On Monday, January 25, 2021, I met virtually with Tracy K. Smith, the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities and Chair of Lewis Center for the Arts. I took a poetry course with Professor Smith last semester and caught up with her to discuss how poetry may guide us through perennial questions of identity and survival. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
SK: Something that really stuck with me from my first class with you was the line “Poems help us live.” And I was just wondering if you could tell me more about how poetry has worked in your life—and how poetry also can give life.
TKS: Sure. I grew up loving reading poetry because of the sounds, but it wasn’t until I was an undergrad at Harvard that I felt poems becoming useful in psychic or even, you know, instructive ways. Firstly, because they taught me how to pay better attention to the things around me, and also how to bring more vigorous and sensitive and nuanced language to the feelings and questions and frustrations that I was living with. And so, very quickly, poems became these really powerful tools for making sense of the world. I would walk around and hear lines from Robert Frost or Seamus Heaney in my head, and regardless of the context that they live in in the poems, they started speaking to the questions and the conundrums that were in front of me.
Not to mention the ways that a poet—another person’s eyes—can teach you to look at the world differently. I think that at that age—maybe you relate to this—I just felt like everything felt new. I wasn’t sure of who I was, or who I was supposed to be; I was far from home and the big questions that I was wrestling with felt sort of insurmountable. And yet language with this particular kind of pressure placed upon it, changed things for me. It gave me a form of power, in a way. I also really loved—and love—the way that poems slow time down, literature does this; all art does this in its own way. But poems allowed me to feel like I was moving through space and time at a rate that allowed my feelings and imagination to participate more fully than they do in real time.
SK: I really love that. I feel like I’ve also had spiritual experiences with poems, where I’m like, “Wow, this is really speaking to me right now.” I’m wondering if you could tell me a bit more about one of the stories of instructive encounters with a poem?
TKS: Sure, it’s a lot of different things; it’ll be a little bit of a patchwork. I’ve often talked about how it was reading Seamus Heaney as an undergrad that made me want to write. Because all the stuff I’m talking [about], I was just saying, was really about what reading poetry did. But then seeing that I could feel myself to be at home in rural Ireland of another generation, just by moving through the sounds and even the smells and impressions of a poem, like “Digging”—which I’ve talked about a lot as kind of this foundational poem for me, when I first started reading—it meant I could cover different kinds of actual distance, time and space.
A poem could put me in another place, but it could also make me feel welcome in another place. And I don’t think that it’s possible to overstate the importance of that; especially as a person, a Black woman, who doesn’t instantly feel welcome in every space or has to wait and see what the reaction to my presence is going to be. The ability to find myself at home and imagine myself home in another person’s environment—that’s a huge form of permission. And I think that internalizing that by reading poetry across a spectrum of poets and periods, and subject matter, enlarges my own belief in what I have permission to do and to seek.
And then of course, there’s the way that poems give us different tools for enduring. (laughs) I guess that’s one way of putting it. And maybe a poet like Lucille Clifton, who we read in our class, has been fundamental for me in that regard. I grew up with a vocabulary for my own racial experience that lived inside the context of my family, but it didn’t go beyond that. I love the way that reading Clifton is one of many experiences that pulled my vocabulary out of the private insularity of family—my racial vocabulary—out of the private insularity of family into something that is, more broadly, a form of community. And that brought that into political terms that are also deeply lyrical and nuanced.
And then she does other things too. Her poems, I think, have this cosmic perspective that I cleave to. We read “the message from The Ones” which is a long sequence, I believe, in one of her later books. And that is a poem that, without divorcing itself from the concerns of justice that live in Clifton’s perspective as a Black woman in America, it also puts those same questions into a cosmic framework, so that we’re thinking, what does it mean to be reincarnated? What does it mean to be a human in the universe? What does it mean to do damage on scales that go far beyond the communal scales that we operate within in our day-to-day lives. And so, that’s an education; it’s a shift in perspective that can be helpful. Much of the racial trauma of the current year, which many of us have experienced in different ways—I think one of my tools for enduring it has been to imagine that scale shift or to try and psychically enact that scale shift that Clifton models—and I think that’s life-saving. It definitely reminds you that your imagination and your soul—if you believe in a soul—are larger than the conflicts that we deal with on a daily basis.
