Tracy K. Smith is the author of the memoir Ordinary Light and three books of poetry: Life on Mars, which received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize; Duende, recipient of the 2006 James Laughlin Award, and The Body’s Question, which won the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith is also the recipient of the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Award and a Whiting Award. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University, where she is director of the Program in Creative Writing. Below, she speaks with poet Lauren K. Alleyne about books, feminism, and what it means to write.
LKA: As a woman of the word, what do you think it means it mean to be a writer in the world? What is our job description?
TKS: I think a huge part of that mission is private, and it has to do with thinking deeply about experience, about the feeling of being present, and about being part of the community of other people, then using language to get something out of that— using language to slow things down and ask the questions that we often forget or are afraid to ask in real time, using language to push for a more complex kind of understanding of what we add up to together and on our own.
I think a great deal about that private investment, and about how writing has helped me feel like a more engaged human, but then I also recognize the ways that, within the past year, I’ve felt a certain conviction to write about certain social and political themes. The alarming number of incidents involving police aggression against black citizens has led me to write some op-ed pieces and essays. My poetry is concerned with these kinds of social events, perhaps, again, as a way of contemplating these things privately.
But I also feel the writer is uniquely positioned to speak publicly with insight and courage. For me, this has meant shifting genres so that the work might have the potential to reach a different and differently-minded audience. More and more, I feel that writing about social themes—even in forms that lead us away from the artifice of art—is a thing that we should force ourselves to do. It’s important to write about Baltimore, Charleston, to write about Ferguson. Not everyone has to do it, but those of us who feel compelled, really should.
As I see it, another important feature of the work of the writer has to do with language itself. I think so much about the way that the language we are forced to live in on a day-to-day level is impoverished. And there are all these different ways of impoverishing language: emojis are a way of impoverishing language; text messaging— the LOL, OMG, etc.— is a way of impoverishing language. Perhaps readers and writers who have a foot in these other spaces where language is utilized as a tool can trust that we are inoculated against the “dangers” of pat, simplistic short-hand, but I worry about younger people for whom catch phrases, euphemisms, buzzwords and media-driven word packages constitute all or most of what they know about language. I fear that they’ll lose the ability to think complex thoughts, and to respond in a challenging way to the oversimplification that is coming at us from so many directions. So, writers, as people who live actively and by choice in language need to bring some of that light and rigor into public spaces.
TKS: I grew up thinking that that word was about things that happened long before me, you know? Movements for suffrage and equal pay seemed like a public fight that was fought by people much older than me, and I was someone who benefited from the end result of that . . . (Interject incredible cute daughter with her mother’s hair, and a charming smile featuring a missing tooth). Ha! I’m answering a question about feminism, and losing my train of thought because I am dealing with my child!!
Basically, I feel like a feminist because I feel like I am a humanist. I don’t feel comfortable with the easy division of feminism from a concern about racial or social justice. As a black woman in America I belong to multiple marginal groups, and those intersect; being a woman is one of those things, and being certain that what women offer and require is valid is just one of many things that I feel committed to. It’s funny though, I ask my students what feminism is, and they feel even farther removed from that struggle than I did when I was younger, and that makes me feel like it’s a conversation that is important to keep ongoing.
LKA: What do you think a 21st century feminism looks like?
TKS: Our sense of gender in the 21st century is so different than it was in the 80s or the 70s when feminism was a new thing. Now, we’re as concerned with the rights of trans people as we are with thinking about equality for women in the workplace and in the social sphere. I want to say that it all boils down to justice. When I think about the way that the civil rights movement informed the free speech movement which informed the feminist movement which informed the gay rights movement, you can see how there’s a single perspective that’s being applied in these different contexts. It’s about valuing what every individual offers and needs in a society: when the individual is a woman, we call it feminism; if the individual’s gay, we call it gay rights. But isn’t it the same thing? It’s about eliminating the kind of fear, dismissal, paternalism and lack of empathy that causes inequality and injustice.
LKA: So it would be a more inclusive movement . . .
