A Conversation with Tracy K. Smith ’94

The poet discusses her newest book, the memoir Ordinary Light.

Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith ’94 is a poet and professor at Princeton who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for her third collection of verse. That book, Life on Mars, dealt with matters of grief and religious faith in the wake of her father's death. Her newest work, Ordinary Light (see Open Book, March-April, page 62), pursues those themes in prose, and through memories of her mother, who was diagnosed with cancer just as Smith left their family home in California and crossed the country for her freshman year at Harvard. 

Smith writes, “My mother's language was always the language of the soul. But it grew clearer, more telegraphic, once the cancer began to accelerate her sense that she was on her way elsewhere.” Around the same time, Smith was taking her third poetry workshop at the College, and finding solace in writing: “In it, I had discovered that sitting down with an idea and letting it unfold in words and sounds offered me not just pleasure but an indescribable comfort...Poetry met my particular sense of need.” 

I spoke with Smith over the phone about Ordinary Light. She will give a reading at the Harvard Bookstore on April 9.

Harvard Magazine: When did you know that you wanted to write Ordinary Light?

Tracy K. Smith: I started working on this memoir in earnest in 2009, but it's a project that I had been wanting to undertake for many years. My mother passed away in 1994, and I wanted to write about her, and think about that loss and about the family that she was really the center of. As early as 1999, I made some of the first attempts to write about some of these early memories, but I found it difficult to finish any of those pieces. I kept starting things and then feeling overwhelmed by the material, too close to that loss to really have any sense of writerly discipline or perspective in relation to it.

Years later, I had the opportunity to work in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which pairs young artists with older ones to work on anything they want for a year. I was paired with German writer Hans Manus Enzensberger, who is a poet and prose writer, and I thought this would be a really great way of holding myself to finishing a project that I might otherwise have too much anxiety to complete. When we were working together, I would send him chapters, and he would give me feedback. He helped me figure out how to make these poetic recollections, which is what they really were at the time, into narrative.

My daughter was less than a year old at that time. Becoming a parent was one additional thing that helped me develop the necessary perspective, if that makes sense. Not only did I have access to my own feelings and recollections but suddenly I had a way of imagining what my mother, as a parent, might have been thinking and worrying about, and weighing in her mind. 

I wouldn't have known this when I first wanted to do this writing, twenty years ago, but now I understand why I wanted to write this book in prose. I had found a way of exploring my own private material in poems. I knew the kinds of answers—that’s not the right noun because I don't think a poem solves things—but I knew the kind of encounter I was capable of creating in a poem. I realized that if I wanted to get something new out of that material I needed to shift languages.

How did the research process, or the process of gathering material, differ for Ordinary Light as opposed to your collection Life on Mars, which dealt with your own memories but also broader ideas from pop culture? 

Well it was easy, with Life on Mars, to turn to a number of public markers to help frame the private material within that book. The visual vocabulary that I was drawing from, and even the time period that I was thinking about, led me to revisit certain films and events from the news. Those things helped me get to the particular private nostalgic space that I was interested in for that book.

With this memoir, everything felt defined for me, at least at the beginning of the process, by things that were completely private—things that took place within my house, within my family. Getting back to some of those memories led me to dig out old photographs, talk to my siblings, and even listen to music from that time period. I bought the perfumes that my mother wore, just to see if I could activate more of those buried memories. It really is amazing to me, how memory will reward that kind of persistence. The more I started to write about something, the more its minute features returned.

What music did you listen to?

Oh, gosh, there was a lot of eighties, or I guess late seventies, music that helped me. Lou Rawls. His was a voice I wanted to go back to, and it did bring me to this sense of childhood, and being in a home with lots of people who were older than me talking and laughing and just being together. Certain George Benson songs also brought me back to that place. And Stevie Wonder. Even thinking a little bit about some of the music that I didn't like at the time, like my father went through a phase of listening to country Western music. I like it now. But at the time I didn't, and hearing Willie Nelson or Waylon Jennings helped bring me back to certain feelings that were alive for me all those years ago.

How does a poem begin for you?

My poems often begin with speculative questions or hypothetical “what if?” statements. I take a few steps in that idea and when it runs out of steam, then images help me take the next few steps. And when that slows down, I start listening to sound, and I trust that though I have no idea what else to say, sound can give me a sense of what might follow sonically from what I’ve just said. And then it all starts over. The fact that poems are very good at leaping from one subject or perspective to another helps to sustain that kind of shifting process. But that wasn't how this book wanted to get written.

How did this book want to get written?

It wanted me to tell a story, let people talk, and create a sense of place. It wanted me to think about what I was thinking and feeling at the time in question, and to  respond to that in terms of how such thoughts and feelings strike me now. It wanted me to peek into the world and see if something public or shared might also shed light upon what was happening in the private space of family. Rinse and repeat.

