A Conversation with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

Well good afternoon everyone, it’s a
pleasure to welcome all of you to Riggs Library for our latest conversation in
our series on faith and culture. And we’re deeply grateful to be joined today
by our twenty-second U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. Tracy we want to thank you for
being with us. It’s wonderful to have you here at Georgetown just one month into
your new role, and we look forward to your reflections this afternoon. I also
wish to extend a special welcome to Bishop Paul Tighe, the secretary of the
Pontifical Council for Culture, and it’s an honor to have you back with us, Your
Excellency. Now over the course of the past several
years, as part of our ongoing partnership we’ve been privileged to host a number
of events on our campus with the Pontifical Council for Culture, including
a three-day gathering this past the uh three-day gathering called “Courtyard of
the Gentiles: Faith, Culture and the Common Good” in 2014 and then just this
past spring we had a conference, “Towards a New Economy: Justice, Culture, and the
Social Market.” So Your Excellency thank you for your extraordinary leadership
and promoting dialogue and reflection on faith and culture and for your presence
here this afternoon. And we’re also deeply grateful to be joined by Paul Elie
senior fellow at our Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World
Affairs, director of our American Pilgrimage Project, and curator of our
Faith and Culture Series here at Georgetown. Through this series, now
spanning nine years, we’ve had the privilege of welcoming a
number of distinguished authors and artists to the hilltop, from Alice
McDermott and Richard Rodriguez to Marilyn Robinson and Colum McCann. In
recent years we’ve welcomed Christian Wyman and Billy Collins. Just
last semester Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was here, as was Martin Scorsese. So this
afternoon we’re deeply grateful to have the opportunity to include Tracy K.
Smith as part of this series. Today the author of three collected works of
poetry, the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 collection, and
the writer of a memoir that was recognized as a finalist for the National Book
Award, Tracy has demonstrated an interest and talent in writing and poetry from an
early age, describing in her memoir a formative encounter with Emily Dickinson
as a fifth grader. Growing up in northern California, the youngest of five children
and in a military family, she came to the East Coast to earn her bachelor’s degree
from Harvard University in English and American literature and African-American
studies. In 1997 she received her masters of fine arts and creative writing from
Columbia University, before being recognized with the
Stegner Fellowship in Poetry at Stanford. Earlier this year when she was
selected as poet laureate she was serving as the Roger S. Berlind Professor
in the Humanities and director of the creative writing program at
Princeton. Her debut collection of poetry, “The Body’s Question,” received the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and her second collection, “Duende,” earned the Academy of American poets 2006 James Laughlin Award. She was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize
in poetry for her collection “Life on Mars,” which centers on the legacy of her
late father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope. And her memoir,
which she just wrote two years later, “Ordinary Light,” which came out in 2015, is
very much an elegy to her late mother, and one of the many ways throughout her
career that she has reflected on the meaning of family, memory, faith, and loss.
Next year she will publish her fourth volume of poetry, “Wade in the Water.” In
addition to exploring her personal experiences, her works provide
an opportunity for us to reflect on race and identity, to realize ideas of faith
and salvation, and to consider what it means to be
American and how we might envision and enact a better future. In the words of
our Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden, quote “Tracy’s work
travels the world and takes on its voices, brings history and memory to life,
calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion, and pop culture”
close quote. In presenting many voices and points of
view and bringing the past into the present, poetry is an invitation to
empathy and understanding. As Tracy reminds us, quote, “Poems cause a person to slow down, to look and listen more carefully, and to submit to the validity
of other voices, other perspectives, other kinds of truth. Poetry as an art form
gives us practice caring about others and accepting that their perspectives
can be as valid and vital as our own,” close quote.
This is what brings us together today and why we are so honored and privileged
to have Tracy with us to share her insights and the joy and empathy that an
engagement with writing and language can evoke. And there’s no better partner for
Tracy in this conversation on faith and culture than distinguished author, editor,
and member of our community, Paul Elie. Before joining Georgetown, Paul spent
nearly two decades in publishing as a senior editor with Farrar, Straus, and
Giroux. He’s the author of two books: “The Life You Save May be Your Own” and
“Reinventing Bach,” as well as essays and articles for the “Atlantic” and the “New
York Times,” “Vanity Fair,” and “Commonweal.” Through his writing, his projects at the
Berkley Center, his leadership of this Faith and Culture Lecture Series,
Paul explores religious beliefs and narratives and invites us to observe,
examine, and understand the place of faith in contemporary society. We are
grateful to have him with us as moderator today, and now it’s my
privilege to welcome into conversation our participants today, Tracy K. Smith and Paul Elie. Thank you very much, President DeGioia,
Welcome back Bishop Tighe and welcome back to you too, Tracy K. Smith. We’re really
honored that you’re here and so glad to be doing this today. You’re a poet laureate,
your life was already very full and now it’s crammed to bursting. It’s a
good thing you got that new book of poems done. When you came today–and this is a sign of a real artist–she said “I would like to read new work.” So could you
start things off by reading a poem from the forthcoming book? Sure. It’s on okay.