And there’s more; I’ve learned how to bring language to loss, to love, to parenthood, to other forms of joy and strife, from the way that poets have done that. I’ve learned to think about the planet and the environment from those other people’s vocabularies and their individual and unique sense of craft, because what does a poem do? It teaches you what is connected to what, and it’s exciting when those two things are conventionally very far from one another. Poems allow you to seek connections that can take a lifetime to discern on your own.
SK: What you were saying about Clifton reminds me of what Jericho Brown was talking about last week. (Watch Tracy K. Smith in conversation with Jericho Brown and Danez Smith here.) He [talked about] “having a conversation with your higher self.” And that spoke to me as, I think I inhabit more space in my poetry than I feel comfortable with inhabiting in my day-to day life as a female, as a person of color. And poetry allows me to really imagine myself larger than I sometimes feel.
TKS: Yeah, I believe that too. And I think that’s one of the essential jobs that poetry does. It restores our connection to the actual higher self that we possess. I sometimes think of it as the inner voice, which is ancient, that we possess. But we live in circumstances that distract us from that, sometimes quite deliberately so. And finding access to that is critical to our survival—to the survival of our inner lives. Because there’s so many things that, I don’t want to say evil, but just something that’s awful, seek to diminish us.
Or because it’s so focused on one particular role that we play. So you get pushed into a default identification as this one quadrant of yourself. You are an Asian woman, I am a Black woman, or we are American citizens, even for a white man—who in this society is given the most permission and leeway—it’s problematic to only identify within that quadrant of the self. Because it limits your understanding of all the other things that are actually real to and for you. And so, poems are practice at using those other regions. And I think it’s really important. Poems aren’t the only things that do it, of course, but it’s a language that feels very intrinsic to me.
SK: I really like [the idea of] poetry as this inner voice. I feel like I’ve heard poets talking about poetry speaking through them—it goes back to Homer and the Muse. And I’m just wondering, for you, how much ownership over your poems do you feel like you assume, and is that writing process contained within yourself, or it is much larger than that?
TKS: I want it to be larger than that; I’ve always used the word “listening” as one of the guiding principles of my practice. As a writer, I am listening to, and past, myself, and I really believe that. I like the way Jericho [Brown], in his poem “After Avery R. Young,” uses the line, “The blk mind / Is a continuous mind.” He talked about that line at the event on Friday. I feel that way. And I think the human mind is a continuous mind, too—we are connected to other periods, places, and forms of knowledge than the ones our bodies contain. And so the creative act, for me, is a wishful lunging toward those other sources.
But also, I don’t know if it’s ego, but I don’t want to relinquish the control that I do have as a maker, and the perspective and capacity that I have, in terms of craft, that I bring to bear on doing something with those other ideas, or even visions. So it’s a big composite effort, in a way. And the more, in a workshop, or apprentice space, that you learn skills, practice and push and hone them, the more you’re able to do with all the things that are your poetic input. It’s not just enough, I don’t believe, to gather a collage and receive; I think that making all of that insight and intuition into art is a form of labor. And we have to work to improve our ability at it.
SK: This country has been in a constant state of flux, especially in the past year, when it comes to social and political change. And with these constant tides coming in of fear, and of terror, and sometimes hope, how does poetry fit into that story for you?
TKS: There are lots of ways it fits into it. And you can think of the end of the line, where a poem might say its goal is to galvanize people around a certain set of actions or beliefs. That’s one thing. I’m interested in the beginning of the line, where a poem might seek to heighten your awareness of forms of oversight, denial, or misunderstanding, fear, desire, that have not been fully enough tended to or attended to. And so those things contribute to this big snowball of power struggle, hatred, division, fiction disguising itself as fact, that characterizes the moment we’re in—our susceptibility to someone who’s charismatic, but ultimately, empty or deceitful. What is that, if not in part, the desire to be emphatically moved, touched, and reached? And what happens if you are making a more mindful effort to be touched, moved, reached, and illuminated by something that’s not trying to get something from you?
I think art speaks to the political in overt and subtle ways. And I’m interested in that; I know many people who are not, but I’m deeply interested in it, because I live in a world that is affected in overt and subtle ways by our susceptibility to the actions and intentions of others. And that’s politics. Not even to mention our own actions and intentions—and if we don’t take the time to understand them, and respond to them, then we’re failing in some way.
SK: Are there any poetic forms or practices that feel especially like you’re tending to the desires and needs of yourself or a community?
