U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith looks for the deep, often hard, truth in her work

By November 6, 2018 No Comments

“It’s not just about saying love, love, love, love, love. Poems are rigorous with our feelings.”

Tracy K. Smith (Photo: Eliza Griffiths)

By Jody Diperna
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer

In the Jewish tradition of watching over the dead, the Shomrim (or guards) stay with the body and read the Psalms in order, one after another. The body is never left unattended. The Shomrim were still standing their vigil with the eleven murdered Pittsburghers, still reading the 150 poems which make up the Book of Psalms when the Pittsburgh Current spoke with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.

“Poems help us to form a vocabulary for loss, for rage, for hope. They do that in ways that aren’t pat. It’s not just about saying love, love, love, love, love. Poems are rigorous with our feelings,” Smith said just 48 hours after the massacre at Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life Synagogue.

“Poems say that the instant feeling, reaction, appetite is often not enough. That there’s something that sits beneath or beyond it that we need to find a way of recognizing. In my mind, this carries me to a place where I become more capable of acknowledging my own flaws, my own complicitness.”

Smith’s poetry searches fearlessly for truth. Her poems can move you to tears or righteous anger. They are also unnerving, beautiful and audacious. They always make you think and feel unexpected things.

“Most of my poems come from a feeling of unrest. There’s something that I’m itched by,” Smith said via telephone. “Even the poems that are about something beautiful, like motherhood, I’m hoping language can guide me to what else is really there. The nature of motherhood is complex and poems have helped me put language to that. I always find even when I write a love poem, if it doesn’t have something under the surface that’s dangerous, it feels almost unresolved. A simple way of saying it is I am looking for dramatic conflict.”

The poet laureate since 2017, Smith is the author of a brilliant memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015) and has won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, as well as the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Her latest collection, Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018) is a sprawling testimony to her skill and mastery of multiple forms of poetry. She uses her own voice and other documents letters, testimony, political documents to craft these poems. Like Walt Whitman, Smith’s work is large and contains multitudes.  

There are erasure poems created by erasing words from an existing text and framing the result on the page as a poem. Smith takes this technique to correspondence between family members regarding the sale of several slaves, and also to the Declaration of Independence in the poem “Declaration” which ends:

“Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration

and settlement here.

taken Captive

on the high Seas

to bear

Smith was, as many of us are, wrestling with some of the terrible things we are feeling right now in terms of race, love, difference, understanding and compassion. She sat down, not to write, but simply to read the Declaration of Independence, just to see what it had to say.

“Then it just started talking to me. I heard these statements,” Smith said. “I understood that if I could take away the sense of England as the agent of suffering, I was hearing a really clear testimony about black life in this country from the beginning until now. That felt so, so unsettling that I couldn’t ignore it.”

There are other instances where letters are used, but not as erasure. Smith allows those voices to speak through her. One of the longer and most gripping poems, “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It” is composed entirely of letters and statements of African-Americans enlisted in the Civil War and of their wives, widows, parents and children. Some of these letters were sent to President Abraham Lincoln and the Freedmen’s Bureau.

One of the things that emerges is the faith in and engagement with the very notion of democracy — belief that government can actually tend to its people and faith that leaders want to help. It is both shocking and shaming in 2018.

“I got captivated by these voices,” Smith said. “How beautifully compelling and persuasive and urgent and full of dignity and hope they were. I thought, my voice has no place here. I just want to gather these voices and ask other people to listen to them with me.”

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