This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets.
Tracy K. Smith synthesizes the riches of many discursive and poetic traditions without regard to doctrine and with great technical rigor. Her poems are mysterious but utterly lucid and write a history that is sub-rosa yet fully within her vision. They are deeply satisfying and necessarily inconclusive. And they are pristinely beautiful without ever being precious.
Writers and musicians have explored the concept of duende, which might in English translate to a kind of existential blues. Smith is not interested in sadness, per se. Rather, in the strange music of these poems, I think Smith is trying to walk us close to the edge of death-in-life, the force of hovering death in both the personal and social realms, admitting its inevitability and sometimes-proximity, and understanding its manifestations in quotidian acts. This dark force is nonetheless a life force, which, in the poem "Flores Woman," concludes, "Like a dark star. I want to last." If Duende were wine it would certainly be red; if edible it would be meat cooked rare, coffee taken black, stinky cheese, bittersweet chocolate. Tracy K. Smith's music is wholly her own, and Duende is a dolorous, beautiful book.
We conducted this interview by e-mail across the cyberwaves between New Haven, Connecticut, and India. Smith answered many of the questions in the air.
Elizabeth Alexander: First, I think readers will appreciate a short narrative of your growing up, and your path to becoming a poet.
Tracy K. Smith: Growing up, I loved the feelings I would get from reading poems in and outside of school. And in high school, I remember enjoying the process of composing poems on an early Macintosh computer, playing with the layout and trying to imagine what different kinds of effects the words could have from differently imagined placement. In terms of what I was trying to say, the poems themselves were probably not terribly interesting—maybe I was imitating the few twentieth-century poets whose work had, haphazardly, crossed my path. One of them was Edward Field, whose book, Stand Up, Friend, with Me, surprised me for its frankness and the directness of language it employed. Then there were the poems we're taught in school textbooks and made to memorize, few of which really come to mind at the moment other than, say, Emily Dickinson or Dylan Thomas or Shakespeare.
Poetry became a more consistent and pertinent presence in my life once I hit college, where I had the great luck of enrolling in a couple of large survey courses taught by Helen Vendler, who is a brilliant reader and explicator of poems. I remember a particular afternoon in the spring of my sophomore year, being blown away by the visceral impact of Seamus Heaney's poem "Digging." I felt transported by the sounds of language and compelled by the ways in which looking closely and remembering rendered an almost cinematic kind of transformation. From that point on, I got involved in more of the poetry happening around me, and became an intern to the Dark Room Collective, where the established and emerging poets who read with the series were, I discovered, ordinary people whose voices and insights and lives brushed up against mine in powerfully impacting ways. I decided from that point that I wanted to commit to becoming a poet in the here and now, not merely waiting until I'd reached the end of my life to try and look back at what had happened and why.
I took the workshops offered at Harvard and discovered the discipline and what I still like to think of as the devotion necessary to the task. I also embraced what I consider a kind of commitment to living a certain way: to looking closely at details, to feeling things with great fervency, to never moving too far from a kind of childlike wonder and questioning. I feel very lucky in this respect; I can't imagine living any other way, though at times this kind of intensity can be as painful as it is illuminating.
Alexander: I know you have answered this question before, and of course the book answers the question as well. But please, can you talk a bit about your idea of duende? We know of the literal meaning of the word, and of García Lorca's use of it as a term that has been so resonant in the twentieth century. Then there was the "duende resurrection," if you will, the interest in the term by Edward Hirsch and particularly Terrance Hayes. You have taken it further and brought duende into your own poetics. What is indispensable about the term for you? In the context of African American letters, is it a neo-blues or (probably) something more complex than that?
