Tracy K Smith: Poet
Tracy K. Smith discusses her major influences as a poet, the highlights of her career and the birth of her daughter.
Tracy K. Smith
Achieving goals sometimes requires reaching for the stars. Poet, Tracy K. Smith, discusses why she looked to outer space to gain perspective on issues closer to home.
TRACY SMITH: How can you do anything without a sense that it's possible? How can you take a step forward toward anything if you don't tell yourself that you're capable of doing it, and you can somehow make it happen?
In my poetry, I am interested in thinking not only about private experience, but also events in the world that I am stopped in one way or another by. And the poems for me are a way of stepping into the mess of experience and figuring something out. "The Good Life".
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 pay day 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.
I remember my late 20s feeling like being an adult was nigh impossible. Living on my own, trying to buy food and, all of those challenges. Trying to get a job for the first time in my field. Poetry kind of requires you to spend a lot of time in contemplation, and giving space to ideas that might feel like whims, and following them until they become something that might mean something.
I got serious about poetry when I was about 19 and in college. There was so much poetry taking place in the world around me that I was shocked to realize in a way that poetry was written by people who are alive, and people who I can be in the same room with. And that made me think, oh, I don't have to wait until I'm an old person to reflect. I can start right now.
I had that moment of realization that if there was that it was going to be my light in the world, it was going to be poetry. And I wanted to just put myself in the middle of a community of people who felt the same way. And so that's why I ended up moving to New York and putting down roots.
When my first book came out, I felt like I was finally maybe going to be able to make a go at this life. And I felt a particular joy when my most recent book came out, "Life on Mars," which in large part, is kind of an extended elegy to my father, who had spent years of his life working as an engineer on the Hubble Space Telescope, and passed away while I was working on poems that had to do science fiction and thinking about space and the universe as metaphors for American life.
The birth of my daughter pushed me to enlarge my sense of what it means to be a writer, and what I hope that my life as an artist can be. And it's not just about thinking of one poem at a time anymore, but I want to think about stretching myself and producing work that's challenging or even frightening to me, but that might somehow be of interest or benefit to her. I feel like as an artist, it's important to recognize everything that is of interest to you, everything in the world, and to allow yourself to move toward that, and to speak to it, and to work in or with it in whatever way it makes sense to you.
TRACY K. SMITH: I think there were two moments when the wish to become a poet really set something in motion for me. And the first one was an experience of reading a book of poems by Seamus Heaney in my living room at college and having something kind of click in my head. And suddenly I wasn't trying to do the work to translate the poem into ordinary language, but it was reaching me kind of in an immediate way. And I realized, this is what a poem is, and this is what a poem does.
That was a poem that was about growing up in Ireland. And everything within it should have been completely foreign to me. But there was a way that I was brought into that landscape and into the family that Heaney was talking about. And I realized that that's what I wanted to do with language.
The other moment was I think maybe more important for me. And my mother was going through the end stages of illness-- terminal illness. And I realized that when I had a moment to myself, what I wanted to do was to write and to try and maybe just put into language what I was struggling with and feeling. And I knew that poetry was going to be the tool that helped me get through that and also just to keep going in the world.
TRACY K. SMITH: I think that the stigma that might be attached to that word "feminism" has a little bit to do with the fact that so much of that discourse is something that we've internalized and that we can sort of take for granted. It might be worth assuming that you or I believe that women should have equal pay and that there should be concessions made for childcare and different things that an earlier generation had to fight for. But there are still a lot of concerns that relate directly to feminism that I think we would be wise to consider, especially with-- I think about younger women, my students, and people who are maybe even just deciding that they're not feminists because of the baggage that they might associate with that word. That's something that I think feminism would be really concerned with and somebody who might be less shy about calling herself a feminist might actually stop and think about what she's being asked to perform just in her day-to-day life as a girl or a woman.
TRACY SMITH: Now that I have a daughter I feel like it's important for her to recognize that I'm contributing something that's not just for us in the home. And I also feel-- maybe this is the selfish part of it. But I want to make some kind of legacy for her to feel connected to. And that's my work.
I want her to have a point of access to these other questions and other lives that she may not have on her own. But I also understand how crucial it is to be there for this person who is everything to me. And finding that balance is something that I'm still learning how to do.
TRACY SMITH: The balance between raising a child and having that kind of private empty space within which to create art is something I'm still kind of getting used to finding. But what I do notice is that the small window of time that I do have now is something that's become much more productive than it was when I was only thinking about myself. And then the trade off is that my daughter inspires me so much.
She makes me want to write much more, and in many more genres, and to think about questions and themes that are much farther flown for my own private experience than before. So she's brought a lot of material to me.
TRACY SMITH: I would definitely consider myself a feminist. And I think that I am interested in a lot of other isms in a way. I'm interested in ways that-- not only gender, but also race, and class, and even like nationality-- come in and temper our perspectives and our experiences.
And I'd like to vocalize that when I can, because I think it's something that we need to remind ourselves of.
It hasn't gone away.
TRACY SMITH: I think that the philosophy that I gravitate to as a person has a lot to do with my aesthetic as a poet. And I think it has to do with wanting to ask questions, making space to listen, and whenever possible, finding ways to step outside of my immediate concerns and assumptions.