There’s always a moment when somebody has to ask so I’ll just take the hit and
I’ll ask, “Is it on?” I’ll read the title poem to my new book
which is called “Life on”–no “Wade in the Water,” and I’ll just tell you
a little tiny bit about the book. I’ve become really interested in thinking more
deeply about compassion. I was gonna say love, this is a book that’s that’s
desperate for love to feel familiar. I think there are a lot of
traditional love poems in my first three books. There none really in this one, but
it’s a book that’s obsessed with what would it what it would feel like if I
could love you and you and you, and what our world would would feel like if that
was our prime objective, which I’m told it is supposed to be. So this poem is from – it’s kind of anecdotal. I was in coastal Georgia this past winter doing research
on Geechee and Gullah communities. These are, you know, areas
like islands off of Georgia where people who had been enslaved there were able
because of the geography to maintain a distinct sense of some of the ties to
the West African culture, through language and tradition. I went to a
performance. My heart was heavy from all of the other
history from that area that I had been exploring and I walked into this space
and one of the performers walked up to me and said, “I love you,” and she gave me a hug and I kind of lost it. Then I heard her saying it to the person behind me
and the next person, and it didn’t diminish it, it felt like such a
beautiful gift that someone could give. Her name is Bertha McKnight. “Wade in
the Water”: One of the women greeted me. I love you,
she said. She didn’t know me, but I believed her, and a terrible new ache
rolled over in my chest, like in a room where the drapes have been swept back. I
love you, I love you as she continued down the hall past other strangers, each
feeling pierced suddenly by pillars of heavy light. I love you, throughout the
performance in every hand clap, every stomp. I love you in the rusted iron
chains someone was made to drag until love let them be unclasped and left
empty in the center of the ring. I love you in the water where they pretended to
wade, singing that old blood-deep song that dragged us to those banks and cast
us in. I love you, the angles of it scraping at each throat, shouldering past
the swirling dust motes in those beams of light that whatever we now knew we
could let ourselves feel, knew to climb. O woods– O dogs–
O tree– O gun– O girl, run– O miraculous many gone– O Lord– O
Lord– O Lord–is this love
the trouble you promised? You’re in the room, she’s saying I love you, does
that present itself as a as a poem or a poetic moment to you, how much of
its there at that moment and how much of its recollected in tranquility? I think
most of it–I hope–is recollected. I think in that moment I was just there in
that space, kind of responding to what her words created, and I brought that
feeling home with me, and she’s a member of a group that does ring shouts as a
way of keeping this tradition alive, and I’m listening to the recording of them,
and I couldn’t not write about that because I wanted to get back into that
space. I wanted to almost testify to that. The word testify has all sorts of
religious associations, the “blood deep song” that was referenced in the poem, and
whose title it carries is an African American spiritual. Fisk singers Ramsey
Lewis, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey–I worked my way through them this morning. What does
it mean to to not only to write a poem with that title, but then to make that
the title of your book? It situates the work in relationship to
African-American tradition but also to the Christian tradition. How exactly what
what’s what are you doing there? Well, I’m asking that book – I mean that work, that
poem – I’m asking it to be like a beacon of the book. You know, I’m always
interested in the dark realities of what it, you know, what it means to be alive
but I’m also really grateful for those other glimmers of
something that feels larger than what were normally capable of. So I wanted
that poem to occupy that space. As it happens, there is another poem that’s
thinking about water literally in the book that sits a different register and
it’s a long poem – there are a lot of found poems we were talking about at
lunch in this book – so this is another found poem that’s drawn from an article that some of you may have seen in the
“New York Times Magazine” about four years ago about a lawyer who had discovered
some chemical dumping, dumping that the DuPont company was doing decades ago in Pennsylvania. I knew that was an important piece of journalism, and I
wanted to find a way of thinking about it in a poem. I didn’t know how to do
that so I kept that article for years and more recently I’ve been reading a
lot of narratives that come out of people’s near-death experiences, which
are – they sit often at that beautiful spectrum, end of the spectrum where you
know people experience a feeling of universal benevolence and they’re
excited to come back and talk about it. And so those two sources, I wanted to see
