Tracy K. Smith has published three books of poetry, as well as a memoir, partly inspired by her year with German poet and author Hans Magnus Enzensberger, her mentor in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2010–2011.
Smith’s appointment as Poet Laureate by the world’s biggest library made news in some of America’s leading publications and websites, including the New York Times, Fortune magazine, the Washington Post and the Huffington Post.
The principal duty of the Poet Laureate, appointed annually, is to serve as “the nation’s official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans”. Smith will receive a $35,000 stipend and a $5,000 travel budget. The post has been held by some of the US’s most distinguished poets, including, Louise Glück, W. S. Merwin, Charles Simic and, most recently, Juan Felipe Herrera.
Appointing Smith as the library’s 22nd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, for 2017–18, the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, said: “It gives me great pleasure to appoint Tracy K. Smith, a poet of searching. 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.”
Christopher L. Eisgruber, President of Princeton University, where Smith is the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities and a Professor of Creative Writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts, added: “Tracy K. Smith is a gifted writer whose work sparkles with insight, imagination and grace. We are fortunate that she teaches at Princeton, and I am delighted that she will now be our country’s Poet Laureate.”
Rebecca Irvin, Head of Philanthropy at Rolex, also paid tribute to Smith: “At Rolex, we are immensely proud of this amazing honour for Tracy Smith. Tracy’s talent and voice are unique, and we are pleased that we were able to support her at an important stage of her career.”
Commenting on her appointment as Poet Laureate, Smith said: “My time as the protegée of Hans Magnus Enzensberger changed my goals as a writer, and my view of the community I belong to. I am excited to draw from that experience in this new role.”
Smith first made international news when she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her 2011 collection of poems, Life on Mars. Poet and critic Joel Brouwer wrote in the New York Times: “As all the best poetry does, Life on Mars first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”
Her other awards include the 2006 James Laughlin Award, the 2008 Essence Literary Award, the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award, a Whiting Award, an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, the 16th annual Robert Creeley Award and Columbia University’s Medal for Excellence.
The New York Times pointed out that although her poetry often dealt with social and political issues, she was not planning to use her new post as an activist. Instead, she aims to be an advocate for the medium of poetry itself.
“Rather than talking about social issues, I want to give more readers access to more kinds of poems and poets,” Smith said. “Poems are friendly, and they teach us how to read them.”
Smith has recently written a libretto related to slavery for an opera by composer Gregory Spears. Wade in the Water, her next collection of poetry, will be published later this year in the US by Graywolf Press.