Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy K. Smith, the former US Poet Laureate, spoke at Aspen Words’ Winter Words at Paepcke Auditorium this January. The event touched on race, death, children, and the spaces in between everyday language. Smith spoke about her recent memoir, Ordinary Light, and her new book of poetry, Wade in the Water. Transcripts have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
My book Wade in the Water wrestles with a question, What would it take to actually love strangers in a truly generous way? A lot of the poems look to history for examples of the many ways in which we seem consistently to fail to choose compassion.
I was traveling in the Sea Islands in Georgia and South Carolina. A huge part of the marvelous, rich history in that part of the country is rooted in the history of slavery as an institution and a philosophy. It’s poignant. I’d spent several days visiting a lot of places named “plantation something” and a lot of unmarked sites of some really awful reality. On the last night, I went to a ring shout, which is a musical but also a spiritual tradition in the African American community with roots back to slavery and West African traditions. When I walked into the lobby, one of the performers said, “I love you,” and she gave me a hug. I didn’t know her. I broke down in gratitude that somebody could offer that; I composed myself and went into the auditorium. But I heard her say the same thing to the person behind me. You would think that would cheapen it, but it didn’t. It seemed to get amplified or magnified by that.
A lot of the things that are the truest parts of me come out in the poems—the darker questions or the unresolvable matter that poetry helps me bring closer to the surface. I have three young kids, and that’s changed my view of everything. I feel so bound in space with these people on top of me. My sense of investment in these lives means that my work is asking bigger questions, trying to understand what we might be here for. I want to give them something that’s going to be useful to them in the world that they have to claim when I’m gone. Probably a big part of that perspective comes from having lost my own mother at a young age—and preparing for what it will be like not to be here anymore.
Poetry is language that works hard to capture these feelings, understandings, reactions. That’s why poetry comes up when somebody dies, gets married, or is born. It’s that thing that wants to emerge but is hardpressed to find the right words. Poems bridge that gap. Of course, language is only language. So there is a sense of space built into every poem. I’m really interested in all of the amazing feelings and associations that language can create. Poems urge you to think quickly and to move deeply from one place and then lift off from that place and go to another place that’s not connected in literal or linear terms. That distance is a kind of silence, and there is a feeling that lives there. Poems gather that feeling up.
Thoughtful and courageous language is something that can turn us inward. Even detached from their contexts, poems are little views of the world that capture a sense of thought or feeling that doesn’t go away once you’ve read them. There is a poem by Thomas James—it’s a poem about a mummy. A young girl is narrating what it feels like to be mummified, and she says, I was so important, they did all of these things to me. But at the end of the poem, she is obviously still dead; something happened to her. The last line of the poem swerves away from the narrative of immortality, and she asks, Why do people lie to one another? That’s a question that that pops up at strange times. My lifetime of reading poems has given me thousands of those moments that are useful in unexpected occasions. So my mission is to get out there with books and say, “These are some of the voices that you can live with forever,” which is really a way of saying, “These are some of the voices that can help you listen to yourself better.”