Tracy K. Smith
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
Tracy K. Smith: What I like about poetry is that it asks us to listen in many different directions and to put pressure on our own impulses, our own assertions.
Jo Reed: That is poet Tracy K. Smith and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.
Here’s some background on Tracy K. Smith: she served as poet laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. She is the author of four prize-winning poetry collections, including Wade in the Water and Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her 2016 memoir Ordinary Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2018, she curated an anthology called American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time—bringing together contemporary writers to create a literary sampling of 21st century America. She’s also written the librettos for two operas and serves as the director of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton where she teaches creative writing. And honestly, I could go on…but of course, it’s the writing itself that’s most important. And Tracy K Smith is a writer of rare distinction…her work is lyrical, accessible and crucial—combining honesty, engagement and imagination as she explores issues of family, loss, race, history, desire, and the wonderous. Her work sings to us of possibility while demanding an acknowledgment of what was and is. Given this, it was fitting that I spoke to Tracy K Smith before she was to do a reading organized by the Folger Shakespeare Library to mark the birthday of Abraham Lincoln….here’s our conversation
Jo Reed: How are you and how have you been doing through all this?
Tracy K. Smith: It’s such a different question than it was a year ago, right. Thanks for asking. I think I’ve learned a lot in the last really year and a lot of it has come through difficulty. My family is safe and sound but I’ve felt a lot of the trauma and the collective trauma that I think many Americans and certainly many black Americans are feeling more palpably. And one of the things that’s helped me has been turning to my work and amplifying that practice with a meditative practice which I feel has opened up a sense of community, even of history that’s been useful through a time in which I feel like we’re moving both forward and backward in time constantly.
Jo Reed: I wonder if there have been any poets or poems that you’ve been leaning on through this time.
Tracy K. Smith: Well, Lucille Clifton is always there. <laughs> I feel like I have her bible by my bed and at my desk in my office and her work, her words remind me that this is a struggle that has been going on for centuries and when I feel like oh, I need us now to solve the problem, the conundrum of racism and denial in this country she reminds me we’re contributing to a kind of work that may take longer than we will be here and that’s-- that scale shift somehow is useful. She has lots of scale shifts in her work and another that’s useful to me is the way that she’s able to zoom out to the cosmic so easily and so purposefully and allowing or asking my own imagination or my own beliefs to help me get out of that muck not as a way of escaping from it but as a way of putting it into a larger frame of reference, even as a way of saying, “What am I here for? Am I here right now to fight this battle with my colleague or do I want to claim allegiance to something that’s larger and more ongoing?” And to be honest that’s a question that I think many people regardless of what kind of affiliation they have are grappling with so she’s been amazingly helpful to me throughout this time.
Jo Reed: On February 11, you’re doing a live virtual reading to mark Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, which does seem particularly pertinent this year. Can you tell me why you decided to participate and what is it that you want to provoke in people?
Tracy K. Smith: Well, as I was saying the sense that we are alive in our own moment but we’re constantly being reached if you will by history feels literal to me. I think the stakes that Lincoln faced and the lives that the Civil War was fought to let’s say change the status of-- I guess there were some who wanted to maintain the enslaved status for blacks in this country but I’m one of those people who believes that the Civil War was absolutely fought about slavery; I know very eloquent scholars who are able to suggest otherwise but I don’t buy it. And so I am interested in that conversation. I’m also interested in the fact that there is some way that that perspective, perhaps not about something as abhorrent today as slavery but about a mind-set that says privilege and even a sense of superiority, can be designated by race. That’s something we need to talk about. That’s something that poetry can help us close the distance on. I have a long poem in “Wade in the Water” that’s derived from Civil War letters and deposition statements. Many of those letters were written to Abraham Lincoln out of a sense of urgent desperation: Please help me. Please get fair pay for me. Please help my son. Can you tell me am I free or not? Those voices feel relevant to me. They don’t feel foreign, they don’t feel historic, and I think that the mind-set that allowed people to storm the capitol is proof that this nineteenth-century perspective isn’t gone. I feel like I could say more but there is something really startling about the fact that Abraham Lincoln is probably one of the most relevant Americans we can think of at this moment.
Jo Reed: I was going to go to those poems in “Wade in the Water,” I will tell you the truth about this; I will tell you all about it. Tell me how you came both to these letters and the idea of simply using only their voices.
