U.S. Poet Laureate coming to Northern Hills

October 3, 2018

NORTHERN HILLS — Poems should be celebrated everywhere, and that’s why U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith is coming to the Heartland to discuss poetry.

She will be in Belle Fourche and Spearfish on Friday and Sturgis on Saturday as part of her “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities” tour.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to take what I consider to be the good news of poetry to parts of the country where literary festivals don’t always go,” Smith said. “Poetry is something that’s relevant to everyone’s life, whether they’re habitual readers of poetry or not.”

The Librarian of Congress appointed Smith the 22nd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in June 2017, and she is now in her second term as poet laureate.

Smith said poems give people a lot to think and talk about.

“People who feel they don’t have a connection to poetry may find it is something we can talk about in familiar and ordinary terms,” Smith said, describing that poetry gives all people a way of learning about others. “We are capable, even if we come from different perspectives to talk to each other on another level and learn something from their experiences.”

Reading a poem gives someone immediate access to another’s point of view, she added.

“All the things you know and are confident of need to recede, and the voice in the poem will teach you something,” Smith said.

Throughout her life, Smith said she has been someone who likes to observe and listen to her surroundings, and, not surprisingly, she was an avid reader.

“That instills an intention in a person. It teaches you to observe things differently,” she said.

Her favorite authors? Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain.

“I liked the feeling of sitting in a chair and losing myself in someone else’s world,” she said. “I’ve loved the sounds of words since I started reading.”

Then Smith discovered the works of Emily Dickinson.

“She spoke to me in a new way,” Smith said of Dickinson. “If I told my dad I was bored, he told me to go read a book of poems we had. I would hear music in that language.”

Smith was about 10 when she wrote her first poem.

“It was about humor. I thought it was very serious,” she said.

Writing poetry is a way of asking questions that require a little more time and creativity to ponder, Smith said.

“It’s a choice to say, I want to find meaning that gets below the surface,” she said. “We live our lives, experience deep events and when you can muster the courage to write a poem, you are writing to yourself.”

Some of Smith’s favorite poets include Lucille Clifton, a prolific and widely respected poet, whose work emphasizes endurance and strength through adversity, focusing particularly on African-American experience and family life.

“Her poems are like hymns to me,” Smith said.

Another favorite is Elizabeth Bishop, whose poems evoke a deep sense of yearning and unrest, Smith said. Also, among her favorites is Linda Gregg, who Smith said writes in beautiful, clear, transparent language about place and private memories.

Smith herself recently unveiled a new anthology, “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time,” featuring the works of 50 living American poets of different backgrounds, offering 50 different outlooks on America.

During her visits, Smith will give away copies of the anthology, which she will use to spark conversations about the power of poetry.

Smith’s goal is to create conversations that prove: Poetry helps readers slow down and think more passionately and deeply; poetry helps readers imagine seeing the world from another’s eyes; and poetry helps readers better understand the world.

Born in Falmouth, Mass., in 1972 and raised in Fairfield, Calif., Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature and Afro-American studies from Harvard University and a master’s degree in creative writing from Columbia University. From 1997-99, she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. She has taught at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, at the University of Pittsburgh and at Columbia University, and is currently the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities and director of the creative writing program at Princeton University.

Smith is the author of four books of poetry, including “Wade in the Water” in April 2018; “Life on Mars” (2011), winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; “Duende” (2007), winner of the 2006 James Laughlin Award and the 2008 Essence Literary Award; and “The Body’s Question” (2003), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith is also the author of a memoir, “Ordinary Light” (2015), a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Nonfiction and selected as a Notable Book by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Everyone is invited to the poetry readings and discussion. The first takes place at 9:15 a.m., Friday, at the Belle Fourche Area Community Center. The next is 5 p.m. Friday, at Matthews Opera House in Spearfish, and finally, Smith will have an appearance at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Sturgis Public Library.

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