those tools might even be adapted to your own purposes.
I think that faith is necessary because it's a very long road in many cases. It takes a long time to grow into your own voice and to find your true material, and to use those two things to write the poems that you're going to be willing to stand by ten, fifteen, you know, many years later. And I think it just requires a lot of patience and belief.
I think one of the best bits of advice I got came from one of my teachers, Seamus Heaney , who I had when I was an undergrad. I was graduating and there was a lot going on in my life at home, with my family, and I didn't really have a plan for the future. I was just so gloomy. And I was worried. I had this dark cloud and this very serious sense of dread that maybe what I wanted was just going to be hard. And he quoted a line from Yeats in a book that he signed for me. He wrote, "Wisdom is a butterfly, / And not a gloomy bird of prey." And I think about that advice just about once a week, just realizing that, yes, this is hard, and the rewards will take a long time to become apparent. But it's work that feels like play, and if you can't allow that part of the joy and the childlike curiosity to come through in the writing, then you're really missing out on a big part of what it's really about. So I try to remind myself of that, not only for my attitude, but also because I think it informs the work. A serious poem doesn't have to be dead serious the whole time. There is space for delight and play, and I think it's important to remember that.
SOA: Learning of the origins of Life on Mars brought to mind the work of Janelle Monáe, who received her inspiration for her concept album The ArchAndroid from the 1927 silent film Metropolis, as well as other works of science fiction. Considering your similar regard for that genre, would you say your poetry arises more from what is known or what is unknown, or is it a mix between the two?
Smith: Oh, I think it's a mix. Because the unknown is really built on the tip of the known, right? You get to that place when you say, "But what about this?" So you kind of need both, I think, or at least you need the known to get to the next spot. But the known doesn't always stay true forever. It can't be trusted forever. We allow ourselves to be confident about what we've discovered and what we're capable of and what we can do: how we can clone sheep, and how we can manipulate vegetables to be perfect, and how we can frack and make all of this money. But all this stuff, I think, is a reason to really stop and say, "Let's remind ourselves of what we don't know before we put a lot of stock in all of these things that we think that we've mastered." So I think there is a necessary back and forth between those two different spaces or realms.
SOA: Many of your poems look far into the future of human existence, and you've acknowledged that in order to get there we need a healthy planet. How do you feel about man's relationship with the environment, and would you say this is one of your major concerns as a poet?
Smith: Absolutely. I'm not really writing a lot of poems right now, but when I do, I want to think about that very thing, our relationship with the planet and the environment. I think that the way we treat the planet is really analogous to the ways that we treat one another, as private citizens and as nations. And I think it's kind of messed up. I'm really scared about the things that people are willing to say are okay. I'm scared of the things I'm willing to say are okay, like all the boxes and plastic in my closet right now, waiting to be recycled. Okay, I can recycle them, but I think it's fraudulent to continue buying products that cause so much damage to the environment when they are discarded improperly. I have a lot of fears about things that we've been doing for a long time and that we are really slow to want to change somehow as a nation. And I think it's a big topic that many poets are writing about. I even think that poets who aren't political or aren't poets of the environment have also somehow written about it, for example, Lucille Clifton , who is an amazing figure of the twentieth and twenty-first century. I think there is a deep sense of environmental justice and the value of this living planet built into her work, even when she's ostensibly writing about race or history. So, yes, that's a great question. And I hope that we can slow down and be brave enough to answer it in different complex ways.
SOA: Your parents seem to have been instrumental in opening your eyes to the wonders and beauty of the natural world. Did they also encourage you to pursue writing?
Smith: Yes, I was encouraged to read and write a lot as a child, and I think I was lucky that my parents were willing to say, "You can do whatever you put your mind to," even if it seems like a risky endeavor like writing, which is what they really, deep down, felt: "Oh, my gosh, she's going be a poet. How is she going to survive?" But I think they were also willing to give me the freedom to pursue that. So, yes, I'm grateful to them.
SOA: You've mentioned that David Bowie has been a big influence on you as an artist. Have you met him yet?
Smith: [Laughs] No, I haven't. I like that you have "yet" in your question.
SOA: Is there anything specific that you would to speak to him about?
Smith: I have no idea. I feel so grateful to him for what he's done, that I feel like I'd want to say, "Thank you." But I also know I'm so bad when I do meet celebrities. I kind of forget who I am and get confused and nervous. So maybe it's good that I haven't met him. I don't know.
SOA: How have your travels, specifically your time in Mexico, influenced your poetry?
