Having a Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Laureate read her visually evocative poems aloud in a rich, honeyed tone is an experience that few could imagine. And yet, students at KO were treated to this sensory occasion when the school’s 39th Baird English Symposium author, Tracy K. Smith workshopped with students in the senior Symposium class this past February 7-8 and recited a number of poems from her collection during an assembly. Wise and warm, profound yet with a pop-culture sensibility, Smith believes that "poems can speak to a moment in life that is impossible to fully capture on your own." In the words of Upper School English and Symposium teacher Mela Frye said, “Her poems urgently call us into a space where we must make room for other lives, one word, one line at a time. We can find the tools to open, to shift, to heal.”
During assembly, Smith shared how her work not only plumbs her own inner self to understand and process the world around her but also seeks to connect with the lives and voices of others, creating a deeply empathic circle. ”I’ve written poems to try and listen better to myself, to the many perplexing and difficult feelings that I live with. I bring surprising and even counterintuitive language to the things we are feeling so we can see them better and understand them from another vantage point.” she said. “You need the courage to write more honestly about yourself. One way that gave me that courage was to imagine the lives of other people, people that I knew, read about, observed.”
Many of Smith's poems confront the dark heart of America’s racism and play with historic and imagined voices. While listening to and experiencing hidden and overt traumas, she finds new ways to express intense emotions. During the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd and Bronna Taylor, Smith sought a means to process her unbearable grief. “I tried to come up with a new vocabulary of what we are living through which is scary sometimes - its violence, its distance between some people and others that is man-made and unnecessary and seemingly impermeable. So much of this conflict comes from sources of difference - class, gender, geography, beliefs, and race in America. A lot has happened and a lot has been damaged.”
To reclaim the voices of those that have been historically marginalized and erased, in her poem “The Greatest Personal Privation,” she raises up the voices of two enslaved women Patience and Phoebe. The women worked for the Jones family in coastal Georgia who shared the story of their family in epistolary writing. “I set out to listen between the lines of the letters that the Jones family wrote to one another for traces of these other voices - to listen against the grain to imagine other voices in what the enslaved women felt. This is what I gleaned through erasure. These women are speaking to one another,” she said.
Smith creates most of her poetry at home, writing by a window. If her writing process stalls, she looks at the trees “to see if they can help me think through the human realm in a different way." She found solace in the beauty, calm, and predictability of nature during the instability of the dual pandemic of covid and racism in that difficult summer of 2020. Oftentimes, inspiration for a poem arises when Smith is pondering and processing many questions and images from which her poems grow. Other times, to jumpstart the process, Smith relies on the formal structures of a poem, for instance, a villanelle, a nineteen line poem with a specific rhyming pattern, which “helps coax me forward because a form is like a road map and there are certain things you have to do and there's a certain path that you have to rhyme or repetition so your thoughts follow and some times it makes it easy to get started.”
Smith regarded her time as a poet laureate from 2017-2019 as a revelatory one in which she encountered untrammeled parts of America on the back roads and blue highways. While visiting community centers, rehab facilities, and detention centers, Smith spoke to various unexpected folks about poetry which elicited “these really deep, honest, and powerful conversations about life through the poems we read together and it reminded me why I love poetry,” she said.
During the evening, Smith read more of her works to the KO faculty and faculty members from surrounding schools including “Bright,” “The United States Welcomes You,” “Found Poem” and others whose thread wove around the theme of race and injustice. Before reading “An Old Story” she charged the group to develop “new mythology for our nation to understand itself and its purpose and its destiny…..What would it mean to write a new mythology for a new future that we would like to welcome?” she asked.
Art teacher Scott McDonald presented Smith with her portrait that he and his students created. The portrait was composed in nine sections, each section a repetitive rendering of one word from a line in the poem “ my god, it’s full of stars.” The line reads: And the great black distance they - we- flicker in, which reflects on the immensity of the universe and our human connection within it.
“I have gotten an amazing window into these incredibly gifted students," she said. " I feel illuminated by what you do here and what you do to make literature real and vital and necessary for your students and I’m so grateful to be a part of this program,” she said.