Tracy K. Smith: Ghost Writing
Tracy K. Smith has not been the same since she became an orphan. Loss has shaped her perspective as a poet, and as a person.
Tracy K. Smith is an acclaimed poet and author. Her collection Life on Mars won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States, from 2017 to 2019.
Born in 1972 in Falmouth, MA, Smith was raised in Fairfield, CA, and studied at Harvard University and Columbia University. From 1997 to 1999, she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University.
Her work is characterized by its spare, lyrical verse and insightful political impulses. Her first collection of poetry, The Body’s Question (2003), won the Cave Canem prize for the best first book by an African-American poet. Her Pulitzer-winning third volume, Life on Mars (2011), was inspired by her father’s life and work as an engineer on the Hubble space telescope. Her memoir, Ordinary Light (2015), was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction. She published her fourth poetry collection, Wade in the Water, in 2018.
Smith is director of the creative writing program at Princeton University.
(“The Good Life,” 2011)
When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.
For the two-time US poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy K. Smith, poetry is a way to make magic from the stuff of everyday life, to raise tough questions, and invoke wonder, and, she believes, it is for everyone.
Tracy K. Smith: Yeah, we have an instinct, maybe we have a poetry gene in there somewhere, and then there’s a lot of clutter that gets in and says, ah, maybe you should doubt that. Maybe you don’t really know what this poem is saying. And then we have to kind of unlearn that I think.
Consuming poetry may be a natural human gift, but creating it is a job of work. Indeed, Smith committed to her craft quite early in life.
Smith: Yeah, I remember my mother saying, you can be whatever you want to be. I want to be a writer. You can be a writer. Didn’t always make her feel confident of my security to know I wanted to be a poet, not a journalist, but it was too late. She had already told me I could be whatever I wanted to be, and I believed it, and so there is probably a part of me that’s known since I was little that that’s what I was going to become, because that’s what she said I could be.
Tracy Smith grew up in Fairfield, California, the youngest child of Kathryn, a teacher, and Floyd, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope. And though he didn’t fully understand his daughter’s love of poetry, Floyd Smith always encouraged her. By the time he died in 2008, Tracy had already published her first two award-winning books, but it was 2011’s Life on Mars, an exploration of her father’s life and death through the lens of science fiction, that earned Tracy K. Smith the Pulitzer Prize.
(“My God, It’s Full of Stars,” 2011)
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, a bright white.
He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled
To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise
As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.
We learned new words for things. The decade changed.
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is—
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
Smith: I’m always thinking about these other dimensions that we live among, that scientists now are getting more and more confident of. For me, they connect to these other people who are gone. I want to believe they’re somewhere in some state, and so I look at the world through the eyes of somebody who’s looking for people who are gone.
Smith lost her mom and dad 14 years apart and she says, each day since has been shaped by their absence.
Smith: I’m still really drawing upon what it means and feels like to lose parents. You know, so many of my poems are about that, and I think that the poems that aren’t about that are using that somehow, so that’s a big part of my story.
AJC: Do we ever get over it, the lost parents?
Smith: I mean I think of my parents every day. I think, oh, I wish I could ask my mother if I was like my daughter, or I wish I could call my dad and have him come hang this door ’cause only he would be able to fix this crazy door, you know? Small things and then the huge things, too.
On her way to becoming a preeminent voice in American poetry, Smith has faced her share of criticism. One early review was so harsh that for a brief period in her 20s, she stopped writing altogether, and sought out an entirely new creative outlet.
AJC: After undergrad you went back home, your mom wasn’t well, and you had taken a bit of what we call a bit of a pasting critically. Somebody described you as a narcissist? You took up photography; I’m really curious as to how that changed, I read that it changed your perspective, but I’m not sure that I understand how.
Smith: I used to write poems that were driven mostly by statements, because I loved poems that had a certain kind of authority, that were able to say something in a way that made it sound true. And I didn’t know then that the truth comes from saying what you know and then doing a lot of other things. And for me photography got me to recognize that one of the huge things that poems do is to create images, so I couldn’t write a poem for about nine months because of this critique, and it meant I got to walk around with a camera around my neck for that amount of time, looking at the world and saying, I took a whole roll of film in this one subject and this photo is better than this photo. Why? And then I could see, oh, it’s because the light is here, or because her arm is inside rather than outside the frame, and then I thought, oh, there’s a small story, even if it’s just an emotional story that each image tells. I can do that in a poem if I just can transcribe what I see. And that became so exciting.
Smith continues to experiment and to grow. 2018’s Wade in the Water features numerous so-called erasure poems made entirely of excerpts from historical documents many consider sacrosanct, among them, the one that founded America.
Smith: Looking through the Declaration of Independence, I heard a lot of statements that felt very true to African Americans’ role in this country from its inception until now. And if I took away the specific markers of place and time and the specifics that said, we’re talking about England and these elect colonists, if I took that away I could feel something really urgent.
In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms:
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration
and settlement here.
on the high Seas
AJC: Has anybody called you names because of that?
Smith: Tampering with these documents?
AJC: These religious texts?
Smith: Well, no one’s said anything to my face, but that doesn’t mean people don’t have different reactions to the poem, and I don’t know. I mean, my way of sort of saying, this isn’t sacrilege, is that if we have this faith in these founding documents, it’s because we think they can speak in so many different directions and outlast their own time. And isn’t it interesting if they can speak to problems that we are still subject to or that we’re still responsible for? Isn’t it amazing that it can speak to a population that it wasn’t taking into consideration?
Smith’s next project also focuses on the nation’s formative years. The opera, Castor and Patience, scheduled to premiere at Cincinnati Opera in 2020 is set in post-Civil War America. And though it could be quite depressing for Tracy K. Smith to spend so much of her time analyzing the parallels between the past and the present, she resists by looking steadfastly ahead.
AJC: Do you ever get cynical about the nature of the human condition?
Smith: I really don’t feel like I can. I mean I can’t afford to because I have kids. I want to imagine that there’s a world that they can be in and be whole, and that means there are things that I need to be willing to think about and wrestle with and invite other people to think and wrestle with, too, so that those kids can be in a world that’s whole.