Tracy K. Smith
"The Poet and the Poem at the Library of Congress"
Grace Cavalieri Interviews Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States,
Tracy K. Smith is the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States, and she’s with us today. After a triumphant inaugural reading last night, which had how many standing ovations Tracy?
It was wonderful..
On behalf of public radio, and Washington DC, we’re thrilled to have you. And because you’re America’s poet, you need to read an opening poem.
And this is going to be from the Pulitzer prize-winning book, Life on Mars.
I think of your hands all those years ago
Learning to maneuver a pencil, or struggling
To fasten a coat. The hands you sit on in class,
The nails you chewed absently. The clumsy authority
With which they sailed to the air when they narrow
You knew the answer. I think of them lying empty
At night, of the fingers wrangling something
From your nose, or buried in the cave of your ear.
All the things they did cautiously, pointedly,
Obedient to the suddenest whim. There Shames.
How they failed. What they won’t forget year after year.
For now. Resting on the wheel or the edge of your knee.
I am trying to decide what they feel when they wake up
And discover my body is near. Before touch.
Pushing off the ledge of the easy quiet dancing between us.
That was the voice of Tracy Kathleen Smith, and everybody’s been wondering what the K is for, so I had to tell that. And she’s Poet Laureate of the United States of America. She’s the author of this Pulitzer prize-winning book, she was born in Massachusetts, grew up in California; the youngest of five children. Her dad was an engineer at an Air Force Base, and her mother was a teacher. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in English and Afro-American studies, and her MFA is from Columbia University. She has two other books, which are The Body’s Question and Duende. So we’re going to hear all about this poet who’s a professor at Princeton University, I think heading the creative writing department, and she’s ours for this time. Tracy, the first thing I want to talk about is your memoir. Because Ordinary Light was a masterwork of vulnerability and honesty. It started with the dying of your mother, and when I opened it I wondered why you’re doing this structurally. Then book ended with the death of your mother, and then I knew that she was the silver thread of your life.
It was a choice I made after I was pretty far into the book. It took me a long time to write, or even want to write, the scene of her dying. And when I did, I realized, this is a thing I’ve known about all along, this was my motivation for writing. Every time, the idea of loss appeared earlier in my childhood. Now, looking back, I know it was calling out to this major loss. And I felt if I waited to reveal that to the reader until the chronological order of the book, I was keeping something secret and that didn’t feel right, so I moved it to the beginning of the book as a way of saying, look, this is what’s bringing me to the page here, and this is why I need to go back to the beginning.
Are you saying that all your life you were getting ready to lose her?
Well, I couldn’t have been. But memory looks for these through lines, you know? So now looking backward, I understand that everything that signaled loss to me, when I was too young to understand what loss was.
Explained loss to you. Well, you have created a woman who will never die. You’ve immortalized your mother. I love her. I mean, decorum, style, righteousness…and cake recipes. We don’t have time for your cornmeal and lemon cake, but I’m sure that came from her right?
I still have a lot of cookbooks that I haven’t even gotten through.
She organized your life in such a way… so much you can depend on. So, I recommend this book, Ordinary Light. I believe it came out in 2015? This was after the Pulitzer prize. And you spent from 2012 the 2015 writing this book? How long did it take?
It was about six years. But to be honest, the first bits and pieces of that book, I started twenty years ago, and just didn’t know how to finish them. So, there are these kernels that brought me back to the page. I don’t know how many of passages ended up in the final version of the book, but that kernel was something I carried around with me.
Ordinary Light, a memoir by Tracy K Smith. She’s America’s poet. And here she is with another poem.
The Universe Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
The first track still almost swings. High hat and snare, even
A few bars of sax the stratosphere will singe-out soon enough.
Synthesized strings. Then something like cellophane
Breaking in as if snagged to a shoe. Crinkle and drag. White noise,
Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings
In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored
Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:
The dark we've only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines churns.
Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.
Tracy Smith, what are you trying to figure out? What questions does that book raise that you are struggling with? I mean, we see technology is in it, pop culture some places, also many personal poems. So, you go outside. The Universe is quite a bit inside as well. When you were writing it, what were you trying to figure out? Science seems so substantial, and humankind seems like the fiction.
