Tracy K. Smith, an assistant professor of creative writing in Princeton University’s Lewis Center for Arts, has won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her collection, Life on Mars, which the prize committee calls “a collection of bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain.”
Published by Graywolf Press in 2011, Life on Mars is Smith’s third published book.
“This news is particularly elating,” she said, “because I think of the book as a tribute to my father, who passed away in 2008.” One of the poems is about the loss of her father, one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Ms. Smith lives in Brooklyn. She first heard the news from her husband, who had just read it on The New York Times website.
In its starred review, Publishers Weekly says Life on Mars “blends pop culture, history, elegy, anecdote, and sociopolitical commentary to illustrate the weirdness of contemporary living. . . The title poem, which includes everything from ‘dark matter’ and ‘a father…/ who kept his daughter/ Locked in a cell for decades’ to Abu Ghraib is proof that life is far stranger and more haunting than fiction.” The review also praised the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review observes “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept — or at least endure — the universe’s mystery.”
Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans. The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection.
Associate Professor Susan Wheeler, director of the Program in Creative Writing at the Lewis Center, calls Tracy K. Smith “an extraordinary poet and a phenomenal teacher, attuned to the nearest heart and the furthest star.” Raised in northern California by a family that has deep roots in Alabama, Ms. Smith started her journey as a poet at Harvard University, where she graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and Afro-American studies. Three years later, she completed an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. During her time as a student, she learned from poets such as Seamus Heaney, Linda Gregg, Mark Doty and Henri Cole, but she singles out Lucie Brock-Broido as the mentor who inspired Smith’s own writing and her teaching style.
She joined the Princeton faculty in 2006.