Smith: Oh, yes. For five years I spent a lot of time in Mexico. It wasn't the first time I had left the country, but it was the first time I felt like I had found a toehold, something that felt authentic in another place: people, and friendships, and communities, and projects, and a purpose. It felt like I wasn't a tourist, necessarily. And that really opened my interest, having spent time in Mexico and met people and understood some of their concerns. It made me more interested in history and politics, and I've been able to project that interest in other directions. I remember when I was in college, and I was trying to study about the world. I was interested in a theoretical way, but every place felt so far away. The reality of every place felt so distant, and it was hard for me to really find a sense of urgency in terms of my interest. Realizing that I could pull myself out of my culture, out of my language, and go to another place and be so powerfully moved and educated by it gave me an appetite for other places in the world, and the effects that those other places would have on me. I think it has made me much more mindful and socially conscious. So I'm really grateful for those first experiences.
SOA: Can you comment on your reading habits beyond poetry, and how fiction and nonfiction, for example, have shaped your writing?
Smith: Sure. I wish I were a bigger fiction reader. I get these pockets of time in the winter and summer to read a few novels, and that's what I do. I feel like I'm still reading them for pleasure in a way. I think I notice language, but as a reader of novels, I relax and am just taking things in. I'm less vigilant than when I read poetry or even nonfiction and am actively trying to learn something. I've been reading a lot of memoirs over the past few years because I'm trying to write one. I want to feel how other people have done this, how other people have approached the same kind of task. When I'm between writing projects, I often read either books of creative nonfiction or just the long form essays that you find in the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books. I'm just feeding myself with them, trying to discover what my next questions will be as a person and as a writer.
SOA: If you have a book nearby, would you mind reading something for us?
Smith: Sure. Do you know what you'd like to hear?
SOA: How about "Sci-Fi"?
Smith: Thank you.
SOA: Before we conclude, would you mind commenting on how this poem came to be?
Smith: Sure. I wrote this poem when I was working on my second book, and it just didn't fit into that collection, but I liked it. So that's why I returned to it with this book. I was really just kind of accidentally thinking about the futuristic aesthetic of sci-fi movies from about forty years ago. I had just watched the Truffaut version of Ray Bradbury 's Fahrenheit 451. And I'd seen 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time, or at least for the first time closely. I was thinking about those versions of the future, and I really liked the aesthetic, but it also felt very nostalgic. I had just bought my first Mac laptop also, and an iPod, all that stuff, and I was just thinking about design, and how quite literally edges have been replaced with curves. You can think about the curves as continually pointing forward. So that's where that first line came from, and then of course I just kind of tried to leap into something that felt a little dark as well. I think sci-fi is most satisfying when there's a darkness that it's grappling with.
SOA: Hunger--whether primal or cultivated--is a recurring motif in your work, especially in The Body's Question. Your poem "Appetite," for example, seems to juxtapose physical and spiritual hunger, and aesthetic hunger, specifically, seems to figure into your work as well. Can you comment on your interest in the notion of appetite and hunger in your poetry?
Smith: I think that there is a very visceral component to the kinds of desires that we live with, even the desires that have to do with knowledge or the spirit. They become a presence in our lives, and because our lives are rooted in the body, I tend to view them somehow as an extension of corporeal hunger. There are poems called "Appetite" and "Thirst" in my first book, and I think the whole fascination with the struggle of the duende is very much connected--it's a physical urge just as much as a metaphysical one. In fact, whenever I speak about that term, I tend to point to my stomach, as if the duende itself resides in the gut, with its nerves and its urges and its undeniable impulses.
SOA: Well, thank you so much. Congratulations again on winning the Pulitzer Prize and on your growing family.
Smith: Thank you. And thanks for your great questions. Have a great day, you guys.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- "The Body's Questions, The Body's Boundaries: Tracy K. Smith Interviewed by Jericho Brown," Gulf Coast, 17, no. 1 (2004) [Web., accessed 22 March 2013].
- Henry Charles Rowell, " 'Something We Need:' An Interview with Tracy K. Smith," Callaloo, 27, no. 4 (Autumn, 2004): 858-872.
- Joy Stocke and Lauren McConnell, "Rolex Arts Initiative--Poet Tracy K. Smith: Memory, Creation, Mentoring, and Mastery," Wild River Review [Web., accessed 22 March 2013].
- Kenneth Rosen, "Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Tracy K. Smith Talks about Life in Brooklyn," Brooklyn Paper, 5 February 2013 [Web., accessed 27 March 2013].
- Dan Chiasson, "Other Worlds: New Poems by Tracy K. Smith and Dana Levin," New Yorker (8 August 2011): 71-73.
- Alan Feuer, "Poetry, Puppets, and Playgrounds," New York Times, 27 January 2013, p. MB2.
- Erica Pearson, "Brooklyn Poet Tracy K. Smith Wins Pulitzer on Her Birthday," New York Daily News, 16 April 2012 [Web., accessed 27 March 2013].