As a student, Tracy K. Smith learned from poets Seamus Heaney, Linda Gregg, Mark Doty and Henri Cole, but she singles out Lucie Brock-Broido as her mentor in seeking what Brock-Broido identifies as being central to the art of poetry—the magic that beckons the poet to discover the poem that is asking to be written. Smith’s ability to confront grief and loss, historical intersections with race and family, and the threshold between childhood and adulthood, prompted Yusef Komunyakaa to write, “Here’s a voice that can weave beauty and terror into one breath, and whose unguarded revelations are never verbal striptease.” Joy Harjo has called Smith’s “stunning” work “a true merging of the ancient roots of poetry with the language of an age of a different kind of sense.”
Smith received degrees in English and Creative Writing from Harvard and Columbia, and went on to be a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. She received the Cave Canem Prize for her first book, The Body’s Question (Graywolf Press 2003), in which she focused on the desire to engage with the “details and events that seemed somehow unresolved” in her life.
Her second book, Duende (Graywolf Press 2007) won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. Charting a new course in Duende, she homes in on the marginalized and the unknown, often relying on global news reports for inspiration. The Village Voice found these poems more “ragged around the edges,” praising Smith’s reluctance to finish on “a knowing note.” There are love poems and divorce poems. There are poems incorporating scraps of the US Constitution, a captivity narrative, an Eisenhower speech on domino theory and Frank Zappa lyrics. Smith’s tone is ruminative throughout, but grounded in the details of everyday life.
Recipient of awards from the Rona Jaffe, Mrs. Giles Whiting, and Ludwig Vogelstein Foundations, Smith is currently an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University and lives in Brooklyn with her husband.
Poetry Center Reading:
excerpt of “The Nobodies”
Los nadies: los hijos de nadie, los dueños de nada.
Los nadies : los ningunos, los ninguneados
They rise from the dawn and dress.
They raise the bundles to their heads
And their shadows broaden—
Dark ghosts grounded to nothing.
They grin and grip their skirts.
They finger the gold and purple beads
Circling their necks, lift them
Absently to their teeth. They speak
A language of kicked stones.
And it’s not the future their eyes see,
But history. It stretches
Like a dry road uphill before them.
They climb it.
Excerpt of “The Nobodies”, from DUENDE (Graywolf Press, 2007)
excerpt of “Duende”
The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir
Of furious music heavy in the throat.
They drag it out and with nails in their feet
Coax the night into being. Brief believing.
A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.
And in this night that is not night,
Each word is a wish, each phrase
A shape their bodies ache to fill—
I’m going to braid my hair
Braid many colors into my hair
I’ll put a long braid in my hair
And write your name there
They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing.
Excerpt of “Duende” from DUENDE (Graywolf Press, 2007)
A Hunger So Honed
Driving home late through town
He woke me for a deer in the road,
The light smudge of it fragile in the distance,
Free in a way that made me ashamed for our flesh—
His hand on my hand, even the weight
Of our voices not speaking.
I watched a long time
And a long time after we were too far to see,
Told myself I still saw it nosing the shrubs,
All phantom and shadow, so silent
It must have seemed I hadn’t wakened,
But passed into a deeper, more cogent state—
The mind a dark city, a disappearing,
Swallowed by a fist.
I thought of the animal’s mouth
And the hunger entrusted it. A hunger
So honed the green leaves merely maintain it.
We want so much,
When perhaps we live best
In the spaces between loves,
That unconscious roving,
The heart its own rough animal.
The second time,
There were two that faced us a moment
The way deer will in their Greek perfection,
As though we were just some offering
The night had delivered.
They disappeared between two houses,
And we drove on, our own limbs,
Our need for one another
From THE BODY’S QUESTION (Graywolf Press, 2003)
Winter is a boa constrictor
Contemplating a goat. Nothing moves,
Save for the river, making its way
Steadily into ice. A state of
My limbs settle into stony disuse
In this city full of streetlamps
And unimaginable sweets.
I would rather your misuse, your beard
Smelling of some other woman’s
Idle afternoons. Lately, the heart of me
Has grown to resemble a cactus
Whose one flower blooms one night only
Under the whitest,
The most disdainful of moons.
From DUENDE (Graywolf Press, 2007)
Also available as a Broadside.