Literary Event: Tracy K. Smith’s Inaugural Poet Laureate Reading
On Wednesday, September 13th, Pulitzer-prize winner Tracy K. Smith read as Poet Laureate for the first time. Before she took the stage, nineteen-year-old Amanda Gorman read as the first ever Youth Poet Laureate.
National youth organization Urban Word regional finals across the US earlier this year and in April named Amanda Gorman the first ever National Youth Poet Laureate. Gorman, 19, is poised and immensely talented. The poem the Harvard sophomore wrote for the evening is titled: “In this Place (An American Lyric)” and it begins like this:
There’s a poem in this place
in the footfalls, in the halls
in the quiet beats, in the seats
it is here, at the curtain of day
where America writes a lyric
you must whisper to say…
You can listen to the rest of the poem here. (Gorman takes the stage at 13:30 minute mark)
The National Poet Laureate position is a one-year term. A position that by law is described as “Poet Laureate of the United States.” The position was held most recently by WS Merwin, Philip Levine, Natasha Trethewey, Charles Wright, and Juan Felipe Herrera. In a brief speech, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said that the Library surveyed 120 poetry experts across the country (editors, critics, publishers, bookstore owners, and former poet laureates). She described the choice of Tracy K. Smith as “crystal clear.”
Smith read from her books, Life on Mars, Duende, The Body’s Question, and the forthcoming Wade in the Water. Her poems vary significantly in form and theme. For me, one of the most moving parts of Smith’s reading was the Civil War poem commissioned by the Smithsonian. It is a found poem consisting of lines from depositions and letters written to President Abraham Lincoln by black soldiers and their families. In the Inaugural reading video, she reads these poems at the 53-minute mark.
Smith also talked about “duende,” a concept that interests most of us as writers.
“[Federico] García Lorca was describing the wider vocabulary of art. It’s used to describe the wild, often times dark and unpredictable energy that we all house, not just artists, but people and that a daring artist might seek to draw out and wrestle with in art making. I loved that so much when I was a student reading about it in workshop and saying, “Oh, I want to have that kind of passionate sense of my work.” And then years later, traveling, I realized this sense of wrestling of something that might undo you and surviving the effort with something remarkable to show—something that’s not just beautiful, but something that’s raw and damaged and profound— that’s not just something artists do. I think about the way that people all over the world—all over our world —are wrestling with something that seeks to undo them and they do their best and often times they overcome it. So this concept became something that had to do with the urgency of being human.”
Here’s the first section of Tracy K. Smith’s Duende:
The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir
Of furious music heavy in the throat.
They drag it out and with nails in their feet
Coax the night into being. Brief believing.
A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.
And in this night that is not night,
Each word is a wish, each phrase
A shape their bodies ache to fill—
I’m going to braid my hair
Braid many colors into my hair
I’ll put a long braid in my hair
And write your name there
They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing.
You can read the rest here. You can also read an essay by Tracy K. Smith about the concept of duende and the work of García Lorca at Poets.org. If you want to listen to her reading of “Duende” at the Inaugural reading,it begins at the 30-minute mark).
Yohanca Delgado is an editor at Café Américain and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.