Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith

Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet (2012)

Readings & Lecture Topics

  • An Evening with Tracy K. Smith


“The surfaces of a Tracy K. Smith poem are beautiful and serene, but underneath, there is always a sense of an unknown vastness. Her poems take the risk of inviting us to imagine, as the poet does, what it is to travel in another person’s shoes.” -Toi Derricotte 

Tracy K. Smith is the author of three books of poetry. Her most recent collection, Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011), won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book. The collection draws on sources as disparate as Arthur C. Clarke and David Bowie, and is in part an elegiac tribute to her late father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope. Duende (2007) won the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award. The Body’s Question (2003) was the winner of the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers Award in 2004 and a Whiting Award in 2005. In 2015, her memoir, Ordinary Light, will be released by Knopf.

Smith’s poems embody the lyrical, rhythmic quality of masters such as Lorca. At times political, whimsical, and always meditative, they speak largely to the role of art and to the conception of what it means to be American, dealing with the “evolution and decline of the culture we belong to.”Her work also explores the dichotomy between the ordered world and the irrationality of the self, the importance of submitting oneself willingly to the “ongoing conflict”of life and surviving nonetheless. For Smith, in her own words, poetry is a way of “stepping into the mess of experience.”

After her undergraduate work at Harvard, Smith earned her MFA at Columbia before going on to be a Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University from 1997 to 1999. She currently teaches Creative Writing at Princeton University, and has also taught at Columbia, City University of New York, and the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Brooklyn.


Tracy K. Smith is the author of three books of poetry.Her most recent collection, Life on Mars, won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book. Duende won the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award. The Body’s Question was the winner of the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers Award in 2004 and a Whiting Award in 2005..


ORDINARY LIGHT (Memoir, 2015)
A daughter’s journey to claim her identity. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Smith (Creative Writing/Princeton Univ.; Life on Mars, 2011, etc.) grew up in Fairfield, California, a solidly middle-class suburb, with four older siblings and doting, supportive parents. After a career as an Army engineer, her father worked in Silicon Valley; her mother, a former teacher, was a devoted member of the First Baptist Church. Sheltered by her community and family, Smith had little sense of her black identity until she spent two “sweltering and long” weeks visiting relatives in Alabama. Her grandmother, she learned, still cleaned for a white family; her own house smelled of “cooking gas, pork fat, tobacco juice, and cane syrup.” Suddenly, Smith was confronted with a new image of her parents’ Southern roots, and it frightened her. Back in California, though, that visit receded into memory as she excelled in school, had a chaste epistolary love affair with a teacher and racked up achievements for her college applications: various extracurricular activities, writing for the school paper and starting a Junior Statesman of America club. Teachers encouraged her, including one who remarked that as an African-American woman, she should “take advantage of the opportunities that will bring you.” Smith resented the idea that her success would be based on anything other than her own talents, but when she was accepted at Harvard, the comment gnawed at her. Besides being a candid, gracefully written account of dawning black consciousness, Smith’s memoir probes her relationship with her mother, whose death from cancer brackets the narrative. The author’s drive to leave Fairfield was fueled by her “urgent, desperate” need to separate herself from her mother; in college, she became militantly black, “caught up in the conversation about Identity” and judgmental about her mother’s beliefs. Guilt and regret pervade Smith’s recollection of her mother’s illness and death, darkening the edges of this light-filled memoir. – Kirkus Review

LIFE ON MARS (Poetry, 2012)

“As all the best poetry does, Life on Mars first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.” -New York Times

With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, Life on Marsimagines a soundtrack for the universe to accompany the discoveries, failures, and oddities of human existence. In these brilliant new poems, Tracy K. Smith imagines a sci-fi future sucked clean of any real dangers, contemplates the dark matter that keeps people both close and distant, and revisits the kitschy concepts like “love”and “illness”now relegated to the Museum of Obsolescence. These reveal the realities of life lived here, on the ground, where a daughter is imprisoned in the basement by her own father; where celebrities and pop stars walk among us; and where the poet herself loses her father, one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Telescope. With this remarkable third collection, Smith establishes herself as among the best poets of her generation.

DUENDE (Poetry, 2007)

“If Duende were wine, it would certainly be red; if edible, it would be meat cooked rare, coffee taken black, stinky cheese, bittersweet chocolate. Tracy K. Smith’s music is wholly her own, and Duende is a dolorous, beautiful book.”-Elizabeth Alexander

Duende, that dark and elusive force described by Federico Garcí­a Lorca, is the creative and ecstatic power an artist seeks to channel from within. It can lead the artist toward revelation, but it must also, Lorca says, accept and even serenade the possibility of death. Tracy K. Smith’s bold second poetry collection explores history and the intersections of folk traditions, political resistance, and personal survival. Duende gives passionate testament to suppressed cultures, and allows them to sing.


MY GOD, IT’S FULL OF STARS (excerpt)

My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle eye, hungry for what
it would find.
His face lit-up whenever anyone would ask,
and his arms would rise

As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in
the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied
postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di.
Rock Hudson died.

We learned new words for things. The decade
changed.

The first few pictures came back blurred, and I
felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and
his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all
there is-

So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend
us back.

-from Life on Mars