The newest chief poet of the country begins her tenure with a focus on making poetry simple.
Tracy Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and professor at Princeton University, gave her inaugural reading as the 22nd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry at the Library of Congress on Wednesday, Sept. 13 at the Thomas Jefferson Building in Southeast.
The historic reading launched the Library’s 2017-2018 literary season, in which Smith wants to take poetry to places it hasn’t been before.
“As a writer I spend a lot of time going to colleges, universities and literary festivals that usually tends to happen in major cities, so I am excited about going to underserved communities where people may already be reading and having those conversations,” Smith said.
Smith asserts that she wants to know what the art form makes them aware of and what it helps them to express and explore.
“I also know from having talks with people everywhere that there are a lot of people who have some anxiety about poetry,” she said. “People who feel like they’re not up on the vocabulary. That the poem is this object that must be analyzed to death in order to be enjoyed or understood. I feel like that’s a misconception.”
Before Smith took the stage, National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, a sophomore at Harvard University and a native of Los Angeles, opened the event with her original poem. Named the country’s first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate in April, she beat out five finalists representing five regions across the country.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed Smith as the poet laureate in June, calling her “a poet of searching” and praising how “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.”
Hayden said Smith “contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths — all to better understand what makes us most human.”
“I do believe that poems guide us in exploring. Some of the most natural questions that people have after they read a poem and natural observations that people make are in fact some of the more useful ones,” Smith said.
“I always begin my discussions of poems in the classroom where I teach is what do you notice? Because there are things that shift, things that call our attention, things that surprise us, make us laugh, return to something we’ve already heard, or we’ve heard elsewhere.”
Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and raised in Fairfield, California, Smith earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and American literature and Afro-American studies from Harvard University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Columbia University.
Smith has written three books, including “Life on Mars,” which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
In its review of “Life on Mars,” the New York Times stated, “Smith shows herself to be a poet of extraordinary range and ambition. … 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.”
Over the next year, Smith will step away from the classroom to bring her work and expertise around the country to make poetry accessible.
“I want to find a way of saying we can talk about this from the most simple direct way to bring us off the page and into the world,” she said. “Give us a more useful vocabulary for the feelings we have and the questions we live with as people.”