Friday, June 16, 2017

Tracy K. Smith New Poet Laureate of the US + Poem

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
In a marvelous move, the new Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, has just named Tracy K. Smith (1972-) as the new Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress, i.e., Poet Laureate of the US. She is the 22nd person to hold this post, and succeeds acclaimed poet Juan Felipe Herrera, who was the first Latino to serve as in the post. She also will join a long list of distinguished predecessors, including three Black women who have won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, as she did: Gwendolyn Brooks, who served--as Consultant for Poetry, before the Poet Laureate post was officially created--in 1985 and 1986; Rita Dove, who served from 1993 through 1995; and Natasha Trethewey, who served from 2012 through 2014.

Tracy is a native of Massachusetts, and grew up in California. I have known her since her undergraduate years, when she first joined the Dark Room Writers Collective as she was finishing up at Harvard, where she studied English and African American Studies. She later attended Columbia, where she received her MFA, and was a Stegner Fellow from 1997 to 1999. Tracy now directs the undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Princeton University, where she is Professor of Creative Writing.

Her poetry has received acclaim from her earliest book, The Body's Question, which received the Cave Canem Prize and was published by Graywolf Press in 2003. Her second book, Duende, earned her the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and was published by Graywolf Press in 2007, and her third book, Life on Mars, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. In 2014, she received the prestigious Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, given for distinguished achievement. Tracy has also published a highly praised work of nonfiction entitled Ordinary Light: A Memoir, and has a new book of poetry, Wade in the Water, forthcoming next year.

Among the last ten or so Poet Laureates, some, like Trethewey and Herrera, have been very active in taking poetry outside the academy and engaging an array of communities in public programs and projects. About her own aims for the post, Tracy has told the New York Times' Alexandra Alter:
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to take what I consider to be the good news of poetry to parts of the country where literary festivals don’t always go,” she said. “Poetry is something that’s relevant to everyone’s life, whether they’re habitual readers of poetry or not.”
I am excited about her appointment, not only because of her gifts as a poet, teacher and poetry citizen, but particularly because if there is anyone who can negotiate and navigate the challenges a Poet Laureate--or any major figure in the arts--might face in our deeply divided country, particularly with the current President and administration operating in the foreground and background, it's someone like Tracy. Congratulations to her!

Update: Although Tracy noted in the Alter article that she did not plan to "advocate social causes," despite the fact that her work has, from the beginning, demonstrated a complex grasp of the world and social engagement, the following first step is a good sign: On the PBS News Hour's site, Tracy recommends four poetry books to read, and all are not just fine works of craft, but each speaks in a different and necessary way to our current political moment: Solmaz Sharif's Look; Erika L. Sánchez's Lessons on Expulsion; James Richardson's During; and Claudia Rankine's Citizen.


Here's one of Tracy's eponymous poems from Duende, her second collection, my personal favorite of her three poetry books, and perhaps the most formally daring, borrowed from the Poets.Org (Academy of American Poets) website. (One poet who comes to mind whenever I read Tracy's Duende poems but whose name I've never seen mentioned in conjunction with hers is Jay Wright, oddly enough.) The voice in this collection's poems immediately grabbed me. Tracy's lyric transformations, the dramatic movement in these poems, which follows not just the actions the poems describe but the pathways of feeling flowing throughout them, show incredible skill, and often in this volume, as here, cast a spell.


The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir
Of furious music heavy in the throat.
They drag it out and with nails in their feet
Coax the night into being. Brief believing.
A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.
And in this night that is not night,
Each word is a wish, each phrase
A shape their bodies ache to fill—
         I’m going to braid my hair
     Braid many colors into my hair
         I’ll put a long braid in my hair
     And write your name there
They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing.
And not just them. Not just
The ramshackle family, the tíos,
Primitos, not just the bailaor
Whose heels have notched
And hammered time
So the hours flow in place
Like a tin river, marking
Only what once was.
Not just the voices of scraping
Against the river, nor the hands
Nudging them farther, fingers
Like blind birds, palms empty,
Echoing. Not just the women
With sober faces and flowers
In their hair, the ones who dance
As though they’re burying
Memory—one last time—
Beneath them.
               And I hate to do it here.
To set myself heavily beside them.
Not now that they’ve proven
The body a myth, a parable
For what not even language
Moves quickly enough to name.
If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet.
There is always a road,
The sea, dark hair, dolor.
Always a question
Bigger than itself—
          They say you’re leaving Monday

          Why can’t you leave on Tuesday?

Tracy K. Smith, "Duende" from Duende.
Copyright © 2007 by Tracy K. Smith.
Reprinted by permission of Graywolf Press.

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