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“American Conversations” in Louisiana

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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 Louisiana from December 14-15, 2018. 

Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith reads and discusses poems from American Journal with a small gathering at the United Houma Nation Vocational Rehabilitation Office in Houma, LA. Credit: Kevin Rabalais.

Louisiana was the final stop in the “American Conversations” project in which Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith takes her program to rural America.

We flew into New Orleans but traveled outside this unique American city to places most tourists never venture. One of the most appealing aspects of “American Conversations,” for me, has been the opportunity to meet people I would otherwise not encounter.

Speaking of people I would not otherwise encounter, I met in person for the first time the longtime director of the Louisiana Center for the Book, Jim Davis. The Louisiana center is one of 53 Center for the Book affiliates, and Jim and his colleagues helped the Library of Congress choose the sites to visit and arranged the events. The affiliate Centers for the Book carry out nationally the mission of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress in Washington. The Poetry and Literature Center, which administers the poet laureateship, is part of the Center for the Book.

On Dec. 14, we traveled to Golden Meadow to visit the elders of the Houma Nation. Approximately 17,000 tribal members live within a six-parish area along the state’s southeast coast. One of the members spoke about how coastal erosion has changed their way of life and how the members traverse this territory. According to the tribe’s website: “Although by land and road these communities are distant, they were historically very close by water. However, boat travel is no longer a viable option due to the effects of coastal erosion, which has left these waterways either nonexistent or impassable and in many cases [has resulted in] completely open water that requires larger vessels for safe travel.”

We were honored with a performance of an opening prayer, delivered by Principal Chief August Creppel. He beat on a drum while singing the prayer. It was an unexpected but much appreciated opening to a conversation that was at times hilarious, at times solemn.

Tracy read a poem from American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (Graywolf Press in association with the Library of Congress), an anthology of 50 poems by 50 living American writers, which Tracy edited. “Second Estrangement” by Aracelis Girmay speaks about being a child “lost, in a market / or a mall, without / knowing it at first.”

Tracy often talks about how poems can put us in touch with “our inner conversations.” One of the elders spoke about a recurring dream in which she was a stranger to everyone. It stirred up thoughts in her about how, even today, the Houma are often treated as strangers in their native land.

Then Tracy read “No” by Joy Harjo, herself of Native American descent. The poem concludes: “Yes, the distance was great between your country and mine. / Yet our children played in the path between our houses. // No. We had no quarrel with each other.”

Another of the elders said the poem demonstrated how one’s differences with others are no barrier to a harmonious existence and how she wished everyone could coexist without rancor.

Tracy K. Smith chats with and signs copies of American Journal for audience members at the Jean Lafitte Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center in Thibodaux, LA. Credit: Kevin Rabalais.

That evening the town of Thibodaux welcomed us with a reception before Tracy’s reading. Tracy talked about her motivation for the “American Conversations” project, in which she has traveled to rural America, from Alaska to Louisiana and elsewhere, to learn “what poems say” to people. One man had brought his daughter to the event, part of what he called “a daddy-daughter date night.” Another man said he and his girlfriend had flown in from Tampa, Florida, just to hear Tracy. “She loves poetry, and I wanted her to see the poet laureate.” “This was a complete surprise to me. … A wonderful gift,” said the girlfriend, who is a teacher of poetry. (You can view a video of the event and audience reception here.)

Following the reception, a nearly packed house awaited inside the auditorium of the Wetlands Acadian Cultural Center at the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve on Bayou Lafourche (population 14,500). Jim Davis introduced Tracy, who is not only a great poet but also a great evangelizer for her craft. “Poetry is vital to our lives,” she opened. “So many things today are pulling us in so many different directions. … They pull us out of conversations with our inner voice. … Poetry can take us back. It lets us slow down.”

Her use of the words “slow down” may have been unconscious or intentional, but it was apt, as “The Slowdown” is the title of a new podcast Tracy does every weekday. In fact, the idea for the show surfaced during her pilot trips for “American Conversations” last year. Earlier this week, the show began its broadcast on public radio stations in seven cities, including San Francisco, Honolulu and Charleston, W. Va. American Public Media produces the show in association with the Library of Congress and the Poetry Foundation.

Tracy read from her most recent book, Wade in the Water. I have heard her read this poem several times at various venues in other states, and I never tire of it; it is one of those great poems that offers new meanings each time you hear it or read it: “I Will Tell You the Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It.” Tracy talked about how she wrote it, after reading some Civil War letters from black soldiers trying to claim their rightfully earned pensions. Rather than reflect on the letters themselves, Tracy artfully wove bits and pieces of the letters, preserving the spellings, to create something that is much more powerful than the sum of its parts.

Will you see that the colored men fighting now
are fairly treated. You ought to do this
and do it at once, Not let the thing run along
meet it quickly and manfully. We poor oppressed ones
appeal to you, and ask fair play—

[. . .]

I have nothing more to say
hoping that you will lend a listening ear
to an umble soldier
I will close—

Tracy K. Smith reads and discusses poems from American Journal with a packed room at the South Lafourche Public Library in Cut Off, LA. Credit: Kevin Rabalais.

The next morning we arrived at the final event of this, our final tour with “American Conversations.” We were at the South Lafourche Library in Cut Off (population, 5,600). The library was in a strip shopping center in a repurposed Wal-Mart. The diverse population of the town includes bayou Cajuns, as well as Mexicans and Vietnamese, many of whom work as fishermen and shrimpers.

Kevin Young’s “Crowning,” a poem about the birth of the writer’s child, is one that Tracy often reads from American Journal. Young tells us how the umbilical cord is “still rooting / you to each other, to the other / world, into this afterlife / among us living.”

Everywhere Tracy has read this poem people always comment about this phrase, about the unique way Young refers to our time on earth as an “afterlife,” one that follows life in the womb.

When it was all over, I was somewhat saddened that there would be no more road trips with Tracy, that I would not be meeting more Americans living in places I had never been to, that I would not get to hear how, as prosaic as this may sound, people everywhere mostly have the same needs and the same desires. This once-in-a-lifetime experience is something I will never forget.

Learn more about Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s visit to Louisiana on the “American Conversations” website, where we’ve just added audio interviews, reflections, and a photo gallery.