Tracy K. Smith

United States Poet Laureate (2017-2018)
Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet
National Book Award Finalist: Memoir

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, adehat it is to travel in another person’s shoes.” —Toi Derricotte 

“Smith’s spare yet beautiful prose transforms her story into a shining example of how one person’s shared memories can brighten everyone’s world.” — Minneapolis Star Tribune

In 2017, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith was appointed the 22nd United States Poet Laureate. About Smith’s writing, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said, “her work travels the world and takes on its voices; brings history and memory to life; calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion and pop culture. With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths—all to better understand what makes us most human.”

Smith is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015), a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and selected as a Notable Book by the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as three books of poetry. Her most recent collection of poems, 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 2014 the Academy of American Poets awarded Smith with the Academy Fellowship, awarded to one poet each year to recognize distinguished poetic achievement. In 2016 she won the 16th annual Robert Creeley Award. Her next collection, Wade in the Water, is forthcoming in 2018. 

Smith’s poems embody the lyrical, rhythmic quality of masters such as Federico Garcí­a 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—or as in Smith’s own words, “poetry is a way of stepping into the mess of experience.”

Her memoir, Ordinary Light“begins with a harrowing scene at the deathbed of Smith’s mother, who died in 1994,” writes Craig Morgan Teicher: “From there it circles back to Smith’s early childhood, tracing her growth not just as a writer, but as someone who must learn the hard lessons of puberty and early adulthood, as well as what it means to be a black woman growing up in suburban California. Her discovery of poetry is part of this, but the most remarkable moments in this book are the ones in which Smith deals with ordinary trials, which she treats with rare insight and heart.” Booklist calls Ordinary Light “a gracefully nuanced yet strikingly candid memoir about family, faith, race, and literature” and praises Smith for her ability to “hold our intellectual and emotional attention ever so tightly as she charts her evolving thoughts on the divides between races, generations, economic classes, religion and science and celebrates her lifesaving discovery of poetry as ‘soul language.’” BBC’s Between the Lines, says simply, “Ordinary Light is a lament, an homage, a discovery, a blessing.”

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 is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities, and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University. She lives in Princeton.


In 2017, Tracy K. Smith was appointed the 22nd United States Poet Laureate. She is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015) and three books of poetry. Her 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. In 2014 the Academy of American Poets awarded Smith with the Academy Fellowship, awarded to one poet each year to recognize distinguished poetic achievement. She is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities, and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University. Her next collection of poems, Wade in the Water, is forthcoming in 2018.

WADE IN THE WATER (Poetry, 2018)
In Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith boldly ties America’s contemporary moment both to our nation’s fraught founding history and to a sense of the spirit, the everlasting. These are poems of sliding scale: some capture a flicker of song or memory; some collage an array of documents and voices; and some push past the known world into the haunted, the holy. Smith’s signature voice—inquisitive, lyrical, and wry—turns over what it means to be a citizen, a mother, and an artist in a culture arbitrated by wealth, men, and violence. Here, private utterance becomes part of a larger choral arrangement as the collection widens to include erasures of the Declaration of Independence and the correspondence between slave owners, a found poem comprised of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, a sequence of letters written by African Americans enlisted in the Civil War, and the survivors’ reports of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a potent and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.

ORDINARY LIGHT (Memoir, 2015)

“Smith’s memoir takes us so far into the dimensions of experience that the reader feels a remarkable intimacy with this narrator, who brings to all life has to offer a tenderness and intelligence rarely so closely intertwined. Her self-scrutiny, her empathy, and her lifelong quest to figure things out—in particular our bedeviling national aches, religion and race—make for an indelible self-portrait: moving, utterly clear, and compulsively readable.” —Mark Doty

From the dazzlingly original Pulitzer Prize-winning poet hailed for her “extraordinary range and ambition” (The New York Times Book Review): a quietly potent memoir that explores coming-of-age and the meaning of home against a complex backdrop of race, faith, and the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter. The youngest of five children, Tracy K. Smith was raised with limitless affection and a firm belief in God by a stay-at-home mother and an engineer father. But just as Tracy is about to leave home for college, her mother is diagnosed with cancer, a condition she accepts as part of God’s plan. Ordinary Light is the story of a young woman struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be black in America. In lucid, clear prose, Smith interrogates her childhood in suburban California, her first collision with independence at Harvard, and her Alabama-born parents’ recollections of their own youth in the Civil Rights era. These dizzying juxtapositions—of her family’s past, her own comfortable present, and the promise of her future—will in due course compel Tracy to act on her passions for love and “ecstatic possibility,” and her desire to become a writer. Shot through with exquisite lyricism, wry humor, and an acute awareness of the beauty of everyday life, Ordinary Light is a gorgeous kaleidoscope of self and family, one that skillfully combines a child’s and teenager’s perceptions with adult retrospection. Here is a universal story of being and becoming, a classic portrait of the ways we find and lose ourselves amid the places we call home.

