For over a decade, Tracy K. Smith has enamored readers and writers with her language and narrative and the ease of which she displays her mastery of both, manipulating them on the page into metaphors and images that remain with her audience even after they’ve put the book down. A renowned, contemporary author, Smith has published three collections of poetry, The Body’s Question (2003), Duende (2007), and Life on Mars (2011), for which she received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Most recently, Tracy K. Smith, stepped out of the genre of poetry and published a nonfiction memoir, Ordinary Light, in 2015. In Ordinary Light, Smith draws her readers in with a heart-wrenching depiction of her mother’s final moments before reversing in time to the childhood of a young Tracy K. Smith, growing up in Northern California as a daughter and a sister. From there, she leads us on her journey, telling her own story of growing up Black in the United States, including narratives of family, education, love, ambition, and loss. She currently teaches in and directs the creative writing program at Princeton University and resides in New Jersey with her family. Below, she discusses craft, identity, and aspects of her most recent project, Ordinary Light.
Negesti Kaudo: What does it mean to you to be a writer? A poet?
Tracy K. Smith: I think that being a writer means committing to a deep and reflective engagement with
experience and language. Writing has always served to make me more alert, more open to the details and feelings around and within me. It’s urged me to open my eyes and look at things. Exploring those observations and inklings in language keeps the resulting thoughts from feeling fleeting; it means looking at how they move and following them a little longer to see where they lead. I don’t recognize much of a distinction between being a writer or a poet, though different genres and forms invite different types of thinking and listening.
NK: What does it mean to be a black woman and a writer in today’s creative and literary communities, especially in a time when many are beginning to confront and discuss the diversity of such spaces?
TKS: I feel eager to expand the concerns of my work to include questions of race and identity. For me, this has meant becoming more open to writing about such things in different formats, in book reviews, essays or op-eds, for example. I don’t feel an obligation to take on more overtly political themes in everything I do, but I feel an admonition to write more about what I’m thinking along such lines. I feel like it’s not just a conversation people are interested in having, but one that will mark our particular cultural moment.
NK: In Ordinary Light, you’re very honest with the reader, seeming to hold nothing back. How did it feel to write about such personal and private moments and have a conversation with your younger self? What made you decide to insert this work into a public space (in contrast to writing it and never publishing it)?
TKS: I tend to feel that all of my writing pulls me into a very private-feeling space, and that the work can only succeed if it is unselfconscious. I always write without worrying about the reader. For me, the reader doesn’t exist until very late in the game, and by that point the most difficult work of disclosure has already been done. By the time a book is published, the most intensely vulnerable part of my engagement with the material has already passed.
Maybe this has something to do with the ways that language works. When you’re writing, you are asking language to help you tease out feelings, beliefs and ideas. It’s a constant back and forth between what defies expression and what language can help you to name and reflect upon. But language is rigorous. It requires you to adjust your thinking, it alerts you to things you hadn’t seen or thought through before. In this sense, language helps a writer identify, clarify and speak back to those powerful feelings. The very act of bringing such things into language is a matter of bringing them from a fraught state into a presentable one. Once the work is presentable, the anxieties about truth and content–about my own vulnerability as a private person–are greatly diminished.
NK: I’d like to discuss the prologue and epilogue of Ordinary Light, what was your reasoning behind beginning with the death of your mother and ending with bringing your daughter home (new life)? Can you talk about that final image in the epilogue of you and your mother napping (its placement, its present/past tense usage, etc.)?
TKS: I realized that if I saved the death of my mother for the end of the book, I would be keeping a huge fact from my reader. It made me feel dishonest to keep the reader in the dark while I knew all along where things were going. Once I moved that death scene to the beginning of the book, I felt like the reader and I could be on equal footing.
In terms of the Epilogue, I didn’t feel like the story ended when that particular chapter of my life ended. So much of the reason why I wanted to write the book had to do with the ways that becoming a parent seemed to open up the wish for a chance to talk to my mother, and to introduce my daughter to her. So it made sense to me to come full circle in that respect, and to allow my feelings as a mother to help shed light upon what might have been my own mother’s feelings about parenthood and God. The book shifts into present tense at the end of the Epilogue because doing so helped me get more visceral access to the wordless feelings I was recollecting.
NK: As this book is for your daughter, Naomi, to eventually read and revel in your journey as a daughter, do you think your memoir extends beyond that into a public space and can/will act as a relatable and crucial narrative for many young black women in the US?
TKS: Well, I hope that readers who don’t know me will find something there. I know that reading other people’s stories has helped me in lots of ways. Luckily, I don’t think it’s my job to speculate about the possible reach of anything I write. Like I said, the most intense work, and the most rewarding, is really the private struggle with bringing the material into language. Perhaps, though, I do feel glad to have added one more narrative of black experience to the growing canon.
NK: For Ordinary Light you recorded an audiobook, are there other projects for which you have brought your work off of the page? If not, do you think that Creative Writing curricula in undergraduate and MFA programs should encourage emerging writers to explore ways in which to bring their work off the page?
TKS: I haven’t done much else like the audio-recording, and I hope I won’t have to do another recording of that kind. It’s hard work! It did, though, provide me with an interesting kind of closure, to read and listen to the book all at once like that.
I’ve written the libretto for an opera that will have an ongoing life (we hope) off of the page. It was intensely collaborative, and to see the work set to music and performed by the artists was really an ecstatic experience.
NK: Are you currently working on anything new or anything that challenges or excites you?
TKS: I’m co-translating the work of contemporary Chinese poet Yi Lei. That’s been a great way of coming back to the genre of poetry after working for years in prose. But there’s also some new prose I’m eager to get to in the coming year.
NK: Finally, what is some advice you have (as a mother, a professor, an acclaimed and celebrated author, etc.) for emerging writers and marginalized writers about entering and navigating the creative writing world in their pursuits of creating art?
TKS: I think that finding a sense of community–of writers whom you trust and respect, and whose work you feel a strong commitment to–is crucial. That can be sustaining in the long path to publication and beyond. But I also feel very strongly that publication is something that shouldn’t be rushed. My teachers used to tell me “The book has to last longer than you do, so take your time!” I think it can’t be overly stressed how important it is to let the work of a writer’s apprenticeship (i.e., the MFA thesis) sit, and then to let most of it go. That’s the work that teaches a writer how to write, but it might not be the first public statement that one needs to make as a writer. It’s such a gift (though at times it may not feel like it) to write in privacy, without anyone else putting pressure upon or prying into what you are doing. I miss that sometimes.
Negesti Kaudo is a Creative Writing–Nonfiction MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. At 22, she is the youngest recipient of the Ohioana Library Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant, which she was awarded in 2015. Her work is published and/or forthcoming in Nailed Magazine, Vagabond City Literary Journal, NewCity Lit, FreezeRay Poetry, and Love Me, Love My Belly Zine. Her newest habit is procrastinating revisions by writing new work, sometimes she tweets (@kaudonegesti).