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Retelling the American Story

July 31, 2018

Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, Retelling the American Story. Poet Laureate of the United States; it’s a high perch for an American poet to land on. Also, one of the strangest I think, because the role of the Poet Laureate is largely defined by the poet occupying that perch. Some do a lot, some very little. It’s current occupant is Tracy K. Smith, who was named Poet Laureate in 2017. Over her career, she has published a memoir and four books of poetry, including Life On Mars, which won the Pulitzer Prize several years ago. Her latest book is Wade In The Water. She joins me now from Princeton University, where she teaches creative writing. Hi Tracy, thanks for coming on the podcast.

 

Tracy K. Smith: Hi, thanks for having me.

 

Curtis Fox: So I wanted to ask you about your time as Poet Laureate, but before we get there, I’d like to get straight to a poem. Actually, the first poem in Wade in the Water, it’s called “Garden of Eden” and it is shockingly about shopping, in a sense. Can you tell us a little bit about this poem before you read it?


Tracy K. Smith: Sure. I guess I’ve been thinking a lot about mythology. You know, popular myths that we cleave to as Americans, and there are a lot of poems in this book that have titles that are biblical. But one day, when I was kind of working in the vein, I was sitting at my desk and I just had this vivid memory of shopping in a grocery store in Brooklyn, and this pang of nostalgia for that moment in my life, and this poem kind of just came out. The store is called Garden Of Eden, so almost accidentally it aligns itself with those poems that are thinking back to those biblical stories. But it also became a poem about reckoning with what it means to be alive in the 21st century. And I guess in some ways that’s a scary place to be. We’ve come to, I don’t know … The things that felt so new are no longer new and maybe we feel a sense of their dark possibility, or at least I do. And maybe that’s me speaking as someone in mid life, someone who’s the parent of kids and has fears about the future. But those things came out in this poem.

 

Curtis Fox: So please give that a read if you would.

 

Tracy K. Smith: Sure.

 

Garden Of Eden

 

What a profound longing

I feel, just this very instant,

For the Garden of Eden

On Montague Street

Where I seldom shopped,

Usually only after therapy

Elbow sore at the crook

From a hand basket filled

To capacity. The glossy pastries!

Pomegranate, persimmon, quince!

Once, a bag of black beluga

Lentils spilt a trail behind me

While I labored to find

A tea they refused to carry.

It was Brooklyn. My thirties.

Everyone I knew was living

The same desolate luxury,

Each ashamed of the same things:

Innocence and privacy. I’d lug

Home the paper bags, doing

Bank-balance math and counting days.

I’d squint into it, or close my eyes

And let it slam me in the face—

The known sun setting

On the dawning century.

 

 

Curtis Fox: So that’s the opening poem in your book, and as you said, it’s set in the early years of the century when the poet was more {innocence}, but there are hints that all is not well, and you write “Everyone I knew was living / The same desolate luxury, / Each ashamed of the same things: / Innocence and privacy”. There is deep unease in those lines that I’ve been puzzling over, and why would somebody be ashamed of innocence and privacy? Because having them suggests a sense of unearned privilege? What’s going on there?

 

Tracy K. Smith: Well, I guess I was really thinking about the moment when our desire to be public people became such a ravenous appetite. Social media, this idea that if you have a life it’s only useful or only real if you can demonstrate it, I feel like the beginning of that frenzy or that appetite seems to line up in my mind with that period, yeah.

 

Curtis Fox: So this poem is set in pre-Facebook times.

 

Tracy K. Smith: Mhmm, yeah. This poem is set in the beginning of the shift in our perspective, this idea that privacy is something that we can live above, in a way. I think now, of course, I feel, and many of us feel differently about that. This is a poem that’s kind of looking back toward the moment when we might have known but didn’t care.

 

Curtis Fox: And what about the desolate luxury? What are you really getting at there? That seems to me not so much about privacy but about consumerism in some way. Sort of the innocence of consumerism before bad things happen.

 

Tracy K. Smith: Yeah, I think in some ways this is kind of a coming of age poem. Someone has likened it to the poem in my previous book called “The Good Life” which is about being so hungry, and having a job but not making enough money. I think this is a poem that’s about, okay, I’m just past that, and look what I can almost afford. And that stage, I want to think of it as a stage that America has gone through. Not just me, not just people who are fresh out of whatever you do in the first years after graduate school into adulthood, thinking that I’ll be happy if I can almost afford the things that I want, if I can somehow find a way to buy what life seems to offer to other people.

