“We like to think of it as parallel to what we know, / Only bigger.” So begins one of our favorite Tracy K. Smith poems, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” a cornerstone of her 2011 Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Life on Mars. Tracy K. Smith writes what we know, only bigger. She is the author of three books of poetry, and most recently a memoir, Ordinary Light, which was a 2015 National Book Award finalist. She teaches at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton where she is Director and Professor of Creative Writing. We sent her an email out of the blue to ask about sincerity, science fiction, and where to go from here.
LIT: It seems like a lot of interviews ask you, in some variation, “Why Poetry?” Maybe that’s just how most modern media outlets process poetry, as some archaic vestigial practice. Do you find yourself fielding a lot of questions on the value of poetry and the humanities? We could just be hypersensitive.
TKS: I think that it’s easy to ask poets to make a pitch for poetry, to explain to a world that is largely preoccupied with other things why it might be worthwhile to direct its attention to a poem. It bothers me because the very question suggests, and affirms, a general distrust of the poem. But maybe the insistence upon this type of question has something to do with anxiety. Maybe we feel nervous about showing the world a side of ourselves that is playful, or high-minded, or distractible.
It makes sense to me that the world of commerce and the world of politics would be invested in convincing us that we can each be one thing only: loyal to one brand, one party, one candidate. Too often we forget that we can say no to such false-thinking, that nobody is single sided, two dimensional.
But then I think about something as simple as the “Poetry In Motion” posters on the NYC subway trains, which allow commuters to spend a few minutes of their ride looking at a poem. I get emails almost every month from someone who doesn’t consider him or herself a reader of poetry, but who has been reminded of something real and powerful by my brief poem, “The Good Life.” Poems activate and affirm our sense of being individuals, of having feelings, of having been affected powerfully by the events and people that touch us. I know that the poems I see on those trains do something to lift me out of the drudgery of the everyday, to elevate my sense of myself, to remind me that I’m not just a consumer (which is what all the ads in that same space are attempting to convince me that I am).
LIT: In keeping with its science fiction aesthetic, Life on Mars marvels at the universe in such a unique way. It seems like a tricky thing to maneuver the expression such abstract wonder within the condensed space of a lyric poem, which can demand a lot of precision and movement. Did you have any models in reconciling what seem like the contrasting demands of subject and form?
TKS: Well, I think that a lyric poem is always attempting to marry the abstract and unnameable to language that is as precise and concrete as possible. I think that is where the inherent tension, and the dramatic charge, of most poems must reside. Maybe I should back up and say that as I see it, poems are always attempting to wrestle into words that which is large and which seems to defy language itself. It’s poetry’s fundamental conundrum. And so I didn’t think that what I was attempting to do in those poems was any different from what any other poem is attempting.
In terms, though, of trying to build a concrete sense of something as vast and imaginary-feeling as space—and also to find terms for the wild ride of grief—I tried to find visual language that might make that world and those feelings feel real to me. Film helped. Particularly the visual aesthetic of 1960s and 70s sci-fi film. And the images captured by the Hubble Telescope also helped. (Interestingly enough, those Hubble images look so abstract that they automatically start to engender metaphors.) Because I was trying to rein in something that seemed so alien, so remote, the images that became useful to me were very earthbound: a museum, a library, traffic jams, familiar music.
LIT: A longish question. A lot of the academic discourse around science fiction focuses on the genre’s capacity for social criticism. Many literary speculative writers of the 20th and 21st century—writers like Octavia Butler, Samuel Delany, Ken Liu, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others—have become important to a lot of feminist and queer theorists for their writings’ ability to reconfigure, or entirely disregard, normative structures in their imagined worlds. Do you think that this is specific to fiction as a form, as opposed to poetry? If not, why do you think science fiction had such a comparatively little impact on American poetry?
TKS: I have to be honest and say that I didn’t concern myself at all with theories about the genre when I was writing these poems. I was coming at science fiction from a private and deeply nostalgic place. I was interested in the now-dated views of the future that had shaped my childhood. There was something very tender, almost protective, that I felt about all the ways that those old images of the future were really just self-portraits, snapshots of our culture at a younger stage.
Having written the book, what I now understand about the genre is that it is a distancing device, something that allows us to express and examine our own fears about the present moment. It’s easier to take stock of our own anxieties and our wrong-headedness if we can create some kind of artificial distance between them and ourselves, to say: “Okay, if we keep doing what we are doing, what will the world look like not tomorrow(when we will still be here to deal with it), but in 200 or 2,000 years?” It allows us to do something productive with anxieties it might otherwise be tempting to deny or repress.
LIT: Obviously, as a memoir, Ordinary Light has a different, stricter relationship to autobiography than Life on Mars does, but autobiography plays a major role in your poems, too. How do you see the role of auto-biography in your poetry, as opposed to memoir?
TKS: Autobiography is always inevitable fodder for writing, no matter the genre. How can we not be curious about the events in our lives? I find that writing a poem leads me to think allusively, associatively, to seek out connections between my own experience and seemingly disparate features of the outside world. I do that by investing in images, listening to where the sounds of words lead me, and by taking frequent imaginative leaps. It’s not a linear of journey, but rather an attempt to draw unlikely things together and see what they might say to one another.