It seemed like a shift in form or genre prompted you to pursue a thread of memory, or what you spoke of as the same material about your family, but in a different way. In Life on Mars you grapple with God as a presence, or a character—and that also happens in Ordinary Light. Did prose make you articulate your changing ideas about faith differently?

It was hard to accept, at first, that images—which I lean on very heavily in my poetry—don't have the final say, necessarily, in prose. Initially, although I knew I wanted to get to a different place, I didn't really know how to do that, so I was letting images and visceral description do everything. But I was urged by my editor to tell more, to explain. The very thing we tell our students in poetry workshops to avoid, I suddenly found myself in the position of being urged to indulge in. And I realized that explication of that sort helps. It meant that I wasn't just creating a sense of possibility, a bright flash of feeling, I was also tracking where that flash left me, and teasing out what had caused it. It was exciting. It helped to build layers in the prose, and I think that's what I really had hoped for. I had never articulated to myself that that's what characterizes prose for me. I had never used that word. But as I was working on this memoir I realized that I can concentrate on one layer of the story and then I can go back to it, and I can reflect upon it and build in another layer, and I can keep doing that until I feel like I've gotten somewhere. And that was really exciting, because it allowed the story that I was telling to guide me to recognize and discover things I hadn’t at first known were there.

Ordinary Light is structured in parts, and then in chapters within that, all with their own titles. The early ones feel like self-contained short stories, with ending lines that felt conclusive. The later sections feel more permeable, and the different events speak to one another. Was that something that you intended?

No, not at all, but it's something that I would agree happens. I think it's because I began with those early memories, which epitomized something for me, though I had no idea what the larger arc of the narrative was going to be. The early chapters, many of which were the ones that came most readily to me, seemed to stand out in my memory possibly because there was something central that may or may not have gotten resolved, but that had a kind of closure. As I got further into the adolescent stuff and some of the questions and events around my mother's death, I realized that there was something fundamentally open-ended about a lot of those concerns. The connections that I could tease out spanned a larger stretch of time, and I became interested in exploring that. I became interested in allowing what I think of as the child's voice, from each of those different periods, to start having a conversation with the adult me who was doing the writing, and I think that conversation picked up in volume and momentum as the book progressed.

In a conversation you had with the poet Elizabeth Alexander, you recalled how when you were younger, you composed poems on a Macintosh computer—I think it struck me because it was the first time I heard someone describe their development as a writer with this technology. So many poets seem to talk about the process of drafting by hand.

I almost never draft a poem by hand. When I was a student I did. I loved buying big black sketchbooks and nice pens, and starting the poem very ceremoniously on the page. It felt like a ritual. Now I just want to get into the meat of the matter, and that involves seeing what the poem will look like on the page, and being able to make radical changes very quickly and sometimes irreversibly. I prefer being able to do that on the computer. I don't have any kind of fetish around the actual handwritten object, at all.

It’s funny that you say it’s irreversible, because I associate writing on a computer with tracking changes, and always being able to go back, not with deleting something forever.

Sometimes it's a foolish thing to do, but when I get to a place where I'm struggling and something doesn't feel right, I feel very liberated in saying, “Okay, this has to go.” It helps me to eliminate any dogged allegiance to the thing I said that just is not working. It helps keep open to the other kinds of possibility that might be able to come in and fix the poem. That doesn't mean I don't print drafts; sometimes I do. And I didn't work that way with the prose. I was conscious of the time it takes to write these long chapters. I emailed myself a lot of the deleted text just so that anything I felt the need to delete wouldn't be gone forever.

In Ordinary Light you write about the experience of reading African-American literature in college, in particular Ralph Ellison, and realizing the difference between listening to someone’s voice, and “hearing” it via the written word. This made me wonder about your relationship to hearing poetry, as opposed to how it lives for you on the page. Do you like reading your own poetry aloud?

Oh, absolutely. I like to listen to the sounds of words as I'm writing. Not every single line—I'm not composing aurally, but I'm reading it over to get a sense of how things sound and where they need to be reexamined. I think that's pivotal to the mechanism of the poem. It's got a sonic presence and that sonic presence creates a visceral reaction. It also creates meaning. So I think it's important to make sure that is serving the poem, and that you're taking full advantage of everything the poem seems to be offering.

And after the poem’s done, I do like giving readings. When I used to be nervous reading aloud, I would to say to myself, “Well the hard work is done. I'm not standing up here writing the poem. I just have to read it. All I have to do is speak slowly enough that people can hear the words and follow them, and the poem will do the rest.” That is still what I do. I feel like if I can give the poem space and voice it clearly, then I almost disappear, and it's not me but the poem that the listeners are engaging with.  I think that’s true. It definitely feels that way when I listen to other poets reading their work.

