“The Way Language Can Become a Living Thing”: Tracy K. Smith’s Extraordinary Light
March 11, 2016, by Doni Wilson
I walked all over Rice University before heading to Tracy K. Smith’s reading for the Inprint Margarett Root Brown Reading Series last Monday. I was excited: it was perfect weather—clouds but not raining, warm but not hot, cool but not cold. The light was starting to dim. So what do you do about this—inner or outer weather? Prose or poetry? Luckily, Smith does both.
Rice University President David Leebron did some introductions, reminding those of us sitting in the audience that it was the last day of Black History Month, and the ninetieth anniversary of that tradition. It was also the fiftieth anniversary of the first African-American undergraduates attending Rice. Smith herself is interested in the intersections between the undergraduate experience and race, and read from her lyric and moving memoir, Ordinary Light, in which part of her narrative concentrates on how she felt as an undergraduate while taking courses that made her profoundly consider what “African-American Studies” meant not just in a course catalogue, but in her negotiations with others (including a white boyfriend who rejected her and broke her heart),and, most importantly, with herself. Her memoir was a National Book Award finalist—and one can see why: she explores in her juxtapositions of memory, epiphany, and speculation what her parents (particularly her mother) might have felt and experienced. Much of this is connected to her mother’s struggles with cancer while Smith was in her twenties—in which she was both “changed and consoled.” This was one of the challenges that allows Smith to intersect thoughts regarding race, family relationships, education, faith, and religion all in the context of a coming of age narrative that makes the reader feel like they are completely in the author’s head, with very little authorial distance employed—a technique that makes the reader trust Smith from sentence to shining sentence, although the light hardly seems “ordinary,” but clear and illuminating in a memorable and engaging way.
Although Smith spent the majority of the reading on her memoir, I was pleased that at the end of the question and answer with Rice professor and poet Paul Otremba that she read a brief excerpt from her 2012 Pulitzer-Prize winning poetry collection, Life on Mars. As she read from it, I was reminded of three details that Inprint Executive Director Rich Levy mentioned to all of us before the reading: 1) her love of David Bowie, and how Smith was “obsessed” with Ziggy Stardust’s imaginative powers, 2) her role as National Public Radio’s first “News Poet”—creating verse out of the happenings of the moment, and 3) her mother’s illness with cancer, and how one of the things Smith was to cook for her. As Smith read the lines “You stepped out of the body. /Unzipped it like a coat. /And will it drag you back/As flesh, voice, scent?” I realized how distance in time and space, death and growth, as well as being dragged back through memory and the act of art make all of her poems “news poems”—it’s just that sometimes the news is more personal. Both her poems and her prose take the rather mundane, conflicted, or disappointing experience, and remind us they can be elevated into the lyrical moment—and one worth remembering. The lines she read were written while she was pregnant—and often, her poems are as much imaginative renditions of anticipation as much as a backward glance.
When Smith told the audience that she wanted “to recreate a sense of the family I came from,” her excerpts certainly showed her talent for doing so. We can picture them. And whether it be her mother Kathleen, or her college-aged former self, identity is always at the forefront of her musings. When Smith came to Cambridge for college, she tells us she was “eager for small freedoms,” and it is not lost on the hearer that those are still quite a step away from her upbringing, but also emblematic of larger, sometimes unspoken, American freedoms. Her “goody-goody” girlhood is replaced by political consciousness, African-American writers like Ellison, and romantic love—experiences in which she was “in defiance of I’m still not sure what.” When she says. “I had gone militant,” she blames/praises literature, confessing that “listening to a protagonist” is often easier than listening “to a person.”
Smith’s education at Harvard and Columbia is impressive, and now she is a professor of creative writing at Princeton. But what struck me about her reading was how utterly accessible she was, and how clear and unpretentious her prose sounded–it was refreshing. She is interested, as she explained to Otremba in their conversation, in “the way language can become a living thing”—understood, experienced, and remembered, maybe even long after the pages have been turned.
My favorite parts? When Smith would say a statement that seemed so simple, but clearly wasn’t, as in her mentioning of Phyllis Wheatley’s poems, that would be so politically incorrect now, but seemed sincere at the time. Smith asks us to consider that they are “equal parts true and untrue”—not a bad definition for art. And this: someone tells her that “she can be black without going overboard about it.” And then she wonders: “how does one go overboard being white?” Her treatments of race, invisibility, love—they are different not so much because of the content, but in the delivery: when rejected, she describes herself as “no longer anyone’s urgent destination.” And longing or despair? Part of the larger trajectory of “the insatiable wondering” that enters all of our imaginations regardless of our circumstances from time to time. I loved it when she described poetry as “advertising its artifice so much” (True!) and “the bureaucracy of memory” (Yes!) and writers are mostly “talking to themselves” (Lucky us.)
The Inprint Book Club will discuss Tracy K. Smith’s Ordinary Light at 4 pm on Sunday, March 13, at Inprint House, free and open to the public. .