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Season 2, Episode 1: Poet Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, a 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards winner for poetry, joins The Asterisk* to discuss what it means to belong, letters to Abraham Lincoln and her return to Harvard as a professor.

Smith received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her third book of poems, “Life on Mars.” She also served two terms as the Poet Laureate of the United States, from 2017-19. She grew up in Northern California as the youngest of five children. The family called her “Kitten.” A 1993 winner of the Cave Canem prize, she earned a bachelor’s from Harvard University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Columbia University.

In “Wade in the Water,” her AWBA-winning fourth volume of poetry, the 52 poems speak to learning to ride a bike, the poisoning of the Ohio River and the testimonies of Black soldiers in the Civil War.

“Tracy K. Smith is a poet of astonishing gifts, never more brilliantly displayed than in ‘Wade in the Water,’” said A-W juror Joyce Carol Oates. “She explores, or rather eviscerates, our willful self-deceptions about race, history, the nature of ‘enslavement;’ her poems are sharp edged as knife blades, swift, deft, fleeting, and profound, yet suffused with sympathy, like an impersonal and abiding love.”

Smith help create “The Slowdown” podcast before turning the reins over to Ada Limón in the fall of 2021. Later that year, she sat down with The Asterisk* after giving the fall convocation at Case Western Reserve University.

“Many of us the world over have returned – or turned – to [James] Baldwin in the last year and a half, and it’s wild to me that where he left off as a writer, as a thinker, is exactly where we are right now. He speaks so much about love. … But he also talks about that really difficult love when he’s writing to his nephew. You don’t need to seek to be accepted by whites, but you’re gonna have to accept them. And part of that is loving them as you love a younger brother. You’re going to need to guide, to recognize his feelings. This is the work that America doesn’t want to do. But this is the work that many of us who are willing, maybe need to accept and do in different ways. This is the loving work of tending to someone that is deceived.”

— Tracy K. Smith


View a transcript of this episode