An Interview with Tracy K. Smith

Eleanor Wright, Issue 42

I discovered Tracy K. Smith’s work early in my first year of college. Poetry wasn’t really on my radar then—at least nothing contemporary—but I was taking a required composition course, and in the classroom I spotted a poster bearing some lines from a poem. The last couplet, which read “You are not the only one / Alive like that,” lodged in my mind: even lacking any context for the words, I felt electrified by the truth they managed so simply to express, and by the sense of wise, intimate authority the second-person address carried. The couplet looped in my head for weeks, and when I finally resorted to Google, I learned it was from Smith’s first collection, The Body’s Question.

I borrowed her books from the library and found them full of lines like the ones that had hooked me. From short lyrics to erasures to sectioned, multi-form elegies, all of Smith’s work feels radically “alive”—traversing space and time; rife with cultural and historical references (to, for example, rock music; scientific research; classic movie scenes); and always illuminating with great care the complexities of consciousness and embodiment. Her poems pose fundamental questions—about love, time, mortality, and faith (“Is It us, or what contains us?” she asks in Life on Mars)and pursue them with imagination, rigor, a bold comfort with uncertainty, and an unswerving commitment to candor and humaneness. Like the couplet that led me to her work, Smith’s writing seems often to spring from an empathetic impulse, animated by common human experiences and invested in the insight we can gain by watching and listening to each other. This gives even her most personal poems a decidedly political charge: they feel revolutionary in their openness of spirit, their attention to a range of voices. And, for all their sagacity and poise—their precise images and finely-crafted music—Smith’s poems manage to be, too, surprising and audacious. Her second collection is titled Duende, a Spanish word that eludes precise translation but denotes a quality of soulful artistic passion and inspiration; perhaps it’s this same quality that infuses her patiently lucid writing with visceral urgency, yielding lines that stick persistently in a reader’s heart and mind.

Smith has written four poetry collections: The Body's Question, which won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; Duende, which received the James Laughlin Award; Life on Mars, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; and, most recently, Wade in the Water, published in April by Graywolf Press. She's also the author of a memoir, Ordinary Light, which 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 spring. Smith and I corresponded by email about writing, reading, teaching, and her latest collection.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: 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?

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.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your work notably embraces questioning—both via interrogatives and through other formulations that reject single, easy truths (e.g., “New Road Station” names four things history metaphorically isn’t, along with at least three that it “perhaps” might be). Are there particular questions you think of as driving Wade in the Water?

SMITH: For me, poems, no matter how they behave, are questions. They are places to test out new lines of inquiry. I am always asking poems to show me who we are, what we are connected to, what our actions and choices set into motion, and whether it might somehow be possible to become better at being human. I don’t think the poems lay out answers to any of that, incidentally, but their manner of exploring these questions feels fruitful.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: 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?

SMITH: 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.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: This last comment makes me wonder about your process assembling a book. You’ve talked a bit about Wade in the Water’s genesis, but more broadly, how early on do you typically begin to sense a manuscript’s “overarching themes”? Are they something you mostly notice cropping up in poems you’ve already written, or do they often enter through conscious choices like the ones you describe with “Watershed” and “Eternity”?

SMITH: I tend to write and “bank” poems slowly for long stretches of time, and then, when I have the extended time and space, or when my questions become more urgent, I sit down to a season of intense writing. Those banked poems help me get started, but inevitably the work generated during that intense period is characterized by recurring themes, images, vocabulary, and obsessions. Once I have a body of realized poems that feels substantial—say, 30 or 40 pages—I start to hunt for the different things the poems seem to be saying to one another in an effort to decipher what is missing. This is my favorite feeling, something charged and electric. 

Then, after the creation of poems winds down, I get practical and try to clarify, amplify, trim and arrange to the most powerful effect. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I’m also curious, hearing about how you created the found poems—are there any poets whose work has inspired or instructed you specifically in this domain of found/collaged poetry, or poetry that incorporates historical source documents?

SMITH: I have taught CD Wright’s One Big Self, in both the poetry and photography formats, to my students in the past. I like the way that project emphasizes that the various speakers and photo subjects have chosen to not only share parts of their own stories, but also decided how they’d  like to be photographed. I think it urges the viewer to submit to the terms and values of the subjects rather than cling to any pre-existing sense of what dignity or autonomy ought to look like. And I love how Wright allows the text of her various speakers to become a kind of chorus.  My found poems behave differently, but those possibilities were somewhere in my mind as I worked. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In addition to the found poems in Wade in the Water and your previous books, you’ve also written erasures (including an erasure of the Declaration of Independence) and translated poetry from the Chinese. Do these various modes of working with existing text feel similar to each other? Do found texts you’ve worked with sometimes inform your subsequent writing? (I know “Eternity” quotes a line from a Yi Lei poem you translated.)

