At the end of this month, Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith will kick off her second-year project, “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities,” with visits to communities around the state of Alaska. In the coming months, coordinated with Center for the Book state affiliates, she’ll also travel to rural communities in South Dakota, Maine, and Louisiana to engage Americans in conversations about poetry.
Tracy has described the project as “a way of building a bridge between people in cities and university towns, where poetry festivals and reading series are quite common, and those in rural parts of the United States, where such programming doesn’t often reach,” and that, for her, “talking about poems might be a way of leaping past small-talk and collapsing the distance between strangers.” She took trips last spring to New Mexico, South Carolina, and Kentucky as part of a pilot project, and this year’s trips bring her further south as well as to the Northeast, Northwest, and Midwest.
To coincide with her “American Conversations” visits, Tracy K. Smith is also unveiling a new poetry anthology featuring the work of 50 living American poets. American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (published jointly by the Library of Congress and Graywolf Press and released on September 4) takes its title from a poem by Robert Hayden, the first African American appointed as poet laureate. ”These fifty poems—culled from living American poets of different ages, backgrounds and aesthetic approaches, and with different views of what it feels like to be alive—welcome you to listen and be surprised, amused, consoled,” Tracy wrote in the anthology’s introduction. “There’s something else these fifty poems are up to. As the title ‘American Journal’ suggests, they are contemplating what it feels like to live, work, love, strive, raise a family, and survive many kinds of loss in this vast and varied nation.” The poet laureate will read from the anthology and give away copies during her rural travels this year.
Make sure to follow along with Tracy K. Smith as she chronicles her conversations, experiences, and reflections from the road on the newly launched “American Conversations” website. Look out for upcoming visit dates—the public event schedule for Alaska is online now!—as well as photos, audio recordings, interviews, poetry commentary, and reflections from her travels in each state. Later this fall, we’ll launch a podcast series featuring Tracy’s spring pilot trips to New Mexico, South Carolina, and Kentucky.