 

Curtis Fox: And the poem ends ominously, as if we’re about to be kicked out of the Garden of Eden, not only the store but innocence in general. “I’d squint into it, or close my eyes / And let it slam me in the face— / The known sun setting / On the dawning century”. The poet is having an ominous sense that this century is going to be quite something to handle, which turned out to be true.

 

Tracy K. Smith: Yeah, the sense of dark possibility rose to the surface. A sense of regret that I hadn’t perhaps actively articulated to myself found a way into the poem.

 

Curtis Fox: It’s one of the curiosities of your book, that to grapple with this dawning century you go back into history with poems in the voices of the enslaved and powerless, and you also make interesting use of the Declaration of Independence. Can you tell us how you composed the poem “Declaration”?

 

Tracy K. Smith: Sure. A few years ago, actually several years ago now, I wrote a sonnet that I contributed to an anthology called Monticello in Mind, that was edited by Lisa Russ Spaar, and they were poems about Thomas Jefferson. I felt like my sonnet was off, I always felt like there was something I needed to fix in the last couple of lines of that poem. So, when I was working on other poems in this book that were wrestling with history, I thought, oh, I’ll go back to that Jefferson poem and see if I can make it right. My approach was to expand it, to maybe pull it apart and make it into a poem in different sections, and I looked through some of his letters, I looked through his will, and found through erasure different statements within those documents. And then I said well, why don’t I just look at the Declaration of Independence and see what I can hear there? And I remember, I was sitting reading this document, and suddenly I got to the region where all of these complaints against England were being raised, and I felt that they were speaking so clearly to the history of black life in this country, and suddenly everything else that I was working on, that I thought I wanted to gather around the idea of Jefferson, just went away. It was no longer important or necessary, and I wanted to just listen to these fragments within this founding document, and feel the sort of startled and…I don’t know, just a sense of inevitability that those statements kind of gathered around themselves.

 

Curtis Fox: Now you hinted at it, but it’s an erasure poem. Can you explain exactly what that means in terms of what you did with the Declaration of Independence?

Tracy K. Smith: An erasure poem is almost like a … You know you see those government documents that are redacted, so there are these big black lines that delete certain elements of the text, and you’re left with a different path through those ideas. And sometimes there are things that seem to point in very different directions as a result of what’s been eliminated. So I did that with this document, and what I found myself doing was deleting the text that was most specific in reference to England, and listening only to the first half, in many cases, of statements. It felt very much like a plea that could live in the 21st century, around all the instances of violence against unarmed black citizens. But even, it seemed to answer some of the questions that come up when we talk about this racial divide.

 

Curtis Fox: Yeah, it’s one of those poems, when you read it you think God, somebody should have done this years ago. This is so brilliant, this is such a clear idea. Would you read it for us?

 

Tracy K. Smith: Sure.

 

Declaration

 

He has

 

              sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people

 

He has plundered our

 

                                           ravaged our

 

                                                                         destroyed the lives of our

 

taking away our

 

                                  abolishing our most valuable

 

and altering fundamentally the Forms of our

 

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for

Redress in the most humble terms:

 

                                                                Our repeated

Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.

 

We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration

and settlement here.

 

                                    —taken Captive

                                              

                                                                    on the high Seas

 

                                                                                                     to bear—

 

 

Curtis Fox: The poem ends with an erasure, it ends ambiguously, “taken Captive / on the high Seas / to bear” as you just read, and it’s with a dash there at the end. And you’re leaving it to us, the reader, to fill in the blank. I thought of to bear witness, as the book itself does, but I also thought to bear unspeakable suffering. What about you? How did you fill in that blank as you were writing that?

 

Tracy K. Smith: I hear those two things, but in the reverse order.

 

Curtis Fox: Okay, right.

 

Tracy K. Smith: I think about the incredible systematic and orderly attempts to negate black life throughout the history of this country, and then I think about the voices and the contributions to democracy that Blacks have offered, and those two things speak really powerfully to each other.

 

Curtis Fox: Now, if the Trump presidency has told us anything, it’s that racism is alive and well in America. And if Trump has done anything positive for the country, he’s inadvertently, by his own racist statements and actions, put the conversation front and center in American life. You were appointed Poet Laureate in 2017, after Trump was inaugurated. Did that effect the way that you thought about what you were going to do as Poet Laureate?

