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A Poet on a Mission

Tracy K. Smith
US Poet Laureate

I have a new poetry teacher I’ve never met although she visited South Carolina last April and her fame is spreading from coast to coast. 

For years my favorite poetry instructor was “The Writer’s Almanac” broadcast daily on South Carolina Educational Radio. I looked forward to that 5-minute pause and saved copies of poems and bits of history and news they shared.

I was brokenhearted when that show suddenly ended November 29, 2017.  It felt like losing a dear old friend and teacher who never failed to educate and entertain. 

The good news is that American Public Media is filling this gap with “The Slowdown,” a new 5-minute podcast, aired Monday through Friday every week. 

Listen online any time of day or night to this enlightening reflection and powerful poem as you pause, pay attention and slow down. (Subscribe to the podcast and associated newsletter at www.apmpodcasts.org/slowdown/)

The brains behind this gem of a show is Tracy K. Smith, current United States Poet Laureate and director of the creative writing program at Princeton. With degrees from Harvard and Columbia, she has won many awards and honors including the Pulitzer Prize for her third book of poetry, “Life on Mars.”

Recently, Smith has been featured in The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines as well as numerous online interviews reporting on her unique mission, “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities,” to introduce poetry to people in the smallest, often isolated parts of our country in a series of small group meetings.

Her memoir “Ordinary Light,” written with remarkable openness and candor, begins with her earliest memories as the youngest of five siblings.

Smith grew up in an Air Force community in California with her father, an engineer, and her mother, a teacher who chose fulltime mothering.  Her deeply religious mother reflects the intensity of Smith’s own unquestioning beliefs that change as she grows up.

Before her freshman year at Harvard, Smith’s passion for poetry was limited to only one poem by Emily Dickenson, “I’m Nobody! Who are You?”  She is certainly “somebody” now as her pilgrimage to far-flung communities is proving. 

Her tour exemplifies her personal mission to heal many wounds in our country – both historical and current.   “Profound conversation is desperately needed in our divided nation, which interacts largely through faceless mediums like Facebook and Twitter.”

“Wade in the Water,” her most recent poetry collection inspired by the Low Country Gullah-Geechee people in South Carolina and Georgia, draws from their painful but proud history and includes several erasure, documentary or blackout poems in which she selects specific individual words from historical documents while leaving out most of the published text.  The result is her entirely new poem that often takes an opposite perspective from its source document.

“Declaration,” arguably her best-known poem, has only 17 very short lines taken directly from the Declaration of Independence. 

Another poem, “The Greatest Personal Privation” is made up of words chosen from letters written between members of a slave-owning family and condensed into a poem that could have been spoken between an enslaved mother and daughter.

“I Will Tell You The Truth About This, I Will Tell You All About It” is made up of selected words found in letters from Civil War soldiers and their relatives addressed to President Abraham Lincoln pleading for help to receive their promised benefits.

Smith explains, “I can come from where I live to where you live—we have very little ostensibly in common —but yet we know each other. We’ve lived full rich lives and we’re curious about each other. And I think that’s really important.

“I feel like poetry gives us a vocabulary for who we are, what we belong to as people, as humans, and it urges us to stop and listen and think about others and think about the unspoken feelings.”

Poetry has the power to touch us deeply and to heal, even as it reaches across years and over miles.  Our Poet Laureate is on a mission and it could not have come at a better time. 

Susan Hendricks leads personal writing groups and workshops approved for CEU credits by the SC Social Work Examiners Board and is an instructor for The Writing Institute online. Read all of her Columbia Star columns at: www.susanhendricks.com/columbia-star-news.

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