In the chapter “Clearances, at the end of the book, you write about spending time in your childhood bedroom with what you call “my most necessary poets,” like Seamus Heaney, Philip Larkin, Elizabeth Bishop, and Yusef Komunyakaa. What made these writers feel so essential to you? Have you added others to this list?

Oh, all the time. These are some of the people that are really anchors for me—not just in terms of craft, because I think almost any poet can be instructive in that regard, whether or not you like his or her work—but in terms of perspective and the private philosophy the work comes from. I am always coming back to a poet like Jack Gilbert. Elizabeth Bishop was important to me then but I think I see different things in her work now. Lucille Clifton, Marie Howe, Mark Doty—those are some of the voices that really nourish me, not just as a writer but as a person.

What do you see differently in Bishop’s work now, as opposed to then?

When I was reading her as a student, I was just impressed by her ability to describe things, and her ability to speak at different registers within a poem, particularly with those address-shifts or those parentheses that she's so good at using. I also loved the deep and deeply-layered subjectivity of a poem like “In the Waiting Room.” But now as I read her work I also recognize a speaker who's searching so meticulously for something in the world around her that might change her. It seems to me that the speaker is someone who has a deep need for transformation, a need to find something in the world that might impart clarity and consolation. I was too young to be able to articulate that to myself at the time when I was first reading her. I was too young to understand the urge behind poems like “One Art,” or when she says things that aren’t true but that she needs to make true, in a quieter poem like “Chemin de Fer.” “Chemin de Fer” is this tiny little scene that’s so clearly fabricated. The speaker is heartsick, walking alone by the railroad tracks when she sees a little hermit’s cottage, and a pond “like an old tear / holding onto its injuries / lucidly year after year.” Eventually the hermit shoots his shotgun in the air and says, “Love should be put into action!” The last lines are: “Across the pond an echo / tried and tried, to confirm it.” I feel like so much of her work is saying “If only the world were just, it would be like this,” but the poem needs to be written because this is an impossibility. There is such vulnerability in her work that I feel grateful for.

That brings me to a piece you wrote recently for The New York Times where you criticize the idea that poems are “pretty little locks to be teased open,” and argue against what you see as an excess of irony in contemporary poetry. It was called “Wipe That Smirk Off Your Poem.” Could you expand on what you meant by that?

That was the title I was given by the editor, but I quite liked it. To my mind, the unconscious mind is a side of the brain that's really making poems. The conscious mind, which is thinking about knowledge and authority, ought to be subservient to that. So when I read poems (and I'm not going to name any, I refuse to do that) that seem to be characterized by an ego-based need to demonstrate cleverness and knowledge and a detachment from genuine sentiment—I feel cheated. I feel like it's an exercise in language that doesn't do what poems are best at doing, which is taking us out of our ordinary selves and into a fuller sense of ourselves. I think you can't do that unless you risk something.

What were some classes that were important to you, at Harvard?

My English 10a and 10b survey was taught by Helen Vendler, and I remember in 10b feeling like we'd gotten to the promised land. We were reading twentieth century poetry and we finally got to D.H. Lawrence and Seamus Heaney. That was when I said, this is it. This is exactly what I want to do. I also took workshops with Lucie Brock-Broido and Henri Cole, and then I took two with Seamus Heaney.

Everything that people say about him is true: he was so generous and so joyful and gentle, yet firm. I was reading him obsessively when I was in his class, trying to learn from what he did on the page. I would try to write poems like those. But he was really interested in guiding us toward what our poems and our voices and our material seemed capable of doing—guiding us into our own terrain in a way.

Those things, in conjunction with the lit classes I was taking, really gave me the tools to start writing my own poems, and the courage to believe that they were capable of being real poems. 

Real in what way?

Well, that they might illuminate things for me in the same way that the poems that I was reading helped illuminate things. I liked that in the poem “Digging,” [by Seamus Heaney] it felt to me that the speaker sat down intending to say one thing, but when he surrendered himself to the material and to the associations that stem from it, he realized that what he wanted to say was something other than what he had set out to say. The pen goes from being a gun to being a way of digging and following the legacy of his father and grandfather. And on a very literal level, I thought, “Oh, he's just looking at something closely enough that it becomes something else. If I do that, then everything that's around me in the world might help me. These things can help me find clarity.”

I didn't know how many of the questions I had were rooted in the fact that my mother was sick, but poetry seemed like a kind of power, and something that, if I could just use language in the right way, would obey my wishes—even if it surprised me, or perhaps because it was capable of surprising me. That seemed like a necessary thing to have, especially at an age when I felt myself lacking control over so much else.

Read more articles by Sophia Nguyen

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