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The Body's Boundaries, The Body's Questions:

Tracy K. Smith interviewed by Jericho Brown

from Gulf Coast
Volume 17, Number 1

Jericho Brown: Dead or alive, who do you think of as your major influences in the world of poetry and how did you come to know them and their work? Have you had the opportunity to work with any of them and was the experience what you expected? What in your own work do you see as a direct descendant?

Tracy K. Smith: To really answer that question, I think I need to go back to the moment just before I decided to begin writing poetry seriously. Tracy K. Smith I was a sophomore at Harvard, still a bit bewildered by the fact of my own independence, still very eager to assert some kind of "adult" persona but very much a child (a status I'm convinced I only recently grew out of, for the most part). I didn't know it, but a lot of things were about to happen: I was about to get involved with the Dark Room Collective, a group of young black writers who hosted what became a legendary reading series for emerging and established writers of color in Cambridge, MA; I was also about to discover a real engagement with contemporary poetry.

In the moment I'm talking about, the moment before things started to gel and make sense, I was recovering from my first broken heart and generally beginning to question my own sense of purpose and of self — things I imagine a lot of my classmates were also privately doing. I had a lot of questions, hunches, and an interest in writing without a real sense of craft or genres or boundaries. All of that means that I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking and writing about things that were not related to my classes (as my grades early on will confirm) in ways that were not entirely consistent — I'd start a play, then get an idea for a story, then stay up writing long letters to old friends. Because I was writing from an emotional need, craft was relatively unimportant. The words and their ability to approximate my own feelings or fantasies were the major preoccupation.

And then, all of a sudden, I got ambushed by contemporary poetry. Seamus Heaney showed up on one of my syllabi, and I was blown away by his poem "Digging," the first poem in Death of a Naturalist. Gulf Coast, Volume 17, Number 1 That poem showed me the importance of metaphor and of looking closely — transformatively — at what is at hand. And I was literally enchanted by the music of his language and heartened by the realization that often it is a moment rather than an event that makes a poem. I also remember feeling as if I'd been given permission to begin writing about real moments from my own life and my family as a way of both answering back and putting some of these observations into practice in my own writing. I was fortunate enough to study with him in workshop the following spring — and shameless enough to bring my own unwitting Seamus Heaney imitations in for critique. Fortunately, he is incredibly generous with young writers and able to see somewhat clearly into what they are striving for without being limited to what they are capable of doing — which might be another way of saying that he's sensitive to the fact that many of us start writing out of the will and wish to write, rather than out of having something to say. He encouraged me to read poets like Charles Simic and Thomas Transtrommer and to take different kinds of risks in my work. He also shared some reflections on choices in his own writing that I continue to draw from — such as writing sequences of poems or allowing a poem to exist in sections rather than straining to create connective tissue between seemingly distinct parts. That advice in particular definitely helped me to feel okay about the shape many poems and sequences took on in my own book.

Other poets whose work was really instrumental in shaping my sense of what poems could — and sometimes ought to — do were Elizabeth Bishop, whose "I" and eye fascinated me. I think also, because my sense of what it was I wanted to say was limited, her use of form provided an important model. Most of the poems I was writing then, and for many years after, were rigorously formal — stanzaically speaking. William Matthews' book A Happy Childhood was also pretty seminal for me in terms of content. Matthews was inspiring for his breadth of knowledge and interest, his ability to look at the quotidian, for his wit, for his ability to ask questions as well as assert answers (not necessarily in conjunction with one another).

Thankfully, the Dark Room reading series was also instrumental in introducing me (literally and literarily) to still more contemporary poets. In a dramatic way, Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa affected my relationship with words and the world. Dove's Thomas and Beulah really impacted me because I was drawn to both the poet's voice and her willingness to let other voices into the work. And her delicate sense of detail, and very subtle idea of how a poem can end, really impressed in me a sense of the range — in pitch, volume, contrast, and weight — available to a poem. And so I started writing my own versions of her poems for a while — and they weren't very good, but they were invaluable in terms of opening my eyes to still more material at my disposal and to more places where I ought to try taking my own voice. Komunyakaa's Magic City and, maybe even more importantly for me, his Dien Cai Dau, were boldly rhythmic and haunting, another model of where I ought to attempt one day to go with my own work.

