Tracy K. Smith





Tracy K. Smith: Across the Light Years
Written by Sam Witt
Photographed by Kely Nascimento-DeLuca

Tracy K. Smith’s third book of poetry, Life on Mars, which was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize, is full of stars, but her voice is calm, unassuming, gentle, sometimes a whisper as it comes across the light years onto my teleskype screen.

“Don’t forget,” her pixilated image tells me when I ask her about what motivated the book that made her literary star rise, “it’s also a book that, really, is coming out of grief.” Despite the other “big wishes of the book,” which is part retro-futuristic sci-fi pastiche, part rock opera, part political commentary and cosmic theology—the main fuel cell of the book is an elegy for the poet’s father, Floyd William Smith, who worked for many years as an engineer on the optics for the Hubble Telescope and died in 2008. “If I believe in the afterlife,” Smith says, “I’m telling myself everyday that he understands, that he’s entered into the kind of knowledge that is almost bloodless.”

Life on Mars is a wild and eccentric ride that casts the stages of its rocket off in bursts of transition between image and meaning, but at heart it’s an elegy, a celebration and a practical distillation of how one man saw the universe and the world with “the size and scope of his imagination.” The writer’s sorrow triggers many poetic streams, like the desire to imagine galaxies as they’re forming, millions of years ago, and to see them in reconstituted images so clear they could break your cryogenically frozen heart and thrust that heart into the galactic dimensions we only glimpse in certain human moments, like when we lose a father. “Looking out is really a matter of looking for this person who’s gone now. I know that drove me to write those poems, to the extent that there’s a vision of the afterlife the book is trying to articulate. It’s really about wanting to fashion something that I feel okay surrendering my father to.”

“All my life I remember my dad being really interested in science fiction and captivated by the idea of the order and the wonder of the distant universe but also just nature,” Smith says. “He was the kind of person who would just eat a fruit, dry the seeds out and grow his own tree because he wanted to see how things work and how nature propagated itself. So there was something about him that reveled in the idea that this Hubble Telescope was going to change the world and change our sense of who and what we are, which it has.”

Smith discovered poetry when she was at Harvard, while experiencing another loss, that of her mother, who was in the end stages of cancer. Among her influences she numbers Seamus Heaney, Yusef Komenyaaka, Elizabeth Bishop, Rita Dove, Kevin Young and Linda Gregg, among many others. This period was right around the time that the clearest images starting coming back from the Hubble Telescope, after the initial images had come back blurry at first. “I don’t think they spoke to me as thoroughly as they could have until after he died,” she says. And when I ask her if poetry is her Hubble Telescope, she laughs and lightly corrects me: “Form is kind of like an aperture that allows us to focus in on things we didn’t realize were there.”

However it came to be, Smith’s poetry is that rarest of things in today’s poetry-climate of minor literary celebrity: “perspective-changing.” Life on Mars is a book that surprises precisely because it stretches beyond the normal dimensions of easy experimental work, default formalism, (yawn), identity politics. This is a book constructed around the ability “to look at something ordinary and somehow transform it into something that was powerful.” And I can imagine that these poems were already in the works somehow when Smith was in college. It just took the death of her father to release them into the cosmos.

“I feel like it’s a way of stopping the forward motion of experience,” Smith tells me when I ask her to define poetry, “and holding onto things until they surrender what might be sometimes consoling, other times chastening, but either way it seems like a worthwhile kind of encounter to be after.” Do you think that the universe comprehends us back across all those distances, I ask? That’s when the conversation turns to David Bowie and the way the poems celebrate him as a man of different avatars: Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, and especially, The Starman, for he’s the only figure in the book that rivals the father for the reader’s attention.

Bowie haunts the book not just in the title, but in poems like “Don’t You Wonder Sometimes?”—Do you hear Bowie’s voice there, rising on the word sometimes?—in which the poet imagines Bowie as an extra-terrestrial among us. “Not God, exactly,” Smith writes, but Bowie does kind of gets the last word in this book. “You know, he’s this marvel, this other-worldly

shape-shifter. He’s also one of us, who has gotten through to the other side that we all want to believe is there. He’s the Starman. There was something so inspiring about the fearlessness and the beauty and the glamour and the camp of the different personae that he kind of rendered. In the book I also wanted to pay homage to him for whatever it was that I feel he gave me when I needed it, his work, his world-creating imagination. So I stole his title and tried to see if there was a way that I could get it to speak in yet another direction.”

I ask her if Bowie has read the book. “I don’t think he has,” she says, “I have no idea. I know that when the book was being printed, my editor sent a galley, looking for a blurb….And of course nothing, radio silence, which for someone like me is a little bit more reassuring. I would probably deconstruct if I actually did meet him.”

Indeed, the poems in Life on Mars sit on that knife-edge so perfectly—a father who dies, the body going slack forever; a father who doesn’t die but unzips the body like a coat and steps out of it, through rules of physics we haven’t entirely discovered yet; galaxies that are being born, galaxies that are dying before our eyes—but they don’t contradict: they build on one another, sort of balanced, like cells, in this profound way, to look for a father who has died, somewhere out there, somewhere within, “waiting to break back into the world through me,” she writes, “You swallow the light,” in that place where the afterlife meets the extraterrestrial.


I love climbing you
As if you are a mountain,
A monument built in the night
By invisible hands. And as I climb—
With my lips and my tongue, throat
Hard at work, eyes open or shut, hands
Quick, light as breath, agile, then exacting—
You watch, anemic from my effort,
Head moving left and right without you,
As if the sight of my work has scoured
Your mind clean of all but urge, itch, avalanche.
Then you go to the place beyond watching:
Clouds. Wind across water. A lone
Animal hounding the distance. Owl-
Song in the high moon-scoured branches.
Canyons spilling over with fog.

Tracy K. Smith: This is a poem that I started writing about seven years ago, and the first draft of it begins—the first one, two, three, four, five, five or six lines are there. The first version of the poem is about this same length but it kind of stayed in that same vein. I was thinking about love and the body and the kind of devotion that you have for the beloved, and I felt embarrassed. I felt like the poem was too raw. I still feel a little tinge of being exposed in handing this poem over but when I came back to it, I wanted to figure out another language for physical love. I used to always ask my students, before, ‘what are you afraid of writing? What have you always been afraid of writing about? And what would happen if you started writing on that topic?’ And for me it was always, you know, I was afraid of writing about sex. I was afraid of writing about love, so the challenge that I set myself in my first book was to do that. And I feel like I found a language for it, and I felt a way of capturing what I hear and recognize in that kind of encounter. And this poem—I wanted to figure out if now, however many years after my first book came out, twelve years after, if I could push that language in a different direction. I feel like the second half or maybe the last third of the poem, where the body completely goes away, might be the first inkling of what another language for experience might sound like, in my voice. You mentioned some poets you might know who are writing about the future in terms of ecology, and I feel like that’s something that I’m thinking a lot about, and that’s going to be a theme or a thread in the next series of poems that I write, the next project that I start. And so I think maybe wanting to go there, and think about not just the environment as an antidote to the human body or an escape but as something capable of translating what we feel and what we know.

“I feel like my real investment in a poem is right before the moment that it becomes public.”