What To Read By U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

by E. Ce Miller
Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Writer and educator Tracy K. Smith is the author of three poetry collections and one memoir, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet for the 2011 collection Life on Mars, and, now, the newest United States Poet Laureate. It’s a level of recognition that has been bestowed upon some of the greatest writers in poetry's recent history. Twenty-one poets in all — Smith’s naming makes her the 22nd — they include writers like Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, Louise Glück, and most recently, Juan Felipe Herrera. Last month, the Library of Congress announced Smith as the latest poet to join their ranks.

Anyone who has read Smith’s writing — her poetry collections or her 2015 memoir, Ordinary Light, — knows that she’s a force to be reckoned with: meditative and fierce, blending the deeply personal with the political and the universal. Her writing touches on subjects as diverse and sometimes disparate as politics, pop culture, history and science, death and spirituality, violence, family, death, the American southwest, dystopic futures, the Hubble Space Telescope, and so much more. In an interview with The New York Times, Smith said her plans for her time as poet laureate include a focus on visiting small towns and rural areas to share poetry there.

Here are eight books that will help you get to know Tracy K. Smith, the newest U.S. Poet Laureate.


'Ordinary Light: A Memoir' by Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith's memoir, Ordinary Light, was published in 2015, and is clearly written by a poet — telling a beautifully-written coming-of-age story about her early connection to the poetry of Emily Dickenson and Mark Twain, the challenges of her mother's illness, her parents' experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, and her own discoveries about what it means to be a black woman and a woman writer in America. Throughout Ordinary Light Smith explores family from multiple angles: from the past and the present, the personal and the political, examining what we believe as children versus what we later come to know as adults. If you want to learn about the writer’s journey from young reader to U.S. poet laureate, this is definitely the book to check out.

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'Life on Mars: Poems' by Tracy K. Smith

Life On Mars might be Smith’s most ambitious collection, and it’s the one for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2012. This poetry collection weaves together current events with science fiction, space exploration, dystopic themes, faith, and imagination, highlighting the beauty and the absurdity of modern life on — and beyond — planet Earth. She also uses this collection to meditate on the death of her father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. David Bowie makes a cameo appearance in this one too.

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'Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin' edited by Phil Cushway and Michael Warr

Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin features the poetry, personal essays, and images of 43 of the most iconic African American writers writing today — including Tracy K. Smith, whose poem, Duende, is included alongside a brief narrative about the poet’s early experiences in the Boston poetry scene, during her studies at Harvard. Throughout this entire collection, each included poet is called to explore the modern history of racism and politics in America, while each poem is featured alongside a photograph and first-person narrative about the inspirations and motivations of the poet.

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'Duende: Poems' by Tracy K. Smith

“Duende” is an invented word, defined by Smith as the dark, elusive, creative, and ecstatic power an artist seeks to summon from within themselves and convey on the page. Definitely a collection for poets who love poetry — or one that will make anybody love poetry more — Duende takes readers into one writer’s journey through the history of storytelling and poetic traditions, exploring the role poetry historically has, and does, play on both the political stage and in personal life.

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'The Body's Question' by Tracy K. Smith

The Body’s Question is Tracy K. Smith’s first published collection of poetry, winning the 2002 Cave Canem Prize for best first book by an African American poet. A quiet storm of verse, this collection is another exploration into the tumultuous space between childhood and adulthood, and confronts issues of race in America, family, and loss.

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'State of the Union: Fifty Political Poems' edited by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Zapruder

Published in 2008, State of the Union is another collection of politically-charged poetry that features the work of Tracy K. Smith. Smith appears here alongside poets like Wanda Coleman, Eileen Myles, Terrance Hayes, Tao Lin, Ed Roberson, and more. Both critical and optimistic (remember, it was 2008), State of the Union celebrates both resistance and hope, often side-by-side.

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'The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks' edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith

Published by the University of Arkansas Press in February and edited by Peter Kahn, Ravi Shankar, and Patricia Smith, The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks begins with the question “where do poems come from if not other poems?” The anthology is a hybrid collection of the poetry (or poetic excerpts) of Gwendolyn Brooks accompanied by new works by contemporary poets — including Tracy K. Smith, whose original poem Semi-Splendid is featured alongside the work of writers like Rita Dove, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Julia Alvarez, Joy Harjo, Nikki Giovanni, and more.

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'Wade in the Water: Poems' by Tracy K. Smith

The good news is, now that you’ve totally fallen in love with this 22nd U.S. poet laureate, she’s got a new poetry collection coming out. Wade in the Water: Poems will be released next April by Graywolf Press. The title poem, Wade in the Water, was recently featured in a June issue of The New Yorker — presented both in text and an audio reading by Smith herself. The collection is true Smith, braiding America’s history with its present in a way that will move, challenge, intrigue, and inspire readers.

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