Tracy K. Smith (born April 16, 1972) is an American poet and educator. She has published three collections of poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize for a 2011 collection, Life on Mars. About this collection, Joel Brouwer wrote in 2011: "Smith shows herself to be a poet of extraordinary range and ambition. ... As all the best poetry does, Life on Mars first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled."
Life and career
Smith is a native of Falmouth, Massachusetts. She was raised in northern California in a family with "deep roots" in Alabama. She received her A.B. from Harvard University in 1994, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia University in 1997. From 1997 to 1999 she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. She has taught at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. In 2005 she joined the faculty of Princeton University, where she is professor of creative writing.
In his review of Life on Mars, Troy Jollimore selects Smith's poem "My god, it's full of stars" as particularly strong, "making use of images from science and science fiction to articulate human desire and grief, as the speaker allows herself to imagine the universe:"
- ... sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
- Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
- So that I might be sitting now beside my father
- As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
- For the first time in the winter of 1959.
- Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
- That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
- When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
- Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
- Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding,
Dan Chiasson writes of another aspect of the collection, "The issues of power and paternalism suggest the deep ways in which this is a book about race. Smith’s deadpan title is itself racially freighted: we can’t think about one set of fifties images, of Martians and sci-fi comics, without conjuring another, of black kids in the segregated South. Those two image files are situated uncannily close to each other in the cultural cortex, but it took this book to connect them."
About "The Body's Question" Lucie Brock-Broido writes, "How delightful it is to fall under the lucid and quite more than lovely spell of Tracy K. Smith's debut collection. Smith's work is deceptively plainspoken, but these are poems that are powerfully wrought, inspiring in all the clarity of their many gospel truths. 'The Body's Question' announces a remarkable new voice, brilliantly bundled, ingeniously belted down."
Yusef Komunyakaa writes, "'The Body's Question' is an answer to pure passion, but the beauty is that the brain isn't divorced from the body. The strength of character in these marvelous poems delights and questions. Here's a voice that can weave beauty and terror into one breath, and the unguarded revelations are never verbal striptease."
"Tracy Smith speaks many different languages. Besides the Spanish that graces the 'Gospels' of her book's opening section, Smith also seems perfectly at home speaking of grief and loss, of lust and hunger, of joy and desire, which here often means the desire for desire, and a desire for language itself....She seems to speak in tongues, to speak about that thing even beyond language, answering 'The Body's Question' of her title." said Kevin Young.
About her second book, "Duende", Elizabeth Alexander writes, "Tracy K. Smith synthesizes the riches of many discursive and poetic traditions without regard to doctrine and with great technical rigor. Her poems are mysterious but utterly lucid and write a history that is sub-rosa yet fully within her vision. They are deeply satisfying and necessarily inconclusive. And they are pristinely beautiful without ever being precious. Writers and musicians have explored the concept of duende, which might in English translate to a kind of existential blues. Smith is not interested in sadness, per se. Rather, in the strange music of these poems I think Smith is trying to walk us close to the edge of death-in-life, the force of hovering death in both the personal and social realms, admitting its inevitability and sometimes-proximity, and understand its manifestations in quotidian acts. This dark force is nonetheless a life force, which, in the poem 'Flores Woman,' concludes 'Like a dark star. I want to last' If 'Duende' were wine, it would certainly be red; if edible, it would be meat cooked rare, coffee taken black, stinky cheese, bittersweet chocolate. Tracy K. Smith's music is wholly her own, and 'Duende' is a dolorous, beautiful book."
Her book “Ordinary Light: A Memoir,” about race, faith and the dawning of her poetic vocation, was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015.
- The Body’s Question. Graywolf Press. 2003. ISBN 978-1-55597-391-9.
- Duende. Graywolf Press. 2007. ISBN 978-1-55597-475-6.
- Life on Mars. Graywolf Press. 2011. ISBN 978-1-55597-584-5.
- Ordinary Light. Knopf. 2015. ISBN 978-0-30796-266-9.
- Poems, Poets, Poetry
- Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook
- State of the Union: 50 Political Poems
- When She Named Fire
- Efforts and Affection: Women Poets on Mentorship
- The McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets
- Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century
- The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry
- Gathering Ground : A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade
- Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website
- Poetry 30: Thirty-Something Thirty-Something American Poets
- H.L. Hix, ed. (2008). New Voices: Contemporary Poetry from the United States. Irish Pages. ISBN 978-0-9544257-9-1.
Awards, grants, fellowships
- Grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation.
- Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
- Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award.
- Cave Canem Prize (2002) for the The Body's Question. This award honors the best first book by an African-American poet; Smith's book was chosen by Kevin Young.
- Whiting Award in 2005 for poetry. This award is for emerging writers.
- James Laughlin Award in 2006 for Duende. This award from the Academy of American Poets honors the best second volume of a poet published in the US.
- Essence Magazine's Literary Award in 2008 for Duende. The award honors the best African-American literature.
- Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in 2010. Hans Magnus Enzensberger became Smith's mentor for one year as part of this program; their experience working together was described in a short article by Philip Dodd.
- Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2012 for Life on Mars (Graywolf Press), "a collection of bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain."
- Academy Fellowship in 2014 given by the Academy of American Poets to recognize distinguished poetic achievement.
- 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction shortlist for Ordinary Light