Tracy K. Smith, An invitation to possibility

An invitation to possibility

January 2016 - Tracy K. Smith, 2010-2011 Literature protégée

As a protégée in literature in 2010, Tracy K. Smith soon demonstrated her thirst to learn from her mentor, Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Subsequently, she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 and the next year achieved a full professorship at Princeton at the young age of 41. Now herself a role model and mentor, this dazzling poet has come full circle.
By Renee H. Shea

Bold. Mysterious. Unguarded. Those are the words often used to describe the poetry of Tracy K. Smith, 2010–2011 literature protégée to Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Those same words fit Ordinary Light, her recently published memoir, characterized by her former teacher at Columbia University, poet Mark Doty, as “an indelible self-portrait” that offers “a tenderness and intelligence rarely so closely intertwined”. Smith’s initial foray into prose, Ordinary Light was the most tangible result of her collaboration with Enzensberger, an experience she calls “one of the most genuinely rewarding things I’ve ever done as an artist”. For this Pulitzer Prize-winning author, the influence of her mentor, “a lively, generous, remarkable man of letters”, is ongoing. Having him as “a guardian and cheerleader”, she says, “led me to embrace a fuller sense of what it means to be a writer”. 

Smith was selected for the Arts Initiative with fellowships and prizes to her credit and a position in the creative writing programme of Princeton University; she is now the programme's director. Her education was a journey from one prestigious institution to another: a BA in English and African American Studies from Harvard University (1994), an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University (1997) and a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University (1997–1999). She published her first book, The Body’s Question, in 2003 after it won the Poetry Prize from Cave Canem, an organization committed to cultivating African-American artists. Kevin Young, the judge in 2002, praised Smith for language that is “almost biblical, yet full of that elusive thing good hip-hop emcees have, the flow, her lines themselves ‘a gorgeous traffic’ that ‘mimics water’” (quoting the poem Drought). Today, Young, author of eight books of poetry and the Charles Howard Candler Professor of Creative Writing and English at Emory University, believes that Smith “will surely be read 100 years from now” because she continues to “embrace all the many cultures that make up America” in poems that have “a vitality and plainspoken beauty”. Smith says that the ideas for her second book, Duende, published in 2007, began in 2003 during her artist’s residency with Fundación Valparaiso in Almeria, Spain. Duende, which translates as a quality of passion and inspiration, continues her exploration into the intersection of political and personal histories. 

Life on Mars, which was published in 2011 and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, gained accolades for Smith’s luminous connection between the cosmic and the intimate, outer space and the interior life. Part elegy for her father, an optical engineer on the Hubble space telescope, these poems grapple with grief and the hope that death is not oblivion but rather change, that perhaps: “Everything that disappears/Disappears as if returning somewhere.” 

Smith’s writing has propelled her to the front rank of authors of her generation.  ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

Smith’s writing has propelled her to the front rank of authors of her generation. ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

Smith became a tenured full professor at Princeton when she was 41, an impressive accomplishment anywhere, but especially at one of the American Ivy League universities. After she served as an assistant professor from 2005–2013, the Pulitzer no doubt helped Smith to skip the interim rank of associate. Such recognition from her peers was not misplaced, however, since in 2014 she received the Academy of American Poets Fellowship; Toi Derricotte, a chancellor of the Academy, Professor Emerita of the University of Pittsburgh and co-founder of Cave Canem, believes she is “one of the most important poets of our time”. Haitian-American novelist and MacArthur Fellow Edwidge Danticat echoes this high praise, calling Smith “a singularly powerful voice whose deeply profound and mesmerizing work addresses universal themes, while drawing us close to her particular family, her particular joys and pains. Salman Rushdie has said that a poet’s work is to ‘name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep’. Smith does all that and much more.” 

Smith gives back willingly and generously, slipping easily from protégée to mentor in her own right. She came full circle in 2013 to judge the Cave Canem Poetry Prize that she won in 2002. Mark Doty relates how his students were in awe of her when she visited his contemporary poetry course at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But her ease immediately relaxed them. The most moving responses were from young African American women or daughters of immigrants from all over the world. They said they realized she’s a famous poet, but also a person like them, who made them think about what they might be able to do.”

Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light, was the most tangible result of her mentorship with Hans Magnus Enzensberger. ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

Smith’s memoir, Ordinary Light, was the most tangible result of her mentorship with Hans Magnus Enzensberger. ©Rolex/Bart Michiels

Smith rejects being labelled a political poet, yet politics, especially racial politics, unavoidably – and naturally – make their way into her work because Americans have “such a keen and persistent awareness of race and difference, even if we fail to discuss it with the kind of rigour and candour it deserves”, she says. In Ordinary Light, she explores her parents’ experience of growing up in the American South on the cusp of the civil rights movement. Even as a middle-class girl growing up in Northern California in the 1970s and 80s, she felt the sting of racial bias, though perhaps in more subtle ways, such as the assumption that she was admitted to prestigious schools because of affirmative action policies rather than her own talents and determination. 

But Smith has since dispelled any doubts. Never defensive, rarely combative, always honest – her life is not circumscribed by race. Limits are not part of her script, a viewpoint that her mentorship with Enzensberger reinforced. His wide-ranging work as novelist, poet, translator and editor not only guided her to write Ordinary Light, but also continues to inspire her: “His ability to move so easily and eagerly across genres and materials struck me as liberating and an affirmation of the power and flexibility of language.” She is currently writing an opera libretto about the conflicting views of New York City espoused by urban planner Robert Moses and activist Jane Jacobs. Working from a literal translation of the poems of contemporary Chinese writer Yi Lei, she is trying to carry the ideas and images into “a living kind of English”.

And, of course, she is writing more poetry. “Tracy’s poems breathe,” Mark Doty says, “their thinking is fresh, the language colloquial but taut, and throughout her work you feel the presence of a speaker who’s emotionally available, terrifically perceptive and working hard to understand her life. What more could a reader want?” What more indeed – except more work from this brilliant writer who continues to explore her fundamental belief that “words invite possibility”. 

Renee H. Shea is a teacher and writer specializing in language and literature.