TKS: I’m really interested in a lot of the work that contemporary Black poets are doing through different forms of archival research; I’ve come to understand that one function of Black literature, through the ages in this country, has been to expand and clarify and correct an official record that has been riddled with absence and erasure and untruth, lies. And so, going back to the archive and saying, “Well, this actually happened.” And we read Eve L. Ewing’s 1919 [in class]. And I think that’s a great example of going to a historical record and saying, “We can read this with our whole selves, we can read this with the lyric imagination, we can bring our own emotional susceptibility, and our own subjectivity, to bear upon this factual material—and we can get more from it as a result.” I’m excited by that. I’ve done a lot of that kind of work, not because I think it’s a public service—although I hope in some ways it has a public benefit to others—but because I think that we need to think more actively about the past, and to learn more from it than we have been encouraged to, just for our own survival, our own sense of capacity and determination. It also feels good to know that we are not a bubble or an island in time; we have connection to other periods, and we actually are enacting and repeating certain aspects of them. We could do better if we know more, and if we think more creatively about that content.
I’m excited about what I think of as an embodied poetics that might be more experimental—poets like CAConrad or Jos Charles, whose work brings you into a different relationship with the physical, the physical fact of language and the body. Because I fear that we live more of our lives in the cerebral space than we’re supposed to, and bringing these other senses and selves into our process of being is important. It’s important for empathy. It’s important for getting all the shockers involved in the work of living—that feels like an exciting contribution that contemporary poets are making. And that reminds us of some of the early work of poetry and song, which is to bring the whole self into a space that is communal, and also pragmatic; let’s be and do together in order to accomplish the things that we must accomplish, in order to keep living.
SK: Both the archival work that you’re talking about and the physical sound to me like this extension of poetry through space and time you were mentioning earlier. Do you feel like your recent obsessions or ideas in your writing have changed? And what have they looked like during the pandemic?
TKS: I’ve talked a lot, and so maybe I’ve convinced myself that the question that I’m interested in, as a poet, is very simple and very broad. Who are we? And what do we do to one another? Whether that is in the context of family, in the context of our species and the planet, in the context of communities or societies. And so, I guess the way that my work has changed is, it’s thought about that dynamic in these different spaces, and different geographies. I think now, more than ever, in my work, I’m thinking about the community of Blackness, both contemporarily and historically, in this country, and what it has endured, fostered, and devised, in order to not just survive, but to thrive to the extent that [the Black community] has—which I think is the heartbeat of America, in a way. So those are the questions and the poems. The new poems I’ve been writing through the pandemic are questions that are rooted in history and a sense of ancestry. That idea of “the Black mind is a continuous mind” is alive in my work; I keep coming back to it. I’m so grateful for that phrase because I feel like that’s a channel that I’m exploring in language, in different ways. America is one of my big subjects, too. America as a problem, a problem that I cleave to, in a way—because I care about it. But the hot mess of contemporary America is alive and well in the poems I’m writing.
SK: I would also love to talk about change through a slightly different lens, just zooming in on the individual level. I’m thinking about our day-to-day lifestyle or personality changes. I feel like this has frustrated me a bit in my writing process, how little I can depend on myself staying constant. How do we cope with that inconstancy in writing, and how does poetry respond to our own volatility?
TKS: I think it’s a boon for our writing that we are inconstant or inconsistent. Like Emerson says, it’s something that can make us small, to cleave to a sense of consistency, or foolish consistency. So the fact that I’m moved and startled and delighted by one thing today that I had never thought of, and maybe will never think of again, means that I need to dig into that in the poem in the way that I’m able or inclined to. And we worry so much, especially when we’re developing a writing practice, about how to sound like ourselves, how to carve out the territory in the space that belongs to us. I think we’re imprinted with something like that. So what we should do is try and use every direction, angle, mode, and possibility that we can get our hands on in order to learn more and different things. So that sense of inconsistency, unreliability, all of that, is intrinsically really exciting to me as an artist.
Then the other side of the coin is, we can be consistent in our devotion to learning more, honing our skills, developing other capacities. And that is the kind of consistency that can offset the anxiety about just being hurdy-gurdy. I’m interested in this; I’m gripped by this feeling right now, it’s like nothing else that I’ve ever done as a poet, and yet, I have these values and language that I can rely on to help me get the most traction out of that idea. And it’s those values, which change slowly, that will help my work have a sense of coherence.
SK: I’m really curious to hear more about how that process interacts with your thinking about ancestors and specifically Black ancestry. Could you tell me about how you see your writing or yourself in the context of this much larger history?
