FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
TRACY K. SMITH: I loved reading and listening to poems as a child, but I became serious about learning to write them upon encountering Seamus Heaney’s ‘Digging’ in a college English class. I loved how Heaney’s use of rhythm and vivid, visceral language taught me to feel at home in a place and time I did not already know. Reading poems was a way of feeling transported and enlarged. Writing poems taught me to look closely at things; it rendered the world anew, full of occasions for awe, consolation and delight.
FAF: Please talk about your development as a writer of poetry. When did you first feel like a poet?
TKS: I wanted to believe I was a poet back at age 10, when it seemed that Emily Dickinson was speaking only to me, in a language the two of us shared. But poetry became something urgent for me, a tool for living, when, at 22, I lost my mother to cancer. Writing poems was, and remains, my way of grappling with the many unanswerable questions that arise from being alive.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
TKS: As an American, I’m honoured and grateful that readers in the UK have found something of value in my poems. As a reader of poetry, it means more than I can say to be shortlisted for a prize associated with so many poets whose work is indispensable to the English language.
FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
TKS: I see Wade in the Water as a meditation on compassion. The poems looking back toward crises in American history are listening for what those moments might have to say to the time in which I am living and raising children. I wanted to imagining that there might be a way to bring the vocabulary of love to bear upon the various moral crises of 21st Century. If my last collection of poems was looking out to the universe and forward to an imagined future, this one is looking earthward and backward.
FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value intheir work?
TKS: I love the moral vision of Claudia Rankine, the music and vigor of Kevin Young, the inventiveness and hope of Eve L. Ewing, the lyrical philosophy of Linda Gregg, the courage of Danez Smith. And I will never stop marveling at Lucille Clifton’s cosmic and communal vision, and Elizabeth Bishop’s ability to see through the physical world into a vocabulary of vulnerability and need.
FAF: What is next for you as a poet?
TKS: I am writing the libretto for an opera called Castor and Patience, which will premier in 2020 at the Cincinnati Opera. And I’m co-translating the work of contemporary Chinese poet Yi Lei.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
TKS: I found that a tremendous freedom became available to me as a writer when I began to ask the questions in my poems that I was not equipped to answer.