if I could make them speak together, so there’s a poem that that’s bringing
these two bits of human testimony into the same space, and that poem is called
“Watershed,” so I wanted the beauty of the,
you know, the ring shout to help look more willingly at all this other stuff
we’re capable of doing as well. So you have love, compassion, universal
benevolence, and yet the key line of “Wade in the Water,” which is brought into the
poem, is about troubling the water the Lord troubles the waters, and the
suggestion I think is that the artist troubles the waters maybe too. Is that what’s going on there? Well-
Those last signs of the poem –
Yeah, “Is this love the trouble you
promised?” I just wanted to keep listening to that
song, and I can’t sing, but when I put my kids to bed during that period – I was
putting my twin boys to bed and we would sing. I make them sing that song with me
and they would say “Come on, wade in the water guys,” or, “Wait in the water, kids,”
because they didn’t know the words, but I I love that idea that this thing that’s
being believed in is fraught, right? God’s going to trouble the waters. Troubling as
a verb is something that’s so fascinating to me because I think it’s
so necessary. I use that verb all the time in the classroom: okay this needs to
be this sits in the poem in a way that hasn’t been mined. Let’s trouble it, you know, let’s get in there and see what, how it can shock us.
And so thinking about love as that force that’s disruptive made sense, especially
when I think about so many things that demonstrate that we are willing to
defend ourselves against love very aggressively. There’s another poem in the
book that draws upon that photo from a few summers ago “Unrest in Baton Rouge” by
the photojournalist Jonathan Bachman; it came out of a Black Lives Matter protest
where a woman in a beautiful gauzy sundress is standing in the street, the
wind is blowing the dress back, she’s so unarmed, and there’s a line of
police officers in riot gear standing her down, and you know the visual makeup
of that photo tells me there’s something that they fear that this woman has, and
all I can see is kind of peace and love in her bearing, and I wanted to explore
that in literal terms. What if love is this thing – this blade we think can cut
us, you know, this weapon that that exacts something from us.
Is that poem brief enough that you could read it? Yeah, if I can – because you, you really got me wanting to hear it. Okay. “Unrest in Baton Rouge” is back here. Sorry.
We don’t usually come back for second helpings in the series, but how can we
let the poem not be read after after the way you described it? I just
have to find – I’m still getting to know the layout of this book, and they haven’t
numbered the pages properly – here it is: the woman’s name in the photo is Aisha
Evans. “Unrest in Baton Rouge”: Our bodies run with ink dark blood. Blood pools in
the pavements seams. Is it strange to say love is a language few practice but all
or near all, speak? Even the men in black armor, the ones jangling handcuffs and
keys. What else are they so buffered against if not love’s blade sizing up
the hearts familiar meat? We watch and grieve. We sleep, stir, eat, love. The heart
sliced open, gutted, clean, love, naked almost in the everlasting street, skirt
lifted by a different kind of breeze. [Applause]
Here you are, Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner,
putting together work that comments on our time in a way that has the feel of
permanence – the poem you just read, I mean. Your memoir leads us through your
girlhood to the time really when you started to become a writer. How did you
get from that point to here: this moment of becoming a poet? Can you tell us how
that, how you recognize that or how it happened? Yeah I, I was one of those kids
that loved language, you know, I loved reading, I like making little things in
language. But I didn’t know that was a possibility. I’d never read a book by
living author until probably I left home for college.
Who was it?
Oh, I’ll tell you soon. I don’t remember what that would be, I should know.
I’m just asking because Seamus Heaney was the one for me.
He was one of the ones that made me feel like I needed to try and do this thing that he exemplified in
his work. Maybe he was one of the first because I remember I was taking one of
the big survey courses at Harvard, and we’d spent, you know, the first semester
probably in the eighteenth century. We spent a long time, and I remember finally in the
beginning of the spring reading “Digging” in the Norton Anthology, and then saying
“Oh wow. This is what I need to do. This is what I wish I had to say.” And it’s the
way I would want to say it, and the sense of place, and of childhood, and of adult
vocation that he brings together in that poem. And the fact that it was so – I
didn’t have to struggle to hear that click that sometimes you have to wait
for when you’re first learning to read poems. I didn’t have to do that, it
entered me in a way that felt so exhilarating, and that was during my
sophomore year at Harvard. Is the Darkroom Collective – did that follow, follow on
that experience?
