“Mov­ing to­ward What I Don’t Know”: An In­ter­view with Tracy K. Smith

The Iowa Review - - NEWS - Claire schwartz

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?

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