TKS: Well, if we could all think like writers . . . You know when you’re writing a story, or when you’re writing a poem, you realize that there’s this huge amount of humility that has to come into play so that you can figure it out; listen to whatever “it” is, and be receptive. But when we look up and step back into the world, all of a sudden we let go of that, and suddenly we are susceptible to the temptation of our own authority. We say “my needs are important” and “I am certain that I understand the value of the world as I see it.” To me it is the mindset of authority and certainty that is responsible for just about every bad thing in the world. And conversely, it’s an open, humble, mindfulness that seems to be the answer to most questions that involve people.
And I feel it’s easy to say, but it’s hard to practice. Even as a parent, I struggle because I know as a human what I think is right, and then I say “ugh, kids, I need space; get out of my hair. My needs are more important.” I mean, I just told my daughter to go play somewhere else. It’s a crazy struggle! Sometimes I feel like writing makes you this really great person, but it is just for a moment. That it passes out of view. It’s the mind that is activated when you’re thinking about the world and then you come out of your study and you’re like, oh god, the kitchen is a mess, what’s going on, and then that other person with needs and that feeling of authority comes in to play and it’s like, wait. I have to start over from scratch, and try to re-learn the thing that I just thought I had a hold of!
TKS: I don’t have that luxury anymore, because I have these other things going on. I have to pick someone up from school, drop somebody off, etc., etc., so my ritual or my practice is when I have the time, and I know I need to get down to work, I just get down to work. And oddly enough, I think those constraints made me more productive. When I was younger and living alone, I could waste all this time, and I could kind of just tinker with things slowly; now there’s a real hunger when I have the space, and the computer is there, and there’s quiet around me, maybe even a window I can look out of, then I just want do dig into it, and get as much out of it as I can because it’s a brief window of opportunity.
I feel like parenthood has made me more productive, and it has also definitely deepened my sense of what’s at stake in the world. I want to write something that speaks to possibilities in the world that might be worth exploring not just for me. There’s this huge hunger and this impossible ambition to say something that is going to help these little people when they’re adults and I’m gone. I think it’s a combination that just makes me think, ok, let me just say it, let me just put it down and I’ll go from there, fix it if I have to.
I’ve also been saying yes to more things than I normally used to. I’m working on some translations of a contemporary Chinese poet named Yi Lei. I have a preliminary, literal translation of her selected poems and I’m turning those into “poems” in English. I would never have said yes to a thing like that before, but now I feel like it might teach me something. It might also be a way of being productive as a writer when I have the time yet lack the inspiration. I’m trying to use these opportunities with as many different kinds of work as possible.
LKA: Where have you generally found your inspiration for writing?
TKS: I used to get so much inspiration from travel, especially if I could travel by myself. Just being a stranger in a place, being receptive to different clues, trying to gather a sense of how things work, trying to imagine that it’s possible to just be open and to develop a feeling for what a foreign place is like—that was a huge source of inspiration. It felt like philosophical reflection for me. I would go someplace and open myself up and think and describe and be a different version of myself than I normally am. That was a huge part of my first two books.
It’s a little bit different now. The concerns that have come into my life more recently have to do with life, death, a certain anxiety thinking about the future, and a lot of it has to do with public history as a result of that anxiety. Nevertheless, I still find myself getting that feeling just of … joy …when I am able to be alone in a quiet room and look out at trees, look at the sky. For me, that’s where ideas live, and I can hear them. I travel so much to colleges and bookstores and writers conferences now, and I sometimes when I get to my hotel and there’s nothing happening, I look out the window, and it comes back to me that I’m a poet. I think my inspiration has to do with the silent spaces where the shy thoughts can enter and announce themselves.
TKS: I think the process of producing a book can feel like a really happy pregnancy, because you’re so excited about what’s going to happen, the amazing sense of hope and belief and you don’t know how it will turn out and everything is a mystery. I wrote Life on Mars while I was pregnant, so those feelings were present in a very palpable way. I do feel that comparison breaks down a little bit, though, because when the book is done, you have a few months when it’s new, and you’re reeling from it and you’re reading from it, but very quickly, that really deep pride, that bone-deep relationship you have with it ends, and it becomes an autonomous thing in the world. I think the most highly charged and satisfying part of the book is when you’re writing it, when you’re nearing the end and you realize it’s really going to happen. For me, that’s one of the best feelings in the world! And after that, finding closure with the thing becomes really satisfying. I recorded the audio book for the memoir, and to me that was perfect closure: I got to speak every word; I got to hear it. And since we did it in a really short period of time, the story of it was audible, recognizable to me. And then I felt . . . done with it.