There were also poets whose work I got to know during and after my time in their classrooms who had a tremendous impact on me as teachers and as writers. They are Lucie Brock-Broido, who is so very great at teaching young writers to recognize the magic and the mystery and the blind, leaping faith that are very much part of poetry. My interest in the persona poem is probably owing directly to her ability to impart her own interest in that particular posture to her students. And Henri Cole, who really instilled in me a respect for the art, was generous enough to say that he recognized something important in my work. Those kinds of voices are also tremendously necessary for young poets, because they make you want to keep going — something that so much else seems, in many ways, designed to prevent.

Today, I see myself consciously making many of the types of choices I was alerted to back in those early workshops: associative leaps, resisting the impulse to explain an image, seeking a kind of transparency that allows whatever the mystery of the poem is to emerge as clearly as possible. And then there are many lessons from years ago that are only just now beginning to make sense and poems I first encountered years ago that I am still answering back to. I'm also very inspired by new voices — books by my contemporaries like Quan Barry, Suji Kwock Kim, and Steve Scafidi.

JB: How would you describe your own education as a poet and at what point were you certain of poetry as a vocation? Had you the resources necessary to cultivate the life of an aspiring poet, how might things be different for her? In your work as a faculty member at Medgar Evers College, in what ways do you find yourself consciously avoiding or making moves reminiscent of your own teachers and mentors?

TKS: Once I started writing all the time and interacting with poets, I made a conscious decision to identify myself as a poet. It's funny how much a single word can provide focus and direction. As soon as I claimed that identity, I started clearing more and more space for poetry in my life and applying poetic tools to other areas of my life. The world became a different place, and I witnessed it through different kinds of eyes. And I liked the difference I felt in myself. Of course, I was 19, and I have to admit that it was all a little pretentious. I remember my friends' complaints that I was becoming reclusive, misanthropic — perhaps because so much of what was important to me suddenly became so private.

After college, I spent a year in my childhood home in California. My mother was going through the end-stages of terminal illness, and it was one of those strange, extended moments where time seems to be moving terribly terribly quickly and yet standing completely still. Nothing made sense, but I remember feeling that the courage I'd had to tap into to say some of the things I'd tried to say in my poems was the same courage that was helping me face the inevitability of losing her. I could have used a lot more. In the wake of that loss, as I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life, poetry was the only thing that seemed reliable or real. I couldn't imagine pitching marketing ideas or applying to law schools because those things didn't seem real to me, so I went on to pursue an MFA. It was the best decision I could have made, but in many ways, it was probably the only one I was capable of making at the time.

During my two years in the Writing Division at Columbia, I was, though I didn't know it, still utterly grieving, and everything I was writing reflected that. I wasn't capable of applying the kind of rigorous, sometimes ruthless choices necessary to make a poem good, so my work for those two years was, in retrospect, weak. Thankfully, my teachers were consistently generous. That didn't preclude straight-forward criticism and honest feedback, but it meant that the tenor of our workshops was not competitive or discouraging. In fact, much of what was most valuable about those workshops was not critique, per se, but the introduction of ideas and material that were inspiring. For me, that meant I felt safe writing the poems I wanted and needed to write and that I was given input that hasn't gone away. Many of the poems in The Body's Question might be "revisions" of some of those early attempts — me trying to go in a different direction with some of that same material than I was able to go in back then.

In workshops I've taught since that time, at Medgar Evers and elsewhere, I am very conscious of the vulnerability of beginning writers. I push my students toward a more rigorous sense of craft and a more daring use of material and observation, but I am also aware of the fact that everything that gets said in a workshop environment has a tremendous impact. I try to remember the types of things that inspired me when I was getting started and to share the things that are inspiring to me now, in hopes that that kind of giddy fascination with, again, the magic of poetry will come across to the students. Ultimately, that has more of a valuable impact than being told what you can't or shouldn't do.

My classmates from Columbia and I still reminisce about how much we were inspired by a workshop we took with Mark Doty during the spring of our first year. He was so excited about poetry, and we used to say that we could even hear that excitement in the way he breathed. I'm sure that that kind of positive energy imparted something at least as valuable as the comments he wrote on our poems.