 

Tracy K. Smith: Well, I thought that this conversation about how incapable we as a nation are of having a conversation across political difference or racial difference, that motivated me to think about how poetry might be a kind of bridge. Poems are so great because they urge you to start thinking in honest and even vulnerable terms about your own life and your own experiences. If I read a poem about my father, sometimes if the poem is doing it’s work, you might begin to think about your relationship with your father, even if it might be different from what my poem says. The conversations that can ensue after we’ve sat together listening to poems that have activated some of our own private urgencies, are useful. They do a lot to remind us that we do have things to say to each other, that we’re interested in one another’s lives and vulnerabilities.

 

Curtis Fox: So how did that translate into what you have done, or what you are doing as Poet Laureate?

 

Tracy K. Smith: Well, I’ve been going into rural communities in different parts of the country. Places where reading series and book festivals don’t usually go. I’ve been sharing work by other American poets, and readings of my own poems as well, and just asking a very simple question, which is, what do you notice? And then we find a way to have a conversation. Some of these events have happened in large public spaces, so its been a matter of reading and then having maybe a public Q&A or more of a back and forth afterward. But in other events, I’ve gone into almost curated spaces, like rehab facilities or churches, or we have an upcoming trip that will take us to a retirement community. They’re intimate spaces where we can really stop and say, okay, here’s a poem by this American poet who’s voice I think is so important, what do you hear within it? And what’s really exciting is it’s not a matter of me teaching people about these poems, it’s really a matter of us listening to each other’s responses, questions, associations. So the poems change for me too, which is I think affirmation that something real is happening.

 

Curtis Fox: Being Poet Laureate is obviously an honor, but have you enjoyed it? Do you enjoy it?

 

Tracy K. Smith: I have, and I didn’t know if I would. I know it’s a huge honor, and that’s the first thing that I felt when Dr Hayden called me.

 

Curtis Fox: Dr Hayden from the Library of Congress, right?

 

Tracy K. Smith: Right. But I also felt that, okay, this is a kind of service that I would be doing for the country. So I thought, what could I do? What is it that I could do in this role that would be different and useful. So I had to kind of really think about it, before saying yes. Even going into the first trip, I was thinking okay, I’m performing a service. The first trip was to Sante Fe, New Mexico, to the Santa Fe Indian School and some neighboring pueblos, and I realized this is joy. This is such a gift, to be able to visit different parts of the country and spend time with people in different communities, and listen to each other, and talk to each other, and think about what poetry already means to people there, and get their feedback on poems that might be new to them. It’s been great. It’s been something I will be sad to cease doing, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to go out across the country at this time in particular.

 

Curtis Fox: I want to get you to read one more poem. It’s actually the last poem in your book. A friend recently emailed it to me, even though I hadn’t read the book yet. I was blown away by how it seemed to capture the mood of our historical moment. I also thought when this poem first came to me, this is what poetry is for, this is what poetry can do. Can I get you to read “An Old Story”?

 

Tracy K. Smith: Sure.

 

An Old Story

 

We were made to understand it would be

Terrible. Every small want, every niggling urge,

Every hate swollen to a kind of epic wind. 

 

Livid, the land, and ravaged, like a rageful 

Dream. The worst in us having taken over 

And broken the rest utterly down. 

 

                                                                 A long age 

Passed. When at last we knew how little 

Would survive us—how little we had mended 

 

Or built that was not now lost—something 

Large and old awoke. And then our singing 

Brought on a different manner of weather. 

 

Then animals long believed gone crept down 

From trees. We took new stock of one another. 

We wept to be reminded of such color. 

 

Curtis Fox: That was “An Old Story”. It’s a dire poem, tinged with hope, that out of the destruction of our century something new and fresh might reemerge. Tracy K. Smith, I hope your poem is a prophecy.

 

Tracy K. Smith: Thank you.

 

Curtis Fox: Tracy K. Smith is the Poet Laureate of the United States. Her term will be up in April of 2019. You can read some of her poems on our website. Her latest book is Wade In The Water. Let us know what you think of this podcast. Email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org, or write a review in Apple Podcasts, and please link to this episode on social media. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintent. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

Tracy K. Smith discusses her new book and her tenure as current US poet laureate.

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