An Explorer of the Universe

Pulitzer Prize Winning Tracy K. Smith Visits NCC

by Myra Saturen,

"The universe is expanding.  Look: postcards
And panties, bottles with lipstick on the rim,
Orphan socks and napkins dried into knots..."  

So begins "The Universe is a House Party" from the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith, this year's Northampton Community CollegeTracy K. Smith at NCC poet-in-residence.  Smith read from her work and discussed her views on poetry at both the Bethlehem and Monroe campuses of the College on March 10.   

Family life and science fiction illuminate her writing.  Like her late father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Space telescope, she is an explorer of the universe, asking questions about life arising from her personal experience and her hunger to shed light leading to further knowledge.   

In "Interrogative," a poem in memory of her mother, Smith imagines talking with her parent at an "oak table, knotted legs, the chirp and scrapes of tines to mouth."  She pictures her mother's long hands "twirling a bent straw," and invites her to share a cup of tea "slowly, like sisters."    

A house "wheezes in winter" and a foster mother's hands "squeak in yellow gloves" heard by a lonesome boy taken from his family's home as part of the forced relocation of Native American children to non-Indian homes, a practice of the United States government as recently as the 1980s.  In Museum of Obsolescence, Smith pictures the earth as an old and abandoned planet, in "maps of fizzled stars" recounted in books.     

Since childhood, Smith has loved poetry, later studying with Seamus Heaney, her favorite poet.  Born in Massachusetts and raised in northern California, she earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a master's degree in fine arts from Columbia University.  She was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University from 1997-1999.  She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 poetry collection Life on Mars.  

In addition to Life on Mars, Smith is the author of two other poetry collections: The Body's Question and Duende. In addition to the Pulitzer, she has received the  Cave Canem Prize, the James Laughlin Award, the Essence Literary Award, and the Academy of American Poets Fellowship, to name a few.  Her book Ordinary Light: A Memoir, was a National Book Awards finalist for nonfiction in 2015.  She teaches poetry and creative writing at Princeton University.   

After her reading, Smith devoted generous time to answering questions about her art.  Although she is too busy to write every day, she does not wait for inspiration to strike; she sits down to write intentionally, works on a poem, puts it away and takes it out again, searching for more effective metaphors and sounds.  Often, sounds inspire a metaphor.  Her overall goal is to "move a poem from gesture to something that feels useful."   

What advice does Smith offer aspiring poets?  "Read as much as you can.  Don't shut your imagination down, but rather find a place to let yourself say what you need to say.  Ask yourself questions that take you to exciting places."   

She believes that a good poem can put rigor into language and can surprise both the poet and the reader.  "You have to be attentive and listening" to write and read poetry she said, since verse demands concentration.   

NCC's annual poetry day is an NCC tradition begun by the poet and beloved professor Len Roberts, thirty-five years ago, to give students a chance to hear work spoken by the poets as they themselves heard it.  Roberts was the author of numerous collections of poetry, a translator, and the recipient of many literary and teaching awards including Fulbright scholarships.  He passed away in 2007.  In introducing Smith, Professor of English James Von Schilling noted the similarities between Roberts and Smith. Like Roberts did, Smith both writes and teaches poetry.  "Their poems are confessional, written from the heart," he said.  Additionally, she and Roberts translated poetry into English from other languages: Roberts from Hungarian and Smith from Mandarin Chinese.   

Smith is NCC's fourth Pulitzer Prize-winning poet-in-residence, joining W.D. Snodgrass, Philip Levine and Sharon Olds.  Today's events were sponsored by the College Life committee and the NCC/NEH Challenge Grant.