Wade in the Water: Tracy K. Smith On Her New Collection of Poetry

 Image credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Image credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Tracy K. Smith's new poetry collection, Wade in the Water, comes out today from Graywolf Press. Smith's previous collections are The Body's Question, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; Duende, which received the James Laughlin Award; and Life on Mars, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Born in Massachusetts and raised in northern California, Smith now lives in New Jersey, where she directs and teaches in Princeton University's Creative Writing Program. She was named Poet Laureate of the United States in June 2017 and reappointed to the post for a second term last month. An interview with Smith, conducted by Washington Square Review's Interview Co-Editor Eleanor Wright, will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of the magazine; to celebrate Smith's new collection, we've excerpted a preview of their conversation.

Interviews Editor Eleanor Wright: To start, I loved your new collection Wade in the Water.  Not unlike your previous books, this one feels cohesive even as it encompasses poems whose forms and concerns vary.  We get collage, erasure, short lyrics, long sectioned pieces; speakers grapple with the Civil War, immigration, faith, environmental damage, motherhood, grocery shopping. Not only that, several poems were originally written for separate projects: museum exhibitions, an NPR broadcast, an academic conference. How did the book come together and find its shape?  Was there a poem or group of poems it coalesced around?

Tracy K. Smith: Thank you. The core of the book, because it was the poem I had written earliest in the process, always seemed to me to be the long Civil War poem, “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It.” That poem was commissioned for an exhibition of Civil War photographs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery back in 2013. At the time, I wasn’t writing many poems; I was working on my prose memoir, and feeling, somewhat guiltily, that it might be a good idea to take the opportunity to produce a new poem. I imagined my Civil War poem would be a one-time exploration of its time period, but when I came back a few years later to writing poetry, the concerns I found myself wrestling with were rooted in similar questions of history, race, compassion, and justice. Moreover, my sense of the nearness of the past—the way that our public grappling with race and racial prejudice has begun to feel so much like a throwback from an earlier time—ignited the urgent wish to hear something in an earlier period’s voices that might be useful at this moment in the 21st Century.

The title Wade in the Water comes from an African American spiritual, which seems apt for a collection that thinks so much about faith, race, and history (especially the Civil War), and for a poet whose previous book took its name from a song, too.  It’s also the title of a poem in the book’s first section, and it reverberates in images of water throughout the collection—in the poems “Watershed” and “The Everlasting Self,” for example. How did you arrive at the title, and what do you hope it suggests or encapsulates for readers?

While working on the book, I had the experience of attending a ring shout and feeling so deeply moved and shaken by the performance of “Wade in the Water.” After that evening, I suspected that “Wade in the Water” was going to be the title of my book. I wanted to draw-in the sense of the living spirit at the heart of that night’s encounter, and at the heart of the tradition of the ring shout itself: the sense of love and deliverance, of faith and compassion, of justice and survival.

“Watershed” was a poem I knew I wanted to write. I had been powerfully compelled and disturbed by a Nathaniel Rich article about chemical pollution that appeared in the New York Times Magazine in January 2016. I carried the wish to write a poem about that story with me for a year-and-a-half. It wasn’t until I found myself preoccupied with questions of love and faith that I figured out how I wanted to work with the source material of the article.

One of the most striking pieces in the book is the long poem you mentioned, “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It.”  I’m curious about the research that goes into a piece like this—how did you come across the source documents, and when did you realize they could constitute a poem?  What made you decide to use collage rather than writing something inspired by the archives? Meanwhile, “Watershed” brilliantly intermixes language from that Nathaniel Rich article with testimony by survivors of near-death experiences; was the process of choosing and assembling your found texts similar for this poem?

For “I Will Tell You the Truth About This…” I went in search of information about African American soldiers’ experience in the Civil War. I found two books that really had a powerful impact upon me: Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files, edited by Elizabeth A. Regosin and Donald R. Shaffer; and Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era, edited by Ira Berlin and Leslie S. Rowland. I didn’t set out to write a found poem, but when I got far enough into that research, I understood that I didn’t want to merely metabolize all of these other real voices and then speak something imagined or invented out in my own voice; rather, I wanted to make space for these very compelling voices to speak to a reader the ways they had spoken to me. And for that to be unmitigated. I sensed my work as one of curating rather than composing.