Yeah it was around that same time. I think it was that same
semester that I met members of the Darkroom and started going to that
reading series, and it was the next year that I started taking poetry workshops, and I think all of that happened because,
in addition to just feeling, you know, so thrilled by what Heaney was doing in language and with private and public history, I also realized that what poems require you to
do is slow down and look really closely at something small, even if the poem is
speaking of something huge, it’s looking at these small details, and it felt like
magic the way that those things could be transformed into other things, and I
wanted to find ways of making the world that I knew, but was still sort of
mystified by, better and clearer and so I would write little poems about riding my
bike in the city or about, you know, dancing or imagining my parents as young
people and just in these little tiny things, feeling, “Okay, I’ve touched this,
I’ve touched something now and it’s different and it will always be
different,” and that just felt so useful to me. It was hard to imagine what else
would be that useful and it still is. So you just described a number of instances there you are as a college student or graduate student going back to your
childhood and finding small things there. Really the big thing back there
was religious faith and the language of religious faith. You said church and the language of religion were non-negotiable in your
household. There’s a Baptist devotion that, if it permeated your life
the way it permeates your account of your life, it must have been very strong.
How was the act of becoming a poet kind of carrying forward of that language or
we’ve taken to that language or something else?
I don’t think I thought about it very much either way at that time. I think that initially it was just
an act of meaning-making. But I could also come to recognize in
what I was saying about my writing and other people’s writing something that
felt similar to what what is said in the church or what is said about the the
word of God. Like we talked about our poems in workshop as though they were
people. You know your poem, your poem seems to be trying to, you know your poem
keeps coming back to this, why are you doing all this stuff to subvert that?
Let’s stop doing that and let’s see what the poem is trying to say here. And you
know that other feeling of using my vocabulary, using my ability to see and
imagine but also hearing something that wasn’t me coming out also felt like it
was an invitation to believe that there’s something more at work. That’s
not hard for me to do because I was taught there is a lot more at work and
and you could pray to it, you can, you can have a relationship with that, so that
came that sense of, you know, credulity, I guess, came pretty naturally to me. And
reflecting on that time, and reflecting on my mother who was going through
cancer when I was in college and I now can see really clearly that there’s a
sense of there is a parallel between this investment, the kind of faith that I was
exercising and saying I know that this is a poem, I know that there’s something
that I can make of this feeling, and what my mother was doing when she was praying, saying, “I know I know your will will be done whether it’s to heal me or
something else.” I think that, you know, in in my memoir I call poetry a version of,
you know, the language of the soul and I still really do feel like that. I don’t
think that you have to believe in the soul to write poetry, but I know there are a lot of things that writers of poems say
about the mysterious aspects of what they do. An easy thing to do is to liken
it to the unconscious mind, which I do often as well. The the part of ourselves
that is smarter, and sort of probably ageless, and that is thinking in
associations and perception it’s unwitting perceptions and dream syntax
that’s, you know, that that’s also scientific, we know that’s there.
But then there are other aspects of creative practice that do
sometimes feel like a spiritual practice. So when you mention it it’s not really
the language of the Bible or the parables from the Gospels or the letters
the Saint Paul, it’s this language of the Spirit in a more general way, and yet one
of the striking things about “Ordinary Light” is that it’s a deeply religious
book that’s not a churchy book, we don’t see your family at church much, the
religion is in the home, the sense of faith is very strong but it’s not a
chapter in verse accounts at all. It left me wondering can you say what was
the texture of religious life like in that community? When we had Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie here she gave us a version of her 14-year-old self
trying to convert someone to Catholicism. You know what did it what did
it what was that language of faith that you heard around the house apart from
what you’ve just described?
It was, well, “Gracious Lord we truly thank you for the
food we’re about to receive.” Before every meal? Yeah it was, “Oh I’m scared about this test.” Okay let’s pray.”
You would get down with your mother on your knees?