LKA: Talk to me about Ordinary Light, your prose memoir. What was that writing journey like, especially in this different genre?
TKS: Oh God. It felt like starting from scratch, because I didn’t know what I was doing! I knew I wanted to write a big book. And I knew some of the nuts and bolts—it was going to be about my mom; it was going to be about my family. And that’s all I knew. In the beginning I was just writing scenes, things I could remember, but there was nothing governing how those scenes related to one another. And I just thought if I produced enough of those, eventually I would figure out what the story was. So I wrote and wrote, and there are whole regions of my life that are not in the book now, but that I wrote about. At that time, I was working in the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative with a mentor, Hans Magnus Enzensberger. He was incredibly helpful because he was able to say: This is a story of you and your mother—all this other stuff, just get rid of it. And that helped inform my sense of what I needed to do with the stories that I had begun telling; it helped shape the questions I needed to ask of these experiences.
And then, it was also a huge learning curve to recognize that the prose needed to do something different than what my poems do. In the poem, I try to let images do most of the heavy lifting. I try to fashion images that are visceral and that might invite the reader into the place where I felt myself to be. I’d always learned to let the image do the work, and to resist explaining things. But in prose, you kind of have to explain it. If I found myself saying, “This experience felt like this,” I also had to ask “Why? And what might it have felt like to someone else? And how does this relate to another event that was similar, but also different in the book?” I had to do a lot of the extrapolative stuff that I generally trust the reader, in the short space of the poem, to do on his/her own.
And because I was writing not as “a speaker,” but as me, I had to spell out some of those “answers.” I had no secrets! It was really scary . . . and then I started to like it! I was like oh, wow, it feels so good to have a conversation with my 8-year-old self here in the book. I found that I could narrate the story as an adult, while also get back into the feelings of those long-ago moments. And then I could reflect on that distance. I loved what it made me discover. I loved what it made me realize about the narrative of my life that I hadn’t previously recognized because, like everyone else, I was inside my life.
You know, when you’re inside of an experience, sometimes the most you can say is, “This happened and it was weird, and then that happened that was weird, and then this other thing happened, and wow…” But if you’re telling a story, then you have to create some through-line—you have to parse these disparate small things as if they are actually part of a single large thing—and doing that helped me understand that my life did have a kind of narrative. Even something as random and chaotic-seeming as losing a parent was an integral part of a logical narrative arc. That discovery felt like a kind of gift.
LKA: You mentioned the Rolex Mentor & Protégé Arts Initiative, of course you’ve also won a Pulitzer, and a ton of awards. But I imagine that as a writer, there are other, more private accomplishments, too. What do you consider your greatest literary achievement?
TKS: I think part of it happened with working on Life on Mars and sort of owning this private struggle that had to do with God and death and the afterlife and letting that vocabulary, which was coming out of me almost involuntarily, into the poems unabashedly, and just trusting it. And that same thing happened in a different way with the memoir. I feel good about getting to a place where those things—the embarrassing, the unfashionable—could actually drive the work. The weird yet affirming thing is that those are themes that, in talking to readers, a lot of people have a similar kind of discomfort with and interest in.
Sometimes I feel that as an artist it’s expected that you’re going to be intellectual, and as an intellectual, it’s expected that you’re going to be beyond faith, beyond vulnerability to something that is as weird and charged as God. And I guess I feel grateful that I was able to find my way in words back to something that’s really central to the fundamental me, and to use the tools that I have as a writer and an intellectual to enlarge what the idea of God means to me. Belief was given to me as something simple, and I feel that art has helped me to complicate it in a way that not only makes me feel comfortable with it, but that makes it seem more useful to me as a human.
LKA: The body and physicality are very much a part of your work; however, alongside that concern with the physical, there’s a question about what animates the body, or what makes the body beyond itself. In the introductory chapter of Ordinary Light, for example, you describe your mother’s death, and in looking at her see “the shell, the emptiness,” and know, somehow, that she’s no longer there. I think that’s a tension you play with a lot. Can you talk a little bit about that theme?
