U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith brings rural reading tour to Winter Words
The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO …
Who: U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith at Winter Words
Where: Paepcke Auditorium
When: Tuesday, Jan. 23, 6 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: The Winter Words series continues with Christina Bake Kline (Feb. 20), William Finnegan (March 20) and Luis Alberto Urrea (April 3).
Since her inauguration as U.S. poet laureate in September, Tracy K. Smith has been on a mission to meet Americans in small towns and rural areas around the country and to discuss the role poetry plays in their lives.
The author of three poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Life on Mars,” and the acclaimed memoir “Ordinary Light,” comes to Aspen as part of the Winter Words author series on Tuesday. She made it to town over the weekend despite the government shutdown.
“I’m tasked with raising the conversation about poetry,” Smith said Monday. “What I’m interested in within that larger framework is talking about poems and poetry in places where those conversations don’t often happen.”
As an acclaimed poet and a professor at Princeton University, most of Smith’s readings are at colleges and literary festivals. In her post as the nation’s poet, she is breaking out of that bubble.
“I’ve been excited about going into small rural communities that don’t necessarily have access to those kinds of regular programming,” she said.
Aspen is a bit of an anomaly – a small and remote community that, through Aspen Words and the Aspen Institute, is part of that conversation. Smith is the fourth poet laureate to come to town in recent years. Smith’s predecessor, Juan Felipe Herrera, came to Winter Words during his tenure in 2016, as did laureate Natasha Tretheway in 2015 and former laureate Billy Collins in 2014.
On a recent swing through New Mexico, Smith visited Cannon Air Force Base to read and discuss poetry with servicemen and also stopped at the Santa Fe Indian School to talk about writing with the Native American students there. After Colorado, she heads to stops in rural Kentucky and South Carolina.
In a moment of tumult and bitter division in America, Smith believes poetry can be a bridge between cultural factions.
“We’ve been hearing so many different versions of the statement ‘We are a divided nation,’” she said. “That has made me curious about ways the divide can be crossed or mitigated. Poetry, for me, is a vehicle for talking and listening and seeing each other as humans.”
Smith is using the public platform of her laureateship to bring people together on the common ground of poetry. She’s not advocating for social causes and, so far in her travels, has not been drawn into the political conflicts stoked by the Trump administration.
“That’s not something people want to talk to me about,” she said. “I think people know that I’m an artist and I’m not there to talk politics. I find that encouraging, because I think it means people are interested in this other vocabulary of experience.”
At Tuesday’s event, Smith plans to read new poems from her forthcoming collection, “Wade in the Water,” which will be published in April.
Many of the new poems are rooted in American history, the Civil War and the antebellum south. A series of poems in the book assemble text from African-American Civil War veterans who wrote to President Lincoln seeking to be paid their pensions. Looking to the past allowed Smith to see contemporary America’s angst more clearly.
“So many of the questions we are struggling with socially feel like they’ve been transported from another time,” she said. “Over the last few years, so many of the anxieties we have about race make me feel like, ‘Oh, this history that used to feel so long ago – like black-and-white images of the civil rights era – that feels now like it’s right here beside us.’ … It’s not a huge leap to go back even further. Our anxieties about race started with this awful idea about enslaving people.”
The new work, completed just before Smith got the call last summer from the Library of Congress asking her to serve as poet laureate, was inspired by Smith thinking about compassion and “the possibility that compassion can be the governing principle in our lives.”
The poems in “Life on Mars,” which won the Pulitzer in 2012, drew from astronomy, pop culture, science fiction and the songs of David Bowie to reckon with Smith’s grief over the death of her father, a Hubble telescope engineer.
Since then, Smith has had three children – an experience she says has raised the stakes for her poems and for her mission as poet laureate.
“I think being a parent, the terms feel graver to me,” she said. “I have these three kids and I want to make sure that they grow up and the world is still here for them. So the terms I’m thinking of are larger – maybe the questions aren’t so different than they were in my last book, but the scale feels more mythic in a way.”