Tracy K. Smith: Uh huh. Well, I was invited along with maybe a dozen or more other poets many years ago now to write poems that were marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War and I mentioned the argument about was it or was it not about slavery. That’s always bothered me enough that I’ve often kind of distanced myself from conversations about the Civil War and the opportunity to write a poem in or toward that subject matter seemed important to take up. And so I thought what I would do was-- would be to research what black people alive at that time had to say about their own sense of what was at stake and I found two really wonderful sources that had a number of primary sources. The books were “Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction Through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files” by Elizabeth Regosin and “Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African American Kinship in the Civil War Era” by-- edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie R. Rowland, and so those books I thought were just going teach me and somehow enable me to metabolize all of this information, all of these different perspectives and write a poem in my own voice but of course what happened was I sat down and I was just copying down quotes, citing letters and building for myself a sense of what seemed like a kind of gospel version of this history, all these many different voices telling their versions of a single story and in some ways it is the single story of this country. And with all of those notes and these amazing resources it seemed senseless to try and do some sort of jujitsu on that and make it a poem in my own voice so what I chose to do instead was to just kind of curate a listening session to think about what people chose to say, how and to whom and with what hope in mind. That seemed like an important thing to ask other readers to pay attention to.
Jo Reed: In your work, history is often a shadow that shapes the present. It’s not as though the figure shapes the shadow; it’s the shadow shapes the figure. I wonder if you’d mind reading your poem “Declaration” and then telling us a bit about it.
Tracy K. Smith: Okay, yeah. “Declaration”:
sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people
He has plundered our—
destroyed the lives of our—
taking away our—
abolishing our most valuable—
and altering fundamentally the Forms of our—
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.
on the high Seas
So that poem is obviously drawn from the text of the Declaration of Independence which I was reading as a way of trying to listen to history a little bit differently than I habitually had or maybe had even been taught to and trying to see if there was another story or another message within a document like the Declaration of Independence that could be useful to my understanding or even our collective experience of the twenty-first century. And what I found when I looked at it closely was that this narrative of the nature of black existence in this country leapt off the page, and I wrote that poem now maybe three or more years ago but reading it in 2021 after the summer that we’ve endured with so much violence against blacks and so much violence heaped on top of violence because of the fact of outcry and protest that poem is very haunting to me.
Jo Reed: yes. It does so speak to this moment and the nation at this moment is also struggling with its historical narratives, which is something that had to happen because if you’re sanitizing the past it’s like putting a Band-Aid on a festering wound. I’d like you to speak to how poetry can be key to opening up historical narratives since poetry, your poetry, insists on holding up and acknowledging not just various views but often contradictory views. It speaks with a multiplicity of voices.
Tracy K. Smith: Well, we’re drawn to poetry I believe because the most emphatic moments and experiences in our lives are often characterized by some sort of ambivalence. I know that motherhood is characterized by a simultaneous joy and a feeling of loss or fear or constraint, I think love is characterized by warring feelings and implications, and so poems help us take that apart; poems help us find language that illuminates those dualities or multiplicities that live within things that we think are supposed to be consistent, coherent and unified. What I think poetry does is it begins to make us brave enough to do that even when we’re looking up away from the pages of books. As somebody who writes poems as a way of making sense or finding clarity, I also understand that much of what we see is what we choose to see and unless we put pressure upon ourselves we could stop there and we could lose sight of so many other and perhaps truer details and realities or details and presences, and history seems like one of those things that you can get into a particular mind-set about and that mind-set can prevent you from being open to other versions of fact. What I like about poetry is that it asks us to listen in many different directions and to put pressure on our own impulses, our own assertions, even our own wishes or recollections or the things that we cook up out of just thin air. The formal rigor of poetry urges us to think more rigorously about language and that I think urges us to think more inventively, rigorously and honestly about meaning.
Jo Reed: Your title poem, “Wade in the Water,” is such a beauty and that is a poem that picks a journey beginning in one place but really ending for me in a place that made perfect sense but was unexpected when I began the poem. Will you read it?.
Tracy K. Smith: “Wade in the Water”
for the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters
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 other 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 someone 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, knew
To climb. O Woods—O Dogs—
O Tree—O Gun—O Girl, run—
O Miraculous Many Gone—
O Lord—O Lord—O Lord—
Is this love the trouble you promised?