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.” —The New York Times

With allusions to David Bowie and interplanetary travel, Life on Mars imagines 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 poems 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.


Read the poem “Duende” — Poetry Foundation

ORDINARY LIGHT (Memoir – two excerpts)

From “Prologue: the Miracle”

When the dark outside was real—not just the dark of approaching winter, and not just the dark of rain, which we’d had for days, too—her dying came on. We recognized it. We circled her bed, though we stopped short of holding hands, perhaps because that gesture would have meant we were holding on, and we were finally ready to let her go. Each of us took a turn saying “I love you” and “Goodbye.” We made our promises. Then we heard a sound that seemed to carve a tunnel between our world and some other. It was an otherworldly breath, a vivid presence that blew past us without stopping, leaving us, the living, clamped in place by the silence that followed. I would come back to the sound and the presence of that breath again and again, thinking how miraculous it was that she had ridden off on that last exhalation, her life instantly whisked away, carried over into a place none of us will ever understand until perhaps we are there ourselves.

It’s the kind of miracle we never let ourselves consider, the miracle of death. She followed that last breath wherever it led and left her body behind in the old four-posted Queen Ann bed, where for the first time in all of our lives it was a body and nothing more.

* * *

From “A Necessary Rite”

If I could have fashioned a model of my own imagination, perhaps it would have resembled the telescope my father was working on: heavy, made of steel and glass, and run through with lenses and wires whose work I could only half decipher, pointing off into a distance that had no shape. Perhaps there would sit, at the outer edges of that distance, something I was afraid to bring into focus, some knowledge or presence, the power or verity of which might cause the rest of me to cower. It felt like that sometimes, like there were limits to what I would let myself understand, limits to the whole to which I’d give myself access. I was ten years old, living with a vague knowledge that pain was part of my birthright, part of what was meant by a word like Home. It was not the kind of beautified self-inflicted angst that can transform a girl into a swan or a doll or an ice princess in the ballet. Not even the kind of grief that, in art, can bring back the dead. No, what I felt, what I feared and discerned, even from my rather far remove, was the very particular pain that was tied up in blood, in race, in laws and war. The pain we hate most because we know it has been borne by the people we love. The slurs and slights I knew were part and parcel of my parents’ and grandparents’ and all my aunts’ and uncles’ lives in the South. The laws that had sought to make people like them—like us, like me—subordinate. It was a pain that could be triggered at the slightest hint that the residue of those laws still lingered, even unconsciously, in the minds and imaginations and the deepest assumptions of all the people I knew who didn’t have access to a pain like that of their own. Who do you think you are? Don’t you wish you were white?

 
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


Read What’s In Print

• How The US Poet Laureate Finds Poetry In Justin Bieber – WMOT

A memoir of race, faith and a mother’s devotion — the New York Times

‘Did I ever wonder who my mother used to be, before she belonged to me?’ — The Washington Post

Interview on grief, God, and getting hooked on prose — Time Out NY

Conversation with Casey Rocheteau on Ordinary Light — Barnes&Noble Review

Extraordinary Light: Tracy K. Smith by Craig Morgan Teicher — Publishers Weekly

Memoirs of Love and Loss by Poets — Newsday

Tracy K. Smith’s Most Treasured Cooking Tool — The New York Times

 Review of Ordinary Light — Minneapolis Star Tribune

• Review of Ordinary Light — Shelf-Awareness

Review of Ordinary Light — Booklist

 Review of Life on Mars — The New York Times

• Review of Life on Mars — The New Yorker

• Four Reasons You Should Read Life on Mars — Milkweed

• Review of Life on Mars — The Rumpus

Tracy K. Smith Talks About Inspiration and More — Nashville Scene

• Tracy K Smith in Conversation with Elizabeth Alexander — Academy of American Poets

Review of Duende — Publishers Weekly

Listen to Audio

• Poet laureate Tracy K. Smith on making poetry accessible – CBS News

Capitol Hill To Undergo Changing Of The Guard With New Poet Laureate – NPR All Things Considered

• Breaking Down Tracy K. Smith’s Poem “Solstice” – New Yorker Culture Videos

• Tracy K. Smith on life, death, poetry and outer space — CBC Radio

Reading and Conversation at Town Hall Seattle —Second Inversion

Does Poetry Still Matter? — NPR Weekend Edition