For a long time I didn’t know what to do with my interest in the Nathaniel Rich article that informs “Watershed.” Then, after most of the manuscript was finished, I had the idea of marrying the facts from that article, in a found poem, with the narratives of near-death-experience (NDE) survivors—people whose vocabularies almost across the board invoke the sense of Love as an original animating force, as the logic of the universe. The fact that indelible images of water lived in both Rich’s article and several memorable NDEs also suggested that this poem might engage in a useful conversation with the title poem. I chose the title “Watershed” even before the poem itself had been written. Incidentally, the only other poem in the book whose title was chosen well in advance of the poem’s composition was “Eternity.” I knew that I wanted to write a poem that invoked a never-ending sense of scale. I suppose those two choices speak to some of the overarching themes I consciously wanted the book to cleave to.

Section III of Wade in the Water ends with a “Political Poem”: a vision of workers cutting grass and communicating intermittently by raising their arms.  Title notwithstanding, the poem doesn’t feel ostentatiously “political”—certainly not compared to some of its neighbors (e.g. the Declaration of Independence erasure).  How does “Political Poem” complement and converse with the book’s more overtly, explicitly political poems?

That poem was originally published as “The Mowers.” Then I read it in Washington, DC in 2016 and realized that the poem’s wish is for something graceful, wordless, grateful and sustaining to link these two imaginary strangers in “common understanding.” I liked setting up, via the title, the expectation of something rigid or dogmatic, and then allowing the poem itself to be gentle.  The story of that poem is that it woke me up one night. I was dreaming that I was reading aloud a mural that had been made of a Carl Phillips poem, when suddenly my waking mind broke in to say: “That’s not a Carl Phillips poem—but if you write it down it can be yours!” I woke up and struggled to remember and reconstruct the lines I’d read in the dream. For me, the memory of “catching” a poem in that fashion seeps into the sense of peace the poem contemplates, causing it to feel fleeting, like something it would be easy, if you’re not working very deliberately, to lose.

Across all four of your collections, many poems speak through personae. Wade in the Water in particular enlists a whole chorus of voices, including historical ones resurrected almost verbatim in collages and erasures.  At the same time, several shorter poems contain a lyric “I” observing a stranger (for example, “Beatific” and “Charity”). And then there’s that line in “Eternity”: “as though all of us must be / Buried deep within each other.” How does poetry foreground or grapple with distinctions between the self and others?

I think the aim of most poems is to erase some measure of the distance between one person and another, usually between the poem’s speaker and its reader, or between the poem’s speaker and its subject. In my earlier work, persona poems have been a tool by which I’ve sought to learn something about some other experience or perspective that is remote from my own.  In this book, I’m doing that more relentlessly. I think in these most recent poems, I’m trying to figure something out about the possibility of something like universal oneness. Maybe what I really want to know is what stands between us and such a possibility. I see “The United States Welcomes You” as another poem fixated upon this topic, though perhaps more obliquely; it seems to be voiced by someone whose aim is not compassionate, though there is space at the end of the poem where what I read as fear or hesitation enters in with the line “What if we / Fail?”

Was it especially difficult, then, to inhabit the persona in “The United States Welcomes You”?  Or, generally, have some personae in your work been more challenging to access than others?

Sometimes, as in the case of “The United States Welcomes You,” a persona is a last resort. In early drafts of that poem, I was struggling with the feeling that I had too much cherishing for the poem’s initial speaker, which I had imagined as a black man with his hands in the air, “arms raised, eyes wide.” So I inverted the poem, and wrote from the perspective of someone apprehending him. I think the title, which came after I’d finished the poem, enlarged the initial scope of the poem. 

You’ve written four poetry collections; when you started writing, you were a student, and now you’re a teacher—not to mention the nation’s Poet Laureate. Looking back, do you have a sense of your writerly evolution across your books? Have your process and preoccupations changed?

I think of my four books of poems in similar terms: The Body’s Question feels to me like a coming-of-age story. Duende is a book that grapples with what it means to me to be an American. And Life on Mars attempts to confront being human. I don’t yet know how to classify Wade in the Water. In part, I think it’s true to say that the selves I’m most committed to in that book are the ones our culture continues to make most vulnerable: women, people of color, the lonely and disenfranchised.  But I truly hope it’s more than that. I often think of a wonderful Marie Howe poem called “The Star Market” which begins: “The people Jesus loved were shopping at the Star Market yesterday.” These are the old, the sick, the people a healthy young person might recoil from. Jesus also loved the foolish, the pushy, the stubborn, the fickle. Maybe I am asking my new poems to remind me that I am one of those people, that America is one of those people.

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