Well, that poem marries an experience that I had that it’s kind of transparent in the poem. I went to a ring shout, I walked into the space, I was greeted by one of the performers who said, “I love you” and gave me a hug, and I was also in the midst of doing all kinds of research in the American South about antebellum history, and I was deeply troubled by what I knew I would find but, finding physical archives of enslaved existence and seeing plantations celebrated as though they were these destinations when in fact they were labor camps, that gesture of love transformed all of those feelings. It didn’t erase the fact of the past but it gave me another tool with which to live with it and I just needed to write the poem to go back into that space, that experience and slow it down, render something of it that might also invite a reader to see the beautiful life-enlarging choice that love is. And it’s not about everything is sweet and easy; it’s about we are here in the muck and the only way that we can get through to the other side, which is I think the very same mentality or understanding that had helped people survive slavery, is love.
Jo Reed: There’s a sense of the holy if you will from the idea that moves through your work, certainly in “Wade in the Water” and your collection “Life on Mars,” which just looks at the vastness of the universe among other things. Is that something that you explicitly seek to explore?
Tracy K. Smith: I don’t think I’m seeking it out but it’s such a part of my imagination that it’s hard for me not to bump up against the sense of the holy. I see it in different terms in my own vocabulary. It is at once sacred and it’s an extension of my upbringing, somebody with belief, but I think it’s also connected to the beautiful mystery that I’m equally fascinated by that can be understood in other terms as well, that the light, the surprise, the persistence and also the agency of the world beyond the human that seems uniquely aware of us, patient with us, purposeful toward us, it’s the very same thing that I think animates the creative impulse for so many artists but maybe we call it different things, that feeling that allows you to say, “If I sit here and go inward, I can find something that I know I myself do not possess, that miracle of creation.” To me that- that’s alive in so many different places and so many different vocabularies and it’s very difficult for me to separate it from my own process as a poet. In fact, it’s become even more critical to the way I think about language and experience in the last year.
Jo Reed: How do poems tend to begin for you, with an idea, with an image, with a sound?
Tracy K. Smith: Often it’s with a question or a preoccupation, something that makes me feel at least partly worried, and sometimes it’s love, the delight. Like I said, love is this wonderful thing but it’s so astounding because it somehow has power that isn’t yours and it’s-- it can be a reason to stop and think wow, what’s going on here? So for me it’s just the impulse to stop and say, “What’s going on here?” or “I don’t like where this is going” that leads me to the page. I rely on images because I need to be able to see myself in a place and in the presence of something in order to build a poem, and once I can see something images begin to take root and then I can feel myself almost engaging with them, being in physical proximity with them, and other capacities become easier for me to muster, sound, momentum. Form is often a tool that helps me keep going forward in a poem by setting parameters, and somehow all of those things if I’m working correctly create a momentum of their own whereby I’m no longer preoccupied with what I’m doing and I’m just moving forward into understanding or revelation.
Jo Reed: You certainly stopped and you paused and I think it was a joyous and wondrous moment when you wrote the poem, “When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me,” which is such an intimate poem but it’s a wondrous poem. It made me smile; it makes me smile when I think about it. Do you mind reading that?
Tracy K. Smith: I’d love to. Thank you for asking.
“When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me”
I lay sprawled like a big-game rug across the bed:
Belly down, legs wishbone-wide. It was winter.
Workaday. Your father swung his feet to the floor.
The kids upstairs dragged something back and forth
On shrieking wheels. I was empty, blown-through
By whatever swells, swirling, and then breaks
Night after night upon that room. You must have watched
For what felt like forever, wanting to be
What we passed back and forth between us like fire.
Wanting weight, desiring desire, dying
To descend into flesh, fault, the brief ecstasy of being.
From what dream of world did you wriggle free?
What soared — and what grieved — when you aimed your will
At the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?”
Jo Reed: That’s a wonderful poem.
Tracy K. Smith: Thank you. It’s another example of my tendency to imagine that the events of my life bring me closer to this other dimension or realm, the holy or the whole as opposed to the human, and so that’s a poem that is helping me to imagine what it was like for my daughter’s spirit to perhaps choose me.
Jo Reed: You wrote a memoir in 2016 called “Ordinary Light.” Can you tell me about the decision you made to do that?
Tracy K. Smith: Well, I had been given the opportunity to work with a mentor through Rolex Mentor Protégée Arts Initiative and I was coming to the end of “Life on Mars” and I knew that I wanted to have a project to work on with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was talking to my husband one night in bed. I was pregnant with my daughter, Naomi, and I said, “You know what I really wish I could do at some point is to write a book about my family, write a book about my parents so that my daughter could know them”; they were both already passed away by the time that she was born. And the fear that that articulation struck in me, just the fact that I admitted this thing and the work that it seemed like it would require, just caused me to go into this panic and that panic just assured me that this was exactly what I needed to do. And so the memoir was really-- it started as this desire to tell the story of my family, to tell the story of my parents, but of course it’s my story that ends up being told; it’s my perspective on a whole number of things that connected with my family and me when I was growing up that the book allowed me to name and explore.