TKS: When you see the body after whatever animates it has disappeared, you never forget it. I remember seeing that with my mom, then many years later with my dad, and I recall the sense of how surreal and unfair it is that someone can just be gone. We just lost a cat last month, and that same feeling was there—it’s a different kind of loss, but—seeing his little body when he was gone from it. It just reminds you that there’s this huge mystery that we will never figure out even though we are a part of. I will never be convinced by the argument that there’s nothing, that when you’re dead, you’re dead; I don’t have any need to convince myself of that. And so I’m curious about what else waits for us.
But it also speaks to something that I feel we tap into in art. It’s that other thing. Where does the poem come from? What are we trying to get to? What are we hoping for? What are we listening for? What do we believe that we’re capable of? It’s all of this stuff that’s beyond us, that’s bigger than us, and that we’re connected to. Isn’t that where the work comes from? It’s not just us. I mean I’m somebody who really believes that the intellect is not responsible for good art. It’s really not.
And I can recognize when I’m reading a poem that’s built only of brainpower, and that bores me. I think the first step past that is when you can bring in the physical energy, when you can create a visceral sense of experience—that’s exciting. But then the step beyond that has to do with all of this illogical, powerful, primal energy that creates a jolt, a spark of excitement and fear when you’re reading the work. It’s that thing that I’m really interested in. And for me, that thing is connected to that other place, wherever that is, that energy source that seems to animate. I don’t think it means that I’m doing some kind of a magical soothsaying, séance thing in writing a poem. But think about the way that we’re comfortable talking about energy forces and chakras in, say, a yoga class… I want to talk about that in terms of language, too.
LKA: You mentioned the kinds of poems you like to read. Can you tell our femmeliterate readers what your literary matrilineage is? Who are your writing sheroes?
TKS: When I first started writing poems, I was reading mostly men, because I liked what I saw as their authority, the earthiness of their writing, how the language created a place and real feeling. But as I’ve gotten farther and farther along, I really am listening to these female voices for that other, harder-to-describe stuff. I know that is a very simplistic way of breaking things down, but I think about the work of someone like Lucille Clifton, and how she is able to do both. She was able to get down to the nitty gritty of what it means to be alive, but she also had these poems that think, quite literally, about other dimensions. I’m thinking of the series “messages from the ones” in particular, and I really love that kind of courage and the urgency of that work. It shifts the scale of the poems. It enlarges the possibilities for what might truly be at stake.
And then there are moments where, despite their many differences, I really feel that Lucille Clifton and Louise Glück are sisters. Think of the voice in the “messages from the ones,” and the voice that drives Wild Iris. They could be cousins or something. Anyway, those are two women I just keep wanting to learn from. And Linda Gregg is another one. Her poetry is so philosophical and yet it resists the intelligence so effectively and it is open to association and the power of that kind of untranslatable imagery. I think she’s really masterful. She was my teacher and so was Lucille Clifton.
Elizabeth Bishop is a poet I think I’ve consciously learned a lot from. When I first started writing I loved her description, and I loved those often-anthologized poems, but now I teach her work to my students and I learn so much form the vulnerability of her speakers, from their wish to be transformed. I love her poems “Crusoe in England” and “At the Fish Houses,” and feel like she’s a poet that so many people have learned from, and the lesson has been translated across so many different types of poetry. John Ashbury says he cries every time he reads “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” and Mark Doty—a very different poet from Ashbury—is also an Elizabeth Bishop disciple. I love what her work makes possible. So, Lucille Clifton, Louise Gluck, Linda Gregg and Elizabeth Bishop.
LKA: You talked about teaching, and the question I have here may not apply. I wanted to ask how you engage your students in a feminist pedagogy, but you didn’t quite claim the word… maybe you could just tell me a bit about what it means to be a teacher of language.
TKS: I really try to get my students to figure out how they can get their poems to be about more than themselves, so that writing is not merely an exercise of doing some thinking or making some pretty thing. Students are so shy sometimes about really saying what’s on their minds, but I try to get them to think about what’s important to them as people, what they’re scared of, what they’re preoccupied by, what they’re worried about, and to see if their poems can help them wrestle with that stuff.
