Tracy K. Smith’s poetry has taken her a long way. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Life on Mars takes readers to the far reaches of the solar system. And as the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2017-2019, she’s traveled the country visiting rural communities that don’t get many visits from poets.
Smith will visit Chicago on Saturday, April 27, as part of Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library.
Smith stopped by the Morning Shift for a conversation on her poetry, her travels around the country as Poet Laureate, and her podcast, The Slowdown.
Job of the U.S. Poet Laureate
Tracy K. Smith: It’s a position that’s appointed by the Librarian of Congress, and the job of the Poet Laureate is to seek to raise the public’s awareness and appreciation of poetry. And people do that in different ways. Some people do it by doing what they always do as poets: reading and publishing and making appearances. Other people choose to embark upon projects using the resources of the Library.
On bringing poetry to rural communities
Smith: I wanted to get into places where the conversation about poetry might feel different because it’s not a habit. But I also had this ulterior motive. You know, we live in a time where we hear so much about America as a divided nation — people from different backgrounds having nothing comprehensible to say to one another. And I thought that poetry might be a way of getting past that, and I was really excited in the last two years to find that that is indeed what poetry allowed to happen….
I would share a little bit of my own poetry, but mostly what we did was to read poems by other poets with members of the audience. I’d read a poem, and I’d say, “Can we hear this in somebody else’s voice so we can get a new take on the poem?” And then my question from place to place was always “What do you notice?” I wanted people to feel empowered to talk about poetry in the language that they live with. I didn’t want them to feel like they had to bend their thoughts to a particular vocabulary. And what happened in that framework was really different each time, but it always included people finding places in their own experience that were spoken to, and sometimes even clarified by the poetry that we read. So we were talking about poetry, but we were also talking about life…
Jenn White: It sounds like you had some memorable conversations in the course of this project. Any particular ones that stand out to you?
Smith: Oh gosh, there were so many. I really was moved by the conversation that happened in a women’s prison in Maine. It was a group of maybe about 20 women, and we read some poems, and I found myself really enlarged by the ways that some members of the population of the prison were able to say, “Look, this poem is really helping me to talk about who I was before I came here, and who I have become since I’ve been here, and those are two different people. And it’s hard to live in that state, but the speaker of this poem is reminding me that it’s possible.”
Smith’s podcast The Slowdown
Smith: The desire [was] to do more broadly what it felt like we were doing in [those trips to rural areas], which is to say, “[Poetry] is something that belongs to you. This is something that can make useful sense in your day-to-day life.” And so it was exciting to say, I get to do this every time I take one of these trips [to a rural community]...if we can do this on a podcast, or on the radio, we can invite other people to engage in a similar kind of process.
White: And the title, The Slowdown?
Smith: Well, I think that’s what poems ask us to do. To say, alright, life is busy, we’re always moving forward, we have to push a lot of things out of our way in that process, but it’s really important to slow down and look closely, and even sometimes counterintuitively, at things, and turn inward, rather than forward.
Tracy’s poetry prompt for you
Smith: [I’ve been] thinking about how much the past, even the biblical past, shapes the kind of mythology that we as Americans claim. And I thought, what would happen if I tried to write a new myth? What would happen if I tried to write the myth that we need to claim right now? And it was a really exciting, and also daunting, endeavor, and I think it’s a great exercise. I think that if writers, and even people who don’t think of themselves as writers, sit down and say to themselves, “I’m gonna sit down, and I’m gonna tell the story we really need to hear right now,” really interesting things can come of it.
Do you want to try writing a myth for our time? We’d love to hear it! Call 888-915-9945 and read your poem aloud. We may play it on a future show!
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. Click play to hear the full conversation.
GUEST: Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2017-2019
LEARN MORE: Tracy K. Smith’s podcast: The Slowdown (American Public Media)
Recap of Smith’s terms as Poet Laureate from the Library of Congress
EVENT INFO: Poetry Fest at the Harold Washington Library, April 27th, 2pm
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this segment referred to Smith as the former U.S. Poet Laureate, but in fact, her term runs through May 31, 2019.