No, we would just sit or stand, whatever we were doing we would just close her eyes and say, you
know, “Dear God, please help Tracy to relax about…” and so that was a that was real
for me it still is, you know? I’ve struggled with faith, you know, what I
want to call it, what it means what group it means I belong to. The
writing of my last two books particularly enact that and I think they
helped me come to a place where I’m willing to say yes I need to pray I pray,
I have three kids and I don’t know what this world has in store for them I pray
for them like that’s where all of this has led me, I think. But it’s
funny, I mean, you mentioned the Gospels and everything. I think metaphor- I was
just talking I gave a talk about metaphor and I had to think, what do I
what do I believe metaphor really is about? Like we know it’s descriptive and
we know it does great things but what is it really about? And I think it’s really
about allowing someone to get to a place where they can experience a paradox.
Something that will allow them to accept that this thing that’s supposed to be
this way –love– supposed to be this way, it wasn’t like that for me it was like that,
and and I could only describe it by way of this other wrong context. What
else is like that? Oh well the parables are kind of like that. All of the work,
all the strange mysteries and Christ’s word and words in the Bible are full of
crazy metaphor because there’s something that he’s trying to communicate that
can’t live in the ordinary relationships between words. And for all of the
disciples that were so excited about trying to recreate the experience of the
miraculous for people who hadn’t had direct access to it, language couldn’t be
pedestrian. Language had to go to that wrong place in order to create some
spark, some living spark. So in the sense to go back to one of the poems you read earlier, love was a language that we all know but don’t often enough speak, but
then the more arresting figurative language comes in love as a knife to cut
the heart’s meat that that’s coming out of the same impulse as some of the more
arresting imagery in the Bible.
Yeah that awful image that made me so scared as a
little girl, that winepress, God’s winepress at the end,
you know, I guess six months. But yeah this is, you know, it’s a disruption that
is necessary in order to experience something anew. Then to turn it around
Flannery O’Connor spoke about the need for the novelist to make belief
believable, and so as someone who thinks about these things, I just look to see
when we’re going to this language which seems particularly credible and one of the best instances comes from “Life on Mars.”
So much of your work is about, and we’ll go there, your determination or your wish
to honor your father and mother and carry forward what they were, you know, in
your life and in your work. And this is in reference to your father, and I’m
gonna focus on the verb “I pray you are what waits to break back into
the world through me.” So that’s a very compact and and powerful way of putting
the daughter’s wish to be what’s best about her father, “I pray you are what
waits to break back into the world through me.”
He’s he’s over there in
heaven and you, you want him to break back into experience through you.
Yeah I guess that’s what the words say and I think… So why do I keep saying it, right you said
it perfectly clearly. That is what I wrote and then I also know I wrote that
poem while I was pregnant with my first child and I was also using the joy and
the mystery that was joyful in that, you know, way– like oh there’s someone inside
of me growing and that person has a personality that I’ll come to know
that’s all happening and she’s probably connected to this weird system that also
takes people away, and so there’s a literal tinge to that as well, like, oh maybe he can really just come back. Dorothy Day,
the Catholic saint, let’s call her, she was brought to religion really by the
sense of gratitude she felt as a pregnant woman – she hadn’t expected to be able to get pregnant – and what the gratitude she felt was so large that it
can only be pointed backward towards God, and she began to pray, not unlike, you
know, in the way that you’re describing and then her career as a social activist
and writer followed on that. Now as a as a parent, do you think about how do you
communicate these things to the next generation? You’re singing “Wade in the
Water” to your sons at bedtime, you’re praying to be what’s best about your
father for your daughter, how does it how is it carried forward?
Well it’s different, I think. What I choose to do is shaped by what it’s kind of like the
way I teach. I teach in some ways based on the best things that happen in
workshops, and I just don’t want to have anything to do with the
horrible things that happened in workshops that I was in, and I feel that way about,
you know, instilling a religious sense, and my kids are making space for it. I
want them to have someone they can say “I’m scared” to who’s not me, you know, I
want them to believe that there is something possible that can’t be
explained, and I also don’t want them to feel that believing that gives them the
authority to judge or condemn people who don’t believe that or who believe it
differently. So the vocabulary is different.
