Her voice is yours, if you want it. She offers it up five times a week, through your earbuds or your speakers, on your way to work or maybe in a rough moment.
“I’m Tracy K. Smith,” she begins, approaching you gently, “and this is ‘The Slowdown.’ ”
Then she shares a story, detailed and personal.
“The first night I ever spent in a hospital was as a visitor to my mother.” Within a minute, maybe two, that story unspools, becoming a little bigger, a little broader. Hospitals are “clinical, impersonal, burdened by all the possible complications that might arise,” she ponders, “but they’re where we go when we’re vulnerable and weak. They take us in. They do their best to fix what hurts.”
Then she introduces the day’s poem: in this case, “Hospital Linens,” by Marianne Boruch.
Her voice, always, leads to others.
Smith started this five-minute podcast, produced by St. Paul-based American Public Media, to mirror the kinds of conversations she was having across the United States as the nation’s poet laureate — conversations that often began with apprehension but often ended with connection.
“I found that our conversations were not about poetic form or craft as much as about the way poems speak to our lives,” Smith said by phone from her living room. “And it just reminded me of why people fall in love with poetry in the first place — why I fell in love with poetry in the first place.”
Smith, who might be poetry’s most generous ambassador, will discuss that love Nov. 21 in St. Paul as the final guest of this year’s Talking Volumes series. Traveling to the country’s rural places, she brought with her an anthology of 50 poems. Poems she picked, just as she does for “The Slowdown.” Poems that — with the help of her Minneapolis publisher, Graywolf Press, and the Library of Congress — she gave away for free.
“I really wanted to think about the many different Americas we inhabit,” said Smith, who after two years yielded her post in June to Joy Harjo, the country’s first Native American poet laureate. “It felt very important to say: These are American voices, and they’re coming from 50 different perspectives, different experiences of what it feels like to be of this country.”
Becoming poet laureate after the 2016 election “was a difficult post to take on — and a difficult conversation to take on the way she did,” said Jeff Shotts, executive editor of Graywolf Press, “bringing her own poems but also the poems of other writers who were writing about racism, writing about our political moment, writing about police violence against African-American communities.”
With intelligence and grace, Smith hosted conversations around those poems in classrooms and prisons, in rehab facilities and halls of government, “with people on Air Force bases, for crying out loud,” said Shotts, who has edited Smith’s work since Graywolf published her debut, “The Body’s Question,” in 2003.
“I think that Tracy was the exact right person at the exact right time to embody what that role can be.”
Poetry as an invitation
Not only is she a former U.S. poet laureate, but Smith is also a Pulitzer Prize winner. A Princeton professor.
So meeting her in a rural library, someone might assume that she’s “highbrow, unapproachable,” Shotts said. “That here is this high figure — which she is!” But Smith “takes that pressure out of the room immediately,” he continued. Instead, she uses poems as invitations to talk about life.
“Let’s talk about parenthood, let’s talk about illness,” he said. “Let’s talk about the death of our parents and about ancestry.”
Upon being appointed poet laureate, Smith asked herself: “What can I do that would be worthy of that? And that hasn’t exactly been done before?”
She felt strongly about bringing poetry to places that don’t host literary festivals, to rural areas in Louisiana, Alaska, South Dakota.
“But I also felt that going out into America ... at this time when we hear so much about division, might be daunting,” she said. “I had to really think about that.”
In the end, she believed in poetry. Reading it “puts us in another position,” she said. “We’re not speaking from a place of authority. We’re not challenging others’ opinions and arguing people down with our own strongly held opinions.
“You approach a poem with a kind of humility, curiosity, receptiveness to things that are going to be different from what you normally see and hear,” she said. “And I thought: Oh, that’s such a great model for citizenship.
“It’s such a great model for what it might be like to go into communities that are different from your own and find something that feels not combative but truly communal.”
Which doesn’t mean that she avoided the political. The anthology she assembled, titled “American Journal,” centers on the voices of immigrants, of voices on the margins. She often started, as the anthology does, with the poem “Second Estrangement,” by Aracelis Girmay, which begins with a physically vivid, emotional memory of childhood: “Please raise your hand, whomever else of you has been a child, lost, in a market or a mall ... ”
But then it zooms out, asks us to consider that familiar feeling in a new way.
“Sometimes you find yourself among people who don’t recognize you,” Smith said. “What does that feel like?”
An encounter with Dickinson
In her luminous 2015 memoir, “Ordinary Light,” Smith describes encountering for the first time, at the bottom of a page in her fifth-grade reader, Emily Dickinson:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! They’d banish us, you know!
“It made me feel special, privy to magic,” she wrote, “as if whoever was speaking had sought me out, discerning an affinity.”
Her voice “seemed to be speaking a strange and mysterious kind of truth,” Smith said, “telling me something that was deeply true about myself that I had never realized — but that felt instantly familiar.”
At 47, she remembers it now as a kind of meeting: “I felt that we knew each other.”
Curled up in a big blue chair in her family’s Northern California home, Smith would court that feeling, from book to book, “losing myself in these voices that brought me deeper into myself — or maybe the self I hoped I could become.”
Reading poetry today, Smith will delight in a poet’s language, perspective, imagination. But the poems she returns to again and again are those that speak to her with that voice, from that place. A place that is “philosophical and playful and eternal.”
During an episode of “The Slowdown,” Smith noted that “while it is sometimes an abundance of feelings and opinions that draw young poets to the art form, I suspect that more poems arise out of the writer’s desire to learn, listen and discover than out of the intention to make grand or infallible pronouncements.
“Realizing this when I was a younger writer set me free.”
When Smith first started writing poems, she felt she had to seize a kind of authority, “and I didn’t have any authority, so I would always get stumped,” she said. Then she realized that truth could arise via “puzzling something out, or questioning, or even just being honest about what is not known.”
As she recounts in her lyrical memoir, between college and graduate school, her mother died. The poems Smith wrote afterward “sought to correct the error of her death, or solve the problem of her death.” That work was necessary, she noted, though its aims were impossible.
“Finally, I got to the place where I was capable of seeing that poems didn’t solve things so much as ponder things.”
The big questions
Smith’s poems ponder, with the most intimate details, the biggest questions:
“What do we do to one another?” “What’s the fallout from that?”
Or, as Hilton Als put it in a New Yorker piece last year, “She’s a storyteller who loves to explore how the body can respond to a lover, to family, to history.”
Her first book of poetry, “The Body’s Question,” was intimate, tightly controlled. Her eye broadened with 2007’s “Duende,” became more politically demanding.
Those demands only deepened with “Wade in the Water,” published in 2018, during her second term as poet laureate. “Which I think, to be honest with you, is probably the most political book any sitting poet laureate has ever published,” Shotts said, “and it was all the gutsier for being that public.”
That work pulls in voices from the margins, from history. In its second section, Smith forms poems with lines from letters and statements of African-Americans enlisted in the Civil War, their wives and widows, occasionally addressed to President Abraham Lincoln.
“Mr president,” one begins, “It is my Desire to be free to go to see my people ... ”
Putting those voices, from the 1800s, in conversation with her own — as she explores today’s violence, today’s protests — illustrates hard truths about our country. In “Unrest in Baton Rouge,” she responds to the now iconic photo of a protester in a dress, surrounded by armored police:
Our bodies run with ink dark blood.
Blood pools in the pavement’s seams.
Is it strange to say love is a language
Few practice, but all, or near all speak?
With that collection, in particular, the questions she’s asking are rooted in time, she said.
“Are we the same people now that we were 200 years ago? And if so, why?”