Interview with Tracy K. Smith

We talk race, taking advice from Seamus Heaney and poetry’s vital place in society with the US’s next Poet Laureate

July 20, 2017
Tracy K. Smith
Source: Eliza Griffith

Tracy K. Smith is Roger S. Berlind ’52 professor of the humanities and professor of creative writing at Princeton University. She won a Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars and is the author of two other poetry collections. Last month, she was named 22nd US Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress.

Where and when were you born?
Falmouth, Massachusetts in 1972.

How has this shaped you?
My father was in the US Air Force for many years, and our family was transferred from Massachusetts when I was an infant. I spent most of my childhood in Northern California, but I think that the East Coast always held a certain mystique for me. I ended up returning to Massachusetts for college, where I felt what was either a genuine or a vehemently willed sense of homecoming. I still love and make my home in the North East.

I have nostalgia for the 1970s. The world was still analogue. There was the sense of being present, of knowing how to wait, of living without the expectation of immediate gratification. It was a time when advertising and commercial culture were still relatively innocent. In terms of race, the country had already been initiated into a somewhat limited vocabulary for considering the issue and, over the next two decades, that vocabulary and the public and private consciousness it triggered expanded. I guess I came of age during the identity politics heyday of the 1990s, which meant that I had guides and interlocutors for those difficult discussions of race, gender, diversity and social injustice. Of course, that didn’t quite manage to stop the many “micro-aggressions” and more overt forms of racial intolerance that continue to trouble us today.

What drew you towards poetry?
The first time I read the poem I’m Nobody! Who are you? by Emily Dickinson, I was captivated by the sense of a real person speaking to me about things I had never before thought but that I recognised to be true. Many years later, Seamus Heaney’s great poem Digging gave me access to a place, a history and a set of memories that made me feel at home in the speaker’s life and his particular home. That poem also showed me how, when something is considered attentively enough, it becomes larger than itself.

What were your immediate reactions to being appointed Poet Laureate?
I had strong initial feelings of shock and disbelief, which settled into immense honour and gratitude. I thought about how much poetry’s perspective – one of close listening, of submission to that which is beyond one’s own expertise, of belief in strange or unlikely wisdom, and openness to different kinds of sense-making – has sustained me throughout my life, particularly during moments of difficulty and uncertainty. Those are the terms that made me most eager to accept the appointment. I realised that poetry is as vital now as it has ever been.

Often writers are inspired by their socio-political situation. Have the recent upheavals in the US informed your poetic output?
I have always used my poems to grapple with the things that cause me consternation, and that often includes public events. What I appreciate about using poems to work through questions and anxieties about the world is the fact that poetry is never satisfied with easy answers. Writing a poem is a more rigorous, demanding and rewarding process than, say, holding forth upon my own opinion at a dinner party. It means that to engage with something in a poem is to become vulnerable to the various, sometimes conflicting, sides of a story. A poem can help me to consider the perspective of others, even while drawing me into the uncomfortable position of acknowledging ways in which I, too, might be implicated in the events and perspectives I personally decry.

What tip that you believe has helped you in your career can you give to aspiring poets?
Find a way that your poems can be truly useful to you as a person. Writing about what is urgent to you is one way of ensuring that your poems won’t feel merely arbitrary or elective. Let your poems be vehicles for grappling with your real-life questions, fears, wishes and obsessions.

What was your most memorable moment at university?
During the spring of my senior year, when I was preoccupied with what lay ahead, and woefully unsure of how to go about becoming a poet for real, I asked Seamus Heaney to sign my copies of his books. In one, his inscription quoted Yeats: “And wisdom is a butterfly/And not a gloomy bird of prey.” That remains some of the best and most universally-applicable advice I have ever been given.

What is creative writing’s position in the world of higher education? Do you think it, along with arts and humanities subjects, will continue to be part of the academy?
I think that reading like a writer – with a keen eye for the specific choices within language that create discernible effects upon and within the reader – is a beautiful complement to the ways that students tend to read in literature classes. I love that students can use creative writing as a lens through which to consider their interests in a range of academic disciplines both within and beyond the humanities. I think that the attentiveness, discipline, empathy, resourcefulness and curiosity required by the writing process inevitably add to students’ scholarly considerations.

Over the past decade, growth in creative writing programmes has sometimes outpaced that in traditional humanities subjects. This suggests that tying humanities study to the arts might be a way of reinvigorating the humanities.

What brings you comfort?

I am consoled by the openness, resourcefulness and resilience of the current generation of 16-26-year-olds. I think that the human race is going to survive and evolve because of their spirit of love and acceptance.

What to you is the most evocative/powerful line of poetry?
That is an impossible question to answer! But I was recently introduced to D. H. Lawrence’s poem, Song of a Man Who Has Come Through. The last five lines seem to perfectly capture the sense of wish, threat and courage that sits at the heart of the creative process: “What is the knocking?/What is the knocking at the door in the night?/It is somebody wants to do us harm./No, no, it is the three strange angels./Admit them, admit them.”

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Sri-Kartini Leet has been appointed head of art and design at Bucks New University. Dr Leet, who joins from the University of Northampton, will oversee a range of courses including textiles and surface design, graphic design and interior and spatial design. She is excited by the opportunities the university’s students have for working with industry, with many academic staff having an industry background. “Many of the staff who have connections with industry understand the significance of these relationships in improving students’ learning and employability,” said Dr Leet, a senior fellow of the Higher Education Academy. “What is really important is staying up to date with the world our students will be entering when they graduate and ensuring that our curriculum is in sync with changes.”

Piet Eeckhout has been appointed dean of University College London’s Faculty of Laws. Professor Eeckhout, who takes up his position in August, was previously deputy dean and vice-dean (staffing) in the faculty. He joined UCL in 2012, having served as director of the Centre of European Law at King’s College London. Before that, he taught at the universities of Ghent and Brussels (VUB). “I am thrilled to be appointed as the next dean,” he said. “It is such a superb faculty with brilliant colleagues. It is an enormous privilege to lead and to serve UCL Laws’ outstanding projects in these global uncertain times.”

Acclaimed artists and twins, Jane and Louise Wilson, have joined Newcastle University’s fine art department to take up a joint fine art professorship.

Jean Allain, a leading legal scholar on issues of human trafficking and modern slavery, has joined the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute on a part-time basis as professor of public international law.

The University of Sheffield’s vice-chancellor and president Sir Keith Burnett has been appointed chair-elect of the board of the Nuffield Foundation.

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