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Tracy K. Smith in conversation at Ploughshares
MK: Of course, what I love about Life On Mars is how otherworldly it is and yet how direct it is, too, about life on earth. You make the universe as intimate as love for a father. Everyday life, common knowledge, aside for a moment, where do you think your attraction come from to those things we can’t see, something like God, and the imaginary life?
TKS: I wrote the bulk of the book in the wake of my father’s death, and while I was pregnant with my daughter. So those unknowns felt very present and very urgent for me. I needed to figure out where I believed my father had gone and what he had become a part of, and so approaching the page really became a matter of attempting to describe or create a version of that world that would allow me to move through my private grief to something else. But even beyond my own private experience, I think it’s quite natural to use versions of what we know or have experienced as the framework for imagining what we cannot know, and what we have not yet experienced. That’s why metaphor exists.
MK: The book also is full of sweeping gestures but it’s also smaller, meditative. And it feels metaphysical as well. You can write a poem like “Life on Mars” and then something pared down like “The Good Life”. Is there such a thing as something too big to write about? Too small?
TKS: Well, I obviously don’t think so! I hope that in both cases, concrete particulars save the poem from feeling too abstract and too inconsequential. My belief is that they create the sense of a real space or a real encounter to be entered into and felt. And I think that the desire for feeling is a large part of what attracts many of us to poems.