I experienced the demands of prose to be different. There were moments writing the memoir when I felt guided by a sense of intuition and play that is similar to what guides me when writing a poem, but the demands of narrative forced me to associate more slowly, to leap less frequently. I was trying to recreate a sense of place and time that I only half-remembered. In order to flesh it out, I had to continually go back and ask myself what else I might dredge up, what else had been going on, what else had been relevant. Memory is fascinating, because it rewards persistence by revealing little bits and pieces that might otherwise have lain dormant. Spending so much time looking backward at that child version of myself—a self who knew less, who had limited language to describe what she was feeling or even thinking—ultimately invited me to try and speak back to that time, to let a conversation take shape in the text between myself now and myself then. Those things can certainly happen in a poem, but they happen differently. Often they happen outside of language—in white space, in the residue trailing off of images, in tone and tempo, in structural shifts.
LIT: You’ve written about the corrosive effects that irony has on the landscape of contemporary poetry. Why do you think so many poets are drawn to irony today? Is this something you see in the work of your students, who are just beginning their writing careers?
TKS: I think over-reliance upon irony is symptomatic of fear. Fear of disclosure, fear of vulnerability, fear of sentiment. Those are valid things to be afraid of, but as I see it the way to succeed in a poem is not to avoid risk.
My students are wonderfully able to let go of inhibitions and take risks, to write about the things they know but also the things they don’t yet fully under-stand. I think the fact that they are undergraduates makes them brave. They don’t have manuscripts they are trying to publish or popular niches they are trying to fill. No one has asked them to define their poetic project and thereby condemn themselves to repeating the same tricks over and over. They’re just trying to learn how to write. They are enviably free.
LIT: A number of watershed moments in Life on Mars come down to a handful of small, malleable, and difficult words like “it” and “what.” For example, the opening lines of “My God It’s Full of Stars” (“We like to think of it as parallel to what we know, / Only bigger”) or the last line of “The Universe Is a House Party” (“Of Course, it’s ours If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours”). “It & Co.” does some advocacy for these dense words, describing them as “Vast and unreadable.” Linguistically, they seem like the clearest bridge between the poems’ theological interest and sci-fi meditations. Could you talk a little bit more about this kind of language its advantages, its dangers?
TKS: Well, those vague markers weren’t intentional, but perhaps they were a natural side effect of the poems’ concern with what I like to think of as the fundamental unknowables. I think every poem is going after something of that nature, but these poems were really doggedly trying to craft a sense of the large and mysterious system we belong to. Impossibly, I wanted to console myself once and for all by deciding where my father had gone to in death, and so it felt natural that there should be something fundamentally unresolvable—something incapable of being pinned down—at the heart of many of those poems. A poem like “It & Co.” was an attempt to both acknowledge the absurdity of that wish, and to give myself over to it in yet another attempt.
Maybe I’ll say one other thing about those words. I think that in a poem where everything that can possibly be made concrete is made concrete—where real objects and events occur, and where feeling is anchored successfully to real-feeling metaphors—words like “something” can exert tremendous power. I find this in Jack Gilbert’s poems, for example. In a poem like “Trying to Have Something Left Over,” he builds a scene that feels so vivid, so concrete, and in which the visceral sense of encounter triggers an unmistakable set of feelings and reactions in the reader. And after he does that, he opens up a strange and powerful gulf of longing and regret with the line, “Each time almost / remembering something maybe important that got lost.” I love it when a poem can suddenly plunge into a realm that can only be felt, that defies comprehension. I think the “It” at the end of Bishop’s great poem “At the Fishhouses” does this marvelously.
LIT: Universities are like poetry havens. As a student at Harvard your studied poetry with Seamus Heaney, Lucie Brock-Broido and Henri Cole. Now at Princeton, you’re sort of on the other side of that equation. Yet, you’ve also expressed a belief that poetry should be more widely taught and more widely read. How do you think universities can promote poetry beyond their own walls?
TKS: In the spring of my first year teaching at Princeton, I went out to dinner with the graduating seniors who had completed creative theses in poetry, fiction and translation. We spoke about a lot of things, and the conversation finally made its way to their plans for after graduation. Hardly anyone was considering an MFA at that point. Most had plans to go into law, finance, policy. I have to say that at the time I was shocked by that news. Now I think that lawyers and bankers and policy-makers who have given a whole portion of their formative years to reading and writing sounds like a marvelous idea. I think such people will probably be wildly empathetic and imaginative. I think they’ll be great listeners and thinkers. I think universities like Princeton are very smart for making it possible and desirable for students with career ambitions that lie outside of the humanities to invest time and energy in courses like poetry workshops, and for allowing students’ interest in the arts to inflect their coursework in other disciplines.
LIT: Lastly, what are you working on now?
TKS: I’m writing an opera libretto called “A Marveous Order,” about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs and their famous clash over the vision of New York City. It will be produced at Williams College in the spring. And I’m translating a contemporary Chinese Poet named Yi Lei. I’m working from a rough prelim-inary translation given to me by the poet, and carrying that over into a more vivid and vigorous English. Basically, I’m just trying to write and think and start over again from scratch, which is what I find myself doing after the completion of each new book.
—Introduction and interview by Jake Orbison