Tracy K. Smith, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, has been announced as the U.S. Poet Laureate for 2017-2018. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden made the announcement on Wednesday. Smith’s term begins in September.
Smith thus adds to her growing list of accolades, which includes a 2002 Cave Canem award (for best first poetry book by an African American author) for her book The Body’s Question, a Whiting Award for poetry in 2005, and the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her book Life on Mars.
“I’m really excited,” Smith said by phone on Wednesday. “It’s a little overwhelming, but in a really happy way.” Smith said she has known the news for about a month.
Smith is the 22nd person to hold the position, which has the official title of Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry of the United States. As Hayden put it in her announcement, the Library of Congress keeps actual required duties “to a modest minimum,” allowing each holder to decide the shape and direction of his or her tenure. “That’s the beautiful thing about it,” said Smith. “They ask very little of you, and try to give you the resources you need to make of it what you decide to make of it.”
Some holders have brought poets in for readings or used the position’s budget to bolster the library’s definitive collection of U.S. poets and their works. Others, such as Robert Pinksy, the laureate from 1997-2000, have had more ambitious programs: Pinsky created a video library of ordinary people from all walks of life, in their native surroundings all across America, reciting their favorite poems.
The Massachusetts-born Smith was raised in California and educated at Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford. Her poetry has drawn wide praise for its musical plain-spokenness and passion. Graywolf Press in Minneapolis, Minn., has published all three of Smith’s poetry volumes and will publish her fourth, Wade in the Water, in April. Executive editor Jeff Shotts issued a statement saying that “Tracy K. Smith is the poet that we need as Poet Laureate right now. … [s[he shows us an America that is infinite and that is made of boundless music.” Here she reads from her poem "Life on Mars":
Her term begins in three months, and so far, the only things that will definitely happen are Smith’s opening reading, in September, and a closing event in April 2018. Has she started thinking about what she’d like to do? Nothing specific yet, she said, but she is looking at a way to leave the academic enclave (such a big share of the poetic world in the United States), and reach out to people who may not have had the full benefit of bringing poetry into their lives.
“My big hope,” Smith said, “is that that I can spend time traveling to under-served communities, be they remote or rural or far from university campus reading series, and reach as diverse an audience as possible.
“Poetry is such a wonderful tool for putting people in better touch with themselves, their own inner lives, and powerful feelings that don’t always make it into speech,” Smith said. “It’s wonderful, too, for giving us a curiosity about other people’s lives. So all these wonderful benefits of poetry are best served by getting out there, where maybe people haven’t been able to experience that as much, and saying, ‘Let’s have this conversation and see what comes out of it that’s of value.”