TKS: In some ways, I feel that I am choosing to try and descend from certain poets. I would love to say just people. I want to say that there’s something about Frederick Douglass’s incredible syntax and attention to detail and arresting use of different rhetorical devices—his interest in the interior life of animals as relevant to the freedoms denied Black people, and enslavement—I want to say that’s gotten inside of me because I care about his work so much. I want to say that Robert Hayden is inside of me, because I’ve learned from his quiet emphasis and his deep seeing, and really subtle but powerful set of registers that his work spans. Or Gwendolyn Brooks, in terms of form, in terms of a willingness to let an ambitious subject matter into a poem, and to situate it in spaces that might not seem grand, but that are real and therefore authentic. I don’t like that word, but maybe another word would be immediate-feeling. So that’s one thing, like all the inheritance that I want to project or claim.
Then another thing is, thinking about, what world do we live in when we look up, and we’re not writing or sitting at the computer, thinking in these craft-based terms about language? We live in a world that’s full of vernacular, that’s full of play, that’s full of inflection. And also a really interesting kind of intelligence that is less codified, that’s instinctive. And so those are things that I’m trying to draw upon in the poems that I’m writing right now. I’m sure there’s more. But those are a couple things I can touch right now with my thoughts.
SK: There are a couple lines in the introduction to the Ploughshares edition that you edited that have really stuck with me in the past few months. And I actually think of them as words that carried me through the past few months; I have them highlighted, but I don’t open [the book] that much, because I have [the words] in my head as well. And you’re speaking about your daughter and yourself: “I know the most urgent work ahead—for my daughter and for me—lies in striking the balance between fear, hope, and the willingness to keep at it.” And then a bit later, “How might we become devout in our love even of ourselves?” I just wanted to throw the question back at you; I’m really curious about what navigating both of those things looks like to you.
TKS: That was written just before the pandemic kind of erupted, if I’m not wrong. I might have had to complete that last January. Either way, the collapsing of our many different worlds into one space this year has been one of the things I feel grateful for. Because it means that the joy and the play that I feel on the floor with my kids, or the frustration of trying to get them to do something they don’t want to do, is never very far from my sense of what’s going on in the world. And that isn’t always the case. But everything, for the most part, is happening in the same architecture; we’re at home. And so, it’s been a real reminder that all of this stuff is actually deeply interconnected: my fear, and my sense of hope and protection of the kids. Those are part of a single thing. And that’s both really scary, but it’s also kind of exciting to think that the force that I want to bring to what I love is also involved in addressing or responding to what I dread, or what I despise.
I’ve also had a change in process. I have become much more actively engaged in a form of meditation that feels—and maybe this lets me go back a little bit to the other question you had—that feels like a form of communication with myself, with nature. And I’ve been trying to say, “How have my people survived, and why have we been made to endure what we have?” And that question somehow finds its way to what feels like a dialogue with something else. And so those perspectives, that I believe are aligned with that community of Blackness and that ancestry, it’s been really surprising and really interesting. Lucille Clifton had a really strong spiritual and psychic life. And so I want to say, what I’m experiencing is valid, because I have such strong belief in her experience. But it is unusual in some ways to talk about it as fact, and in an interview like this.
But even the most willful of imaginations can be helpful in thinking through the big questions that we have. And so even if I’m imagining different aspects of the experience of struggle, oppression, delight, in the small, circumscribed space of family—even if that’s willed and imagined in terms of my understanding of another period of Black life in this country, it’s been really helpful to me [recently] making sense of some of the nonsense. A lot of the poems that I’ve been writing are filtering through that wishful thinking, and this credulity that I’m claiming, in a way.
SK: Could you indulge me a little bit—what are some of the things that you’re writing and thinking about these days?
TKS: I have a “new and selected poems” [collection] coming out in the fall. And as it happens, the new is all these poems from the summer of 2020. So George Floyd has gotten into my imagination in terms of what does it mean to live a life that, historically in this nation, has been so fraught, so terrorized in a way—and what does it mean to want to build a sense of joy from that? So the poems are coming from there; there’s a sequence called “Riot” that is about—how about if I read it to you, do you want to hear it?
SK: I would love that.
TKS: Okay, I’ll read you the first [part]. It’s two parts—one is a little bit longer, and one is a cento of a bunch of the other poems that make up this section, but I’ll read the first one. And I hear and feel Lucille Clifton; I hear and feel a dialogue with Jericho. I hear Robert Hayden; I hear other things, other voices and forms.
