The following post is by Ryan Woodard, communications consultant for the South Dakota Humanities Council. This post originally appeared on the South Dakota Humanities Council blog following Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s “American Conversations” visit to South Dakota from October 5-6, 2018.
According to legendary playwright/poet Oscar Wilde, memory is “the diary that we all carry about with us.”
Using that line of thinking, one could assume that the collective consciousness of a roomful of people in a small-town library probably contains enough unwritten pages to fill the shelves with books. And, with poetry being a subjective form of creative expression, an infinitely multifaceted art that teaches the poet as the poet teaches readers, one could also assume that a poetry audience would have many perspectives to offer.
With that in mind, it’s no surprise that when U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith visited the Black Hills Oct. 5-6 to read and discuss poetry with mostly rural South Dakotans, she broadened her knowledge considerably.
That was the way she planned it.
Conversational Style Leads to Engaged Discussion
Smith, who spoke in Belle Fourche, Spearfish and Sturgis as part of her “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities” project, ensured that each event was truly a “conversation” instead of a lecture.
Eager to learn about the attendees, she spent nearly as much time asking and answering questions as she did reading poems, orchestrating a dual “reading.” While Smith read aloud, others leafed silently through their minds’ diaries and then told her, after each poem was finished, what they had found.
For example, during her reading at the Sturgis Public Library, Smith read a poem about childhood that elicited an emotional anecdote from an audience member whose parent had battled dementia.
In an interview after the Sturgis reading, Smith reflected on that meaningful moment from the morning session and talked about the connections she made with audience members throughout the two days of events.
She said the group’s reaction to the childhood poem was a perfect example of how poems can elicit a wide range of responses, and how a poet learns from such intimate conversations with audiences.
“So, a poem about childhood can mean so many different things, depending on what the perspectives of the readers are,” she said. “And we heard that today.”
“And many people had experienced that in their own childhoods, and other people said, ‘this reminds me of having a loved one at the end of life who is experiencing dementia who doesn’t recognize me anymore.’ And there were other perspectives that were really surprising to me and that enlarged the poem for me. That’s exciting to see.”
Memorable Responses from Audience Members
Smith’s presentations in the Black Hills drew memorable responses, both from aspiring poets and from people who merely had stories to tell. They also drew large crowds, as she nearly filled the Matthews Opera House on Friday, and extra chairs were needed to accommodate her large audience on Saturday morning in Sturgis (the event in Belle Fourche was private).
“American Conversations,” which Smith brought to the Black Hills along with representatives from the Library of Congress, is her second-term project as the nation’s poet laureate for 2018-2019. A former Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University who teaches creative writing at Princeton University, Smith set out with the intention of reaching primarily rural audiences.
She’s also touring four different states to premier the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time. Those who attended the Black Hills events received free copies of the book, signed upon request.
Poetry: ‘A Vocabulary for Who We Are’
“It’s been wonderful to take the conversation that poetry fosters to places that I don’t usually go to as a writer,” Smith said. “I’m usually invited to cities and college campuses and I know there’s more to America than that, so it’s been really lovely to see different landscapes and get to enter different communities like we did today.”
As someone who loves the “profound kind of conversation” that comes from poetry’s ability to “speak to our deep feelings, love and loss and family, memory,” Smith was elated by the enthusiastic and meaningful responses she elicited during the Northern Hills events.
“It makes me really happy and hopeful,” she said. “I feel like poetry is so important. I feel like it gives us a vocabulary for who we are, what we belong to as people, as humans, and it urges us to stop and listen and think about others and think about the unspoken feelings that one lives with as a person. It makes me really excited to see a room full of people who are interested in doing that together.”
While she chose rural America for “American Conversations” so she could reach new audiences, her main goal is to reach people, period. With words. Smith believes “profound” conversation is desperately needed in our divided nation, which interacts largely through faceless mediums like Facebook and Twitter.
“This project came about out of curiosity, but it also came about because we live in a moment where we’re being reminded in so many different ways how divided this nation is,” she said. “And I wanted to believe that there are ways that people can speak to and listen to one another that are supportive and inspiring and helpful, no matter who they are.”
Poetry has been her vehicle to prove that even among strangers, civil conversations are still very possible. “I can come from where I live to where you live—we have very little ostensibly in common —but yet we know each other,” she says. “And we’ve lived full rich lives and we’re curious about each other. And I think that’s really important.”
About Tracy K. Smith
Smith is the author of four books of poetry published by Graywolf Press, including Wade in the Water in April 2018; Life on Mars (2011), winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; Duende (2007), winner of the 2006 James Laughlin Award and the 2008 Essence Literary Award; and The Body’s Question (2003), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith is also the author of a memoir, Ordinary Light (2015), a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in nonfiction.
She’s also launching a new daily podcast (Nov. 26) and upcoming radio show (Jan. 14) called “The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith.”
The episodes can be found at https://www.apmpodcasts.org/slowdown/ or via your favorite podcast app.
Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, in 1972 and raised in Fairfield, California, Smith earned a B.A. in English and American literature and Afro-American studies from Harvard University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University. From 1997 to 1999, she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. Smith has taught at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, at the University of Pittsburgh and at Columbia University. She is currently the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities and director of the creative writing program at Princeton University.
About the Poet Laureate Position
The Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center is the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1937 when Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library. Since then, many of the nation’s most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage of Public Law 99-194 (Dec. 20, 1985), as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry – a position which the law states “is equivalent to that of Poet Laureate of the United States.”
During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. For more information on the Poet Laureate, visit loc.gov/poetry/laureate.html.
Congress created the Library’s Center for the Book in 1977 to stimulate public interest in books and reading. It has become a national force for reading and literacy promotion with affiliates in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The affiliates meet every spring at the Library of Congress to exchange ideas. For more information, visit read.gov.
Learn more about Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s visit to South Dakota on the “American Conversations” website, where we’ve just added audio interviews, reflections, and a photo gallery.