We’re not church-going people. I don’t know if that will always be true but I
that’s not what what we do. But my kids, we pray every night before
we go to sleep. And I also talk to them about what I’m
interested in that I don’t understand about life, you know I talk to them
about how I think love is a life-giving force and it it’s not exactly a
scientific statement, but wouldn’t it be exciting if what we feel could make
things happen? You know, my boys are four so those conversations aren’t
quite as elaborate, but my but my daughter is eight and she’s very
precocious and she’s very interested in moral questions. She saw “Star Wars” as a
little, little kid and was obsessed with the dark side, and so I felt like oh wow
okay, alright let’s talk about the whatever the opposite of that is to like
the force. And yeah I just I feel like maybe she’s she’s somebody that I can
bounce ideas off of as they seem useful and I also want her to know that–
and I think she knows this–her vocabulary for things will probably be
different from mine and she’ll teach me things one day. One of the things
that comes across so clearly, especially in “Ordinary Light,” your prose memoir, is
just what good people your parents were. Marilyn Robinson has spoken about the
difficulty of writing about goodness. It’s hard to write about and it’s also
evidently not what the culture expects– We have memoirs of trauma and
pathography instead of biography, but you put before us two thoroughly good people–
good to each other, good to their children,
good to their neighbors– so strongly that that I know their goodness through
your words. As an artist have you thought about that challenge of making
them good on the page? Well, I think this is true for most
writers– you know the end game is publication, but that’s not active in your mind for most of the process, right?
So I was writing that book out of an obsessive need to learn something about
my parents and also capture something for my kids who would never know them.
Both my parents are gone. My kids are I want them to know who we as a family
were and who they come from and so I just wanted to tell stories about that. I
didn’t really have an investment in building that sense of that they were
good people, I just wanted to tell stories about who they had been for me.
Some of the questions that I had about them, like what, you know, how how could my father have been so so capable and so willing to, you know, make our lives as
children easy and happy despite what I imagine he must have been feeling at
different moments in his life in the world. You know, he joined the Air Force
when the military was segregated and how I don’t know like how how did he deal
with all of the realities that were real for him? Those questions came
out as a writer, I didn’t have those when I was a kid, but they came into the work
because I said, you know, in one of the subsequent layers of the story I said
wait a minute– I mean what what else was going on there,
and and what does it mean that it was invisible to me when I was a child? I’m struck by what you said about the
memoirs for your children, not exclusively for them, but it’s written
with them in mind. When you engage with your parents and poetry, it seems that
it’s actually more directed between you and them somehow, and I’m wondering if
that has to do with what you said earlier about this sense of having of
the analogy let’s say between literary experience and spiritual experience.
There’s, you seem to be striving almost for a kind of communication – I don’t want
to sound hokey – with your your parents, who are dead, through through the
poems. Is that what’s going on?
Well I remember writing “Life on Mars” and that’s
what – I mean I wasn’t trying to have ouija board sessions with my dad –
They had told you specifically don’t tip any tables, don’t even go to our graves is that it?
Yeah, yeah but I I also, I woke up each day I was I happened
to be on sabbatical or maternity leave or some some version of all this stuff
and I just woke up and I said, but I still I just need to think about him. I
need to think about him, and a poem allowed me to do that. I didn’t know what
the poem was gonna say, I didn’t know what it should say, and the the elegies
in this book, some of them are, you know, a little quick exercises in form because
form helped me harness that wish a little bit – okay well you have to say
this because it’s a guzzle, you have to keep saying this one thing over and over
again while you’re thinking about him. And the memoir, it was more linear, I
guess, right? I would say okay, I wrote this thing from 1978 and this
thing from 1986, what happened in between those years? Well let me go back and try
and logically think about what I remember from you know this grade, or
this grade, or this, you know, time of watching the news at night with my
parents. So there was often an anchor to the external world that
helped me figure out what to dive into. There’s a very candid moment, I think,
it’s in your memoir where you you say you were writing, maybe it’s an interview,
you’re writing poetry in college and then your mother took ill or became
gravely ill and died and then you went to graduate school and you had material. And
in some ways a lot of the next 15 years with the material of engaging with the
awfulness of the death of both parents and now, are you onto something
else now, or is the fact that you’ve dealt with that so thoroughly does that
create space for you to think about people being mistreated in Louisiana, or
Gullah culture, or how did you get to this next step that you’re on now? I think that, I don’t know, that’s probably
good answer that’s honest. I didn’t have a lot of poems for a long time
because this memoir took about six years to write. So not much poetry in
that time? Yeah not much poetry, that one we talked about, that Smithsonian poem that
was probably one of the first poems that I wrote after “Life on Mars” and that was
simply because I knew it would be smart to say yes to something that would make
me write a poem, and so I just allowed things to sort of get written and and
get put away. And then what usually happens for me is I come to a period where
I no longer feel like I want to be silent. I no longer feel like it’s enough
to sort of just receive. I want to start making things, and that for me that came
alive during my sabbatical last spring, and so what was happening in the world
was a lot of what I woke up to in in language, you know, woke up to. Is there a challenge of being poet
laureate at a time when poetry and civility and compassion,
needless to say, universal benevolence aren’t common coin in Washington?