(The Nassau Weekly does not have permission to publish “Riot” in full; the following lines are excerpts. Because the poem was shared orally, there may be discrepancies between our transcription and Tracy K. Smith’s published work.)
Sometimes I feel the Black in my heart, like a map made of tar.
. . . Our nerves carry a charge. We grieve each day. We pray for you. Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty. How thick is memory? How deep the grave?
. . . This is not the riot. This is reality. It rolls, broils, briefly recoils. It hammers down. We fall, rebound. You chase, we race. You hate. We wait.
I can better talk now about what I’m doing from having refreshed my mind with that poem, but you’ll hear, there’s a real form of call and response in there. And it is a one of the formal choices that I feel has helped to channel this dialogue that I’m talking about, this psychic dialogue. There are ways [of] asking a question that doesn’t have an answer, and going back into the question as if it is the response to itself, which is a kind of call and response—[that] has also been a form of insight-gathering. So thinking differently through language—what it says, what it hides—has been really helpful during what has been a really befuddling time.
I think that there’s also the desire, in that poem and others, to align myself with an oral tradition, a spoken tradition, a kind of inflection that’s rooted in a blues or something else, something with funk. And so all of that, I want to make that feel as holy and mysterious as I believe that it is. Those are some of the things that the newer poems are urging or helping me to do.
SK: Thank you so much for sharing that poem, it was so powerful. As someone who is thinking a lot about religion and God and what God is to me, one line, among many, that stuck out to me was when the poem calls upon the Lord. I’m really curious about why and how the poem [considers] God.
TKS: I guess it’s a moment of turning to a tradition like the Black church, which isn’t confined within my parents’ generation. In some ways, they gave that to me differently. It isn’t confined to the sense of the sacred, it’s about how else are we going to get through the everyday, if not to bring God into it? And sometimes God comes into spaces in a way that’s almost playful, resigned, with a kind of knowledge and skepticism, even, that can somehow be sustaining, if that makes any sense. I think about the ways my aunts and uncles would say, “Lord God,” and it’s not a form of praise. It’s a form of saying, “What are we doing?” And the only way to get through it is to say, “God sees it too.” Maybe that’s what it is—a way of saying, “God, would you look at this?” (laughs)
SK: I’m inspired by your conversation with Jericho Brown and Danez Smith to ask you what has been inspiring you, poetry or otherwise?
TKS: Some of the voices they named—Destiny O. Birdsong, a poet I had only just learned of in the last four months—she’s exciting to me. She does some of, in her own way, what I’m talking about—bringing this other tradition to bear, bringing a vernacular wisdom to bear. There’s a poem of hers that I chose for Best American Poetry next year called “love poem that ends at popeyes,” and it’s about life and survival—in really serious terms, being a Black woman moving through the world—but it’s also about, this is the space that we’ve made our own. This is what it looks and smells and tastes like, and that’s real too.
I think the work of artists like Arthur Jafa, his film Love is the Message, the Message is Death, which I respond in some way to, in one of the new poems. Or the work of a photographer like Deana Lawson, which is dwelling on the sacred mystery and the depth and the unacknowledged majesty of everyday Blackness—that’s been sustaining for me. I mentioned Frederick Douglass; I was reading a version of his Narrative of the Life, which I read in college and have returned to at different points in my life. I was reading a graphic novel version [by David F. Walker] with my then ten-year-old daughter. That was also such a miracle to find and to experience with her, in visual terms, in this compressed way, at this time when his life’s labor is still in question—the resolution of it feels like it’s still in question. Those are some of the things.
I have to say, it’s been a year of just being nicer to myself. Lying down when I need to, playing games and doing puzzles. That’s the beauty of, “I work from home most of the time, my kids are doing school from home.” Doing those things which can be healing in their own way—all of that has been helpful. And it’s a year of Zoom, and so much of that content has been really remarkable, too. I loved the Combahee Experimental, the Black women’s experimental film series that the Lewis Center hosted in the fall. That’s some of it.
SK: Thank you so much for your time. If you have a final word of advice for young writers, Princeton students, or just people existing today, what would that be?
TKS: I would say, don’t try and sequester these different parts of yourself—your imagination and your appetite and your conscience. Don’t try to sequester them from one another; they need each other. And be it an artistic practice or just in your day-to-day life, your ability to live, laugh, struggle, and make sense from moment to moment, you need all of those things. So honor them.