I came to the work of Tracy K. Smith through celestial doors, through Life on Mars and her evocation of great works of science fiction. I remember gravitating toward her references to Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, toward her celebration of David Bowie, and toward a shared wonder and reverence for the cosmic. The brilliant poems in Life on Mars, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, sent me careering backwards to her first collections: The Body’s Question (2003), which won the Cave Canem Prize, and Duende (2007), which won the James Laughlin Award.
Then, it seemed almost immediately to me, her work was everywhere. On the NYC Subway, I remember looking up from Life on Mars only to see a broadside of “The Good Life.” I watched her on PBS and C-SPAN. Surely, it was the bluster of promotion during a period of boundless accolades, but it also seemed to mimic the deepening impression I had that her work transcended time and space in a way similar to 2001’s monolith.
Ordinary Light, her first memoir, was published last year by Knopf and was short-listed for the National Book Award. It elegizes her mother just as Life on Mars elegized her father. The books feel incredibly companionate; they call out to one another across genre, across Smith’s moving and vital literary voice. We discussed both books in her home in Princeton, New Jersey—her twin three-year-old boys watching a movie down the hall—and touched on topics ranging from grief and process to the anxiety of shifting genres and the devastating loss of David Bowie, which had just happened prior to our conversation.
We also touched on poetry’s capacity for empathy, on bringing our best selves to the page. It’s a passage that I keep coming back to as I watch coverage of the terrorist massacre in Orlando, as I think about the relationship between an individual loss and a societal loss, and as I turn to Ordinary Light and Life on Mars for council and solace.
–Christopher Kondrich for Guernica
Christopher Kondrich: Speaking about Life on Mars during an interview on C-SPAN’s Book TV, you mentioned something that really struck me, that space had to have a “sufficient largeness” to encompass or, perhaps, represent the grief associated with your father’s passing. This tension—between grief, which is such an intimate and personal thing, and the cosmos, which, even before considering its “sufficient largeness,” is vast beyond our comprehension—seems to be at the heart of your work. Do you think this tension between the large and small carried over to Ordinary Light? Was it the breadth and scope of the sentence or, perhaps, the form of the memoir in its entirety?
Tracy K. Smith: I think this tension between the intimate and the vast is at the heart of every poem by any poet, though of course the terms with which it is explored vary. Perhaps it is something we seek out in order to affirm that our small lives are tethered to something large and ongoing. Of course, what we sometimes bump up against isn’t always that consoling. Often it is the reminder that whatever that large thing is, it may well be oblivious to or unconcerned with us. But I’d also wager that there’s consolation in the fact that our efforts align us with a whole continuum of seekers. I like what I take to be Emily Dickinson’s spin on this conundrum: “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.”
My memoir made these terms far more local. It urged me to go after the minute details of my quotidian experience, and to enter into a conversation with them. That conversation, which for me involved questions of God, race, death and lineage, helped pull my own private experience into a more public space. It wasn’t the cosmos; it was history, legacy, American cultural heritage. That felt like a pretty big shift for me as a writer. Maybe the form had a lot to do with that trajectory, because while poems often proceed by way of large imaginative leaps, I found that prose urged me to stay put longer and extrapolate more. Only after those smaller steps had been laid out did I feel that I could venture larger leaps, leaps that allowed me to move back and forth across time, and between my private experience and the world at large.
Christopher Kondrich: You say that you were able “to move back and forth across time,” so were the sections of Ordinary Light written chronologically or out-or-order? How did Ordinary Light come together? I ask because I think of how a book of poetry comes together—decidedly not in the order the poems are written. Ordinary Light is composed of these brief, titled sections, and, in a way, they remind me of poems.
Tracy K. Smith: At first, I just allowed myself to rely on the things I remembered most readily, which was mostly scenes from early childhood. I wanted the narrative to be organic, to move associatively. I didn’t want it to be chronological. And yet, I found that the only way I could coax the other memories out was if I said ‘okay, what happened next’ or ‘I’ve written about 1980; what do I remember about 1982 and 1983?’ I began to realize that there was an arc to the chronological events that made sense, so I ended up leaving the chapters in that order.
I found that there were scenes that I had to just trust—stories that might not seem like they are going to add up to anything, but that feel valuable in the moment.
The only thing that felt wrong to save for the end was what became the prologue, the death scene. Because I knew that that was where everything was heading, any time there was a mention of even a minor kind of loss that took place before my mother’s death, I feared that it would read as some sort of forced or intentional foreshadowing of that great loss. I thought the most honest thing I could do was to lead with that death scene so that the reader would have the very same crucial information from the outset as I did.
Christopher Kondrich: The prologue ends with you taking a lock of your mother’s hair and placing it into a small plastic pouch—the kind that sweater buttons come in. I kept coming back to that moment, that small plastic pouch time and time again. It loomed over the entire book for me. Can you take us back to when you wrote that?
Tracy K. Smith: It’s funny because that image is something that was just real. I wished that I could do something more with it, but maybe it’s fine to just have this real gesture. Maybe that gesture is a small corollary to what memoir writing is: just collecting these things that will only make sense in hindsight.
