New Poet Laureate Challenges Humanity to Empathize

Tracy K. Smith
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith was appointed as the 22nd Poet Laureate on June 14. (Courtesy of Poetry Foundation)

For some poets, the medium is more than just an art form — it’s an expressive, engaging tool that can be used to change the world.

Tracy K. Smith is one of those poets. She believes in the power of poetry, and as the newly appointed Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry by the United States Library of Congress, she hopes to change the world one stanza at a time.

“When someone reads a book or sits down and reads a poem, they’re so open to this foreign perspective,” she said. “They’re so willing to be taught by this other voice, so willing to accept this other life as valid and compelling. … I have this idea that even just having the conversation about literature with people from different walks of life is also doing that kind of work. It’s a way of saying ‘our lives mean something to one another,'”

From her home in New Jersey, Smith, 45, has began to draft plans for her term as the 22nd poet laureate. The position’s official duties are kept to a minimum, allowing the poet to design their own literary-focused agenda. While consultants in the past have organized festivals and conferences, Smith intends to bring her own spin by promoting poetry on a tour of small towns and colleges.

“I’m eager to bring the conversation that poems invite to places where it doesn’t always happen,” Smith said.

Her hopes for the tour are high. She imagines that by traveling to cities that are often overlooked, there is a chance to stimulate a special kind of poetry movement in that space. Raised in the small town of Fairfield, California, she empathizes with residents that receive little attention from writers.

The youngest of five siblings, Smith spent much of her childhood reading in solitude. From there, she gained a deep fascination for storytelling that would eventually grow into a love for poetry.

“I just found that I had a lot of time to think and sit down with books and discovered that that was such an exciting way of losing myself,” she said. “Of feeling as though I could travel to other places and experience other people’s stories, even if they were just fiction.”

While much of her inspiration came from the fiction world, she was also heavily influenced by her parents. Her upbringing, she explained, was a mix of spirituality, science, and the unknown, due to beliefs of her mother and father.

“My mother was really committed to the sense of faith, and God, and the mystery that surrounds that realm,” Smith said. “That’s something that was really real in her life. My father had the belief, but he was also really interested in order and logic and was fascinated by how things work and how things grew. And so that dual perspective is something that I feel really at home with and I think that comes out a lot in my poetry now.”

As she has evolved as a woman and as a writer, Smith has found herself using poetry as a discovery tool to help her navigate life. She said that she uses poetry as a medium to work through many of the questions she stumbles across daily.

“My poems, some of the aesthetic choices I’ve made have changed as my own personal questions or obsessions have changed,” she said. “For me, the poems are really a vehicle for exploring the questions that I live with as a person and trying to get some traction in them.”

When Smith works through the answers to her questions, she often discovers connections between her own curiosity and the wonderings of others around her. While working on her latest project, “Wade in the Water: Poems,” Smith said she is tackling issues of the heart by exploring the impact that emotions have on the ways the world operates.

“I think my new poems are still thinking in that direction — poems that are thinking about how beautiful we would be if we could be compassionate toward each other,” she said. “If love could be a part of our vocabulary, not in terms of romantic love, but in terms of citizenship, or in terms of thinking about the planet. It’s also thinking actively about history, particularly history of slavery in this country and the way that that has shaped our view of each other over the last 150 years.”

Ultimately Smith seeks to offer her poetry as a home for understanding big ideas and concepts that are often full of complexity. She aims to show people a different way of thinking in the face of confusion with the hope of bringing some clarity along the way.

“I feel like it’s a good time in America to begin thinking about that kind of empathy and curiosity about other people’s ways of seeing the world,” she said.

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