I think doing that means that you’ve got to be willing to take some risks, and let go of what you think you know and what you think you understand, and move into the zone where everything is dangerous, unresolved. I’m really trying to get them to go to that place, even if it means their first drafts will be a mess, because that is the kind of work that will mean more to them as people. Students love to write, at least in the beginning, about what they know, or what they think they’ve resolved, and I try to get them to the point where they can at least doubt the interestingness of that. I am also hoping to get them to think about all the strange things that our poems can teach us about what we’re really thinking, and I think that only comes out if they can let weird uncanny associations lead them into the poem, because that’s the way the subconscious or the unconscious speaks.
When we are reading published poems, I urge them to think about the ways that the poet has surrendered to the material, to see how the poet makes choices that are going to lead him/her into a clearer or more powerful sense of encounter with the material. And so we’ll look at these moments, like in “At the Fish Houses” where Bishop lets go of what she’s established and mastered in terms of recreating this scene and then leaps, or plunges rather, into this other psychic space: “Cold dark deep and absolutely clear.” So those are the things I’m urging them to recognize in the poems they read.
And my idea is that if you can get to that as a reader and as a writer, then the way that you live your day-to-day life will change. The voices that you choose to listen to, and the degree to which you might be willing to cede control will change. I don’t know if it’s a feminist pedagogy, I don’t even know if it is pedagogy, but I feel like it’s about being vulnerable and receptive, and for whatever reasons, for better or worse, I think those are modes that women are better at enacting. We’ve had to become better at enacting those modes, and I think there’s a power in that.
LKA: What is something you’d wish you’d known about being a writer in general?
TKS: I wish that I had been encouraged to think about writing in other genres from the beginning. In grad school I felt like I’d pledged allegiance to poetry, and so I couldn’t do anything else. There was a thick wall between the genres. At first I felt inferior in some ways, and then I was urged (or convinced myself) to feel that poetry was the superior form. But deep down I felt inferior because I didn’t know how to write a story. I think I still have that inside. I think I probably want to try fiction sometime in the future so I can get over that fear, that sense of shame that I don’t know how to write a story. It’s a hang up that’s not necessary.
So yes, I wish I had been encouraged to embrace a fuller sense of myself as a writer. That was something my mentor really modeled for me. He’s a writer, he’s a public intellectual, and he’s just fearless of borders. I want to use my writing as a way of crossing borders—to think if the material calls for prose, then it’s prose. If the material calls for something else, then it’s something else.
LKA: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, for example, is one of those border crossing books, no?
TKS: Exactly. That book is so amazing, and how drained of its power would it have been if she’d thought ‘I have to write lyric poems about this’—not that a lyric poem can’t speak to the sense of self, the other, or racial fear and hatred, but there’s something that that form created, and that the images alongside the language helped to bolster. There’s something harder hitting about it. It hits you in more than one language.
TKS: Well, it would be a couple of things. I feel that as women we are urged to say yes to everything people ask us to do because it’s polite and because we worry that if we say no, they won’t ever ask us again. And so on the public side, I’ve forced myself to say no to more things, so that I have time for what’s important to me. And then on the private side, the writerly side that’s about thinking about process, and what the material demands, I’ve forced myself to say yes, and yes and yes in more ways. So it’s about pushing back the things that might draw me away from what I really want to be emboldened to try. That’s the first bit of advice: say yes to yourself, and no to other people without apology. I think it’s important, I really do. It’s such a stingy thing to say, but I know how hard it is to protect the space in which things can be thought and made.
The other thing I think I’ve learned in the last few years is that it’s really important to find a way to secure that time and space to make the work. As a mother there are so many demands that it’s a genuine struggle to say ok, I’m not going to be a mom for two hours; I’m going to write. But I think it’s essential to do that: enlist somebody to help you with your child so you can be a writer for part of your day. I don’t think there should be any guilt in that, but I know there is for whatever reason. Male writers don’t have that. When men have lots of kids, people don’t ask “how do you write?” people say “oh, you’re a patriarch, that’s great.” Everyone has this image of daddy in the study, and daddy doing work, but flip the gender, and it becomes a construct that nobody can see. I just feel that it’s really important to create security for the writerly self that is a woman and that is an author. Without apology.