“Moving toward What I Don’t Know”: An Interview with Tracy K. Smith
s God being or pure force? The wind / Or what commands it?” begins “The Weather in Space,” the opening poem in Tracy K. Smith’s 2011 collection, Life on Mars. These boldly roving questions characterize Smith’s work. In three books of poetry and a memoir, Smith explores how loss and birth and belief and desire make blurry life’s edges. Her poems play those edges in strange music. Tracy K. Smith was born in 1972 in Massachusetts and raised in northern California. She earned a BA from Harvard and an MFA from Columbia. As an undergraduate, Smith joined the Dark Room Collective, a black reading series and writers’ group that fostered the diverse aesthetic summoned in their unofficial motto: “Total life is what we want.” Smith’s first collection of poetry, The Body’s Question (2003) was selected by Kevin Young for the 2002 Cave Canem Prize. Her second book, Duende (2007), won the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and the 2008 Essence Magazine Literary Award. Smith’s most recent collection, Life on Mars, was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her 2015 memoir, Ordinary Light, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Smith is also the librettist for A Marvelous Order (2016), an opera about urban planners Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. She is translating work by the Chinese poet Yi Lei. Among her many honors and awards are an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, a Whiting Award, and a Rona Jaffe Award. She is a professor at Princeton University. I spoke with Smith in Brooklyn in May of 2014, at Princeton in March of 2015, and by e-mail in December of 2015. The spaces between our conversations were punctuated by steep changes: the birth of her twins, a move from Brooklyn to New Jersey, her appointment as Director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton, and the publication of Ordinary Light.
Claire Schwartz: What do you hear that you feel summoned by, that provokes a rise in you?