Poets Laureate Rita Dove and Tracy K. Smith in Conversation

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Collage of two African American women in portrait.

Rita Dove (photo by Fred Viebahn) and Tracy K. Smith (photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths). 

Rita + Tracy Final 032218.mp3

Audio Tabs

Rita Dove and Tracy K. Smith share a few things in common beyond the fact that they are African-American female artists. They are also professors at top universities (Dove: University of Virginia, Smith: Princeton), and Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. Poets Laureate. No big deal.

The Poet Laureate of the United States (PLOTUS, if you will) is a position chosen by the Librarian of Congress. Since 1937, the PLOTUS has acted as a sort of chief poet-in-residence for the nation. Back then, the position was known as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The Library of Congress switched titles in 1986. Dove, a two-time NEA Literature Fellow (1977 and 1989) and recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2011, became the first official African-American Poet Laureate under the new title in 1993. At age 41, she was also the youngest. The position has grown significantly in importance and reach over time, largely thanks to how Dove redefined what was possible. Poet Stanley Plumly once remarked that Dove “changed the job description” and “created a sense of mission in the position.”

Tracy K. Smith is the current Poet Laureate and the 11th woman to be appointed to the prestigious post. It was Dove’s work, along with that of Yusef Komunyakaa’s, that first gave Smith a sense of poetic kinship and sharpened her desire to be a poet. She noted to Dove: “I felt like there was a family that I could somehow find in the pages of those books, and I wanted to sound exactly like you.” Fittingly, Smith carries on Dove’s legacy of bringing poetry to the people through her own work in rural communities, and has recently been appointed to a second term.

In this edited conversation, we get to eavesdrop on two literary giants discuss the transformative power of art, their work as Poets Laureate, and what it means to be educators and female artists in the world today. Don’t miss the other, shorter audio piece featuring Dove and Smith reading and commenting on new poems.

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