Tracy K. Smith, The music of poetry

The music of poetry

October 2014 - Tracy K. Smith, 2004 - 2005 Literature Protégée

Life on Mars, one of the best-known poems by Tracy K. Smith, Pulitzer-prize winner and former Rolex protégée in Literature, has been set to music by young American violist and composer, Joshua Roman. The nine-movement result is an entirely new work of art, a complex and at times scintillating exploration of the themes of relationship and metaphysics examined in Smith’s masterpiece. Here Tracy K. Smith explains her reaction to the musical transformation of her work.

Rolex Arts Initiative: What did you think when you heard that Life on Mars was going to be set to music?
Tracy K. Smith: I was very honoured to imagine that my poem had spoken to someone whose view of the world is rooted in sound rather than language. And, because it's such a dark poem, I was really intrigued to hear what the text had led Joshua to consider, and how he, quite literally, would hear the words and choose to fill the white spaces that exist on the page. I had no idea what to anticipate, no sense of what the poem "ought" to sound like – I was really just curious to discover what new energy, tones, inflections and possibilities Joshua would bring to the words and images.

And what was your reaction when you heard the music and the poem?
Right away, and in the best of ways, I felt that Joshua had made the poem his own – which was what I wanted him to do. It wasn't a matter of wanting or needing him to translate my ideas or feelings about the poem into music, but rather wanting him to carry my poem over into this other form. He did that exquisitely, with a beautiful sense of range. The poem becomes much more spacious, it occupies time differently, and the voices and the instruments really create a feeling of departure, the feeling of embarking upon a journey.
I also think the modulation between song and speech in the piece really captures a sense of, on one hand, the real-time conversation that runs through the poem, and, on the other hand, the expansive nature of thought and image – how a single idea can send you on a reverie, attracting so many different associations to it almost like a magnet. The spaciousness of the piece, and the different ways that the voice behaves as it moves through from movement to movement, really do seem to work together to take the listener somewhere.

There are many different moods to the music. Is that a fair reflection of the poem?
Oh, absolutely. In writing the poem, I wanted each separate section to think, behave and move differently. I was listening in different ways to language.

Do you feel that Joshua Roman had a good understanding of your poem, or doesn’t that really matter?
I do. He's obviously responding to the sense of fright and suspense in a section like #2, and the music is also tapping into something very mournful that feels true to the poem. Later, in a section like #5, the sense of oppressive tragedy and private subjectivity really emerge and interact with one another so audibly in the music.

Did the musical setting reveal to you anything that you didn’t know about your own poem?
I love how much space he gives a section of the poem that is only 2 lines long. It is heavily weighted in the poem – given its own numbered section – but he revealed a different kind of amplitude to me that I hadn't known was there, at least not in that way. That was a really surprising and rewarding movement for me to hear.

The music will draw people to the poem and to your poetry who might not otherwise read it, so that must be a good thing. Do you agree?

Would you like more of your poetry to be set to music?
It's not something I'm actively waiting or hoping for, but whenever another artist is drawn to my work enough to respond to it through his or her own art form, I'm excited. It is a way of striking up a conversation with the text. I do that all the time in my own writing, responding to music or visual art or even pieces of journalism that have had an effect upon me.

You've been awarded an Academy of American Poets Fellowship. Does such recognition help you in any particular way?
Well, it really is encouraging to learn that someone finds value in what I do. It feels like someone saying, "Yes, keep going, keep doing this."

When will your memoir Ordinary Light be published? Do you feel apprehensive about revealing more about yourself in a non-fictional medium, as distinct from your poetry?
The memoir will be released on 5 May [2015]. It is a very different way of exploring my own private material, and, because prose is so accessible, so direct, I do feel like a great many things that had only ever been private will become public. I think I've come to terms with that, though I'm sure it will feel strange at some point as well. I imagine that the questions that emerge for readers will have less to do with form and craft, which is what readers of poetry are often eager to discuss, and more to do with the actual story itself, and I'll have to learn as I go how to negotiate that.

Are you still in contact with your Arts Initiative mentor Hans Magnus Enzensberger?
Yes, though with a little less regularity than we were during our mentoring year. He tells me that he is at work on a memoir!

What will you do next in terms of your writing?
I'm eager to get back to writing poems, and hopeful that another prose project might sit somewhere off in the not too distant future.