By Jeanette Beebe
On a windy night in September, Tracy K. Smith — cloaked in an elegant gray frock that was wrapped in a mysteriously tidy way, as if by magic — was the picture of a professor. A sea of eager undergraduates set their phones to “silent” and tucked their pea coats, book bags and pumpkin spice lattes under their seats. Alone in the front row, Smith sat quietly, listened intently. And then, as if lit by a lamp from within, she warmed up, smiled and walked to the podium.
Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, memoirist, and professor of creative writing at Princeton University, had been invited to be the keynote speaker for the Princeton University Women’s Mentorship Program’s annual kick-off event. Under the gothic chandeliers of Mathey College’s Common Room, Smith unfolded her notes and began.
“In my first years as a teacher,” Smith said from the podium, “I wanted to feel solidarity with my students. So, I completed the assignments I gave them. I wrote what they wrote.”
Listening in the audience, I smiled. As a Princeton alumna (Class of 2014) and a certificate student in the Creative Writing Program, I took MFA-style poetry workshops with Susan Wheeler, Paul Muldoon, the late C.K. Williams, and also with Smith, who I saw as a mentor—I’ve known her for years, since our first workshop together in spring 2007.
This academic year may be her biggest challenge yet. In July, Smith was named director of the Program in Creative Writing at Princeton University’s Lewis Center of the Arts. Smith succeeds poet and novelist Wheeler, who directed the program for four years. Wheeler’s predecessor was Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Irish poet who directed the program from 1993 to 2011.
Centered in the stately hall, Smith spoke about her journey as an African-American poet from the suburbs of Northern California, earning an A.B. at Harvard, then an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at Columbia, then a two-year Stegner Fellowship at Stanford. In 2005, she joined the Creative Writing program at Princeton.
Although praise can be a motivating force, Smith told students, it shouldn’t be what drives them. Success isn’t achieved through accolades, prestige or awards, she said. “It’s not about the stars next to my name,” she chuckled.
Smith certainly is surrounded by stars—a galaxy of them, even. Professors and lecturers at the Lewis Center of the Arts include some of the best known writers of our time: Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey Eugenides, Chang-rae Lee, Jhumpa Lahiri, John McPhee, Edmund White. The program is regularly augmented by a rotation of visiting lecturers that has included Ben Lerner, Sarah Manguso, Claire Vaye Watkins and Maaza Mengiste.
Shining among them is Smith, whose most recent book of poems, Life on Mars, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She began writing the manuscript while pregnant with her daughter (now five), and imagined the book as a series of poems that experimented with the language and themes of sci-fi (with David Bowie thrown in just because). Life on Mars evolved into an elegy for her father, a former Hubble engineer, when he died suddenly.
Smith’s first collection of poems, The Body’s Question, was awarded the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet. Duende, her second book of poems, won the 2005 Whiting Writers’ Award and the 2007 James Laughlin Award. In 2014, Smith was awarded an Academy of American Poets fellowship.
In her signature lilt — a musical, purposeful voice that commands listening—Smith read an excerpt of prose. She chose a chapter from her most recent book: a memoir, Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015).
Smith recalled feeling “beckoned to the genre” of prose for years, but didn’t dive in until she was chosen to participate in the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, which offered her the opportunity to study with Hans Magnus Enzensberger, a veteran German poet.
The result of that mentorship is Ordinary Light, a memoir that recalls Smith’s life through age 22. It is also a touching elegy for her mother, a religious, whip-smart and secretly playful Alabama-born woman who died of cancer soon after Smith graduated from Harvard.
Smith worked with Enzensberger for a year and a half, exchanging drafts in Europe and over email. She started creating scenes, chunking text into paragraphs, extending the poetic line she had long crafted — and, she admits, hidden behind because she was “afraid of that history” — her mother’s roots in rural Alabama, a heritage of racial injustice that she said “hurt me to think about, and was painful to acknowledge.”
In prose, Smith found herself learning how to say things that somehow she wasn’t able to say in her poetry: to confront issues of race, faith, grief, pain, regret. She pushed through, ultimately finishing the project because she felt motivated by her daughter, Naomi. “I wanted her to know my mother,” Smith said.
Smith cites the poet Lucie Brock-Broido as a mentor who has had a formative and lasting impact on her career. She met Brock-Broido as an undergraduate at Harvard, and then sought her out as an advisor for her M.F.A. thesis at Columbia University. “Lucie knew how to make her students feel important,” Smith said.