Smith: I'd been taught about duende as a student and enjoyed the concept in intellectual terms for a long time. But the idea of duende became real or personal to me a few years back while traveling in Lorca's Andalusia. A lot that I had processed before and filed away re-emerged and made sense in a new way: recollections from my parents' early years in the American South, interactions with people in Mexico when I was still a frequent visitor to that country, a particularly poignant solo trip to Guatemala which I spent, for the most part, with young women who make and sell handcrafts in the area of Lake Atitlán. In Spain, I saw the people of Roma descent who offer to bless you with good luck in the streets, and I heard the music that Lorca worked so hard to describe and "translate" for people in other parts of the world. I think I was also dealing with the beginnings of certain tough realizations about my life that wouldn't be fully clear to me until much later. What struck me was a thread linking all of these contexts and voices and glimpses together and to me, and it had quite a lot to do with survival, with staying alive and intact despite all the influences and evidence to the contrary. I've said this before, but I really do believe that the duende challenges us to recognize that we are always walking the line between two very distinct worlds. One is based on logic and skill and preparation, and the other is based on energy, on marrow, on the fearless or foolhardy willingness to take powerful risks. What's interesting to me about recognizing this is the fact that it means consenting to an ongoing conflict, living and functioning in the day-to-day, and committing to feed and maintain a magical, urgent, irrational side of the self that is often threatened or negated by the former.
As I've become more politically aware, this idea of the duende and the type of survival it urges has become more and more poignant. If the artist's duende emerges when we consent to go to the dangerous place, the core of experience that promises insight or revelation but also threatens us with our own complete undoing, I think there is a corollary in the day-to-day lives of people touched unwittingly by extraordinary circumstances and asked to respond—to survive or cave in. We seldom consider this kind of proposition as Americans, but our involvement in other parts of the world (as well as our lack of involvement in situations that would benefit from aid by a nation of our stature) is making the results of these kinds of dilemmas more visible, if that makes sense: We see people who are damaged and emerge, determined to keep going, whatever that means. In this collection, poems such as "Theft" and "‘Into the Moonless Night,'" or even "The Searchers" and "Slow Burn" are two examples of my own urge to grapple with this kind of scenario.
To the extent that the choice to dig in one's heels and survive at all costs is a human trait, I think we can locate it in every culture. The blues is just one place. Certainly, as a person of African-American descent, this is particularly familiar to me. But I think humans possess the resilience and the creativity to reinvent themselves in response to nearly any situation, and to reflect upon and celebrate the very process.
Alexander: There has always been a lot of Spanish in your poems: Spanish language, characters moving in Spanish-speaking places, Spanish cultural influences, namely Lorca, Latin-ness in various forms. Can you talk about that and etymologize it a bit for us?
Smith: Spanish became important to me when I felt I was drowning, or perhaps suffocating, in English. This was many years ago when, as a fellow in a writing program, I came upon a very discouraging period of writer's block. One of the things that alleviated my silence was travel to Mexico and an engagement with the language and voices I encountered there. Both sent me back into English with a new sense of what to listen for, and a new sense of my own capacity as an expressive being. It's true, I think, that we become different people when we express ourselves in different languages. I discovered an alliance with Spanish during that period, and I used it to regain my footing in English. Of course, it also opened up whole new regions of the world, which have impacted me in ways that resonate beyond language.
Sometimes I try to make this into a kind of analogy to my students: When we allow language to behave differently, it reveals different truths, often truths which implicate or complicate us as speakers or agents of language. That's a remarkable resource to be aware of. Not only in terms of thinking or listening in other languages, but also in pushing ourselves to put different types of pressure on the language in which we are most at home, most familiar.
Alexander: Do you ever think in terms of book projects, or do you let the poems pile up and then see what you have? What are some of your fantasy projects, the ones that might never get done but that nonetheless persist in your insistent imagination?
Smith: I tend to start writing and then later, sometimes at the urge of a contest or grant proposal, try to take an objective look at what it is I seem to be after. There are phases when I'm writing a great deal and phases when I feel more like I'm absorbing information, knowledge, passions, questions. Right now, I'm very interested in ways that my poems might extend from a near-journalistic kind of research. I want to know more about the world, and the people affected and displaced by the conflicts that seem to drag on with a kind of insidious persistence. I want to find ways of visiting farther-flung regions and being affected and educated by what is happening there. I think this will have an effect on the formal choices I make. I think there are hints of that kind of inevitability in this current collection—a poem in play form, poems that push against ideas of what an "academic" or lyric poem is most likely to do. I'm not interested in that kind of change because of mere innovation but rather because I am eager to grow and change as a person, to engage with ideas I don't yet know how to process, and to unravel them during the act of writing.
