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 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.