Poet Laureate discusses writing process
Jordan Cockrum | Thursday, September 6, 2018
In much of her poetry, current Poet Laureate of the United States Tracy K. Smith allows her writing to be driven by her answers to questions such as, “Why do I care about [this topic]?” It is through this journey of sitting with a single question or phase that she finds other feelings and connections coming to the surface, a journey that she discussed Wednesday ahead of her appearance at this year’s Christian Culture Lecture.
“The poem ‘Wade in the Water’ begins with this experience that felt so beautiful, and then I thought, ‘Why did I care about it? Because it made me feel a kind of pang. Why did it make me feel that way? Because love isn’t what we live by, love isn’t what I feel like I deserve to get from a stranger,’” Smith said. “And then just surrendering to that memory of that experience allowed other things to rise up.”
This process led Smith to bring in elements of history to the poem, which is a theme present in much of her recent release “Wade in the Water.” Smith said in her writing, she finds value in trying to find ways to make the poem give the same experience to readers as she felt writing it.
“I feel like if I’m trying to surprise a reader, then I’m not going to do that,” Smith said. “But if I’m trying to allow myself to be surprised then that’s possible, and if I can after get to that place, revise the poem so that it speaks clearly and viscerally to a reader then maybe I can trust the reader will go through the same series of realizations or discoveries.”
This practice of “surprising herself” and leading readers through the same experience comes from looking at things from several angles, Smith said.
“It happens by, you know, making those connections between things that don’t necessarily belong together,” Smith said. “It happens by looking from a perspective that I wouldn’t think to look from in real time, but because I have the luxury of writing a poem — sort of stopping time — I can move around within the scene and look for something that seems useful in sort of changing my view of things.”
This idea of changing one’s view and challenging one’s perspectives is central to Smith’s view on the power of poetry, she said.
“What I think one of our major shortcomings as 21st century, social media, immediate culture beings is we trust our own opinions, our own reactions, and we feel like we have the right to explain other people to themselves to speak for them or to speak over them,” Smith said. “And a poem is this great device because it says, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no. You have to be quiet, you have to listen, you don’t know me, you haven’t had these experiences but I will share them with you, if you can, put away your expectations and your assumptions and allow me to guide you through a new way of looking at experience and a new way of looking at the world.’
“It’s exciting as a reader to be gifted with different ways of thinking about the world that I think I know, but it’s also I think essential for a more compassionate citizenship to imagine that other people’s voices matter as much as our own, and that by listening we might be able to get past certain misconceptions or erroneous expectations that we have been taught are okay.”
As Poet Laureate of the U.S., Smith was given a fund that she could use to further a mission of her choice. Part of Smith’s mission is to take poetry to parts of the country that would not typically get a visit from a poet. Smith said she hopes to share her love of poetry with these communities, without the pressure of teaching.
“Part of this project of going into rural communities has to do with just wanting to even in this small way mend or bridge the divide that we imagine between rural and urban perspectives and lifestyles and vocabularies for experience,” Smith said. “And teaching I don’t think is the way to do that. The way to do that I think is to go in and say, ‘Hey, we’re two people, or we’re a room full of people, we’re in the presence of this voice on the page, let’s talk about what it seems to be saying.’”
Smith said while she has looked forward to hearing the observations readers have made about her poems, she did not want to create anxiety due to putting attendees in the position of demonstrating a deeper understanding of poems. Instead, she feels their natural interactions with poems can be just as powerful.
“I really believe that a person can have a powerful and useful encounter with a poem simply by noticing what the poem makes him or her feel, allowing the mind to wander and making connections between where the poem is speaking from and where the mind goes and accepting that those might be useful and even purposeful associations,” she said.
Smith also discussed the challenges that female authors have had in the world of poetry. While Smith said the challenges each individual faces is different, there are acts such as finding a sense of community that can help.
Within the works of female poets, there are some similarities that are present that differentiate them from male writers, Smith said.
“I really feel that there’s something that characterizes work by women that is different from men,” Smith said. “Now, that’s a sweeping statement and so it’s wrong to say that in many ways, but some things feel really true for me. I love the way that there is a willingness to listen and to be beholden to the environment, to the voices of others, to a sense of place that could move and shape a female speaker. … It’s not necessarily the urge to claim and imprint so much as to observe, detect, hear something that may be audible only if you are doing the work to seek it out.”
Smith also said women writers explore multiple aspects of the self, in a way that she hopes she does in her work.
“There’s also, of course, a really wonderful tradition of speaking to the quiet rage that is a part of being a woman, thinking of a poet like [Sylvia] Plath. Or … the amazing balance between a really active mind and a raging heart and spirit,” Smith said. “I love that at least the women poets that have meant something to me have been fearless in engaging both of those parts of the self, poems that seem to be really an act of listening and learning which is what I like to believe my poems help me to do.”