SMITH: Writing the found poems feels more like writing a poem of my own than anything else. I’m listening for possibilities in meaning and emotional tone, and trying to make useful formal decisions, in a way that is more similar than different to what happens when I am writing. But translating is a different thing altogether. It’s exciting and also a bit frightening to be moving through someone else’s imagination and vocabulary, trying to render that work into English with what feels, hopefully, like an indigenous sensibility. That work is something I can do when I don’t have any ideas for poems, and it draws me into conversation with another poetic sensibility. I often find that, after working on several new translations, I am driven to write. In fact, I think I picked up the pace on my own new poems, and wrote the bulk of Wade in the Water, precisely because of my work on Yi Lei’s poems. That’s one reason that the poem “Eternity,” which is set in China and dedicated in part to Yi Lei, felt important to include in the book, because much of my own new work comes directly out of that relationship.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: That’s fascinating! Did the poems you wrote after doing that translation feel stylistically or thematically influenced by Yi Lei’s work? Or was it just a sense of being spurred to write by the experience of working intensively with language?

SMITH: Yi Lei has big questions. When she writes about love and desire, they are vehicles for the philosophical examination of humanity, of the ways we respond to authority, and more and more they are vehicles for thinking about the plight of the earth. I know that her poems inspired some of my own, if even only in tone. Several poems in Wade in the Water were written after translating poems of hers called “In the Distance” and “Green Trees Greet the Rainstorm.”

WASHINGTON SQUARE: 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?

SMITH: 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.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Your poems have a habit of calling chronology into question. An elegy to your mother in The Body’s Question ends with the lines, “We sat in that room until the wood was spent. / We never left the room. / The wood was never spent.” In Wade in the Water, the first section of “Eternity” begins “It is as if I can almost still remember” and closes with trees “Ageless, constant, / Growing down into earth and up into history.” Any thoughts on the challenges and possibilities of processing (or traversing) time through language?

SMITH: The older I get, the more I begin to think of Time as not just a force or a law of nature, but as a presence we live alongside, someone rather than something. It teases us; it helps us sometimes, so that what is happening now feels like it has already occurred once before; it bridles adults and happily submits to being largely ignored by children. If we are moving through Time, I suspect Time is moving, too, though who knows where it is heading? My poems strain for the kind of freedom to rise above Time on occasion, to see through it, to make use of what once (when I needed it) might have been invisible to me and what now (after the fact) can seem plain. Poems, like movies, are good at indulging this wish. They let you move back and forth, slowing things down or speeding them up in an attempt to get a fuller, more satisfying view.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: 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?

SMITH: 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?”

WASHINGTON SQUARE: 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?

SMITH: 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. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: I’m intrigued by the extent to which you’ve referred to this poem as an autonomous entity: “it seems to be voiced,” “what I read as fear or hesitation.” Are there some poems that seem more or less transparent to you, more or less within your understanding and control, than others?

SMITH: Oh, sure. But if I do my job correctly, they slip away from that transparency and become something more than I’d initially thought I was after. Even a simple poem like “The Good Life” grew large, for me at least, when the image of “a woman journeying for water from a village without a well” arrived. 

WASHINGTON SQUARE: In Ordinary Light you recall your first poem, written in grade school and titled “Humor.” These days much of your work deals with weighty topics, though you’ve said in other interviews that writing often feels joyful. How do imaginative play and perhaps even humor figure in your process and your poetry right now?

SMITH: I like the way that humor exists in our lives, even in the dark and difficult moments. The way you can break into laughter remembering something while at a funeral, say, and how that can both deepen and lighten your sense of grief. Or how you can sometimes see the humor in your own dire or embarrassing situation, and how that can be both frustrating and something you file away under Things that Will Be Funny in the Future. I see humor as one of the things that keeps us alive. In Black life, humor helps make the unbearable bearable. And it’s a way of bearing witness to what is otherwise unspeakable. If we laugh at it, it has less power over us.

As for imaginative play, maybe that comes from another place. I think it has to do with the joy of losing oneself in something, which is what happens when a poem is really going somewhere. Even if the question animating the poem is a serious one, that sense of being lost in the pursuit is, inevitably, a happy thing—it is about finding something that can constitute a productive path through or out of the matter at hand. It’s about letting the unconscious mind into the process of problem-solving.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Speaking a few years ago with Gregory Pardlo, you mentioned that “music, image, form and departure are the things I’m conscious of managing in a poem.” Can you say a little more about balancing these qualities—and, perhaps, how you know when one or two of them want to predominate? I’m thinking particularly of your poem “Ash,” which, compared to some of the other poems in Wade in the Water, feels especially, conspicuously (and beautifully!) rife with music, rhyme, and repetition.

