I Can’t Wait to Slow Down: Looking Forward to Tracy K. Smith on the Air

The following guest post is by Jeff Shotts, executive editor at Graywolf Press, publisher in association with the Library of Congress of the anthology “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time” by U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Tracy K. Smith. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Regular, daily poetry programming on the airwaves has not only been saved, it’s been revitalized. American Public Media, the Library of Congress and the Poetry Foundation recently announced a new program: “The Slowdown” with Tracy K. Smith, a weekday podcast debuting on November 26 and a radio broadcast beginning in January. “The Slowdown” will be a five-minute show that will include Tracy reading poems and offering a daily opportunity to listen and to participate by thinking deeply about what a poem can offer us and can open us to.

This is no small thing. We have not had regular, daily poetry programming broadcast from public radio nationally for more than a year, and to lose that major platform for poetry would have been a substantial loss for bringing us together, hearing poetry aloud, building new audiences and making apparent to the larger culture what many of us know—that poetry is as necessary and alive as it has ever been. Poetry is made to be spoken aloud, and like music, it is an art form suited for broadcast and for the kind of amplification that radio as a medium provides. It feels like an essential component of the overall vitality of poetry in our larger culture for it to be made available daily on national airwaves.

What might be in store for us in “The Slowdown” as we listen and tune in? The vision and the voice belong to Tracy K. Smith. We know from her four collections of poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Life on Mars” and most recently “Wade in the Water,” that her imagination roves to the far side of the universe and back earthward to the plaintive voices of Civil War veterans and old spirituals that contain a map inside their choral arrangements. For all the vastness across Tracy’s poetry, and the many various registers of her voice, the intimacy made possible by her work feels palpable to what we will hear in “The Slowdown.” Tracy’s poems collapse distances—whether they be distances of time or space—and I think that is what listeners will experience in Tracy’s voice and in what she reads.

From the announcement preview of “The Slowdown,” we already get Tracy’s signature personality as host, and it’s tantalizing to hear her wonderful reading of Steve Scafidi’s “For the Last American Buffalo” and think what other selections are in store. That poem is the final piece in Tracy’s landmark anthology, just published by Graywolf Press in association with the Library of Congress, titled “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time.”

This book is a brilliant showcase of contemporary poetry, and so elegantly conceived and arranged, and it may well give us an idea of some of the other poems that Tracy may feature on “The Slowdown” as it gets started. The chorus of voices presented in “American Journal” feels like an essential component of what Tracy is preparing—a multiplicity of experiences and not merely a singular one. In that way, I think we can expect a daily show that is deeply engaging, far-reaching in scope while being voiced seemingly right beside us, and it will be as tuned into the news of our time as much as it will also be a reprieve. I can’t wait to slow down.

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