Tracy K. Smith will read a selection of poems from her Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Life on Mars, as part of the monthly Poets at the Library series in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library, Monday, December 9, at 7:30 p.m.
Life on Mars takes inspiration from Ms. Smith’s father and his work on the Hubble space telescope.
Described as “a poet of extraordinary range and ambition,” Ms. Smith cites the late Seamus Heaney, one of her teachers at Harvard University, as an inspiration, along with Elizabeth Bishop, Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa.
Because Ms. Smith draws so deeply upon her own personal history, Monday’s reading may well have an intimate quality.
As the last meeting of the year for the reading series, it may also have a festive feel with tea, coffee, and shortbread provided and a book-signing by Ms. Smith following her reading and prior to the ever-popular open microphone in which members of the audience step up to the podium to share their own poems. Copies of the poet’s works will be available for purchase courtesy of Labyrinth Books.
Poetry readings have been an integral part of Ms. Smith’s development as a poet. In the early 1990s, while a Harvard undergraduate, she was active in the Dark Room Collective, a group of black writers in Boston/Cambridge who hosted a reading series that The New Yorker said “could well turn out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem Renaissance.”
Much like the Poets at the Library series, The Dark Room presented a mix of established and emerging writers. “It was my first immersion in contemporary poetry, and it pushed me to begin to think of myself not just as someone who hoped one day to become a writer, but as a writer just starting out,” said Ms. Smith.
The poets that Ms. Smith met there, like Natasha Trethewey, who went on to become Poet Laureate, inspired the young writer to claim “the life and the vocation of a poet.” “Natasha was one of the people who made me feel confident that, with discipline and devotion, I could begin to find my way toward my own poems,” said Ms. Smith.
Since those days, Ms. Smith has found her way, drawing upon her experiences and memories of family relationships to create three books of poetry. After receiving her BA from Harvard in 1994, and an MFA in creative writing from Columbia in 1997, she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford and then went on to teach at the City University of New York, the University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University. In 2004, she received a Rona Jaffe Award and then a 2005 Whiting Award. Since 2006, she’s been on the faculty of Princeton University’s creative writing program.
Her first collection, The Body’s Question (2003) won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Her second, Duende, received the 2006 James Laughlin Award; its title echoes Federico García Lorca’s use of the term, “duende,” with respect to flamenco music. For Ms. Smith, “duende” is not only the wellspring of poetry, but also the place where the soul confronts emotion and acknowledges death.
Ms. Smith third book, Life on Mars (2011) garnered the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and a citation describing “a collection of bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain.”
Of the book, literary critic Joel Brouwer said: “Life on Mars first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”
In her Life on Mars poem “My god, it’s full of stars” the poet uses images from science and science fiction to speak of human desire and grief, imagining the universe: “… sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,/Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke./So that I might be sitting now beside my father/As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe/For the first time in the winter of 1959.”
Elsewhere in the same poem, she writes of the possibility of space: “Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,/That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —/When all along, space might be chock-full of traffic,/Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel/Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding, …”
Although Life on Mars focuses on science and the universe writ large, the poet uses traditional forms, including the villanelle in “Solstice” about the euthanizing of geese at J.F.K. Airport.
Born in 1972 and the youngest of five children. Ms. Smith grew up in a northern California suburban town halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento. Her family has “deep roots” in Alabama, however. She now lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Raphael Allison, and their young daughter.
In order to introduce her daughter to her grandparents, now both deceased, and her own history, Ms. Smith has written a memoir that will be published next year and titled Ordinary Light. Writing prose rather than poetry is an entirely different endeavor and Ms. Smith has discovered that the different form yields different discoveries or “revelations.”
Poets at the Library
Co-sponsored by the Library in conjunction with two very active and long-standing poetry groups: US1 Poets’ Cooperative (US1) and Delaware Valley Poets (DVP), the “Poets at the Library” reading series takes place at Princeton Public Library on the second Monday of each month from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Past readers include Paul Muldoon, Alicia Ostriker, Evie Shockley, James Richardson, C.K. Williams, and numerous local poets. The four person team of poets that organizes the readings: Joe Longino and Corey Langer, of the Delaware Valley Poets, and Maxine Susman and Enriqueta Carrington, of US1 Poets’ Cooperative, have a similarly inviting line-up for 2014.
For more information, call (609) 924-9529, or visit: www.princetonlibrary.org.