Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
The New York Amsterdam News. June 22-June 28, 2017
Medgar Evers College Celebrates the Appointment of
Tracy K. Smith as U.S. Poet Laureate
By: Dr. Brenda M. Greene
Tracy K Smith, the author of three books of poetry: Life on Mars (2011), winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Duende (2007), winner of the James Laughlin Award and the 2008 Essence Literary Award; and The Body’s Question (2003), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, has been appointed by the Library of Congress as the 22nd United States Poet Laureate Consultant. She is also the author of a memoir, Ordinary Light (2015), which was a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. An African-American poet, Smith follows in the tradition of former Poet Laureates Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey, Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden.
Upon accepting the appointment, Smith indicated in an interview in the New York Times that she plans to “use the position to be a literary evangelist of sorts, by visiting small towns and rural areas to hold poetry events.” I was reminded of the late Gwendolyn Brooks, who would have been one hundred years old this year. The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York recently celebrated the centennial of Gwendolyn Brooks at its 2017 National Black Writers Conference Biennial Symposium.
Brooks was poet laureate of the State of Illinois and had the distinction of being the first black author to win the Pulitzer Prize and the first black woman to be appointed as the poetry consultant to the Library of Congress (now known as the Poet Laureate). Gwendolyn Brooks was known for her work with young people and conducted workshops for the Chicago Blackstone Rangers gang. She spent much of her time visiting schools and gave out numerous awards to young people. Tracy Smith’s goals as U.S. Poet Laureate align with those of Gwendolyn Brooks. She is concerned with getting more young people engaged with poetry and instilling within them the confidence to write poetry. In an interview I conducted with her after winning the Pulitzer in 2012, she expressed her desire to find ways to introduce poetry in innovative and creative ways in the schools.
I first met Tracy Smith when she was an instructor in the English Department at Medgar Evers College. I was impressed by her vibrant spirit and her commitment to writing, teaching and nurturing her students. In the interview I conducted with her, she described her writing process as her quest to find an answer to a question. She expounded on how writing gave her an opportunity to examine ideas and urged student writers to: “Ask questions and don’t take that first answer. Continue to ask questions and to develop your own sense of what is right for you.” She also reminded students to read widely and to read the work of many poets. “Students should not be deterred by poets who seemed difficult and should examine the ways in which other poets use language,” she said.
Smith has a selfless work ethic and collaborated with me on the publication of the proceedings of the fourth and fifth National Black Writers Conferences at Medgar Evers College. She has also participated in the National Black Writers Conferences at Medgar Evers College.
Our poets enable us to see the world anew and Smith’s poetry embodies that. In reading her poetry and listening to her read, you are forced to slow down and to deeply reflect on the interior life and the “whys” in life. Smith uses her poetry and prose to explore themes of family relations, loss, race, history, identity, spirituality crime. She views the poet as having a responsibility and her awards in poetry as evidence of a larger responsibility. Upon winning the Pulitzer, she remarked that she felt both humble and excited. She has been one of the few African-American poets to win this honor. Her appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate is an even greater responsibility and it is no doubt that she will rise to the occasion. Her current work on a libretto for an opera composed by Gregory Spears, about the legacy of slavery in the South, is a testament to her commitment to continue to raise critical questions about issues in our society and to examine these issues through historical, sociological, and psychological lens.
Tracy K. Smith earned a BA in English and American literature and Afro-American studies from Harvard University and an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University. She has taught at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. Smith is currently the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities, and Director of the Creative Writing Program, at Princeton University.
Brenda M. Greene is Chair and Professor of English, Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature and Director of the National Black Writers Conference at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.