It’s true. Well, a lot of the poems come from this sense of ongoing anxiety about who we are as humans, and what we do to each other. And so, some of the first poems I wrote toward this book were poems that were playing with the genre of science fiction as a way of saying, if we don’t change the way we act, what will we be in X number of years. And that took me into the tropes of science fiction and the notion of space and the future. But then my father became ill, and he ended up passing away rather unexpectedly. And so, loss came back to me. I was trying to say goodbye to him. His death reactivated a lot of the feelings of grief that I had lived with, or buried after my mother died. I was struggling to figure out what I needed to believe about where the two of them had gone to. And so, the language of science, and this kind of private theology that pops up with God, God, God all over the book-or it, it, it. I was trying to reconcile these things. Like, okay, the God of the Old Testament seems smaller than what I need to entrust my parents to. How can the language of the future that we now live in help me to augment the structure of eternity? And so, that’s where those two things are coming together. That’s what they’re trying to do.
And in many poems, you talk about the body, and the wonderment of consciousness after the body. There’s a lot of considerations about human form and our essence. And that’s why it’s real. That’s why it won the Pulitzer Prize. I mean, it takes very, very serious questions that had no language, and you found the language for those questions. So, let us have another poem. We are talking to the Poet Laureate of the United States of America. That’s going to be a big thing to put onto your T-shirt. But I love it. She’s is professor at Princeton University, and the mom of three children, and a married woman, and she’s our poet.
Well, I'll read you the last section of a sequence called My God, It’s Full of Stars.
My God, It’s Full of Stars
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.
If you hadn’t been ashamed, that wouldn’t have been as powerful an ending. Because it really is about your relationship with your father. And he was your rock. And when you were little, you saw him as a very large presence, and it gave you faith that the world was okay. I was a military wife for twenty-five years, a career wife. What do you think you benefited from being in that environment?
I think that my father had this really, beautiful sense of order. He was a meticulous man. And he was also really, incredibly loving, and also, really strict. And so we had the sense of safety, protection, indulgence, and expectation.
And as an adult, he even told you to ‘go to your room.’
Oh yeah, I mean he was on the job. He wanted to instill the things in us that he believed were important. And of course, coming out of the segregated South, the sense of doing and being the best always was of supreme importance to him. And I think that having him as an example validated that perspective, because he was everything. He did and gave everything for and to us that made our lives what they were, happy.
And comfortable. And he gave you the sense of organization that is in your DNA, I’m sure. You might even have a little math thrown in there. So, you have your mother who has made housekeeping and aesthetic, an art. And then you have him, who’s a successful engineer. I would say you had a happy childhood.
You’re learning things about what was going on in the world. But, you and Ted Kooser are the only poets I’ve ever known who had a happy childhood. So Life on Mars is taken from a David Bowie song. And you know popular culture. Let’s have another poem. This is Tracy Smith.
Okay. So I’ll do Don’t You Wonder Sometimes
Don’t You Wonder Sometimes
After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure
That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?
Would I put on my coat and return to the kitchen where my
Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired
And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.
He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That’s Bowie
For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play
Within a play, he’s trademarked twice. The hours
Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,
Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.
But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.
Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives
Before take-off, before we find ourselves
Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?
The future isn’t what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
Like migratory souls.
Bowie is among us. Right here
In New York City. In a baseball cap
And expensive jeans. Ducking into
A deli. Flashing all those teeth
At the doorman on his way back up.
Or he’s hailing a taxi on Lafayette
As the sky clouds over at dusk.
He’s in no rush. Doesn’t feel
The way you’d think he feels.
Doesn’t strut or gloat. Tells jokes.
I’ve lived here all these years
And never seen him. Like not knowing
A comet from a shooting star.
But I’ll bet he burns bright,
Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
The way some of us track tissue
Back from the toilet stall. He’s got
The whole world under his foot,
And we are small alongside,
Though there are occasions
When a man his size can meet
Your eyes for just a blip of time
And send a thought like SHINE
SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE
Straight to your mind. Bowie,
I want to believe you. Want to feel
Your will like the wind before rain.
The kind everything simply obeys,
Swept up in that hypnotic dance
As if something with the power to do so
Had looked its way and said:
I really love that one. You’re doing so many things there. It’s not about celebrity, it’s about image. You’re always talking about what part of us remains. You know, what part of us is out there even though our bodies are over there, and how we go on. So, I find it very interesting that you’re always evaluating a state of being. Whether it comes from human form, to image, and celebrity is something you know something about. So, your image is out there, and they think, “Oh, Tracy is always beautiful, and has a beautiful voice, and she’s just got everything,” and your feet might hurt. The image is different from the real person. And you have idealized Bowie because we need that. We need that. You say, go on. And I find that to be a very interesting poem. Let’s have another one.
Okay. Sci Fi.
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,
Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.
For kicks, we'll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned
To the Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we'll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we'll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
Another thing, you talk about things that are speculative, and hypothetical, and abstract. But you bring it home. And I want to go back to David Bowie in a minute. Because when you say “I’ve lived here all these years,” and you really bring that poem home to center in yourself. You don’t take the landscape right away, but it’s the way you ground yourself in it at some point, like a little knot in the middle of a bow, what really works in your poetry. I think people need to study that. And I’m sure you just didn’t consciously say “I’m just going to stick myself in here.”
