The literary committee members of the Reuben Brown House Preservation Society are wondering what, if anything, they can do in the future to top the successful visit by U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith last week. Smith spoke Tuesday evening to a large crowd at Southeastern Community College and Wednesday morning at Bowers Auditorium, finishing with an afternoon master class of selected high school students.
The job of a poet laureate
RBHPS members Donna Scott and Pat Ray questioned Smith, a Princeton University professor, about the process by which she was chosen and how she serves as the official poet of the United States.
A committee studies the work of living poets, Smith explained, and recommends nominees to the Librarian of Congress, who makes the official appointment. Philanthropist Archer M. Huntington donated the funds in 1936 to make the office possible. The Library of Congress website defines the position this way:
“As the nation’s official poet, the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.”
Since the 1980s, Poets Laureate have usually served for two years. Smith described herself as “completely surprised” by the honor. She was required to perform a public reading at the beginning of her term, and will give another at the end. “What you do in the middle is not prescribed,” she told the committee.
“Do you mean you could just go on with your normal life otherwise?” Scott said the committee asked.
Smith said that she could indeed have done that, but that she wanted to use her platform as poet laureate to “open doors,” using “poetry as a starting place to help people have conversations” on important social issues. Smith’s special area of interest is bringing poetry events to rural areas.
Syrita Mills, a librarian at SCC, brought two of her children to the Tuesday evening reading, which she called “an amazing event. I’m glad we came,” said Mills. “She (Smith) provides a good example to young people in the community of what you can do when you love your art.”
Introducing Smith to more than 600 seventh graders the next morning, Columbus County Schools Arts Education Coordinator Kelly Jones told them, “Poetry is different from a lot of the words we say during our day. We use a lot of words that aren’t very important, but in poetry, every word is there for a reason.”
Jones urged the students to listen quietly and avoid making distractions for those around them. “This isn’t like a movie. This is a live performance,” he said.
Central Middle School English teacher Pamela Helms said later that, “I thought the students were largely attentive and respectful for middle school students who seldom attend this type of event.”
Smith said her message to the middle-schoolers would be about where poems come from and what might motivate someone to write a poem.
“I believe she achieved her goal,” Helms said later in the week, after her classes had discussed the readings. “The students seemed to find two of the poems particularly compelling in this regard. They remembered her motivation for the poem about a child who had been in eight foster homes at 7 years old. As one student said, ‘She writes poetry to try to feel what others feel. She wants to become a better person.’”
The poem “Wade in the Water” led to “lively class discussions” of spirituals and quilts as escape signals for slaves; “Appetite” helped the students to think about how adults’ viewpoints differ from young people’s.
Said Helms, “Many of the students commented on Ms. Smith’s ‘nice’ or ‘silky’ voice. Overall, they appreciated the event.”
Smith said Tuesday evening that she sometimes feels an unexpected motivation to write a poem, even waking up with a poem forming in her mind. The challenge is “to make space and time” to act on that urge. When she ignores it for too long, she said, “The idea disappears and probably goes on to someone else.”
Occasionally, however, she receives “odd invitations,” such as the time she was chosen to write a poem based on the day’s news as reported by National Public Radio. “I watched them take stories off the printer and bring them to me. I had to complete the poem in time to read on the air at 4:30 while sitting in a little room like a closet, with someone looking in every 20 minutes to ask how things were going. It’s a miracle that I wrote this poem.”
Another invitation allowed Smith to travel to China. Because the odd invitations spur her to use ideas that she would otherwise waste, Smith said, “I’ve begun saying yes to them.”
Another time Smith participated in what she called a “golden shovel” project, basing a new poem on a line from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. Brooks won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and was U.S. Poet Laureate during the 1980s. The “golden shovel” poem Smith created was “Semi-Splendid,” the piece that South Columbus High School senior Miranda Sibbett recited on stage Tuesday before Smith took the podium.
Smith made an impression on many listeners with a multi-page poem that wove together portions of letters from black Civil War veterans in which they asked the U.S. government to award them their promised pensions.
“They expressed such dignity,” Smith said in an interview, “and such faith in democracy and freedom. Freedom means a lot to you if you’ve been enslaved.” The veterans’ requests were often denied, she said, because of “a lack of a paper trail. They didn’t have birth certificates, or their names had been changed” without their consent. The pension of a black soldier could be stolen from him by a sergeant who enlisted him in the Union Army under the sergeant’s own name.
“I want to write about compassion,” Smith said, “by telling about times in our history when we have failed to show it.”
Smith tells about herself
In that interview, Smith described her university work of teaching creative writing classes and workshops. She finds it “really rewarding” to advise seniors on their theses, which take the form of book-length poetry collections created within a year.
Smith did not have the opportunity to participate in poetry contests such as the A.R. Ammons contest as a girl. “There was nothing like that,” she said. “Poetry only came up briefly and intermittently in school, but I liked what words sounded like,” so she wrote some poems on her own.
“None of the poems we read in school were contemporary. Nobody was still alive. When I went to college I found out, this (poetry) is something people still do!”
It was during college, she said, that “I began to identify myself as a poet.” Among fellow poets, she found not only community, but what was for her “a better way of thinking. Poetry let me slow down and look at small things deeply,” she said.
“I realized I could look at the world and find meanings that felt original to me. I could discover something about life. That was huge. I really think poems come from questions, not from knowledge.”
A gracious visitor
Smith lodged at Lake Waccamaw and was chauffeured to her public events by Donna and David Scott. Said Donna Scott, when out of the limelight, “Tracy was quiet and very agreeable” in a low-key way. After a long book-signing session, she remarked to the Scotts, “Everybody’s being so sweet to me.”
The weather system that brought chilly rain to North Carolina Tuesday brought wet snow to New Jersey, where Smith’s husband was home with their three children and dog. Falling trees had cut off electricity to their area by Wednesday, with no recovery expected until Saturday night.
Although tired from travel and concerned about her family, Smith “didn’t let it affect her performance,” Scott said. She went on “smiling really big and being so gracious to people.”
David Scott described the portion he saw of the high school master class at the county arts center: “I was impressed with her classroom management. She had a real rapport with students that I’m sure many teachers would envy.”
East Columbus High School sophomore Alexis Willett called the master class “very motivating and inspiring. It made me want to write more.”
During the class, said Alexis, students listened to some poems, discussed them and wrote responses of their own. “We were all astonished by her (Smith),” Alexis said. “We all loved her work and everything about her.”
David Scott, describing the master class, said, “I also want to say how impressed I was with Kelly Jones. He seemed like he’s got a tremendous empathy with students.”
Pat Ray called Jones “the key person who coordinated with the schools, oversaw the high school selection process and guided and set the tone” for both the school appearances.
Ray, along with Janice Simms, leads the preservation society’s literary committee. Smith’s visit was the culmination of six months of planning and preparation by the committee, with the support of numerous sponsors in the community.