If I had the opportunity to cultivate a young poet, I'd change very little about the things she encounters. I think mistakes and obstacles (as long as they're surmountable) foster resourcefulness and a kind of desire to keep at it. I also think it's very very important to come to your own conclusions about what you want for your own work. I do wish, though, that I'd had less occasion to doubt the safety of poetry as a vocation. By that I mean that I struggled greatly during my twenties trying to make a living without letting go of the discipline of poetry. In America, where we're encouraged to believe that comfort and status are the goals toward which we should strive and the markers of our success, it's easy to feel you're going at things in the wrong way if you're working for something that won't make you rich and that can often prevent you from being materially comfortable. I'd make sure that young poet had resources and affirmation — so that she wouldn't spend quite as much time as I did thinking she was addicted to a dangerous habit. Maybe that means I'd make sure she was more savvy about finding those resources and that encouragement outside of the university setting, and a bit more willing to stand up for herself in the face of well-meaning nay-sayers.

JB: Your husband is a visual artist and you once mentioned that you better realized your book as a complete project once you identified the cover as one of his pieces. Do you feel that art forms other than poetry make a direct contribution to your poems? Are you a poet who believes that you must somehow dabble in another medium in order to be proficient in poetry? If so, what other art do you practice? How is it like the art of writing? What are the benefits of being a poet who loves and lives with a painter?

TKS: It's true that visualizing the book itself pushed me to pull the manuscript of The Body's Question together and to write toward its completion. For me, that was more about coming to grips with a vision for the book than about a true collaboration or crossing over into other genres.

However, I do strongly feel that poetry is enriched by the poet's connection to and investment in other genres — either as a practitioner or appreciator. Several years ago, I went through a painful writer's block — a period of silence that lasted six or seven months. I'm convinced that the only thing that really saved me, and led me back to the page, was taking a class in black and white photography. In fact, living with a camera around my neck for a year, and hunting for pictures to shoot, taught me a lot about the importance of the image and its relationship to narrative in writing, something I'd struggled with before discovering photography. And working with contact sheets of very similar images, trying to decide which prints to enlarge and why, revealed something valuable to me about the huge impact of subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, details and gestures in writing. Sometimes that impact comes from what you have decided to leave out rather than include.

Currently, it might be more accurate to say I'm trying to learn from music and the aural a bit more than visual composition. I want to learn how to lead a reader through a series of feelings and ideas in a way similar to what someone like Nana Vasconcelos or Frank Zappa can do with tone and pitch and pacing and orchestration.

I always encourage my students to seek analogies between their outside interests and their process as poets. Everything should make its way into the poems, because everything makes a mark upon the poet. I think the risks of too rigid a self-identification as a poet (as opposed to an artist or a maker or a person with questions that lend themselves to exploration in words) can be tantamount to a relationship in which two people put all of their energy into one another and nothing more: things can become repetitive, stunted, and eventually break down.

In terms of living with (and — yes — loving) a visual artist, I often, quite frankly, feel a little bit of jealousy for the seeming immediacy with which an idea is translated into a visual object. And I'd love to know better how actual words can approximate the very direct and visceral "vocabulary" of color and shape. I'm also inspired by living with someone who, too, is constantly at it creating and revising. One of my goals is not just to learn from a deeper consideration of visual art, but also to find a way of collaborating that pushes both mediums to a new place.

JB: Poets such as Toi Derricotte and Sharon Olds often discuss and write about the risks involved with revealing supposed personal experiences in their work. Most of the poems in The Body's Question come from the voice of a lyric or narrative "I" that may appear to be the poet herself. How important is the "I" to your work? Few if any of the poems in The Body's Question discuss topics that many critics deem confessional, e.g. rape, molestation, physical abuse, suicide, abortion. Do you consider yourself a confessional poet? How do you personally define the term? Do you see it as a pejorative? Do you ever feel stifled by the possible opinions of family members who may read your work? If so, how do you handle this?

