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Literary Life

Tracy K. Smith ’94 Named U.S. Poet Laureate


Tracy K. Smith

Photograph © Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Tracy K. Smith

Photograph © Rachel Eliza Griffiths

TRACY K. SMITH ’94 has been named the new U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress, succeeding Juan Felipe Herrera. While the role doesn’t carry many specific official duties, it has traditionally involved raising awareness of, and increasing access to, poetry. 

“I am excited about the kinds of social divides that poetry may be able not just to cross but to mend,” Smith said in an interview with the library. “One of my favorite things in the world is to sit and talk quietly about the things poems cause me to notice and remember, the feelings they teach me to recognize, the deep curiosity about other people’s lives that they foster. I am excited about carrying this conversation beyond literary festivals and university classrooms, and finding ways that poems might genuinely bring together people who imagine they have nothing to say to one another.”

Smith has authored four books of poetry, the most recent of which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Her memoir Ordinary Light was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2015. In later chapters, she describes going to Harvard (where she joined the Dark Room Collective) as her mother's health began to fail. In poetry workshops, she writes, “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.” 

Her new collection, Wade in the Water, comes out next April. In a conversation with this magazine, Smith described her writing process this way:

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. 

Smith, a professor at Princeton who directs the university’s program in creative writing, is also at work on two operas: one about Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, and the other, according to NPR, about “the legacy of slavery in the South.”

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