As a student in Princeton’s Creative Writing Program, I’ve felt precisely the same way about my teachers. In fall of 2013, Smith and I worked one-on-one on my own thesis: a book-length manuscript of poems I wrote my senior year to complete my certificate in creative writing.
She had taken time away from Princeton for the birth of her twin sons, Sterling and Atticus. She stepped back into academia, slowly at first, for the fall term. Rather than leading an introductory or advanced poetry workshop for undergraduates, as she does most semesters, Smith served as an advisor for my thesis, An Instrument for Blinking, and finished drafts of her memoir, Ordinary Light.
We met roughly every other Friday at her home in Brooklyn. I would take the train from campus to Penn Station in New York, walk a few blocks to Herald Square, and then take F train to the Bergen stop in Cobble Hill, a neighborhood in Brooklyn.
With pastries and bagels on the living room table under the watchful eye of her giant, mischievous dog, Shaba, Smith answered my questions and discussed drafts of my poetry.
Her newborn twin boys slept in the nursery while we worked in the living room. Remarkably, they usually slept peacefully. Once, we walked to the park while the twins napped in the stroller. We later met at a local coffee shop, her favorite—which became mine.
That autumn, I knew that while I jotted bits of poems and ideas with Sharpie pens onto napkins, Smith was writing, too. She preferred to type on the screen, rather than write on the page. We talked about the differences then, between poems and stories, verse and memoir. We talked about how the line works in a poem, how it gathers up meaning and sense and rolls right on through, and how a poem doesn’t have to be short to be crafted well, doesn’t have to be coy or clever or leave you wanting more in order to be something worth reading or listening to.
After one of our meetings, I took a long, winding walk through Cobble Hill, stopped at the local coffee shop, and had the best bagel of my life a few blocks away. Then, I stepped down into the subway, onto an F train car, looked up and saw to my surprise not an advertisement behind shiny protective plastic, but rather, a poem. Next to my seat hung a “Poetry in Motion” poster, published by the New York City MTA’s Arts for Transit initiative in conjunction with the Poetry Society of America. Printed below “Heydays,” a painting by Amy Bennett, was a poem: “The Good Life.” The poet? Tracy K. Smith.
“The Good Life” is a riddle wrapped in a poem. The voice is clear, the images vivid. You can feel the things that the poem describes: the milk, the coffee, the bread, the roast chicken, the red wine. The words are simple, so the poem seems straightforward. But it’s not.
The title begs the question: what is “the good life”? And who’s living it? Does it belong to “everyone else” who has money, who enjoys “roast chicken and red wine”? Or does it belong to those people who are left with nothing, who “talk about money” as if it were something that could just walk out the door? The poem doesn’t exactly answer these questions.
What’s clear to me is that the speaker feels “nostalgic” for the past, when she felt “hungry all the time.” What was she hungry for? For chicken and wine, but also, for the the experience of “walking to work on payday/Like a woman journeying for water/From a village without a well.” She misses the journey, the climb, the struggle. She is nostalgic for the feeling of having something to work for, because when she “lived on coffee and bread,” the ache to get ahead, was visceral. It was a hunger, a thirst.
For Smith, perhaps “the good life” is that feeling of “being hungry all the time.”
The speaker of the poem might be “nostalgic” for a reason: at this point in her career, Smith is running out of things to feel hungry for. Yet as a writer, poet, and teacher, she’s not the type to just sit at the table, feeling full.
Smith has taught at Princeton since 2005, but it wasn’t until last summer that she made the big decision to move from Brooklyn to Princeton with her family.
She admits that the move was less a choice than a logistical inevitability. After she gave birth to twins, she and her husband, Raphael “Raf” Allison, suddenly found themselves outnumbered by children. “Life in the city was more complicated than ever before,” she says.
Allison is now a lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, where he teaches a seminar on “Subcultures.” His study of poetry readings in the 1960s, Bodies on the Line, was published last year by the University of Iowa Press. The couple has a daughter, Naomi, is in kindergarten, and their twin boys, Sterling and Atticus, will start preschool next year.
“We became conscious of how it might be nice for the kids to have quiet, more space, and fewer impediments to being kids the way Raf and I remembered being kids,” she says.
But for years, she commuted from the city. “Brooklyn was my home for nearly 20 years. I feel like I came of age as a writer there,” she says.
For many writers and artists who teach at Princeton, that lifestyle makes sense. More than half of the permanent faculty members live in Princeton, Smith says, while most of the visiting faculty members—many of whom teach elsewhere, as well—commute.
