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Meet Tracy K. Smith, the Nation’s Poet Laureate

Director of Princeton’s creative writing program is focused on outreach to rural communities

Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith will be in Washington on April 19 for a reading event. (Photo by Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite 2017)
Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith will be in Washington on April 19 for a reading event. (Photo by Princeton University, Office of Communications, Denise Applewhite 2017)

Tracy K. Smith, the nation’s 22nd poet laureate, was just granted a second term in the coveted position by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

So how does one become the poet laureate?

“That’s something I really don’t know the answer to,” Smith said in an interview. “I’ve just been doing what I do and got the phone call one day.”

Smith, 45, is the director of the creative writing program at Princeton University, where she has been on the faculty for 12 years.

The position of poet laureate has always been something on her radar.

“As a student of creative writing, that’s a voice you’re aware of and because [of] some of the other projects the other poets have been involved in,” she said. “I’ve been a reader and a student of poetry for decades now. I looked to the poet laureate with a lot of enthusiasm and reverence as I was growing up, so it’s meaningful to be in that position now.”

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The position originated in 1937 as the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress after a philanthropist provided an endowment for it. The first in the role was Joseph Auslander, who was known for his war poetry.

In 1986, Congress changed the title to poet laureate consultant in poetry, which remains the formal title to this day.

While all appointees bring their own perspectives to the position, Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who grew up in California, is focused on outreach efforts to rural communities and places where literary programs are rare.

She kicked it off by traveling to New Mexico, South Carolina and Kentucky over the first three months of the year. The trips made her realize she would benefit from having more time as poet laureate. 

“In each of those states, I visited different towns, different configurations of community and presented a combination of my own poems and poems by other contemporary American poets and had conversations with people about the work,” she said.

She worked with people at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico, a men’s rehab center in Kentucky, and a Methodist church in South Carolina.

“Poetry, which isn’t something everybody spends a lot of time with, is another lens for thinking about experience,” Smith said.

When she’s not on the road, Smith is based in New Jersey. The position of poet laureate does not require her to work from the LOC in Washington. 

She will be in D.C. on April 19 for a reading event, “Staying Human: Poetry in the Age of Technology,” to reflect on her travels and her first year in the role.

Smith unveiled her fourth collection of poems entitled “Wade in the Water” last week. She will release a new anthology in September called “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time,” which includes works from living American poets of different ages and backgrounds.

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