Christopher Kondrich: For the reader, one can tuck the image of the plastic pouch into his or her pocket and take it out when needed, when one wants to marry what’s going on in the chronology to that beautifully rendered talisman. I mean, the book ends with your childhood self with your mother, wanting to check in—it’s so stripped bare, so intimate. I loved how that lock of hair could take on a metaphorical quality, but this moment, this checking in while lying next to your mother, couldn’t. Ordinary Light ends with just being with one another.
Tracy K. Smith: I found that there were scenes that I had to just trust—stories that might not seem like they are going to add up to anything, but that feel valuable in the moment. With the epilogue, I had no idea how I was going to get out of the book, and so I tried to just put myself in a moment. In some ways it confirmed the similarity between the process of writing a poem—where I am often trying to listen for images that feel profound and simply let them do their own work—and working in prose.
I started doing that with the first stage of writing Ordinary Light, but I found that simply listening for images wasn’t enough. I was asking every tactile or visual description to sit in the paragraph and do what it would do in a line of poetry, but it wasn’t producing the same kind of experience. My editor wanted me to give more, to be generous, to invite everything that happens off-stage in a poem to happen on the page, in the paragraph. What was exciting about some of the quiet gestures—like the ending, or like the little pouch of hair—was that once some of the larger events and themes began to accrue, then certain of those small gestures can come in and do work that’s similar to what they do in poems. That was affirming. It made me feel that while these different genres operate differently, what they’re built of is all just language.
Even when we are in deep persona, there’s some private urgency that is working its way into the poem. Speaking through these masks might enable something even truer to the poet to come out.
Christopher Kondrich: This makes me think about the speaker of a poem. When we’re young, we think that every time there’s an ‘I’ in a poem, we assume it’s the poet. But, of course, that’s not true. But when it came to Ordinary Light, it is you. So, I want to ask you about that transition between having a bit of cover with the ‘I’ in a poem and the reveal of the memoir with everyone knowing that it’s you.
Tracy K. Smith: It’s funny—I know that in a poem, even when the speaker is speaking from the poet’s experience, there’s always something that’s borrowed, some authority that sits outside of the poet that the poem has claimed. There’s a dramatic pitch that makes the speaker capable of saying something more courageous or stranger or simply other than what the poet would be able to say.
And yet, what I am really beginning to believe is that, yes, that’s true, but there’s also the opposite that is true. Even when we are in deep persona, there’s some private urgency that is working its way into the poem. Speaking through these masks might enable something even truer to the poet to come out. And, I feel like the older I get, the truer it feels that I’m only going have an investment in a poem if it allows or forces me to bring something that’s supremely me onto the page. I used to think that the speaker of a poem was talking to someone else, to some ideal reader or listener, but now I think that speakers—poets—are talking to themselves. The poem allows you to pose questions that you have you ask of yourself knowing that they are unanswerable.
I think that means that I didn’t feel a huge difference in terms of writing Ordinary Light. I felt like I was working with events that had happened, but the truth I was going for sat outside those moments. It lived in reflection, in what I was unaware of. That made made writing the memoir very similar to what I’m dealing with when I’m writing a poem. I am trying to imagine or project or coax something that might carry some tangential truth into the light.
But with a memoir, no one else is going to bother with this notion of the speaker—people who were there in those rooms in 1978 or 1994 were not going to be bothering with the notion that this could be a supposed self. Thankfully, that fact didn’t become something I was willing to consider until after I was done with the writing. I think it would have stunted too much. Now, having lived with a little bit of the fallout of telling my version of these stories, I know that I wouldn’t have been as honest if I was thinking about real people reading it as a book about my real life. Sometimes I think I should have said this was a novel!
Christopher Kondrich: So, if there isn’t a division with the speaker—
Tracy K. Smith: Well, I want to respect the division. As a reader, I think it’s a good kind of rigor to tell yourself that there’s a division. But I also know that the necessity of the poet gets mixed up in that. Does that make sense?
Christopher Kondrich: Yes, it does. And, so, when I was reading Ordinary Light, I was thinking that you must have had conversations with your siblings in order to account for events exactly as they were. Did you?
Tracy K. Smith: Yes, I did. My siblings were wonderful, but there were other people in the book who are upset because of what I said, what I admit to. Then there are the outer circles, people I don’t have access to who may also recognize themselves in the book and take issue with the difference between what I experienced with them and what they remember. I think memoir is just a contentious territory. I think readers who think of memoir as literature are so willing to understand what a text does, and to understand that there’s nuance and even anxiety between what the writer is stating in the present and what is being admitted to about the past. But for a person who finds herself in the book as as character—I think it must be hard to respect the reflective nuance, to think of what she’s reading as literature.
Christopher Kondrich: And then there’s the layer of what we’re doing now. We’re talking about a book in which real things happened to people. When I was prepping for this and reading through other interviews, I couldn’t help but think about some of the questions being less about the book and more about your life. That’s part of the reason why I felt somewhat uncomfortable reading it because I questioned whether I should know certain things about your childhood. Surely, you want to tell this story. But there were these scenarios that felt beyond me in a way.