I don’t know what it’s like to be poet laureate at any other time. I don’t even quite know what it’s like to be that now, because it’s only been about a month, but
I have this hope that you know poetry is such a – if we let it be it’s such a
beautiful practice and a humbling, in a good way, exercise to let language work upon us and to actually listen to language and
to think this is a voice that’s connected to a life and a person and a
body somewhere, and I’ve just spent 15 minutes with it, what would it mean to
look at somebody and imagine that same depth is there in them, you know, like
what would it mean if if I could listen with curiosity to a person in front of
me. That seems like good political practice. If we could all listen for 15
minutes then good things would happen. I think you’re right. I can hear from the
laughter that there’s there are people in the audience who are have things to
ask and things to say, I want to open it up to them, but first just to circle back
a moment to Seamus Heaney because we have Bishop Tighe who’s here with us, who knows a good amount about Irish poetry, so I’d like to invite him to make a connection or
two between your work and Heaney’s with a question.
Tracy, I just found that
was amazing to listen to. One thing that I am always amazed by is how you talk
about compassion. You were talking when we had lunch earlier, and that
ability you have which I think is one the great artists have is to make us feel I
can identify as I think of my own parents. I can identify with stories
you’re telling. And that ability to help us to see, you
know, very different backgrounds, very different experiences, and yet to see
into it’s almost into the soul of the other person, to see what’s the
commonality, and that I think I want to applaud. The Heaney line that this
stuff keyed up a little bit by Paul. I found myself rereading a little bit of
Heaney, particularly his stuff on seeing things, and he has this lovely idea of
claritas. It’s one of his poems as Stroeve is kind of titled “Claritas,”
about seeing and seeing beyond and seeing more and seeing almost the invisible. He
has a term how the visible is rendered perfectly and yet at the same he’s talking
about a carving on a facade of a cathedral I think in Orvieto, where
there’s a depiction of a baptism. The washers are pouring down and it’s
rendered perfectly, but the invisible is even better, it’s rendered even more, and
I think that capacity of the poet’s to open up and to give us that little more,
and I just want to leave a kind of question that’s pushing it a bit but you
talk there about “I love that I love you.” “I love you I love you.” As a theologian, I
always want to insist that God’s love is gratuitous.
It’s free, it’s given to us, we don’t tarnish we don’t marr it, but that means
it’s equally given and free for everybody else, and often we begin. I
think and there’s great theologian really not really recognized enough, I
think, who says most of us grow up with a kind of sense of competition – we
have to compete for everything, we have to compete for the attention of our
parents if we’re in families. I’m one of six so you learn to make space
for the others as well, but that yet you’re no less loved than the others
who are being loved as well. And do you think poetry can help at this moment be
one of the ways in which Pope Francis talks about a culture of encounter where
we can meet the other person and see the other person and see the good, not see
them as threat, not see them as enemy, not see them as something to be frightened
of? Do you think poetry maybe its moment is to to get that sense of compassion, to
help us to see into the lives of others and to see the rawness and what’s in
need of healing? And I think I love your idea. I think the faith at it’s best is always going to console,
but if it doesn’t stir and agitate and trouble, then it’s also problematic.
So just if you see the poetry its capacity or what you think may be the
question I’m trying to pose here, can poetry really begin to help us to think more about
what unites us?
I think so, I mean I really really want to believe that it
can. I really like what you said about the nature of God’s love, which is that
it’s freely and equally given, it’s not finite, and it just made me think about
how the language that we’ve been thrust into is the opposite of that because
it’s driven by the principles of an economic market where everything is
valuable because it’s finite, and the more you have and the more you can
exclude others from having the better off you are,
and that language has infused everything in our lives, even our view of ourselves,
you know. The only reason we want to be liked on this stuff is so that we could
have more likes then you know it’s it’s like a – poetry I think, is one way of
buying out of that, it’s a few like steps right, but I’m thinking this: the language
of a poem is not it’s not rooted in being efficient in that way and it’s not
rooted in persuading you toward something that you don’t need and it’s
not even trusting of, you know, like the kinds of obfuscation and the
bait-and-switch all of these other you know mechanisms of this other this other
motive of speech. And once you become interested in the other things language
can do I think you become a little bit distrustful of what I just named, all of
those things, those tropes of the market. And so even if you’re not reading a poem,
when that comes at you you feel it as an assault as the assault that it is so
that’s I think an added good I mean that’s an aside from what you’re
talking about what about love and of compassion and of empathy but if we have
those things – love and compassion and empathy – and we also have what is
essentially like a BS meter, then we’re in good form you know so. Thank you for
that, and I should really say amen to that. Any questions from the audience? Could you read another poem? Of course.
