Tracy K. Smith’s latest collection, “Wade in the Water,” is a work that illuminates American life with piercing care. It’s a slight departure in scope from Smith’s previous collection of poetry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Life on Mars” — in accordance with its title, which is drawn from a spiritual that was supposedly used as a guide for fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad, this book is more willing to submerge itself in the earthbound world and all its attendant, all too tangible injustices.
One of the collection’s most viral works, “Declaration,” is a stunning erasure poem of the Declaration of Independence that recharges the document with fire, forcing it to reckon with America’s long and hypocritical history of slavery. Another, called “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It,” draws from letters sent between African-American families during the Civil War as its primary source.
Yet Smith’s poems here are also driven by a sense of love and desire that’s always reaching higher — the book starts out, somewhat playfully, on “Garden of Eden / On Montague Street,” and ends with a vision of seemingly post-apocalyptic hope in “An Old Story.” Her words are always aching towards transcendence, and that element of the heavenly seems inescapable even within the collection’s most historically “grounded” verses.
That kind of curiosity also seems to inform Smith’s work as a public poet. Now in her second term as the Poet Laureate of the United States, she’s taken poetry readings and discussions to rural communities ranging from Kentucky to Alaska, and she read Tuesday at the University as part of a series coordinated by the Center for Poetry and Poetics. The Cavalier Daily’s Arts and Entertainment section recently had the opportunity to ask Smith about her work as the current U.S. Poet Laureate, as well as what went into writing “Wade in the Water.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Arts and Entertainment: I'm curious about the American Conversations project that you've taken on during your second term as the Poet Laureate — it seems like you've been consistently interested in applying poetry as a means of dialogue and engagement with rural communities. I think you just recently returned from Alaska, and you're due to visit South Dakota, Maine and Louisiana in the future?
Tracy K. Smith: Yes, that's right.
AE: During your travels, what encounters have surprised you? Have you experienced any revelations — poetic or otherwise — while on the road?
TKS: Well, yeah, I feel like these trips have been full of revelation — partly because these different landscapes have been in a single country that I thought I knew so well. Alaska was mind-blowing in that regard, but so were pockets of Kentucky, and that's been exciting to realize — that life here is many different things, just based on where we are. But in different groups of people, I've also been really excited about the ways that poems I have lived a long time with have been transformed by other people's perspectives on what those poems are useful in contemplating.
I'm not saying that you can find anything you want in a poem, that there's no fixed material — but I am saying that people are really good at allowing poems an array of topics to be helpful to them, even if they are really thinking about one thing. I've read poems in addiction facilities, youth detention centers, retirement homes, as well as libraries and community centers, and some places where people are really struggling with specific questions. Like, "addiction has ruled my life, I'm getting free of that, I can see myself differently — this poem about love helps me see myself differently, and it helps me to think about addiction in different terms." That's really exciting to me. It makes me realize that there's a ... I want to call it a skill, but I think it's more like this involuntary ability that we all have to take a poem and to make it relevant to what's on our mind. That's exciting to me.
But then, I've also been excited by the ways that the conversations about poems have behaved differently from one place to another. So, sitting in a library and reading poems and talking about what they make us notice and remember — that's familiar in a lot of ways to what I do at a literary festival or even in a classroom. But to sit in a retirement home where half of the people are not verbal, they're listening and responding in more visceral or very subtle ways to a poem — that's been profoundly moving, to think that not even only about conversation as we tend to imagine it, but sometimes the fact of being together in a space, listening together, and feeling things together. Sometimes that can be a profound experience, even if it doesn't involve a lot of dialogue.
AE: Right, yeah. I agree. When you started out [as the Poet Laureate], were these communities — these places that were kind of out of the way — did you seek these out immediately? Were these places that you knew you wanted to go not just to create poetry, but also to have dialogue about it?
TKS: Well, yes. I knew that I wanted to test out an idea that I had that poetry is good at bridging different kinds of divides, because we've lived in a culture where for the last couple of years, we've been talking a lot about division — talking a lot about how Americans of different backgrounds cannot relate to each other. And I just don't believe that. I believe that we are of urgent importance and deep curiosity to one another, and I've suspected that poetry could be a way of bringing those kinds of opportunities for quiet and earnest conversation ... poetry, in that way, is a great vehicle for bridging the apparent divide between life in the city and life in the heartland of this country.
AE: Yeah, I think that's really necessary, and that actually segues into my next question. I'd like to know more about your process of curating the recent anthology "American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time." It obviously showcases this really stunning lineup of contemporary American poets, but was there any broader narrative of America that you were seeking to illuminate through that text?
TKS: I wanted to illuminate what I think is the reality — that America is many different narratives. So I was excited to look in different directions for poets who shed light on different facets of American life — maybe because of their age, maybe because of their cultural background, maybe because of the geography they're writing from, but also because of the subject matter they take on. Some people are writing about childhood, some people are writing about loss, some people are writing about mental illness, some people are writing about surviving the suicide of a sibling. People are writing about place in different ways.
