Tracy K. Smith
Published: March 30th, 2014
Tracy K. Smith is the author of the memoir Ordinary Light and three acclaimed books of poetry, including most recently Life on Mars, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and a New Yorker, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. A professor of creative writing at Princeton University, she lives in Princeton, NJ with her family.
Howl: What inspired you to become a poet and why is poetry your medium of expression?
Smith: It was the experience of reading poetry, and hearing poets read and discuss their own work, that made me want to become a poet. I was thrilled by the way that a poem could look at some seemingly small detail, and reflect upon it until something fundamental about it seemed to shift or unlock. It struck me as a feat of magic that observation, and language, could work together to transform the world that I knew. I wanted to do that, too, and to live in such a way as to always be watching and listening for unexpected revelation.
Howl: How old were you when you first started writing?
Smith: I liked writing from a very young age – say, 9. But I started thinking seriously about poetry when I was 19 or 20.
Howl: What do you do when you have a bad case of writer's block?
Smith: I try to direct my energy and attention in another direction. I'll read or watch a film or listen to music or go somewhere and try to let things stir in me naturally. I'll also try to learn something new. Sometimes that can inspire me.
Howl: What is your writing and editing process like?
Smith: It varies from project to project, but generally I like to write full drafts of poems and then return to them later - sometimes many times – to revise them. As I am re-reading something I've written, I try to look for places where my interest wanes, where I grow bored, or where the poem seems to be holding back. Those are the areas I might delete and try to replace with something that has more energy, that pushes for a more urgent kind of insight or questioning, or that takes a risk of some sort.
Howl: What do you do in your spare time when you're not writing or teaching?
Smith: I read. I travel, often to give poetry readings and talks, but sometimes for pleasure. I have 3 young children, and so their needs and desires determine much of what I do when I am not writing.
Howl: What are you currently working on and why?
Smith: I'm finishing a memoir about my experience growing up in California in the 1970s and 80s, and about leaving home for college in the early 1990s just as my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I wanted to think about my life and my family in a way that was different than how I'd done it before in my poetry (i.e., in prose rather than verse). It's been a challenging and rewarding process, and I've learned so many different things about the people and experiences I've been examining in the memoir.
Howl: What advice do you have for any budding poets?
Smith: Read a great deal and let the things that you read teach you new ways of using and thinking in language. Don't be satisfied with poems that merely demonstrate what you already know or think you've already figured out; use your poems to learn something new – even if it is not pleasant or defies pat answers. Especially if it does those things.
Howl: What responsibility do you feel the poet has to the reader and likewise, what responsibility do you feel the reader has to the poet?
Smith: I think the poet should try to write poems that help ward off glaring mis-reading. And the reader has the responsibility to think actively while reading a poem, and to listen to what the poem says and how it behaves. Sometimes the visceral feeling of a poem is a source of information, too. And don't automatically assume that the poet is the speaker of every poem.