The following guest post is by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer in the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress. This post accompanies online content just added to the “American Conversations” website for Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s visit to South Dakota from October 5-6, 2018.
For my second “American Conversations” trip with Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, something struck me that I had not considered before. Living in Washington, D.C., one quite understandably becomes attached to the built landscape, such as the U.S. Capitol, the monuments, and the Greek- and Roman-inspired architecture of many of the federal buildings—emblematic of American democracy.
But in the Black Hills of South Dakota, there is more love for the “natural architecture,” what was there (and still is) before anyone touched it: the mountains that look unlike any of those in the Eastern United States, the colors of the trees in autumn (mostly a brilliant yellow, no reds or oranges) and the big, open sky because the population is so sparse. Tracy came to this beautiful place as part of her journey to bring poetry to rural America, and the people we met talked of being ineluctably tied to the land. One story stands out: A woman said that, when she drove her son back from college and they crossed the state line, he asked her to stop the car so he could kiss the ground.
Our first stop in South Dakota was a gathering of members of the “Silver Sneakers” exercise group at the Area Community Center in Belle Fourche (population 5,500). Belle Fourche is about 20 miles southwest of the geographic center of the 50 states. Approximately 25 members of the group showed up after completing their morning workout. A young mother homeschooling her three children also came, and a group of older men who met for coffee every morning (and, according to them, solved all the world’s problems!) joined in.
As she has done throughout her “American Conversations” visits, Tracy began by reading a few of her poems and then from her poetry anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for our Time (published in association with the Library of Congress for her project). Everyone who attends one of these events receives a copy of the book. When Tracy turned to the anthology and “Second Estrangement” by Aracelis Girmay, she asked to borrow some reading glasses—and one of the men to her left provided. After reading the poem Tracy, as always, asks people for their impressions. People were hesitant to speak up, so she asked someone in the audience to read the poem again—then came a flood of comments. The poem talks about being lost in a market or a mall. Someone quipped that “It’s hard to get lost on Main Street in Belle Fourche.” Afterward I thanked the mother for bringing her children, and she stated with great certainty, “The opportunity was amazing. We have to grasp these things when we find them.”
The next day brought us to Spearfish (population 11,600) and the beautiful historic Matthews Opera House, a 45-minute drive from Rapid, as the locals call it. Built in 1906, the opera house is a grand Victorian structure. More than 100 townspeople of all ages (even a small child, with parents in tow) showed up to hear Tracy. Their enthusiasm and responsiveness were immediately apparent. No prodding or long silences from this crowd after Tracy read a poem from the anthology.
One of the poems was “Crowning” by Kevin Young, about the birth of a child as witnessed by the father. A man in the audience told about how he had never had that experience when his children were born because involving fathers just wasn’t done “in those days.” Several audience members focused on the unusual use of the word “afterlife,” which in this poem describes not a place where one goes after dying, but the experience of living after “living” inside the womb.
The next morning, we drove to Sturgis, motorcycle capital of the world. Every year, more than 500,000 cyclists descend on the small town (population nearly 6,000) for the annual rally, which was first held in 1938. The modern Sturgis Public Library, with its large windows offering exquisite views of the Black Hills, hosted an audience of about 80. At this event, Tracy read and discussed some new poems, including Jan Beatty’s “Sister as Moving Object.” It’s about two girls growing up, one with her “pink-pink-caked-on lipstick tight pants teased-up Ann-Margret hair.” The one with the big hair has “everything I wanted,” says the sister narrator. Sibling rivalry is a subject that many in the audience related to—it’s a universal theme, and at every event Tracy talked about how poems take on such themes. She also emphasized the multiple ways of responding to a poem—no “right” or “wrong,” only what you notice—and said audiences don’t have to understand a poem’s every line to appreciate it.
Later that day I thought about Steve Scafidi’s “For the Last American Buffalo”—the last poem in Tracy’s American Journal anthology, which she read at Belle Fourche. In the poem, the narrator dreams about a buffalo moving “heavy thick and dark.” It was a dream of Tracy’s to see a buffalo during the trip, and after the Sturgis event a friendly attendee even started to arrange something for us—but by then we’d run out of time. As we drove to the airport, I thought of how important a symbol the buffalo is, especially in a place like South Dakota, and this city boy came to understand why that young man kissed the ground as he returned home.
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.