As a minivan shuttled her to a gala at the Alaska State Library in Juneau, the capstone of her first visit to America’s northernmost frontier, the poet Tracy K. Smith stared out the window and soaked up the vastness. The cloud-topped slopes, dense forests, the marshy channels—it was all so free and untamed, especially compared to life on the Princeton University campus some 4,000 miles away.
“Bear!” yelled the driver, a Library of Congress escort.
“Wow!” cried Smith, the Poet Laureate of the United States.
Over her three-day trek across Alaska, Smith had marveled at all manner of taxidermy, from the stuffed moose standing sentry in the middle of the Anchorage airport to the buffalo head staring down at her as she read poems at an assisted-living facility in Palmer. But here was the real thing: a black bear, jaunty and unabashed, loping through a Mendenhall Valley subdivision at the edge of Glacier Highway in broad daylight.
“Oh, wow—wow,” said Smith, who considers her “spirit animal” to be her rescue dog, a chocolate Lab retriever named Coco. “I don’t know if I could live like this.”
Reinventing what a PLOTUS (the Library’s acronym) can aspire to, Smith had chosen the wilds of Alaska to launch her “American Conversations” tour, a bardic barnstorm she devised to bring the “humanizing power of poetry” to corners of the country typically left off the literary map. Like a poetic Johnny Appleseed, she has been sowing verse—coaxing readers, donating books—in communities unaccustomed to visits by Pulitzer Prize winners from the Ivy League. In an earlier version of the roadshow, Smith had shared her poems (and invited her audiences to share their interpretations) at a Methodist church in South Carolina, an Air Force base in New Mexico and a garment factory turned cultural center in Kentucky. By the end of this year, she will have added more whistle stops, in South Dakota, Maine and Louisiana.
In this age of social media fury, Smith relishes the opportunity to educate and be educated. “We’re so trained to just talk and explain and, you know, argue and outmaneuver other people,” said Smith, 46, director of the creative writing program at Princeton. “We need more practice being in rooms where we don’t know what someone’s thinking, where we have to actually listen to get a sense of what might be going on.”
Whether reciting a poem about the unimagined costs of suicide at a juvenile detention facility or a meditation on the unresolved legacy of slavery at an indigenous cultural center, Smith radiated a warmth that was unfussy and unscripted. She often spoke without being introduced and never presented herself as the keeper of secret knowledge, even if the poem was her own.
“Hi, my name is Tracy, and I’m a poet, and this is my first time visiting Alaska,” Smith told the two dozen seniors who had scooted and shuffled into a semicircle at the Alaska Veterans and Pioneers Home.
Her signature thatch of curly hair set her apart from the old men with ball caps commemorating the last century’s wars. “I believe that poems help us to touch base with our real selves, with the feelings and the memories that are sometimes hard to express,” Smith added. With that, she opened her 2018 collection of poems, Wade in the Water, and introduced her audience to a pair of unconventional angels—grizzled, in leather biker gear, redolent of rum and gasoline—who appear in a dream, “telling us through the ages not to fear.”
Like much of Smith’s writing, the poem straddles the empirical and the supernatural, drawing on precise, accessible images to wrestle with mysteries of faith and mortality. “I’d be interested to hear what stands out, what you noticed as I read that poem,” she said, eyebrows dancing cheerfully.
The response, she would later admit, initially unnerved her: slumped heads, involuntary moans. But Smith waited, encouraging and patient, giving her elderly pupils space to explore whatever image spoke to them.
“These thoughts come into your head—you don’t write ’em down, they’re gone,” Bob Schafer, a 76-year-old Vietnam veteran, finally said. “Sometimes it’s just a sentence, a word that comes into your mind, a memory, and you go ahead and make a poem out of that.”
“Oh, I love that!” said Smith. “And I feel like it connects to my sense of writing, too. I want to listen to the things that are there and follow where they lead.”
The next day, after flying to the remote Yupik hub of Bethel, Smith boarded a flat-bottom aluminum boat and motored down the Kuskokwim River toward the subsistence village of Napaskiak. Attired in Vans skate shoes that immediately became engulfed in mud, she wandered into the K-12 schoolhouse and asked for the principal. Smith had brought copies of American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time, a new anthology she edited, which she likes to think of as “a kind of 21st-century prayer book.”
Only after the principal thanked her for venturing to such an inaccessible outpost did Rob Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, think to confirm that we had indeed come ashore in Napaskiak. “Oh, no,” said the principal, Drew Inman. “This is Napakiak.” (Smith did manage to squeeze in a stop at Napaskiak, a little ways upriver, and donate more books to the school library there.)
“Some of the popular notions about poetry, that it’s kind of an intellectual luxury or a decorative art, are not only misguided but really deceptive and even cruel,” she said. “I feel like I have an opportunity and maybe also a little bit of a responsibility to say, ‘You need this thing and you can have it.’”
When Smith was first appointed to her post in 2017, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden saluted her for producing poetry “so big and sprawling in its themes, and at the same time laser-focused in its words.” In her four collections of poems, Smith has conjured a cosmic David Bowie, “dragging a tail of white-hot matter,” and compared the eldest of her three children (8-year-old Naomi, who joined her on this trip) to an “incongruous goat” tethered to a lone tree atop an island of rock. In perhaps her most celebrated poem, Declaration, she applied an erasure technique to the Declaration of Independence, strategically deleting passages to reveal an audit of the nation’s founding promise:
In every stage of these Oppressions We Have Petitioned for
Redress in the most humble terms;
Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury.
Raised in a Northern California exurb by an Air Force father and a prayerful mother, both with Alabama roots, Smith longed to break free. As a schoolgirl, on her first trip to camp, she gaped at a forested landscape that bristled with “the potential for some sort of magic,” as she put it in her 2015 memoir, Ordinary Light.
On her final night in Alaska, Smith paid an after-hours visit to the edge of Mendenhall Glacier, a river of ice creaking in the darkness. Returning to town, the minivan’s headlights picked up a critter—black eyes rimmed in white fur—crossing the road. Smith shrieked. The thunk of the raccoon dampened whatever spirit of adventure remained.
“Do you think he survived?” asked Naomi. Face buried in her hands, Smith seemed exhausted, having at last absorbed as much of America’s outer limits as she had shared.
“Back in the city, someone will ask, maybe very innocently, ‘So what’s it like? What’s rural America like?’” said Smith, who planned to chronicle her travels on the Library of Congress’ “American Conversations” website. “It isn’t a single thing. It is every person and every place, and that’s something we could all be more aware of.”
Join Tracy K. Smith at a Smithsonan Ingenuity Festival free event, December 5 at 1 pm, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Smith will be discussing the impact of history and race in her acclaimed collection of poetry, Wade in the Water.