AARP, sisters, Tracy K Smith, poet laureate
Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Rachel Eliza Griffiths
Culture

Meet U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

She’s voyaging across the country to share the magic of verse.

Tracy K. Smith, America’s 22nd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry who’s engaging rural and small-town communities using the power of poetry, practically lives on the open road. So when the opportunity arose for the wife and mother of three to bring her eldest child, 8-year-old Naomi, on an Alaskan adventure last August, Tracy seized it.

The Poet Laureate is appointed annually by the Librarian of Congress for a term that lasts from September to May. “This project feels like community-building on a national scale,” says Tracy, who, now in her second term as poetry’s top ambassador, has visited South Carolina, Kentucky, South Dakota, Maine and other states. “What made the Alaska trip particularly exciting was having Naomi there with me and saying, ‘This is the world — and we get to experience this part of the world with one another for the first time.’” From a trek to Bethel in the tundra and a boat ride down the Kuskokwim River for a visit with Native American communities, to an evening of poetry and conversation at a library with locals, the mother and daughter shared a journey as memorable and mesmerizing as the one that has led Tracy to this juncture in her career.

Tracy’s journey has been especially labyrinthine. The 46-year-old was born in Falmouth, Mass. The youngest of five, she was raised in suburban Fairfield, Calif. After a childhood that was at once idyllic and tinged with the daily racism that just comes with “Breathing While Black” — moments she refers to in her 2015 memoir, Ordinary Light — Tracy eventually returned east to earn a BA from Harvard and an MFA from Columbia. She’s held several teaching posts since. Both she and her husband, Raphael, now teach at Princeton University, she as a humanities professor and director of the creative writing program. She’s penned four books of poetry, the second of which, 2011’s Life on Mars, earned her a Pulitzer.

That’s a whole lot of pedigree for a woman who presents as the quintessential sister-girl, at turns soft-spoken and passionate, with her ’fro swept up into a heap of bustling curls. You might expect stuffiness and pretention. What you get instead is a woman as warm and lighthearted in her manner as she is intent on being poetry’s most passionate spokesperson. In her official role as the nation’s official poet, her job is to “ raise the national consciousness” when it comes to reading and writing poetry. Tracy’s take on that mission: moving poetry out of the ivory tower and into our country’s streets, libraries and neighborhood centers by connecting personally with those she serves, including people in underserved and marginalized communities. To coincide with her travels and her goal to spread rhyme, stanza and verse far and wide, she unveiled American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, an anthology that shines a light on Americans’ diverse experiences — from fear and marginalization to celebration of our varied perspectives.

At a stop in South Carolina last spring, Tracy connected with a group at old Summerton High, one of the schools desegregated during the Brown v. Board of Education series of trials. “Members of that first [desegregated] class came to the reading,” says Tracy. “It was so humbling and overjoying to talk with those who had lived that history.”

Back from the road and at home in Princeton, Tracy spends her downtime “giving myself over to family chaos,” she says, laughing. In addition to daughter Naomi, Tracy and Raphael are parents to 5-year-old twin boys, Atticus and Sterling. “They love reading and they love being read to,” she says of her children. “Kids are naturally fluent in the language of poetry because they notice small details and what’s strange and exciting about them. They are comfortable with the strangeness of metaphor. As we grow up, that poetry gets scared out of us. We’re taught to value logic, order and fact over wonder. One way of reinfusing our lives with the wonder and play and music and magic that poetry celebrates is to slow down and pay attention, not to get carried along by the momentum of a busy day to the exclusion of hearing the wind and animals and trees.”

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AARP, sisters, Tracy K Smith, poet laureate
Rachel Eliza Griffiths