One voice speak­ing, qui­etly

The new US Poet Lau­re­ate wants to reach be­yond po­etry fans by ini­ti­at­ing ‘quiet con­ver­sa­tions’.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - By CAROLYN KELLOGG

ON an early June day, Tracy K. Smith looked out the win­dow of her of­fice at Prince­ton Univer­sity at a sculp­ture by Pi­casso as stu­dents and their fam­i­lies pre­pared for grad­u­a­tion ac­tiv­i­ties. None of them knew that Smith, who was field­ing a bat­tery of phone calls, would soon be an­nounced as the 2017 US poet lau­re­ate. The Li­brary of Congress made it of­fi­cial ear­lier this month.

At 45, Smith is unusu­ally young to re­ceive the hon­our – other young re­cip­i­ents in­clude Rita Dove, Robert Low­ell and Natasha Trethe­way. Es­tab­lished in 1936 as the con­sul­tant in po­etry and changed in 1985 by Congress to poet lau­re­ate, the po­si­tion has also been held by Don­ald Hall, Robert Pin­sky, Robert Penn War­ren, Philip Levine, and Joseph Brod­sky. Smith suc­ceeds Juan Felipe Her­rera, the first Latino poet lau­re­ate.

From a child­hood in Fair­field, Cal­i­for­nia, to win­ning the Cave Canem po­etry prize for 2003’s The Body’s Ques­tion and on to be­ing awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in po­etry for her most re­cent col­lec­tion, Life On Mars, Smith has shown a sin­gu­lar fo­cus and ded­i­ca­tion to her craft. If the role of the poet lau­re­ate is, in part, to be an am­bas­sador, Smith will be a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for lis­ten­ing, quiet, and con­tem­pla­tion.

The poet lau­re­ate ti­tle of­ten caps off a ca­reer, but you’re get­ting it at 45. What does that mean to you?

There’s a dif­fer­ent kind of weight that I’ve been mulling over in that re­gard. Any­time ac­knowl­edg­ment comes – and this is the great­est ac­knowl­edg­ment that I’ve ex­pe­ri­enced ever as a writer – it makes me feel like, OK, some­one’s lis­ten­ing, and some­one wants me to keep do­ing what I love and need to do. And that feels re­ally good.

Be­yond that, I try and push away any sense of the ex­ter­nal pres­sure to be a cer­tain kind of writer, and re­ally fo­cus on the work that sus­tains me, which is quiet, and it’s pri­vate, and it’s con­tem­pla­tive.

I feel re­ally for­tu­nate that Natasha Trethe­way is a friend – see­ing how her work as a writer con­tin­ues to grow and change, and she’s push­ing her­self now into a new genre, I feel heart­ened that this doesn’t have to be the end point of any­thing in my ca­reer but, rather, a turn­ing point.

Be­ing poet lau­re­ate in­cludes a pub­lic en­gage­ment role. Do you know what you might do?

Luck­ily I have a lit­tle bit of time to for­mu­late a clear sense of what I’d like to do, and what might be still new for the of­fice.

My cu­rios­ity as a writer and as a per­son makes me re­ally in­ter­ested in parts of the coun­try that I haven’t ex­plored through writ­ers fes­ti­vals or through the kind of cam­pus vis­its that I do, and en­gag­ing with peo­ple who may be read­ers of po­etry and may not.

And lis­ten­ing to what their re­ac­tions to this art form sound like, and what kinds of sto­ries within their own set of ex­pe­ri­ences are spo­ken to. What sto­ries get ac­ti­vated by that con­ver­sa­tion.

I have this idea that this fo­rum of the lau­re­ate­ship might open up in­roads to dif­fer­ent, qui­eter kinds of con­ver­sa­tions than I’m used to.

When you say “qui­eter”, what do you mean?

I like to use that word be­cause I feel like a poem draws us into a qui­eter space, a deci­bel level that sits be­low the reg­is­ter of the me­dia that we live with. I’m talk­ing about ad­ver­tis­ing and the sound bites that we are drawn to­ward with and without our con­sent.

I like the way that when you’re read­ing a poem, it’s one voice talk­ing qui­etly to you about some­thing that has hap­pened. Some­thing that has made the cre­ator of the poem feel pow­er­fully changed, pow­er­fully present, pow­er­fully alive.

