January 2, 2019

Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith To Visit Princeton Day School

POETRY AT PDS: Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate and director of Princeton University’s creative writing program, will be visiting Princeton Day School on Friday for a day of readings and presentations for students and faculty. (Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths, courtesy of Blue Flower Arts)

By Donald Gilpin

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, director of Princeton University’s creative writing program, will spend the day at Princeton Day School (PDS) on Friday, January 4, reading her poetry and talking with different groups of students and teachers, from Pre-K through 12th grade.

Sponsored by PDS’s Imagine the Possibilities (ITP) visiting artist program, Smith, according to a PDS press release, will be looking to raise awareness about poetry as a means for students to develop their voices and explore fundamental questions, as she brings her poems to life and invites thoughtful reflection and conversation.

Smith was appointed poet laureate in 2017 and reappointed in 2018 for an additional year. She has published four collections of poetry and a memoir, Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her poetry volume Life on Mars. 

“The surfaces of a Tracy K. Smith poem are beautiful and serene,” wrote the Academy of American Poets Chancellor Toi Dericotte in presenting Smith with the 2014 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, “but underneath there is always an unknown vastness. Her poems take the risk of inviting us to imagine, as the poet does, what it is to travel in another person’s shoes.”

Smith, praised by Publisher’s Weekly for her “lyric brilliance and political impulses,” is the host of a daily poetry podcast, The Slowdown.

“I feel that a poem is an opportunity for a poet to really grapple with things that are confusing, confounding, complicated,” she said in a video recording for the Academy of American Poets discussing whether a poem should address political issues. “A poem is always about going after the difficult thing, and it changes you. It asks you to step outside of what you know and understand and move towards something that you are a stranger in. I think that’s in an ideal world, and that’s also the way that we approach politics, or should.” 

She added, “Poetry is a wonderful tool for understanding and changing the way you look at the world — and, even more importantly, the way you look at yourself and others.”

About her writing, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden stated, “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. With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths — all to better understand what makes us most human.”

Smith was born in Massachusetts and raised in California. Her mother was a teacher and her father an engineer, who worked on the Hubble telescope. She studied at Harvard University, then received her MFA from Columbia University and went on to be a Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University for two years, eventually joining the Princeton faculty in 2005.  She lives in Princeton with her husband and their three children. 

Her latest book of poetry, Wade in the Water (2018), from which she plans to read on January 4, gives voice to black and white Americans from past centuries whose letters and depositions form a powerful, and painful, historical narrative, according to the PDS press release. Those poems also bring the historical narrative into the present, silently asking readers to explore how and why issues of race in our society remain unresolved. 

Town Topics book reviewer Stuart Mitchner wrote in Princeton Magazine about Smith’s 2011 poem “Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?” from her prize-winning volume Life on Mars: “For me, the ‘wonder’ in ‘Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes’ is best expressed in the fourth stanza’s closing reference to ‘the life/ In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky/ thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands/ Even if it burns.’”

PDS’s ITP program, which features several artist visits each year, has been supported since 1995 by the John D. Wallace, Jr. ’78 Memorial Guest Artist Series Fund.