Writers & Company

Tracy K. Smith on life, death, poetry and outer space

Eleanor Wachtel speaks with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith about her memoir, Ordinary Light. This interview originally aired on May 29, 2016.
Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Life on Mars. Her memoir is titled Ordinary Light. (Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection Life on Mars, which took its title from the David Bowie song of the same name. In its exploration of cosmic mysteries, the work was in part an elegy for her father, an electrical engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her 2015 memoir, Ordinary Light, is a story of coming of age against a complex backdrop of race, faith and family relationships, particularly her relationship with her mother, who died when Tracy was 22 years old. Tracy has won numerous awards for her poetry, most recently the Robert Creeley Award, which is presented each year to an internationally renowned poet. In June 2017, she was named the poet laureate of the United States.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Tracy K. Smith from Princeton University, where she's the director of creative writing. This interview originally aired on May 29, 2016.

Why she likes writing about outer space

Initially I thought that playing with genre might give me a different perspective from which to explore some of the questions that come up again and again in my work. Questions that have to do with what we do to each other as citizens, as people in our private lives. I had a lot of fun playing with these images and visions of a dystopic future. But space became a really different kind of place, a more private, more real place, when elegy became a mode that I began writing in. My father became ill while I was working on this book and he passed away rather unexpectedly. And suddenly this backdrop of this unknowable distance seemed like a really helpful place to be in — thinking about questions of loss, thinking about the afterlife, thinking about whatever it is that we might return to when we leave here.

How poetry helps her examine tough issues

The real question that I had was something that doesn't have an answer: Where has he gone? Is he still somehow connected to me? Do I have access? And the way of answering that in a poem, I think, is to invent a way that the answer can be yes. And so many of the propositions for poems in the beginning section of [Life on Mars] are really "What if it is like this? Or maybe it's like that?" I remember just churning away at these metaphors about what the other side might be like, so I could imagine someone there.

I also had a real interest in amplifying the sense of God that I had been given as a child. The God of the Bible, the God of the Old Testament, the God of the Sistine Chapel — this figure seemed smaller than what I wanted God to be. This was the figure to whom I'd entrusted, at that point in my life, both my parents. And I think that situating some of those spiritual questions or existential questions alongside these images of the universe helped to enlarge the scale for me.

How her understanding of racism has evolved since childhood

I think the way that I experienced racism is the way that a lot of people in comfortable and integrated backgrounds still experience racism, which is through very subtle kinds of slights, through bumping up against the place where other people's ability to empathize and identify with me, because I'm black, kind of stalls, in what we now call micro-aggressions. It was something that I didn't talk much about. Writing about it [in Ordinary Light] was a great way of returning to that time and allowing my adult perspective to give some language to the child that I remember being and to the feelings that I remember very vividly. 

On the magic and therapy of poetry

One of the things that I really loved that poems did was that they could allow a speaker or a poet to stop time and to look at something that is easily missed in our day-to-day lives, in the rush of experience. And to look at it in just the right way, so that it could become something larger. I loved that! And I thought I wanted to do that because it was magical — some kind of magic power. But now I suspect that language could afford me a kind of power that I didn't have. I couldn't stop my mother's cancer from progressing, and I couldn't undo the terrifying paralysis that the inevitability of her death caught me up in. But I could write a poem that allowed me to think freely and capture her in a moment where none of those anxieties were relevant. And that was helpful. Years later, having written elegies for her and for my father, I understand that poetry really does give us access not just to feelings and memories, but to a sense of encounter. It allows you to push your thoughts around strange corners, only to realize that that's exactly where they needed to go.

Tracy K. Smith's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the show: "In My Life," composed by Paul McCartney, performed by Marian McPartland.