There was a buzz in the building. There was a buzz all week, ever since the news broke that Tracy K. Smith’s newest book of poems, Life on Mars, had won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. There was a buzz in the bookstores, on literary websites, on the sidewalks… or maybe it was just me: ever since the first time I picked up a book of her poems, Smith has held a place in my mind reserved for a select group: really, really, really, good poets. So it was no surprise that my anticipation for her reading on Friday, May 18 seemed to be shared by the crowd of chatty, lively attendees in the lobby prior to the reading, or that the Target Performance Hall at Open Book was standing-room only. It was no surprise that nearly all of Graywolf Press‘s top brass–including Senior Editor Jeffrey Shotts and Publisher Fiona McCrae–had turned out, nor that fellow buzz-inducing poets Mark Doty (another Graywolf poet, on loan from Rutgers University) and Ed Bok Lee (see our review of Lee’s Birchbark Reading Series performance here) were on hand. What was surprising was how surprised the audience seemed when Loft’s Program Director and the evening’s emcee Jerod Santek announced that Smith had recently won the Pulitzer.
Wait a second–isn’t that why everyone was here?
This was about when it dawned on me that much of this audience was here to support the Mentor Series, which Smith was a part of this year, and not just to hear one of the few really, really, really, good poets writing today. No, most of this enthusiastic and buzzing audience was here to support a really, really, really, amazing local literary program. I love this town.
Every year, the Loft brings six acclaimed writers to Minneapolis to work with twelve emerging writers selected through an anonymous competition. It’s an MFA program without the student loans (I’m not sure about cost, though… you can le
arn more about the program here. Visiting authors give a reading while they’re in town, and each time a pair of the particpating emerging writers also share their work.On Friday, the final reading of the 2012 Mentor series, the first writer to take the stage was poet Jane Loechler, who read a series of poems about a world inspired by a historical account of “vegetable lambs” (an actual misclassification of cotton plants), which are shepherded by young boys, while the young girls build materials out of the miniature shorn fleeces. Loechler rendered this fantastical world with a tender realism, reading deliberately and with obvious commitment to her language. That is to say, she seemed to handle the capacity crowd well, and appeared quite at home behind the microphone. Nonfiction writer Liza Allen followed Loechler with an introverted passage about the transmission of trauma from a holocaust-surviving generation to the next. Her prose, like her subject matter dutifully navigated the historical context, which was weighted with significance and brought something of a pall over the crowd–the writing’s intended effect.
The atmosphere was quickly lifted when Smith took the stage, a bright yellow dress and poofs of hair like twin moons around her youthful face. (I learned after the show that Smith is forty years old–she could pass for fourteen if she weren’t so poised). ”I’ve only been here about 24 hours,” Smith said to an already-smitten audience, “but it feels like coming home.” This sentiment was in part because her publisher and editor are based here, but Smith also pointed out how she was “inspired by a community with such an earnest and intense passion for writing.” We were buttered up, giddy, ready to approve of whatever she offered.Then she read her poems.
The thing about really, really, really good poetry is that it’s really, really, really good. If I could describe why it was so good, it wouldn’t be as good… Tracy K. Smith’s poems explain aspects of the world that I didn’t know I understood. She doesn’t make sense of the world; she reveals the sense that the world already makes. There is a lack of self to her poetry, a focused appreciation of her subjects, a brave exploration of des
tabilizing concepts and precarious perceptions. It is poetry of a different breed that takes on the entire universe (literally, much of her collection is about outer space) and yet seems humble, delicate, unobtrusive. This is precisely the persona that came across as she read: a woman who could feasibly go overlooked in a middle-school class photo, yet who commands with precise and genuine language the attention, awe, and respect of her audience.In a brief Q&A session that followed, all three readers returned to the stage and answered queries about balancing motherhood, professions, and the writing life (“it’s always a balance, you procrastinate less”); about how to handle writer’s block (“if you can’t write well, write bad, but try to read stuff you normally wouldn’t and learn something”); about advice they had for young writers (“write and have fun”). One audience member asked Smith to explain the meaning of Duende, the title of Smith’s second collection. She took a breath and aimed her big eyes upward for a second. She then pointed to her stomach and said, “Duende is an inner unrest that’s allowed to participate in the creative process. Not a muse, or an angel of inspiration, but a mischievous, messy force inside of all of us.”Not just inside the artist, or the poet, but inside all of us… Maybe it’s permitting this universality that makes for really, really, really good poetry–or in Tracy K. Smith’s case, maybe it’s the rare ability to balance the universe with the universal.
To read an interview the Loft conducted with Tracy K. Smith, click here.
Do you have a different take on this event? Chime in on the comments below! Be sure to check the schedule to the right and the Twin Cities Literary Calendar and be at the next LitSeen attended event. See you around!