I was interested in what activating these memories might allow me to recognize, what it might teach me about who I am and in world now, and what it might teach me about what I didn’t have the ability or courage to name at the time.
I want to ask you now about the role of the writer, about the public versus private role. But, I also want to ask you about the questions you’re asked that feel like they’re more about your life. You sit down to talk about the book and sometimes the interview veers off, and this gets back to what you were saying about the people in the book. You’re speaking, in a way, for them.
Tracy K. Smith: It’s a weird kind of transaction. I guess this has a little bit to do with someone who is reading the book as literature and someone who is reading it as storytelling. Part of what you’re trying to do is write it so that it can be read both ways. When you’re writing you’re not thinking about any of this, you’re going after what’s worthwhile to you. I was interested in what activating these memories might allow me to recognize, what it might teach me about who I am and in world now, and what it might teach me about what I didn’t have the ability or courage to name at the time. That felt useful. It made me feel like my experiences of race and God and death from years and years ago could be urged to make a valuable and new kind of sense in the present.
Cristopher Kondrich: Do you feel like you have a responsibility knowing the size of the readership you have?
Tracy K. Smith: I don’t feel obligated by that idea, but I do feel emboldened by it. Because other people are listening, I feel like I should take advantage of that. Last year, I wrote a few op-ed pieces having to do with race. I think it urged me to think about the world and to use this as my private practice of writing to do something that felt more public.
But maybe I did feel a shift in responsibility when I had kids. I wanted the work I was doing, whatever it was, to be something that could be meaningful to them one day. That’s where the germ of the memoir came from. I thought that perhaps writing about my parents and where I came from would one day be helpful for my kids.
Cristopher Kondrich: I really like thinking of Ordinary Light as a gift to your children. I think about how much love is in this book. The opening poem of Life on Mars, which is “The Weather in Space” has these lines: “When our lives slow/ And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls/ In our laps like a gangly doll.” The memoir itself can be thought of as this “gangly doll,” as all that you love. Do you think a book can hold all that one loves? Is this an impossible burden?
Tracy K. Smith: We have no choice! And I include in the category ‘all that we love’ all that we fear, all that we know and dislike about ourselves and others—all that we’re wedded to. I don’t know how we can turn our attention somewhere else. But, I have a different attitude than other writers. I’m so befuddled by the real that I don’t need to turn to something else. Lived experience is much too much for me! I don’t need a project of language. I don’t need to distrust the medium. So, for a writer like me, thinking about the real is all that I can do. Why? Because I know there is a disparity between the person I am able to be when I’m writing, who is mindful, meticulous, self-critical, generous and patient, and the person I am when I’m trying to get my kids to sit still for a few minutes. It’s so humbling to know that our best selves are reserved for the page. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that best self could live all the time and in all the rooms of our lives? I think the writing is a practice in being that self. It calms something. It allows me to be that mindful, generous person. And I feel like reading does that, too. When you’re reading, you’re so attentive to someone else’s view of the world even if it’s fiction. You do that for a little while and then you go back to honking at people.
Christopher Kondrich: Yeah, like a book is a kind of gym for empathy.
Tracy K. Smith: Exactly.
Christopher Kondrich: Much was made of the presence of David Bowie in Life on Mars when it was published. He’s gone now, which is befuddling, to use a word of yours. I’m confident you’d eulogize him, to speak about him as an artist, in a way that would do him justice.
Tracy K. Smith: I wish I knew him so I could say something more personal, something other than that he had a huge life-force, a huge imagination—it changed the world for me and for so many people who weren’t like him. Maybe it had something to do with the largeness of Bowie’s mind, the largeness of his concerns.
I remember watching MTV early on in the life of music videos; he was discussing his audience. He wanted to challenge the claim that the audience for music videos was only middle class, white youth. His vision was one of inclusion, of an interest in a racial other. He kept bringing the interview back to that. It was political in the best of ways. He challenged the interviewer’s sense that the market dictated what was possible. It’s sad that that spirit is gone.
Christopher Kondrich: Thinking about the transition you made to the memoir, the inevitable question is whether you’ll be going back to poetry. My mind, in this context, thinks about the shifts and swerves Bowie was able to accomplish. Has that ever been an inspiration for you?
Tracy K. Smith: Of course! He’s such a beautiful model because he remained himself throughout various periods. You could recognize him in all of them. We worry about disappearing into our me-ness, and I think this urges us to stretch ourselves, to change and to grow. But we’re also always turning back and asking ‘will I lose myself if I try this other thing’… It’s a normal anxiety. I would like to be emboldened by Bowie and other artists to keep moving forward.
I worked with a German poet—Hans Magnus Enzensberger. I call him a poet, but he’s also a novelist, a cultural critic, a public intellectual. He thinks of himself as someone who thinks and lives and makes, and what he does next is nothing more than what it is. There was one point where he invented a machine that would write poetry (maybe as a joke, maybe not), he’s written opera. I just love that largeness. I want to mimic that. I want to pattern what I might be able to do next after something as large as that.