Jo Reed: The home that you described growing up in and your mother and your father it felt so real to me that I felt as though I could touch them. I’m just so curious how you brought up such precise memories.
Tracy K. Smith: Well, I guess there are a few different ways to answer the question. The one that comes to mind or to heart is I have spent every day of my life since my parents died thinking about them and they’re present for me and so returning to the feeling of togetherness with them was not difficult to do. Returning to the small details of our shared life in a lot of ways wasn’t difficult because so many of them were connected to different really palpable senses like we ate together and that was a big part of our family ritual and so food and smell and a sense of happiness and appetite those things were exciting to conjure and sometimes it was easy to get back into an earlier memory by eating something, cooking something—
Jo Reed: Like your mom’s pound cake?
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah, exactly, that hearkens from that time. And then there were other things I had to spend more time and do more work upon. Music helped, even smell helped, but I also understand just like I was saying you go inward and there’s something inside of your mind and imagination that’s not just you. That thing once it understands that you are working in earnest it will help you and so when I was sitting down trying to remember well, it was 1980, what did we eat, what did we wear, what did we say, I remember a little bit of this one story, dwelling upon that in earnest somehow I found that this other thing came to my aid and memories became clearer as I sat with them and that- that’s one of the miracles I guess of the imagination or of memory or whatever else you want to call it and language is a great tool for kind of capturing that and so it was a really beautiful process of reunion.
Jo Reed: I wonder how you compare the process of writing prose, an extended piece like that, with writing poetry. The first thing I think of is of course you know you need to sustain perspective with something as big as a memoir.
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah. I had to sort of learn as I went. I love writing prose, I’ve always enjoyed writing essays and letters, and I’ve never balked at that process and I understand that my thought process in prose is different from my thought process in poetry and I’ve always really been grateful for that, but it was a hugely daunting proposition to spend years writing this narrative and I didn’t really know how to do it at first. I had a lot of vignettes that I had kind of tried to write at different moments in my life, some beginning as early as in the year or two after my mom passed away, but I couldn’t ever get to closure somehow and so I returned to those and that helped me and then I thought well, maybe if I can tell myself what this book is about that can help me; that actually didn’t help me. What I had to let myself do was keep writing these chapters, keep writing stories essentially of this happened, this is what I felt, this is what my mother did when I was in the second grade, let me write about that, this is where my father worked when I was in the third grade, let me write about that, and I was telling people, “I’m writing a memoir.” They’d ask what it’s about and I couldn’t really tell them and it seemed like I always only had about 75 pages for years and years because as much as I would write then I would feel compelled to get rid of other things and then five years later I realized there is a path that can be charted through these things and chronological order helped me. I always thought I wanted to resist that and write something that was-- moved more associatively but chronology helped me in terms of filling in gaps. And then the really exciting thing was that language helped me to understand oh, there is a story, there is a path that I’ve followed even though it’s felt haphazard to me, and that was really beautiful. And the other thing that it helped me to do was to forge a connection between myself as a mother and my own mother and I don’t think that I could have planned that. I hope I write more prose. I hope having written “Ordinary Light” I’ll know a little bit better how to get started or maybe the process will feel more familiar but it was also something that exerted its own force and I had to learn to respond to that.
Jo Reed: You were poet laureate from 2017 through 2019 and you focused a lot of that work on rural America. What inspired that?
Tracy K. Smith: Well, I got that phone call from Dr. Hayden at a time when it felt like America had cracked in half and I felt like speaking about our political situation in the vocabulary of politics was in some ways exacerbating that sense of division and I would often find myself thinking oh, if only we could talk to each other through poetry we would actually maybe listen better; we would understand that there are nuances that the language of political debate sort of eschews. And well, the opportunity to do something, to do a national-scale project, made me really want to return to that idea that maybe poetry could do this bridge building; maybe poetry could make us behave as our better selves when we are together with others. And since most of the work I’ve done as a writer has been in cities, in book festivals or college towns I thought maybe rural America would be a new context for thinking about all of the things that poems urge us to think about, which is everything, and what I found on that-- while I was on the road during those two years was that my theory was correct. <laughs> Poetry made strangers who probably had wildly different values and experiences confidants. I’d read a poem or I’d ask somebody else to read a poem by another poet and say, “What do you notice? What does this poem make you remember, feel, think, wonder?” and then we would just go places together. We would go to real places and vulnerable places and places where that feeling that I am like you in more ways than I’m inclined to assume that feeling kind of became present and I’m really grateful that I got to do it when I did. During this past summer, even though everybody was on quarantine I often thought oh, gosh, this would be a great time to get back out there with poetry and see what we could help each other to ask and say and see.