Smith said she never really found herself defending the decision to leave the city. “When I was younger, I always felt fearful of leaving the city, worried that I would lose my identity as a writer or as someone who was part of something — the ‘literary world,’ perhaps.” She laughs. “I’m older now. I’ve published a few more books. I have less to prove.”
She said she now understands that the most important conditions for a writer are space, time, silence, and the ability to go underground from time to time and just work. You can find those things just about anywhere,” she says.
Michael Dickman, a poet who teaches in the Creative Writing program, has lived in Princeton for six years. He agrees with Smith that the quality of work a writer can produce doesn’t depend on where he lives—a city or a town, the East Coast or otherwise. Dickman is fond of one local spot in particular, the D&R Canal, which he says is “a beautiful place and a spiritual help.”
Dickman also teaches undergraduate and graduate creative writing workshops at New York University. He has a two and a half-year old son. “Happily, he has not shown any interest in becoming a poet,” he grins.
He says that son is one of the reasons why he’s stayed in Princeton. “Having a child here has made it a much better place to live, for me. Otherwise, I can’t say I’d still be living in town,” he says.
Smith said now that she has lived here for a year, Princeton doesn’t feel like “less than” the city — in fact, it feels like something more.
“When we got here, we were delighted and surprised by how much it felt, quite instantly, like home,” she says.
Home has always been important to Smith. She was born in Massachusetts but grew up in Fairfield, California, a suburb halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento.
Smith sees her quiet, suburban upbringing in Fairfield as a gift from her parents, who didn’t raise her older siblings that way. More than a decade younger than her five siblings, Smith remembers feeling at times as if she were an only child. She was a “goody-goody girl” and remembers being her mother’s “satellite,” always by her side, always ready to help. She endlessly tried to make herself useful, including following in her mother’s strict religious belief.
When she was eight, her father, then a member of the Air Force, received word that his next post would be in West Germany. Her parents considered moving, and uprooting the family again. “Every two or three years, my brothers and sisters had been made to pack up, say their goodbyes, and throw themselves into new schools with a sense of blind hope,” Smith writes in Ordinary Light.
But for the first time in her father’s 26 years in the Air Force, he turned down his military transfer post. He took a job as an electronics engineer in Silicon Valley, commuting 90 minutes each way, not unlike the drive from New York to Princeton. Years later, he would work as an engineer at NASA, applying strict military precision to cosmic instruments, including the Hubble telescope.
Although Smith’s upbringing was quiet, it wasn’t without racial tension. She remembers a babysitter, Mrs. Kureitza, who, while watching TV, wondered aloud, “Why do black people always have such white-white teeth?”
Smith remembers thinking, It’s not that our teeth are any whiter, just that our skin is a whole lot blacker. But at that age, she said nothing. Instead, she recalls “telling myself that the world was a place I would get to one day, and that when I was there, my presence would mean something. It was a promise.”
Smith developed a love for reading early on, in her elementary school’s gifted program. In Ordinary Light, she remembers cherishing “the feeling of sitting in the blue Queen Anne chair in the living room at home, leaning my head against its velvet-covered wings, and disappearing into the pages of books.”
Smith recalls the first time in her life that she wrote a poem (called “Humor”), and felt, quite heavily, “the weight of my talent.” It was the fifth grade, and with the encouragement of her teacher, she’d “work on filling the pages of an old green stenographer’s notebook with poems, certain that what guided me was nothing short of genuine calling. […] I was one of them, I told myself. A writer.”
Now, as Smith sees her children growing up in Princeton, she’s reminded of her own upbringing. All three of her children enjoy reading books, and her daughter, now in kindergarten, already considers herself to be a poet.
“Naomi, when she was a little younger, had an alter-ego who was a poet she called ‘Naomi Quick,’” Smith says with pride. “She would say, ‘I just wrote this book. Look, it says, by Naomi Quick!’” Smith laughs. “I think ‘Naomi Quick’ might have made the ‘5 Under 5’ list, if such a thing exists,” she jokes.
Smith also says that she’s been surprised by “the certain small things” in Princeton that remind her of Fairfield life.
“I feel a little like what I imagine my own mother must have felt when I visit Naomi’s class,” Smith says.
In Ordinary Light, Smith remembers when her mother hosted the Halloween party for her Kindergarten class in 1977. Smith shakes her head, smiling. “I hosted the Halloween party in Naomi’s pre-K class last fall, and I was very amused by the feeling of having come full-circle.”
Of course, there are obvious differences between Princeton and Fairfield, California.