The con­ver­sa­tions that come out of that kind of en­gage­ment are thought­ful. They’re not about re­act­ing im­me­di­ately with ut­ter con­fi­dence to some­thing, but teas­ing out some­thing that is nu­anced and a lit­tle bit un­usual.

A poem, nec­es­sar­ily, sits at a reg­is­ter that’s dif­fer­ent from our usual con­ver­sa­tional voices. You have to lis­ten more ac­tively to get to the heart of what’s be­ing said, what you as a reader or lis­tener are be­ing asked to feel, or no­tice.

Could you tell me about that ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing, lis­ten­ing?

I first got caught up in this mar­vel­lous feel­ing of be­ing spo­ken to in that very di­rect, pri­vate, mag­i­cal way by a poem when I was re­ally young. I was in grade school and found an Emily Dick­in­son poem in a text­book that be­gins, “I’m no­body, who are you? Are you no­body, too? Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell!” Feel­ing like I was in col­lu­sion with some­one that knew more about me than I knew about my­self, and who I sus­pected was right. And I liked that feel­ing.

Then it was a hand­ful of years later when I re­alised there were po­ets who were still alive and writ­ing; read­ing pub­licly and talk­ing about their work. That’s when I un­der­stood that this was a vo­ca­tion that could be real for me.

It wasn’t just a mat­ter of dream­ing about by­gone days when peo­ple wrote po­ems but of ac­tu­ally find­ing com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple who were still do­ing that, and who could teach me how to do it.

Do you mean a com­mu­nity like the or­gan­i­sa­tion Cave Canem?

Cave Canem is a yearly re­treat for black po­ets where there are work­shops with a group of fac­ulty mem­bers and read­ings.

It’s this re­ally beau­ti­ful gath­er­ing where a lot of art gets made and a lot of con­ver­sa­tions and teach­ing hap­pen. There’s also a book prize that Cave Canem spon­sors for a book of po­ems by a black poet. So it’s kind of a home for black po­etry. What I have seen over the last 20 years is how Cave Canem has, I think, rein­vig­o­rated Amer­i­can po­etry.

And other or­gan­i­sa­tions have kind of fol­lowed suit. Kundi­man, which is an Asian-Amer­i­can re­treat sim­i­lar to Cave Canem, has been go­ing for close to 20 years now.

There are other ways that the cho­rus of Amer­i­can po­etry has broad­ened and deep­ened in ways that I think are re­ally beau­ti­ful, owing in re­ally di­rect ways to what Cave Canem has done.

You’re a pro­fes­sor at Prince­ton and chair of its cre­ative writ­ing de­part­ment, are mar­ried and have young chil­dren. How do you cre­ate the quiet and space to write?

I think that since hav­ing kids, it’s re­ally easy. My tol­er­ance for noise has prob­a­bly changed a lot. For me, quiet and space to cre­ate is 8.45 in the morn­ing, ev­ery­body’s at school, and there’s just the hum of the re­frig­er­a­tor. That’ll do it for me. That’s my trick. Just close the door and sit down, know­ing I only have a hand­ful of hours be­fore it’s go­ing to get noisy again.

The cur­rent con­ver­sa­tion in the United States is so racially charged. What role do you think po­etry can play?

I feel like the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the poet is to the urges that set the poem into mo­tion. Gen­er­ally, those urges are for some­thing that is more con­crete, more nu­anced, more vis­ceral, move ob­serv­able and more mys­te­ri­ous than the kind of things that are at­tempt­ing to call our at­ten­tion to them in the dis­course you’re talk­ing about.

I feel like that’s so nec­es­sary. It’s so nec­es­sary to look away from your com­puter screen where things are pop­ping up, and where some of your strong opin­ions – some of which are founded on real, mea­sured thought, but many of which are founded on a kind of gut re­ac­tion – are chal­lenged.

What you’re forced to do is lis­ten anew to some­thing. To say that the most suc­cess­ful path through a set of ques­tions is not to go to the sim­plest, flat­test, loud­est point and rush out, but to move, with a lot of at­ten­tion, and with some self­doubt, and with a will­ing­ness to be per­suaded through all of the more nu­anced facets of the con­ver­sa­tion. – Los An­ge­les Times/Tri­bune News Ser­vice


Smith in Wash­ing­ton DC af­ter the of­fi­cial con­fir­ma­tion of her po­si­tion as the new US Poet Lau­re­ate.

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