On June 7, Tracy K. Smith delivered the John T. Willis Plenary Address at the Thomas H. Olbricht Christian Scholars’ Conference. Smith is the 2017-2018 U.S. poet laureate and a professor of creative writing at Princeton University. Smith’s lecture, “Metaphor, History, Myth and Belief,” included readings from her latest collection of poems Wade in the Water and Life on Mars, which earned a Pulitzer Prize.
Someone compelled by questions of justice and race, Smith also claims she loves the natural world. Her poetry is a “rehumanizing force” that, in her own words, “looks for the kind of silence that yields clarity. I’m interested in the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” Smith wants to write the kind of poetry that people read and remember, that they live by, like the kinds of lines she carries with her from moment to moment on a given day.
“I know we read poems alone, but we read with the idea that we are listening to another person’s voice,” Smith said at the beginning of her presentation. A reading from her memoir Ordinary Light was about losing her mother to cancer at the age of 22. She was at a time “where her [mother’s] diagnosis was becoming more and more clear to me and what it meant, and where poetry was becoming more real in my life,” Smith said. Ordinary Light was a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction.
Smith’s recent book, Wade in the Water, seeks to metabolize the lesson of compassion. Looking at America for what feels like a dark moment of fear, distrust and willful wrongheadedness on all sides. Seeing moments in history when compassion was not the case. A main focus of the book is about history and the experience of blacks in the civil war. This comes out of an encounter where Smith attended a ring shout in Georgia; a tradition that celebrates the spiritual history connected to survival and resilience during a period of enslavement.
Science fiction genre is a great way of exploring our anxieties about the present moment, about who we are right now, by projecting into the distant future, says Smith. Sci-fi inspired her writing of Life on Mars, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. While grieving her father’s death, she was also expecting her first child. “Someone gone, someone waiting to come, the fantasy that maybe they were together somehow.” When her father passed away, she started allowing herself to think about space as a place where God exists and allow her own personal needs as driven by grief to determine the parameters of that idea.
Smith has taught at the City University of New York, University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. Elizabeth Bishop and Lucille Clifton are two inspirational poets that Smith introduces to her students. Clifton was one of Smith’s teachers and a poet committed to writing about black lives in a variety of ways and the mystery that we are a part of. An exercise she tells her students do is “imagine you are writing a poem from the perspective that is not human, and you are speaking to the human you are.” One can see her inspiration from sci-fi and Clifton’s work in her writings and teachings.
A book signing followed Smith’s lecture for a meet-and-greet with many of the conference attendees. This was the first time in history the current U.S. poet laureate spoke at the CSC. Lipscomb University was honored to host this year’s conference and have Tracy K. Smith deliver the Willis Plenary Address.
— Photos by Kristi Jones