By Ryan Schnurr
Tracy K. Smith has a vision for America that turns on connection. Smith, who is in her second term as United States Poet Laureate, believes literature can form bonds across time, space, and difference and give people the tools to “care better” about each other. During her time as poet laureate, Smith has been traveling to communities across the country on a reading and speaking tour, titled “American Conversations,” with the intent to “build a bridge between people in cities and university towns…and those in rural parts of the United States.”
On November 27, 28, and 29, Smith will visit four Indiana cities in collaboration with Indiana Humanities, Brick Street Poetry, and the Indianapolis Public Library. We spoke with her about this upcoming trip, her new edited collection American Journal, and why her vision for literature as connector matters for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Ryan Schnurr: I wanted to start by talking about how you approach your role. As poet laureate, you’ve spent a lot of time visiting communities across the country. Can you talk a bit about your take on the position?
Tracy K. Smith: I see the laureateship as an invitation to celebrate poetry and its uses in our day-to-day lives. And my feeling about how to do that has been to read and talk about poems. Sometimes that means reading my own poems and talking about where they come from, and having conversations with people about what the poems cause them to wonder or notice, but mostly it has been a matter of reading the work of other American poets and entering into conversations with other readers about, you know, what these poems sound like, what they make us wonder, remember, notice, want to say. And that’s been really exciting, because I’ve found that part of my audience comes with a little bit of anxiety about how to talk about poetry, maybe with a little bit less experience than people at literary festivals with reading poetry.
And so part of the work has been to say, “You don’t need a lot of prior knowledge or preparation. These poems are trying to speak to you, and let’s just see what they accomplish. Let’s just see what you notice about them.”And people notice so many things. They find ways of making poems, no matter the topic, useful to where they are as individuals. And it’s not a matter of saying, “Oh, a poem can be about anything,” but saying, “The speaker of this poem is talking about this one thing, and I’ve experienced that. But I’ve also experienced this other thing, and that’s what this poem is making me think of. That’s what this poem feels most connected to for me.” It’s a way of talking about our lives, and it’s a way of listening to other people—listening to a voice together and going somewhere as a result of that process.
RS: You’ve spoken of poetry as a civic project. Can you unpack that? What is the civic function of literature?
TKS: I think literature is such a great tool for making us curious about other people’s lives. You know, we read novels for pleasure, and in those novels we are being observers—or even sometimes, it feels like, a participant—in the lives of people who are unlike us in so many ways, even when they’re like us—where we’re going to different geographies, different periods in time, we’re watching people make all these choices and mistakes, and we’re invested in that. I think the more you do that, the more continuous that sense of curiosity or empathy will be—the more you practice saying, “I’m not the expert here. I’m going to just learn and feel what I can as a result of being guided along by this other voice.”
Poems do that, too. And we tend—even if poems are, you know, products of someone’s imagination—we tend to feel like the speaker of a poem is real, like it’s a person in the world. Now sometimes we mistake it for the poet, but in doing that we’re saying, “I’m going to move into the position where my knowledge and my authority are not in charge, and I’m going to listen actively and open myself up.” I think that they ask us to be attentive and to use different senses in an attempt to gather meaning and feeling. They make you listen with your ear and trust what you hear, they make you see things and trust what you see. They make you think associatively and trust that the tangential connection is valid. That is part of what helps us move from our own point of view into another.
I really believe that the more you do that, the more you see the world as a place where there are multiple realities happening, and they’re all valid. And if you can do that, then you look at other people differently. You look at your own stake in things as just one of many. And I think it has the potential of making us care better about other people’s lives.
RS: Is that the intent behind your new edited volume, American Journal?
TKS: I think so. I mean, I think it’s a way of saying, “Here are fifty different voices that have something to say about what it feels like to be an American.” They are inevitably going to be saying different and sometimes contradictory things, but they’re all bound together in this one volume. They are contributing to a sense of place that is varied and rich and surprising and consoling. I like celebrating that. I like saying there is no one American experience, and how beautiful that is. Let’s see how much we can gather and learn and be touched and moved by all of these different voices.
The crazy thing is, of course, there is so much that you find of yourself in somebody else’s story. There is so much you find of your own path in somebody else’s path. Even if your lives couldn’t look more different from the outside.
RS: Your recent project, Wade in the Water, excavates history in a way that brings it into close conversation with the present. Can you talk about that process?
TKS: I felt myself, when I was writing those poems, really intent upon hearing something from historic voices that could be useful to this moment in the twenty-first century. I wanted to know if there was something that a black soldier in the Civil War had experienced that could help me make better sense of what I’m here to do, right now, in my life—you know, as an American, as a woman, as somebody in the age of technology. And I felt that way with all of the historical material that makes up that one section of the book. I’m asking it to shed light on the present, to shed light on versions of the future.
RS: Returning for a moment to American Journal—there are a number of poems in that book by poets from the industrial Midwest, including Eve Ewing and Danez Smith. This is a region that is grappling with a lot of the same questions you’re getting at in Wade in the Water, as well, about history’s bearing on the present. How do you see literature guiding us through that process?
TKS: You know, I really do believe that drawing from all of these different perspectives on history and on progress is informative and useful—and humbling, too, to understand that my sense of what matters can sometimes be troubling to somebody else’s. I think it’s important to recognize that.
You mentioned Eve Ewing—I love the way that her poems draw from history, from the imagination, from anecdote, from sociology. And she does something that feels so organic, useful, and inevitable in thinking in these different directions. It’s not like we’re trying to solve something that has one single solution, but the solution seems to be about opening ourselves up to different kinds of reality, and different senses of what is real, what is valuable.
There’s also so much—I was just in Detroit, and there’s so much new energy, there’s so much that is, you know, struggling to preserve a powerful and rich tradition. There are so many different populations that have so much invested and at stake in notions of growth and change and progress. And we’re not going to get anywhere unless we find a way of drawing upon everyone’s investment and find something large enough to to be inclusive. And somehow poetry is a naturally inclusive art form; you’re drawing from so many different kinds of realities.
RS: You’ll be in Indiana at the end of November. How do you see your position in relation to places like the Rust Belt and Midwest, which aren’t always seen as having a strong literary culture—even though, of course, there’s an enormous tradition of writing and engagement here?
TKS: Well, it’s been sort of awakening for me to have spent most of this year and last year outside of these coastal cities. I feel so enlarged by the conversations, and I feel a palpable sense of energy in communities where there isn’t necessarily a constant flux of readers and reading series. I think it’s made me feel more grateful. It’s made me feel like this isn’t just shop talk, in a way, but that poetry is really about finding a better way of being alive. I think it’s an important time in America for those of us who are listening to be pushing ourselves to listen in all different directions. Otherwise we’re just listening to ourselves.
Tracy K. Smith is the 22nd United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She has published one memoir and four collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Wade in the Water (2018). Her collection Life on Mars won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and her 2015 memoir Ordinary Light was shortlisted for the National Book Award.
Cover image of Tracy K. Smith by Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Courtesy Blue Flower Arts.
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