“The towpath, all the beautiful trees and parks, the Institute woods — it’s pretty heavenly here,” Smith sighs. “And I think the chance for the kids to grow up exploring and feeling at home on the campus is really important. My daughter very quickly came to think of the Chapel and the Art Museum and all the tiger statues as hers. That sense of comfort and belonging is important to us.”
But as a parent, Smith says, some things never change.
“Like all young children, they dislike it when we are unavailable. They are very good at making me feel guilty for, say, having to go into my room and write a book review on a Saturday afternoon,” she says.
When she sits down to write, she finds herself feeling aware of all that she is not doing. “At those times, I think of all the perfect parents in the world who manage to remain fulfilled without having to sequester themselves from their children,” she says.
She hopes that she is able to provide them with the quality time they thirst for. “Mostly, I hope that having a mother who has found a way to make a life out of what she feels passionate about is serving as a useful model for them,” she says.
Smith began thinking about poetry with ambition, and as a career, soon after arriving at Harvard as a freshman. At Harvard, she studied with poets Seamus Heaney, Mark Doty, Linda Gregg, Henri Cole and Lucie Brock-Broido. She graduated with a degree in English and African American Studies in 1994.
“I came to feel that Cambridge was the home of a new version of myself, after leaving home. It’s where I came to know more about who I was and what I wanted to become,” Smith says.
At Harvard, she recalls growing dreadlocks, refusing to shave, and holding onto, yelling out, and critiquing the rhetoric of the Black Consciousness movement of the early ’90s. In her studies, Smith discovered how “loving blackness was a means of political resistance.” She worked with the Black Students Association on campus. She identified as a “radical,” a “nationalist.”
Through her coursework in “Afro-Am” studies (including a cinema workshop with Spike Lee) and the Dark Collective, a literary reading series for writers of color, Smith discovered writers such as Ellison, Hughes, Hurston, Baldwin and Reed.
“These texts allowed two different parts of person to mingle, perhaps for the first time. The part that lived in and understood blackness as a thing apart, a thing unto itself; and the part that lived in and understood language as a vehicle for deep feeling and complex thought,” Smith writes.
Smith also recalls her first impressions as a young woman of seeing the homeless in Harlem. She decided that she “didn’t want to be a stranger to that reality forever.” But after seeing Smith with her “head full of dreadlocks,” a friend of her Aunt Ursula’s tells her, “You can be black without going overboard about it.”
Today, Smith has a different perspective on these issues. “The book is about the dawning of my own private awareness of race,” she says. “But these questions are so very complicated. I no longer feel, as I did then, that I want or need to make a statement about embracing a particular version of blackness. My manner of metabolizing such things when I was an adolescent was limited. Now, I feel more capable of talking and writing about such things.
“I know students at Princeton are thinking and arguing about race,” Smith adds. “Last year was a very big year for such conversations, and while they are difficult—sometimes even volatile—I think they are absolutely necessary and that they must at some point involve people of different races talking and listening to one another.”
Smith’s latest project sees her translating the poems of contemporary Chinese poet Yi Lei. Though she doesn’t speak or read Mandarin, she wants to bring literal translations of Lei’s poems into English. She discovered the project in 2013, through Yuanyang Wang, a Chinese poet who has translated Smith’s poems into Chinese. Smith had lunch with Yi Lei and her friend Nancy, who served as their translator, in Chinatown on a cold January afternoon, the first day of the Chinese New Year in 2013—a date both coincidental and somehow auspicious.
“This was during a period when I had been writing prose almost exclusively,” Smith remembers. “Reading Yi Lei’s work made me eager to return to the place—the mental place—where I am available to poems.” At Princeton, Smith is envisioning new ways to have these conversations with undergraduates in the Creative Writing Program: on race, identity, family, love, heartbreak and any topic that students bring to the page, whether in poetry, fiction, or literary translation.
This month, Ordinary Light was named a finalist for the National Book Award, alongside four other works of nonfiction, including Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The poetry list includes Ross Gay, Robin Coste Lewis and Terrance Hayes—all writers of color.
“This speaks most loudly to me as an indication that this is a moment when the stories and the realities of individual black lives and perspectives are not only of interest but, I’d wager, necessary for America,” Smith says.
For Smith, this is also a moment of reflection. In Princeton, her influence goes beyond the classroom, touching students who are as tenacious and passionate as she was in her early years as a writer in New York, hungry to succeed, to live “the good life.” Smith’s work is necessary not only for America; it’s necessary for Princeton.