TKS: I think the I is paramount to poetry — it's the link between the reader and the world that the poem creates. I also think that every I is, in fact, many I's — every speaker is a kind of composite sketch of fantasy, elements of the poet's life or mind, and something completely its own that the poet cannot will into being or entirely control. Sometimes I look back on poems in which I know the speaker was really and truly myself, and I don't fully recognize her, can't quite return to the place where she is. I think most young poets encounter a certain degree of difficulty locating an authentic place from which to shape the poem's I. Sometimes the temptation is to rest too close to home, transforming little and writing what might just as easily have been spoken into a telephone. And other times, perhaps more often, the impulse is to try and hide or couch the real feelings or circumstances that the poem seems to grow out of by making the poem deliberately obscure. I've really tried to push myself to move beyond these strategies. At first that simply meant that I resisted writing from the first person singular altogether. But once I felt like I'd developed a grasp of how to negotiate the writing of a poem in terms of craft, I was eager to get to the other side of the coin and think about what I really had to say. And it's been a kind of balancing act or tug-of-war for me ever since. The preponderance of persona poems in the first section of The Body's Question are most likely responses to that wish to feel and gain a sense of courage from different stances within the poetic I.

But it also goes without saying that many of my poems are direct and personal and they relate to real events from my own life. I didn't think about the impact of that while I was writing them, and I haven't worried terribly about what secrets they might reveal now that they've been published. I do, however, think that if true or sensitive material might be hurtful to the people it involves or implicates, the poet really ought to think about whether that particular poem is something that should be made public. Again, however, that's something that has a lot to do with publishing but very little to do with the private act of writing. I remember causing a bit of slight embarrassment as a young child by sharing some personal detail about my family in a public context. My mother's response was simply, "You don't have to tell everybody everything." I think she was right, but that doesn't preclude thinking about and seeking to come to terms with as much as possible.

Maybe the important thing about a poem that works is not what it reveals about what the poet has been up to as a person, but rather what it can teach the poet (or even a reader) about what he or she must begin to see or ask or remember or feel or even do. And when I think about how I've been impacted by other writers, a large part of it has to do with witnessing the degree to which the self, when it is honest and brave, can teach itself things it did not know it knew. As it happens, I sometimes learn best from those things that are most private and most true. Does that make me a confessional poet? I haven't thought to label myself in that way, and I haven't ever been fully satisfied with what that particular label seems to imply. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it's often something that gives a reader the false sense that looking for links to the poet's biography is the best way of understanding and appreciating a poem. Many of us as writers begin from someplace close to home, but to label as confessional a poem that stems from the poet's life or experiences is often to ignore the transformation that any successful poem enacts upon its subject matter. For this reason, I view the term as pejorative only in-as-much-as it seems to sell the reader out by saying: "You should be willing to go only so far in your experience of this poem."

JB: "Joy," the long poem from which the book takes its title, is a beautiful yet painful elegy in which the speaker mourns the loss of her mother. Is writing ever an emotionally painful process?

TKS: For some of the very same reasons that writing is often risky, I think it is also sometimes painful. But I do it because the process is rewarding — bringing me closer to the people and feelings and moments that have been lost to distance or time. Joseph Brodsky said writing is an attempt to freeze time — and, by extension, to keep death from having the last word. I think on a certain level that's true and that writing is therefore inherently about struggle. But the elegy in my book is called "Joy" because I really do feel that a poem is capable of bringing you close to where you want to be. Of course, you've got to be willing to confront what gets unearthed along the way.

JB: The poems in the first section of The Body's Question reflect a speaker's experience with Latino and, more specifically, Mexican culture. Were you at all concerned that readers and critics might question your exploration of that which is not traditionally considered African American? What do you see as a poet's responsibilities when writing across cultures? Did you ever wonder if due to this opening of your first book, you would be mistaken as Latina? Considering undying criticisms of African American art being "black enough" or "universal enough," did you have any reservations about the poems in your first book not having a speaker who is obviously black?

TKS: I was lucky — growing up the youngest child in a large family, I was given plenty of room to decide what was important to me, and what — and how — I wanted to be.

When the issue of being "black enough" came up, it was always in an outside context and always had to do with the expectations of strangers — people who had no real investment in me. So through trial and error, I had the opportunity to decide that identity is a complex enterprise made up only in part by race and that one black person's experience was distinct and sometimes unrecognizable from another's. For that reason, I've never really bought into the idea that I ought to sound, think, or even behave a certain way — mostly because any attempt to do so on my part has generally been an all-out failure. Thankfully, I came to that conclusion in life before it would have become an issue in my work.