Jo Reed: And you’ve written opera librettos and you had an opera that was supposed to premiere in 2020--
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah. We’re hoping it’ll be this summer or the following, whatever is I think safest and most realistic for the audience members and performers, and there’s another opera libretto that I’ve written with my same collaborator who is Gregory Spears, a composer, and we also work with Kevin Newbury who’s the director and it’s exciting. I just finished a draft of this other libretto yesterday and so I’m on a high of achievement or deadlines met, but it was really exciting because there is such a powerful relationship between poetry and song and there’s such a powerful way that opera reminds us that we live with mythic stakes, even us ordinary folk, and telling story through the voice, telling story through dialog is something that I’m realizing is really exhilarating and so it’s something I’m looking forward to continuing to do and I hope the world will allow these things to be performed once all the restrictions are lifted.
Jo Reed: The one that you’re hoping will be performed this summer is that “Castor and Patience”?
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah, that’s “Castor and Patience,” which will take place at the Cincinnati Opera, and it tells the story-- it’s a fictional story about two black cousins, one who is living in the South where their family descends from and one who has moved to the North, but they share a common inheritance, which is about 30 acres of land that have been owned by their family since Reconstruction and there are a lot of people in that position in this country. There’s a long history of black-owned lands but that history is just about one minute older than the history of legal land theft and many different forms that have encroached upon the autonomy of black farmers and landowners and that continue, and so our story is really thinking about legacy, history, inheritance, change and we’re also hoping to call attention to something that I think most people don’t really know about.
Jo Reed: You’ve been working and you have three kids so I’m not sure that you’ve been on anything that looks like a pause but I also assume you’re home more and not traveling. Have you been able to use this time to work on your next collection for example? You finished the libretto, yay--
Tracy K. Smith: Yay. Yeah. It’s really interesting. As demanding as this time has been, it’s asked a lot of me that I’ve needed to kind of refuel by way of writing poems and so I have a new and selected poems called “Such Color” that Graywolf will be publishing in October and it’s got about 30 new poems that were written during the pandemic, which is-- I’m really grateful for.
Jo Reed: I’m going to ask you to read one more poem if you don’t mind. It’s a short one called “An Old Story.”
Tracy K. Smith: Oh, sure.
Jo Reed: I think that’s a nice place to end.
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah. It’s the last poem in “Wade in the Water” and the title for the next book is taken from this poem. I wrote it as an attempt to write a new myth for us in this country, something that allows us to look forward with courage and maybe a new sense of what the goals are.
“An Old Story”
We were made to understand it would be
Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,
Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind.
Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful
Dream. The worst in us having taken over
And broken the rest utterly down.
A long age
Passed. When at last we knew how little
Would survive us—how little we had mended
Or built that was not now lost—something
Large and old awoke. And then our singing
Brought on a different manner of weather.
Then animals long believed gone crept down
From trees. We took new stock of one another.
We wept to be reminded of such color.
Jo Reed: That is a wonderful place to leave it. Tracy, thank you so much for giving me your time.
Tracy K. Smith: No. It’s been a real joy. Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was poet Tracy K. Smith, her books include, Wade in the Water, Life on Mars, and Ordinary Light.
You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and then please leave us a rating on Apple because it will make us happy because it helps people to find us. Keep up the arts endowment by following us on twitter @neaarts or by checking out our website at arts.gov. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, and thanks for listening.
Here’s a conversation with Tracy K. Smith about poetry, history, memory, and wonder. Smith collects awards and prizes the way the rest of us collect traffic tickets (only hers are well-deserved!) She served as poet laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. She is the author of four prize-winning poetry collections, including Wade in the Water and Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her 2016 memoir Ordinary Light was a finalist for the National Book Award. In 2018, she curated an anthology called American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time—bringing together contemporary writers to create a poetic exploration of 21st century America. She’s also written the librettos for two operas and serves as the chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton where she teaches creative writing. Her writing sings from the page. It is lyrical, accessible and crucial—combining honesty and imagination as she explores issues of race, family, and the infinite. In this podcast, she reads and discusses some of her poems and delves into her belief that the language of poetry with its multiplicity of voices can create possibilities with wide and deep implications. Tracy K. Smith is a voice for our time—both on the page and in this interview.