The Library of Congress announced on Wednesday that Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith will be the nation’s 22nd poet laureate, commencing her one-year term in the fall.
Smith, the director of creative writing at Princeton University, will launch her term with a reading in September at the Library of Congress, where she will have an office. She will continue to live in New Jersey with her family, according to the Washington Post.
The poet laureate position comes with minimal strings — “no required sonnets on the occasion of Donald Trump’s birthday, etc.,” notes the Post‘s Ron Charles — and arms Smith with a $35,000 stipend, plus a separate travel budget.
Prior poet laureates have used the role in myriad ways, as Poets & Writers noted:
Robert Pinsky, who served as poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, launched the Favorite Poem Project, through which more than eighteen thousand Americans shared their favorite poems. Several laureates have focused more on bringing poetry into the classroom: Billy Collins curated 180 poems for high school teachers to share with their students every day in the school year as part of the Poetry 180 project, while Kay Ryan strengthened poetry’s presence in community colleges through a national contest and videoconference. Other laureates have opted to raise awareness poetry by collaborating with the media, such as Natasha Trethewey with her Where Poetry Lives video series with PBS NewsHour, and Ted Kooser with his weekly newspaper column, American Life in Poetry.
It appears Smith will take advantage of her travel budget in particular. The New York Times wrote that she “planned to use the position to be a literary evangelist of sorts, by visiting small towns and rural areas to hold poetry events:
“I’m very excited about the opportunity to take what I consider to be the good news of poetry to parts of the country where literary festivals don’t always go,” she said. “Poetry is something that’s relevant to everyone’s life, whether they’re habitual readers of poetry or not.”
Smith was hand-picked by the current Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, who called her a “poet of searching” and told the Post that Smith’s “interest in reaching a broad audience” was appealing:
“One of the things I have been stressing thematically across the library is that we want to be accessible and relatable to people all across the country,” Hayden said. “The fact that Tracy wants to go into rural areas and talk about poetry is such a great idea and something that really excited me because I think that’s the kind of thing we should be doing as an institution.”
While Hayden highlighted Smith’s ability to write poetry about contemporary issues — she was NPR’s first “NewsPoet” in 2012, when she spent time in the NPR newsroom and then wrote a poem reflecting on the day, about a story on Nigerians fleeing violence — Smith indicated to the Times that she may avoid social and political topics:
Though Ms. Smith often takes on current social and political issues in her poetry, she doesn’t plan to use her position as poet laureate to advocate social causes, she said. Instead, she aims to be an advocate for the medium itself and to instill the same awe she felt when she read Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who Are You?” as a girl.
“Rather than talking about social issues, I want to give more readers access to more kinds of poems and poets,” she said. “Poems are friendly, and they teach us how to read them.”
But to NPR, she shared that “she’s been thinking, lately, about how people turn to poetry in fraught times,” and both Smith and Hayden expressed a sense that poetry could be a unifying element in a divided nation, with Smith telling the Post‘s Ron Charles:
“Poetry can help us make sense of the contemporary moment,” she says. “I’m excited by the fact that what poets are writing speaks to a particular moment and it speaks to the ages. Any political moment is uncertain, and a voice that lets us think about that will last. Let’s think about how empathy can drive our perspective of one another. Let’s think about how we can get past what’s binary and simplest to what’s complicated.”
- ‘Did I ever wonder who my mother used to be, before she belonged to me?’ (Carlos Lozada, April 2015)
- Tracy K. Smith + Muti: ‘Visitation’ (Washington Post, April 2016)
- “Does Poetry Still Matter? Yes Indeed, Says NPR NewsPoet” (NPR, April 2013)
- “Sci-Fi” (Tracy K. Smith, 2011)
- “Concrete as Vast as Space: An Interview with Tracy K. Smith” (Yale Literary Magazine, Fall 2015)
- Far From Ordinary: A Profile of Tracy K. Smith (Renee H. Shea, February 2015)
- “The Universe in Verse: Pulitzer-Winning Poet Tracy K. Smith Reads from ‘Life on Mars’” (Maria Popova, May 2017)