SMITH: I think my strength is the image. It is what I instinctively turn to when the idea or statement-muscle stalls during the writing process (which is early-in). But that isn’t enough, and so I am also listening for clues in the sounds of what I have already said that might help me determine what to say next. My natural process is to try and distribute the weight of the poem across these mechanisms, but I get very excited when the poem has other plans for itself and leans more toward a rhythmic energy, or toward the rigid structure of rhyme or repetition. That sometimes comes out in revision, as was the case with “Ash.” The poem was little more than a list of ideas until I was able to sit down and hear a set of rhythmic parameters begin to assert force. Then I felt like the poem could finally get somewhere. And sound helped me devise the poem’s “exit strategy” as well.

“The United States Welcomes You” opens with the line, “Why and by whose power were you sent?” and closes with the line, “How and to whom do we address our appeal?” It was landing on that parallel syntax that told me the poem was over. It’s not quite music, but the construction of these two parallel statements operated in a fashion similar to rhyme for me.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You’ve said that writing your memoir Ordinary Light helped you work through your own thinking about race. In a 2016 interview for The Iowa Review, you commented, “I never have figured out how to talk about race in my poetry in a way that feels authentic and organic, and Ordinary Light is a book in which I’m thinking so much about race.” Wade in the Water seems to engage this topic compellingly and with great assurance. How do you feel now about taking up race in your poetry? Did writing your memoir indeed open up new space for that?

SMITH: Writing Ordinary Light helped me break my own silence about how race has shaped me. Perhaps stepping into that subject matter imparted a courage—or simply a vocabulary and an awareness—that hasn’t vanished. Race is one of the chief subjects of Wade in the Water, a site wherein my wish to contemplate the elusive nature of compassion gets played out. I think the topic has also just come up much more frequently and relentlessly in the years since Trayvon Martin’s murder.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: Another subject you grapple with in Ordinary Light is belief in God. The opening poems of Wade in the Water seem to locate the divine in the worldly, sometimes to humorous effect: God drives around in a jeep, and the “Garden of Eden” turns out to be a grocery store. The collection’s final poem, “An Old Story,” also feels faintly Biblical. What made you choose to start (and end?) the book in a spiritual key?

SMITH: I wanted to open the book by invoking a sense of the eternal, to start with a nod to that scale. I wanted to find a way of reminding myself that our 21st Century moment isn’t self-contained; somewhere and somehow, it has bearing upon what happens moving forward throughout all of eternity, even after we humans are gone from this planet. “An Old Story” is born out of the wish to write a new myth. I think we have reached a moment where we need new myths.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: The titles and cover art of your two most recent collections suggest a sort of pairing: “Life on Mars,” with its image of the Cone Nebula, points to the cosmic, while “Wade in the Water” presents as more earthbound. That distinction gets complicated once you open the books—but I wonder if you do see these collections as particularly complementing or speaking to each other?

SMITH: The books have a lot in common. Both are longing for some kind of extra-human counterpoint to the real, the earthbound, the flawed, the finite. Life on Mars is pointed into the future as a way of reckoning with all of that, while Wade in the Water takes up history in a similar effort. I think it is the shift in vocabulary that reads loudest in the books, and that is really a private attempt at finding something newly engaging in my usual conundrums.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: You direct the undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Princeton University; though you’re currently taking time off to focus on Laureate duties, you’ve taught and advised student poets for years. What do you try to impart as a teacher, and what, if anything, has teaching poetry taught you about writing it?

SMITH: I think the only way students learn how to craft their own poems is by reading and learning to pay close attention to the specific choices that other writers make. In this manner, they accumulate tools that can be put to use upon their own material. That’s the emphasis in each of my workshops, though sometimes we use themes to determine the readings, or we look at a specific type of poem—say long poems or poem cycles—over the course of the term.

I also advise thesis students who are involved in producing book-length collections of poems. That process involves weekly meetings where we are looking at and critiquing new poems, but also trying to listen to the themes and questions driving the work. I see it as my job to draw these things out, and offer the kinds of questions and observations that will help students move further into their strengths as writers, and to follow them toward an organic and genuine sense of their own deepening themes and questions. Teaching is inspiring for me. I love the things my students are willing to learn, and the risks they are willing to take with their poems. I love the ways their other academic pursuits sometimes surface in their poems. I also think that over the years teaching has made me a better editor of my own work. In a quiet way, I am editing from the moment I begin writing, pushing myself to think more rigorously and vigorously and to live up to the model of discipline and courage that I encourage my students to embrace.

WASHINGTON SQUARE: 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?

SMITH: 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.