Today is a landmark day for the laureateship and the library. Tracy K. Smith’s show “The Slowdown,” a podcast launched last November, is now a radio show broadcast around the country! Here’s a press release with some stations that have picked up the show—check your local NPR station to see if they’ve opted to offer a bit of poetry every weekday.
Last week, I had the opportunity to see “The Slowdown” in action—in my hometown. Tracy and I met up with producer Jennifer Lai at the “Marketplace” studios in midtown Manhattan, and in a bit over three hours Tracy recorded three week’s worth of “Slowdown” shows. The studio seemed deluxe, with fancy mics and a terrifically soundproofed studio. Jennifer and I sat in the control room, chock-a-block with monitors and consoles and mixers. And Tracy went to work, reading scripts she’d written and passed by Jennifer and MPR producer Tracy Mumford for edits.
I loved seeing the dynamic between Tracy and Jennifer. Most of the recordings went smoothly in the first take, though small segments needed to be re-recorded—I marveled at how Jennifer could tell what word or phrase might sound a bit better in a second take. There were a few on-the-fly edits by Tracy, and a few moments when a poem’s syntax or lineation proved tricky to read. Jennifer handled such moments with great ease, as did our laureate—even in those moments when both had to worry a particular phrase into shape.
Though three hours of recording is a taxing task, I could’ve sat all day and listened to Tracy read poems—and the 15 she’d selected for the recording session were as dynamic and varied, and as moving, as I could’ve imagined. One particular poem caused me to gasp at the last line; another surprised me for its social justice bent, given Tracy’s intro (she chose to focus on a particular aspect of the poem’s power, and left the rest for us to experience in her reading). So many of the poems started with the everyday—with our ordinary desires and hopes, vices and frustrations—and all argued for a radical empathy. Tracy’s comments found a way to weave in her own story, as well as touch upon our shared stories (be they literary, cultural, or historic).
You might wonder why I’m not naming the poems! Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil your surprise at discovering them. I know you will be as excited as I was, to hear the start of each “Slowdown” episode and wonder: what poem will Tracy end with, and how will she get there? What will it tell me about my life, and how will I feel afterwards? What might I understand differently, or re-imagine for myself—or what might I simply notice wherever I am at that moment, after the poem has shifted reality a bit?