An Evening with Tracy K Smith

By BWV Community Reporter Hannah Hier

On a hectic, rainy wednesday evening I got the pleasure of attending Bristol Festival of Ideas event: a poetry reading and Q and A with Tracy K Smith- America’s 22nd Poet Laureate since 2017. It was a delight to step into the peaceful solitude of Waterstones bookshop and experience wonderful and thought provoking poetry by Tracy. 

Tracy was born in 1972 in Falmouth Massachusetts but brought up in Fairfield California and later went on to study at Harvard. In her career as a poet Tracy has published four collections of poetry: Life on Mars (2011), Ordinary Light (2015), Wade in the Water (2018) and her most recent collection Eternity (2019). Tracy is currently on a worldwide book tour for Eternity and as her time as Poet Laureate has spoken and visited many places across America, as well as teaching at Princeton University. Importantly, many of Tracy’s poems explore race and power along with other topics such as science, religion and pop culture. She interweaves personal stories and experiences, with people she has met whilst travelling around, into her work. This gives her work a genuine tone, making it an easy yet enriching read. 

The evening started with Tracy reading “Into the Moonless Night” an emotional and purposeful poem about the civil war in Uganda, specifically set in the 1980s and 90s when the armed group ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ recruited many child soliders and kidnapped teenage girls to be used as sex slaves. It addresses the horrific and unjustified behaviour that took place and is written in the form of a play; the characters Grace and Charlotte are the voices of two women who thankfully survived the brutality that occurred as Tracy had the chance to meet them and hear about their experiences that never should have taken place. A line of the poem read “ this is not myth, my body did not sing it stank.” 

After reading this poem Tracy told the audience of how poetry helps her to connect to the urgent issues that need to be addressed in the world and how she uses poetry as a way of making sense of them all. 

Throughout the evening Tracy read some of her other poems, educating yet at the same time reading the audience a lullaby. Consisting of a piece on a brazillian martial art, americas southern history and her well known piece “My God it’s Full of Stars” that touches on her childhood love of sci-fi and questions the afterlife, the event was a great way of experiencing the subtle beauty that poetry brings to life. During the Q and A part of the evening Tracy talked to the audience about childhood memories of her mother reading her “Little Visits of God” as a bedtime story and how ideas for poems had come to her in dreams she’d had. She also named poets and writers that had influenced her work over the years such as: Emily Dickinson, Ralph Elison and James Baldwin. 

Once most people had made their way back into the rain, I got the chance to chat with Tracy about being a female poet and teacher- she said “I feel the energy and purpose that a lot of the young female writers I meet put into their poetry.” After listening to Tracy talk about her life and career and her hopes for future female writers I left feeling delightfully optimistic.

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