Well, it’s hard. It’s hard not to. We are, I think many of us, writing from a sense of, okay, who am I? What do I belong to? What does it mean to be here in the world, and struggle with all the stuff that I’m struggling with; that everybody is struggling with? And I feel every poem I write is a wish. It’s a wish to cross some distance that would answer some of those questions. And in order to really enact that, even if it’s just in language, I feel you’ve got to map out something and then get yourself there, and move around within it, and feel as though you can react to it. So, I’m always trying to build a world. And this poem, not because it’s exciting to have images for a reader to notice, but if I can construct something that I can even momentarily believe is real, I can explore it, and gather something from it.
It wouldn’t work otherwise. You can’t fake that. No, I think it’s a wish fulfilled, I would say your poems are wishes fulfilled, and have another one please.
I spent two years not looking
Into the mirror in his office.
Talking, instead, into my hands
Or a pillow in my lap. Glancing up
Occasionally to let out a laugh.
Gradually it felt like a date with a friend,
Which meant it was time to end.
Two years later, I saw him walking
Up Jay Street into the sun. No jacket,
His face a little chapped from wind.
He looked like an ordinary man carrying
Shirts home from the laundry, smiling
About something his daughter had said
Earlier that morning. Back before
You existed to me, you were a theory.
Now I know everything: the words you hate.
Where you itch at night. In our hallway,
There are five photos of your dead wife.
This is what we mean by sharing a life. Still,
From time to time, I think of him watching me
From over the top of his glasses, or eating candy
From a jar. I remember thanking him each time
The session was done. But mostly what I see
Is a human hand reaching down to lift
A pebble from my tongue.
That knocked me out, that last line. And when you begin reading the poem, you think it’s a love poem. And then maybe it is, because of someone who gave you the gift of yourself. Do you feel that was fundamental; that therapy is fundamental to your speech? The insight is what helps?
Oh, I think so. I mean, poetry is a kind of therapy, because you’re working so many things out. Then there are other things that don’t even seem to merit a poem. And therapists are great, because they can allow you to speak of those things.
Did you work with a therapist through your memoir? Because that was hard to write.
No, I didn’t. This poem is really inspired by a therapist that I had for several years.
The pebble on the tongue. How did that ever occur to you?
I think it’s from a folktale I remember. I forget what it’s called. Maybe it’s called The Rooster. The Parrot!... It’s an Italian folktale where someone is made mute, and then eventually she is saved because someone just says, “Oh, you have a pebble in your mouth, let me take it out. Now you can speak.”
See, we all need to read everything. That was from your childhood. Now, this is Tracy Kathleen Smith, and we are rounding the bend. She has a new book coming out. It’s called Wade In the Water. Who’s producing that?
They are the ones! They are just on the front edge. I’m so glad to hear that. And, would you give us a sample?
This is a poem called Ash.
Strange house we must keep and fill.
House that eats and pleads and kills.
House on legs. House on fire. House infested
With desire. Haunted house. Lonely house.
House of trick and suck and shrug.
Give-it-to-me house. I-need-you-baby house.
House whose rooms are pooled with blood.
House with hands. House of guilt. House
That other houses built. House of lies
And pride and bone. House afraid to be alone.
House like an engine that churns and stalls.
House with skin and hair for walls.
House the seasons singe and douse.
House that believes it is not a house.
Tracy Smith. We haven’t mentioned the powerful testimonies about race that you have in Life on Mars, and in Wade in the Water. And you read last night letters, literally letters, from men in the Civil War.
Right, African-American soldiers in the Civil War. And their families often wrote to President Abraham Lincoln asking for help, asking for pay, asking for information relevant to their own freedom, and it’s a really compelling list of documents.
How much of your book does that comprise?
That - I think of it as kind of a central poem, and it’s quite long. It’s probably maybe a twelve-page poem that’s exclusively found material. And, I like the idea of looking backward to history, in order to find something that’s really useful and applicable to us now. And I feel that poem speaks to a lot of things that we’re still struggling with.
An unknown before those men’s voices. Voices from silence.
There are scholars that have done some really amazing work recovering this material, and that’s what I relied on.
And I would like to say that there are testimonies of those victimized in Life on Mars, that you certainly make reference to people who should be remembered. So, you’re an activist poet in that you’re an historian, and you preserve those things that were silent.
Grateful Acknowledgement to Tracy K Smith, The Poetry Office of the Library of Congress, and Greywolf Press where these poems first appeared.