[Applause] “The Angels”: Two slung
themselves across chairs once in my motel room. Grizzled in leather biker
gear, emissaries for something I needed to see. I was worn down by an awful panic,
a wrenching in the gut, contortions. They sat there at the table while I slept, I
could sense them with a deck of playing cards between them. To think of how they
smelled, what comes to mind is rum and gasoline, and when they spoke though I
couldn’t I dared not look I glimpsed how one’s teeth were ground down almost to
nubs, which makes me hope some might be straight-up thugs – young, slim, raw – who
bounce and roll with fearsome grace, who’s very voices cause faint souls to
quake. Quake then fools, and fall away. What God do you imagine we obey? Think of
the toil we must cost them, one scaled perfectly to eternity, and still they
come, telling us through the ages not to fear. Just those two, that once, and never
again for me since. Though there are, are their sightings, flashes, hints, a proud
tree and vivid Sun, branches swaying in strong wind rain,
hurling itself at the roof boulders, mounds of Earth mistaken for dead
does, lions, and crouched a rust stained pipe, where a house once stood
which I take each time I pass it for an owl, bright whirl so dangerous and near.
My mother sat whispering with it at the end of her life
while all the rooms of our house filled up with night. [Applause]
You mentioned that you
have children and of course how much your own mother and father meant to you.
I know myself that as I became a mother and and things happened I often had the
feeling that, oh this is what it was like for my mother, and I’m wondering if you
have had some of that and if any of that works its way into your poetry? Oh yeah I
I haven’t written a lot of poems about my children, but I have a couple,
and I have that moment every day, you know, and it’s often it’s like, oh I must
have been this little beautiful thing but it’s also often like, oh God, I put
her through real hell sometimes. You know, seeing my daughter do or understanding
she’s thinking what I must have once thought too. I think it’s amazing. I think
it’s such a gift to be able to be so humbled, really, like when you when you
have kids it is not ever ever ever again about you, at least that’s where I am
right now, and my child rearing, it’s like I’m over now. And I think that’s great, I think
that’s a great place to be. We would all like to thank you very very
much for having accepted the responsibilities of poet laureate. I can
only imagine as a writer how disruptive and distracting it is and to be taken
away from your creative activities. This question has been posed twice and maybe
I’m going to pose it a third time in a different way, but our nation is
experiencing, is going through a very challenging time, enormous risks and once
again our nation’s history is being exposed but in in real time,
who we are and and what the fabric of being an American is and some of that’s
not very attractive. As poet laureate, as the national ambassador for poetry in
our country do you feel any personal responsibility, obligation or duties to
help us navigate this period, to help us understand better who we are through a
lens of compassion and love that, that a lot of your work is pivoted around, and
this could be through your writing, it could be through your representation, it
could be through your teaching, but do you see opportunities and do you see
responsibility at this time in that direction?
I really do.
I think what’s really interesting will for me is to think about how those
strong convictions that have to do with principle and feeling can live in a
conversation about language, which is what I’ve been asked to foster. And so I
think there’s a way to do that, I mean you my beliefs about poetry are
you know what I’ve been talking about, this is something that can help us to
stop avoiding the hard and inditing facts of who we are; this is something that
tells us you have to talk but you also have to stop and listen and struggle
with what you hear. And you know honesty, rather than elaborate obfuscation, is you
know the the currency of a poem, and I think those things mean the same exact
thing when you take the poem away and you talk about human interactions. I’m
talking about poems in this position, but I think it’s a useful set of principles
that relate also to other contexts. Tracy, thank you so much we’re going to recess and go to the reception outside, there are books for you to sign.
Thank you everyone so much for coming, thank you president DeGioia, thank you
again Bishop Tighe and thank you Tracy K. Smith. [Applause] Thank you.

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