Further down the line, I'm also interested in projects that will move completely off the page. Something that takes advantage of the affinities between poetry and film, or language and image.
Alexander: The "I" of your poems is extremely precise and intimate but in an internal way, not so much in terms of external details of a life, of a person in that life. Any thoughts on that?
Smith: I love the instant in Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" when the speaker declares: "You are an I / you are an Elizabeth." It's a fraught moment in the poem, a moment when the speaker claims and also shrinks back from the weight of assuming a fixed lineage and identity. There are many times when I'm aware of making or reaffirming that kind of affirmation in my own life. I live from a place within the self—and I'll bet we all do—that is predominantly unconcerned with the surface details of who or where we are or are expected to be and fundamentally obsessed with what it feels like to be who we are when we close our eyes and forget ourselves, when we deliberately shirk or overstep the delineations and boundaries pertinent to our everyday selves. This is often the assumption behind an "I" in any of my poems. I think this is the reason I feel so comfortable, and so eager, attempting persona poems—because it allows me to let go of certain limitations and engage with a kind of impossible (but, I argue, necessary) breadth of being.
Alexander: How do you think African-American poetry is most egregiously undervalued or misnamed?
Smith: I think my answer to this question is an extension of the previous one. Sometimes I regret the ways that African-American writers are encouraged or expected to own a kind of "authenticity" that highly discourages writing from places to which we have only an imagined access. There are so many connections between one geography and another, one history and another, a fixed set of experiences and the fluidity of wish or invention. I think that African-American writers are often discouraged from letting go of the truth and moving toward certain kinds of possibilities, and this discouragement is often very subtle, exerted from both within and without the black community. Partly I think it has to do with the things readers, reviewers, teachers are able to address with the most confidence or assurance when discussing work by black writers.
I gave a reading recently and afterward, during the Q&A, an audience member said: "My professor told me I should come to this reading because you were a spoken-word poet whose work deals with the ‘street.'" Everybody in the room laughed, and I heard it, in part, as an embarrassed laugh. I don't think that's at all an accurate description of my work, though I am quite obsessed with "ordinary" lives. But I think it's an easy categorization to resort to, perhaps at the end of a harried teaching day, or as a result of a quick glance at the photo on the back of my book. And if we can't trust that the people in ostensible support of our work are actually reading us with an openness to what it is we are actually saying, how can we feel 100 percent confident in departing from what we know from fact and moving toward what we wonder or wish to know? Of course many of us do, but getting to that place of confidence or devil-may-care-what-the-critic-says is something that comes after time.
Alexander: There are so many geographical places in your books, from Buenos Aires to Wyoming to Indonesia and so forth. Is there something to say about this abundance of places, and their juxtaposition? What particular interest does India have for you now?
Smith: Travel feeds me, frees me from some of the concerns that refuse to relent or make sense when I'm too close to them in my life at home. I love the feeling of lift off and the wonder at touching down again in a place with different smells, languages, offerings, and threats. I love to observe and absorb the energy in flux in a place where I might not (yet) belong. So I take off as often as I can and often return with a new set of realizations or, most likely, questions.
It's funny, though, because the places you mention in your question are places I've never been. So the idea of travel, of imagined transport, is as important to me as the actual setting foot in a new place, though obviously for different reasons. Sometimes that kind of yearning toward a place I know about but not from firsthand experience is about truly believing that words with intent behind them are capable of bridging a gap. Sometimes my interest in another part of the world is an attempt to claim and understand the very real ways that a life here can impact, or fail to sufficiently impact, lives in other places. Maybe what I'm saying is that a poem is always a wish, always an attempt to do the impossible: to carry the poet and reader over space and time and to set them down in a world whose tools will become familiar and functional as the poem itself unfolds.
India? I don't know yet what it will mean to me, though I'm here now for the second time in six months. Sometimes it takes a long time to figure out what an experience is meant to impart.
