MLK Speaker Tracy K. Smith Addresses Race Through Poetry
by Anooshka Gupta on Friday, January 22nd, 2016
Milton had the pleasure of welcoming poet and author Tracy K. Smith as both the fall Bingham Reader and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Assembly Speaker on Wednesday, January 13th, 2016. Smith’s poetry and prose address what it means to be American in this day and age, asking people to re-examine their perspectives and their beliefs, encouraging us to challenge our own perceptions in order to consider others’ viewpoints.
At our Wednesday Assembly, Smith shared various pieces of writing from her collection of poetry called Life on Mars, an extended elegy to her father, a former optical engineer on the Hubble Space telescope. Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012 and extracted inspiration from rock star, David Bowie. Smith fell in love with Bowie’s glam era in her early thirties, which created a forum for Smith to think of herself in different ways. She wanted to pay homage to the rock star because his lyrics alluded to his questions and anxieties about the Earth as humans continue to take advantage of it. In her book, Smith chose to voice her concerns in a comparable manner.
Smith places a large focus on writing in different perspectives and conveying opinions one may not necessarily agree with. She found the genre of sci-fi as another medium to think from another one’s point of view when asking about things such as being American and intimate relationships. Additionally, in Life on Mars, Smith asks us to consider individuality in the context of the universe.
Smith shared numerous other poems, focusing on pieces that morphed into the voices of different people or groups of people. Smith believes that her poetry asks herself to sink beneath the writing in order to tap into her unconscious mind and find the distinct voices . For example, in an excerpt from her piece “They May Love all that he has Chosen and Hate all that he has Rejected,” Smith focuses on how hate crime affects culture by writing in the voice of multiple victims sending postcards to their assailants. The victims’ compassion for their assailants evokes a powerful image and feeling.
Smith has also been invited to join several historical poetry projects. She explained to us that when beginning the writing process, she turned to firsthand accounts written by African-American soldiers who struggled to get pension due to the lack of birth certificates and marriage licenses. Her poem “I will tell you the truth about this, I will tell you all about it” is a compilation of excerpts of letters and dispositions because she wanted to let the soldiers and their families speak with their own voices. Similarly, she wrote a poem called “Monticello” in the form of a sonnet, where she began by thinking of Thomas Jefferson’s figure and legacy.
Various creative writing classes had the honor of having their class lead by Smith. Compared to the typical workshop approach, which asks for students to comment on areas for improvement, Smith asked individuals to comment on what they noticed. The different methodology created a different environment for the discussion of the piece.
In addition to her other accolades, Smith has published many more critically acclaimed pieces of writing. Her memoir, Ordinary Light, influenced by the passing of her mother, was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award in nonfiction. Her first published collection of poetry, The Body’s Question, won the Cave Canem prize for the best first book written by an African American poet. Duende, another collection, was winner of both the James Laughlin Award and the Essence Literary Award. Overall, Milton was lucky to introduce such an accomplished and inspiring author to our community.
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