The other kind of diversity that I was excited to represent was [in] language, or the approach to the poetic art form. So there are poems that are plain-spoken, poems that are a little more musical, poems that sprawl across the page, poems that are compressed. I wanted a reader to say, "Oh, poetry is many things, and I can become comfortable with them one at a time," or "I can enjoy them in all these different ways." So I imagine — I hope — this could be a book that speaks to somebody who hasn't spent much time with poems equally as well as it speaks to someone who has always read and loved and even written poetry.
AE: I think that's really important. It reminds me of the mission of this campaign called "#TeachLivingPoets" — I think that's something that, especially when your primary exposure to poetry is just through your elementary school curriculum, that's something that you don't necessarily receive. And for students who are from marginalized communities, being able to see yourself reflected in poetry is sometimes a privilege.
TKS: Yeah, it's huge to realize, "Oh, God, my story is a story that someone thinks is worthy of a poem." And there are differences between the way we talk and the way poems behave on the page, but to dive into poems that are rooted in the contemporary lexicon eliminates the need for footnotes and all of these things that happen when you're reading a 19th- or 18th-century poem as a student.
AE: Now I wanted to ask a couple questions about "Wade in the Water," and your crafting process and what went into writing those poems. My first observation was that it functions as both a meditation on and reckoning with American history, especially in those poems that incorporate archival fragments — like in "I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It," there are those letters from African-American families during the Civil War and writings from veterans attempting to claim the pensions that they'd been legally promised. How did you realize that you wanted to yield the poem to those voices?
TKS: Well, it was in reading the material that I thought was just going to be background to a poem that I would write from my own imagination. I saw these voices on the page and they leapt to life — there was a mother in the early sections of that poem who said, "I am old and my head is blossoming / for the grave," and I thought, "This is poetry." People are resorting to poetry in order to make these urgent appeals; I don't have to write over that. I can just get out of the way and gather them together so that many of us can listen together to this chorus of voices. And then that was just so exciting — suddenly I started hearing this incredibly compelling story of the experience of being enslaved, fighting for these values that are not abstractions of freedom and humanity, and then dealing with what was withheld. It suddenly seemed like a kind of gospel to me, all of these different people experiencing one large trend.
AE: Right. I felt a similar impulse in "The Greatest Personal Privation," which did that really marvelous work in inhabiting the voices of the enslaved women, Patience and Phoebe. Even among well-meaning Americans who have this abstract understanding that slavery was horrific, there's this inability to grasp that enslaved people were people who had their own subjectivities and felt as deeply as anyone else. Was that part of your conscious poetic project in writing these poems?
TKS: Yeah, but it wasn't because I wanted to show that to people so that they could understand — it was because I wanted to feel that. I wanted to say, "These voices are lost." So I found all that correspondence in a history called "Dwelling Place" by Erskine Clark, and he also included the one surviving letter that was written from members of that family that Phoebe and Patience belonged to, to another person within the family, and I said, "God, how much is lost? How much was never written down? How much will we never know?" I wanted to summon that. It was a wish, a wishful act, to say, "I'm gonna use all that language that's pointed in one direction to see if I can very intentionally hear these other voices." It was something that I hoped I could experience myself and then invite other people to experience alongside me.
AE: That's an important distinction, and I like your description of it as a summoning as opposed to a performance. I know that within communities of writers of color — and specifically Black writers — there are people who are dissatisfied that the part of the work that's most palatable is the performance of trauma. Do you feel conscious of that when you're navigating your own work?
TKS: Well, I definitely am looking for the points of view within the material that are less obvious, and also the ones that challenge or destabilize me and whatever certainty I think I might be bringing to the process. I'm not satisfied with a prevailing version of trauma that seems foreign, that seems contained and ... well, I don't want to say untranslatable, but I'm interested in something that can hit me and work its way inside of me, no matter what my cultural point of reference is, no matter what my vocabulary is, no matter what my time period is. I want to feel something that's so close to the bone that categories don't matter, even though the experience of that also enlivens what we imagine we know about specific cultural experience.
AE: Yeah, I think that's really vital. That actually takes me to my final question — there are so many unexpected yet poignant encounters with the divine throughout "Wade in the Water," whether it's those “sightings, flashes, hints” we get of “The Angels” or God driving a Jeep and later “returning to everywhere” in “Hill Country.” How do those moments fit into your broader poetic understanding of faith and devotion?
TKS: I don't know if I have a good answer for that. I'm writing those poems because I feel that we live with great proximity to the holy, and it's exciting, and it's scary. Those poems that you mention also locate the holy in the natural world — it has little to do with us as humans and what we intended or what we've thought into being. I like that because I feel like I do catch glimpses of that when I'm looking out my window, when I'm walking and I'm small because the trees and the animals are big. So it's not so much a project as it is just bearing witness to something that feels to me very real.
But then, I guess there’s something that is intentional. Because a poem is many things, but one of them — for me — is the wish to be in contact with my larger and maybe even eternal self, the self that isn't confined to 2018, isn't confined to even the human perspective that I live within. It's this very wishful thing, to be connected to this larger oneness. I like that language is a path towards that. Language can tell me, "That's not beautiful, that's not sound, so it can't be true. Go back and start over."