Alexander: In the long poem "History," you write, "of course there are victims in this poem," and then you write a block cube of the word victim. Here it seems that you are undoing a certain idea of a political poem or political poetry. Yet the poems themselves seem intent on chronicling, listening, making space for people we might call "victims." At that spot in "History," you seem to both admonish against and turn from a certain kind of poetics and yet make that kind of space in a new way. The poem seems to believe in "naming the wound." Can you talk about that nexus?
Smith: That poem was exhilarating to write, because the ideas I was learning about and grappling with at the time were new enough to push me toward a completely different mode of expressing them. I was enrolled in a course on American foreign policy, and the influx of readings about the first non-native settlers on the continent, the creation of the "American" identity, and various conflicts—from King Philip's War fought on this soil through the current war in Iraq—pushed me to want to understand what a poem could do with this material. I did not want the poem to take a definitive side, at least not an easy side that lets the reader and the speaker off the hook by pointing fingers at distant figureheads and the troops in charge of suppressing resistance and implementing policy. I wanted to create a slippery, messy space where I could look at myself as part of the problem and really try to articulate what that meant. What might appear as formal innovation in the poem is an attempt to do that kind of examination of self and other and choice and inevitability and the ways in which all of these things contribute to concocting a myth of a nation.
Alexander: You write about "what the poem wants." How do you listen for and to that? What have been your missteps, or how do you worry about and adjust for misstepping and mishearing yourself in poems?
Smith: I really do believe that the poem, once it gets off the ground, has plans for itself and that if we can let go of our plans for it, we can actually get to a new and illuminating place. This is also part of the idea of duende as far as I'm concerned. It's about relinquishing control and acknowledging that trust and intuition and a certain kind of resourcefulness are the most relevant tools, at least in the first few drafts. How do I do this? I try to write when I'm feeling uncertain about where I ought to be going, when the things foremost in my mind are questions and distant wishes. And I try to find ways of making myself brave enough to say things I don't necessarily know how to back up, then listening to whatever that voice is that says, quietly, "Why not say this next, then this. . . ." I look back at what I've already said and see if sonic association can lead me in an unexpected direction.
Sometimes it fails, and a poem gets pocketed for years. When I go back to look at something from years or months ago that never seemed to arrive, sometimes the things I've learned or struggled with in the interim seem pertinent enough to help revive the thing. I'm not above pilfering from myself when the opportunity is ripe. And of course sometimes things fail utterly, though the process has generally helped me to get something out of my system, out of the way of future attempts.
Alexander: I like to know quotidian things about poets (my celebrities!), so if you are willing to share: What do you like for breakfast if you like breakfast? Do you like to cook, and what do you like to cook? What do you most love about New York City, and what not so much? What kinds of landscapes speak strongest to you? What are some of your daily rituals? What is the last movie you loved?
Smith: When I am happy, I love to eat breakfast. Eggs, coffee, toast and jam. Things that remind me of the big family breakfasts we had when I was growing up in a household of five kids. When my heart hurts, breakfast is a cigarette sitting at my computer incessantly checking my e-mail inbox. I love to cook elaborate meals for others when I'm away from my own toy-sized kitchen, and I hate to follow recipes, so I usually improvise, often to great effect. I'm proud to have concocted my very own recipe for a quick and delicious cioppino. And I make great pizza from scratch. All of this is about loving celebrations and champagne and wine and getting dressed up and laughing with the people I most trust and love.
New York thrills me because it runs the gamut from high glam to deep grunge. It's a place where you can disappear if you want and reemerge feeling transformed (whether or not you really are). But it's also a lonely city in many ways, a place where everyone's busy lives can interfere with the ability to be in constant touch with people.
The beach is my favorite landscape—underexploited tropical ones where I can get in the water and ride waves and scream like a kid. And cities where glamour is contagious.
What are my daily rituals? They are constantly changing. My train ride out to Princeton and back is one of the highlights of my week for the time and quiet and meditation.
I loved the new Almodóvar film, Volver, about love and forgiveness and strong women and a mother who seems to have returned from the dead. I was also quite moved by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which I rented several months back. I find myself thinking of it a lot from time to time, probably because it's about the inevitable pain of love, and the even greater pain of forgetting. In some ways, these are themes I can't, or won't, let myself get away from.