I had a phone conversation recently with one of my best friends, and she reminded me of a letter I'd written to her around the time that I discovered the fascination Mexico held for me. I said something like, "I'm sure I have no right to be speaking Spanish." I think I was acknowledging what to some might appear incongruous, or outright inappropriate: that an African American woman might find a connection to a culture that has nothing to do with her. Nevertheless, I did, and at a time when I was in dire need. This was during that long stretch of writer's block, when, in large part, I was unable to write because I somehow felt that my own language — English — had betrayed me. I was floundering in English. I couldn't write a poem in it. When I crossed the border into Mexico, I heard a language that I largely didn't understand and that owed me nothing. There was no history between us, so there was no possibility that I'd be let down by it. From that kind of a stance, I was really able, I think, to draw from Spanish and learn something different about who I was within it. There's much more that draws me to Mexico, much of it political, but the idea of starting from scratch was very appealing to me.

In terms of the book, there's no way that couldn't play heavily into The Body's Question. The first poems I wrote to break that long silence were poems like "Niña Fantasma" and "Brief Touristic Account." Putting them in the front of the book was risky, but I also wanted to show that the overall voice in the book — the composite speaker behind each of the individual speakers — only exists if we can accept that these distinct and disparate voices can coexist. And I was worried that the risk wouldn't be something people would appreciate, but not worried enough to try and hide what I was up to. And the truth is, sometimes I think we box ourselves in by our expectations of what others' expectations of us are. If I had second-guessed myself by saying, "Readers won't think this is a black enough first book," I would have probably been making a decision that would have disappointed those readers. Like those poems we sometimes produce in workshop that are really just an attempt to satisfy our peers. They generally turn out to be worse than the bad poems we write on our own.

Maybe it's also important to add that no matter what I'm writing about, I see my responsibility to my material as a matter of writing toward the truth. And the truth is many different things at once — many different truths. We've got to be open enough and curious enough to recognize them when they confront us, and humble enough to know that on one level, we'll probably get it all wrong. I see writing across cultures as no different. It involves the same letting go of what one expects to find and the same surrender to what seems to want to be written. And I would hope that the desire to go there in the first place stems from a sense of respect for that which is sought — a feeling of smallness in the face of something tremendous.

JB: How do you feel about The Body's Question now that it is in anyone's hands? What has been most surprising about the process of publication and giving readings? What has been most satisfying? In what direction do you see your latest work moving since the publication of your first book?

TKS: For better or worse, I'm really glad that the book is what it is. Many people described what it felt like to see your own first book in the world as something like a child that grows up and pulls away and thrives, or doesn't thrive, on its own. And yet somehow it was very hard to anticipate what that would feel like. Fellini described each of his finished films as a friend, but a friend at a distance, and maybe for me that made a tad bit more sense.

When the book first came out, I was worried about it — that maybe it was only a fantasy; that even if it was real (it looked and felt real) it wasn't good; that I'd regret too much of what it says or reveals; that I'd come down too quickly from the initial high of launching it. I think those fears don't necessarily get resolved so much as just fade out. The book has really given me a sense of closure on those poems and the phase of my life they represent and a sense of satisfaction that many of those poems, indeed, ought to have been written. It's also incentive to try and write another. And Cave Canem and Graywolf have been extremely helpful in making the experience a pleasant and rewarding one. And readers have been extremely generous in their response, and I'm grateful.

Some of my new poems are growing out of experiences I had traveling in Afro-Mexican communities this summer, which is interesting to me because it means that there is a more obvious connection between Mexico and my own ancestry than I'd thought at first. I'm also interested in finding a new stance for the I in the work. My new poems are less rooted in my own experience than the poems in the second half of The Body's Question. I'm trying to make room for more in the poems, which means the space I ostensibly take up within them has appeared to decrease. Surely I'm still there — I'm just trying to learn how to write a poem based on a different type of question.

Gulf Coast
Volume 17, Number 1

University of Houston

Executive Editor: Mark Doty
Managing Editors: Sasha West
Associate Editors: Jennifer Grotz, David Ray Vance

Copyright © 2004 by Gulf Coast
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission.

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Selected books available by Tracy K. Smith:
The Body's Question — Paperback

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