Tracy K. Smith is one of the essential voices in contemporary American literature. Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard and Columbia universities, she teaches at Princeton University. Her last collection, “Life on Mars,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. She has just been appointed to her second term as poet laureate of the United States. Her latest collection, “Wade in the Water” (Graywolf, 83 pp., $24), is a salient addition to the national debate about race in America. Smith recently spoke with Newsday by telephone; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about “Wade in the Water.”
It’s a book that is contemplating compassion. The anchoring poems in the collection are rooted in history. There is a long sequence, “I Will Tell You the Truth about This, I Will Tell You All about It,” drawn from letters African-American soldiers in the Civil War sent to President Lincoln and to their families, as well as depositions they gave as veterans (or oftentimes their widows and descendants gave) in an attempt to claim pensions they were entitled to. I was interested in what these voices might have to say to our present moment.
For source material, I found “Voices of Emancipation” and “Families and Freedom.” These voices began to work on me. That tradition, the history of slavery, became vital to me. Not to mention that our public conversations about race feel like they are not so far removed from the questions that rose out of that conflict, which is disturbing. I was so moved by the belief in the institution of the presidency and the tenets of democracy that these enslaved people had in writing to the president and in serving in the war. The drama goes from someone saying, “I am willing to fight for freedom and humanity” to someone else saying, “Can you help me find out if I am free?”
Where are we today on the issue of race?
History feels like it’s caught up with us in ways that are terrifying. There is one poem in the collection, “Unrest in Baton Rouge,” that embodies the images and metaphors that help me think through these questions. It is about a photograph by Jonathan Bachman. I was looking at the photograph and saying, “What do I see here?” I was trying to find a metaphor for the visual imbalance in that image of a woman, almost half naked, and a battalion of officers. What is her weapon? What is the threat? Maybe it is something like love. Maybe what sits at the root of so many of these conflicts is what it would cost us to actually love each other.
And what of incidents like Charlottesville?
As a person, I have a clear sense that racially motivated violence is wrong. It’s a crime. But a poem is not a mouthpiece for my pre-existing political positions. A poem is art. It urges me to wade into a subject and reveal something different.
Do we need a new way of thinking about race relations?
My attempt to do that has come up with a really different vocabulary. It’s not about tolerance. It’s not about policy alone. It’s about something as fundamental as love. What would happen if love were a value that lived in public discourse, if love were a part of our political vocabulary? That’s a wish my poems are yearning for.
A goal for which we should be striving?
I think so. It’s not just a matter of saying, “I have something and you need some of it. I will give you access to X, Y, and Z as long as I don’t lose W through Z.” That is still about saying there is a divide between me and you, and I can tolerate losing so much. A vocabulary of love is different because it is not a finite commodity. It’s not something that has economic value. You get something from giving it away.
What are your duties as poet laureate?
You are required to give one reading and one lecture, but if you have the desire to do more, the Library of Congress has the resources to support it. So I’ve been traveling to small towns and rural communities and reading poetry — my own and work by other contemporary poets. It’s been very moving to see how excited people are. They’re eager for their children to see someone like me in such a position. For many of the African-American people I’ve encountered it has been that — they want their kids to know they can grow up to do something like this.
When you speak to children, how do you address a subject as difficult as slavery?
Growing up, when slavery was discussed it was always described as an unfortunate condition of the past. “This is how it was,” as opposed to “This is what people chose to do and tolerate and eventually stand up to.” Motives and agency are conveniently removed when it gets to that topic. That’s why these voices, those soldiers from the Civil War and their families, feel so powerful to me. The lexicon is not as remote as you think. Documents like these letters are an excellent way of closing up the distance between the past and today.