FEATURE

Poet in Motion

US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith '97SOA gives wings to words.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2018
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Photographs by Nathan Perkel

Floyd Smith found comfort in books, and whenever his daughter complained of boredom, he encouraged her to read. At the house, titles by Sir Walter Scott and Edgar Allan Poe shared shelf space with paperback mysteries, National Geographic, and Yes I Can, by Sammy Davis Jr. But the literature that made the biggest impression on young Smith came from school. She recalls being at home at age eleven, in the blue-velvet chair, book open, and reading the words:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?

“I thought: she’s talking to me,” Smith says. “Someone’s talking to me.”

The poet, Emily Dickinson, made Smith feel understood. “I wanted to be able to think and communicate in that way,” she says.

After her high-school and Bible-school years, Smith, who had always dreamed of moving east, went to Harvard, where she indulged her love of those other prophets, the poets. She fell hard for the work of Elizabeth Bishop, Rita Dove ’98HON, Philip Larkin, Seamus Heaney (one of her professors), Yusef Komunyakaa, and William Matthews, and was drawn to the Spanish concept of duende, the mysterious, frenzied soul-force that seizes the artist and drives creativity.

During Smith’s senior year of college, her mother fell ill. After graduation, Smith moved back to California to be with Kathryn, who, as her condition worsened, never lost faith in her deliverance — or in Smith’s. In Ordinary Light, Smith recounts being in a room with her mother, who, delirious from medications, emerges from her fog into a perfect lucidity, speaking with unseen companions. Smith is startled: it’s as if her mother “can see through this world to the next, to the places where ghosts and angels sit and walk and gesture unseen among us.” When Smith asks her who’s there, Kathryn says, clearly, “There are two angels sitting here, Tracy, and one of them just told me you’re going to become a writer.”

“I find poetry lifts us out of our conscious concerns and helps us think in different ways.”

Weeks later, Smith, her siblings, and her father stood at Kathryn’s bedside, saying “I love you” and “Goodbye,” when they heard “a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other . . . an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping.”

For Smith, the death of her mother was “a huge loss that changed everything,” she says. And so when she entered Columbia to study poetry, she had her subject.

 

Smith lives with her husband, literary scholar Raphael Allison, and their daughter and twin sons in a one-story house of wood beams and high windows on a pinecone-strewn street near Princeton University, where Smith directs the creative-writing program.

Inside, the house is open, light-filled. Crayola art covers the fridge. Books line the hall. In the living room, on a white sofa, Coco, a chocolate Labrador retriever, is hunched expectantly, a toy bone in her jaws. The muted trumpet of Miles Davis purrs from a small speaker. On a table sits an eye-grabbing artifact: a late-1950s green-gray typewriter that belonged to Kathryn Smith.

As Allison herds Coco out of the room, Smith looks back on her time at Columbia, “running around New York with my classmates, going to parties, meeting in cafés at night to workshop poems.” Her two years in the MFA program were both grounding and transformational. She remembers Clifton, who died in 2010, talking in class about the prophetic poems she wrote after her husband’s death, but Smith wouldn’t see them for another decade.

“Finally, in her last book, Mercy [2004], those poems appear, in a series called ‘the message from The Ones (received in the late 70s),’” Smith says. “I use those poems now to say to my students, ‘Write some poems that are not in your own voice, that are coming from a body of knowledge you don’t have, that are prophetic, that come from outside the human.’ For them it’s probably going to be an exercise, though for Clifton it was real. But I think we can teach ourselves to imagine differently by moving in these directions.”

Smith also studied with Lucie Brock-Broido ’82SOA, former director of Columbia’s MFA poetry program; Linda Gregg, later a colleague of Smith’s at Princeton; and poet and memoirist Mark Doty. Almost all the poems that Smith wrote in her two years at Columbia “were engaged with trying to resolve the fact that my mother was dead,” Smith says.

 

While Ordinary Light and Life on Mars reflected the loss of her parents (Floyd Smith died in 2008), Smith’s new work, Wade in the Water, winds its way through the idea of America itself.

At the heart of the collection lies a series of “found poems,” existing documents that Smith has rendered into lines and stanzas. These historical texts include letters from Black soldiers of the Civil War and their loved ones.

A letter from Bel Air, Maryland, in August 1864 reads,

Mr. president      It is my Desire to be free
to go to see my people
on the eastern shore     my mistress
wont let me      you will please
let me know if we are free      and what i
can do

Smith has been thinking about America’s “anxiety about welcoming strangers, and not just strangers but people who are from here who we’re not willing to welcome,” she says. “I thought maybe these letters were where I needed to start. There was a kind of disregard in the attitude toward these Black citizens, who were not considered citizens fully at that point, yet who were serving the nation in war.

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