The end of Tracy K. Smith’s reading in the Father Andrew P. Kashevaroff building sounded more like the wrap up of a comedy set than the conclusion of a visit from the U.S. poet laureate.
For most of Wednesday evening’s event, as Smith read poems from her book, “Wade in the Water,” the audience was thoughtfully reserved, and the end of poems were marked by polite applause and studious “hmms.”
The subject matter of Smith’s poems ranged from Texas hill country to her then 4 1/2 -year-old daughter to real-life complaints from black Civil War soldiers who never received pension.
When Smith asked the audience to turn their attention to copies of a 50-poem anthology and consider “Let me tell you about my marvelous god” by Susan Stewart, conversation and laughter followed.
“What do you notice?” is a question Smith said she likes to ask her students at Princeton University. It’s also what she asked those in attendance.
Several seconds after Smith asked for feedback, less sheepish members of the audience had their hands up.
Some noticed the poet’s choice of descriptors, another mentioned the impression of circular movement created by the poem, and one audience member said the god described in the text seemed far from marvelous.
“You’re right,” Smith said. “Let’s close up shop.”
The deadpan answer drew loud laughs.
“The next time you have a party, put your cellphones in the trunk of the car and take out this, and see what happens,” Smith said and gestured to a copy of “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time.”
Copies of the anthology, which was selected by Smith, were given to many members of the audience.
Engaging with the public and spreading poetry to places that are often far removed from literary events is the goal of Smith’s “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities” project.
Smith, who is in her second term as poet laureate, started the project in her first term as a way to bring world-class poetry into rural communities.
She calls it spreading the good news of poetry.
“I was really thinking about how we live in a news cycle with some pretty worrisome stuff, and poetry is just good,” Smith told the Capital City Weekly before the reading.
While folks enjoyed hors d’oeuvres prior to the reading, Smith met with members of the crowd gathered to hear her read her work.
During the informal meet-and-greet before a reading,William Paul of Juneau presented her with some songs he had written.
Smith said it’s not often people present her with original work.
“She asked me to sign them, which was pretty cool,” Paul said. “It’s just quite an honor to speak to her today.”
Alaska and Alaskan writers also received some attention Wednesday.
Alaska State Writer Laureate Ernestine Hayes, who said she was thrilled to be in a room with an artist of Smith’s magnitude, introduced the poet and welcomed her to Juneau.
Hayes read an excerpt from her own writing as well as works by Alaskan writers, including Nora Dauenhauer and Emily Wall.
“It’s been a dream of mine to visit Alaska, and now, I know why,” Smith said.
A spokesman for the Library of Congress said in an email Wednesday it appears Smith’s visits to Palmer, Bethel and Juneau were the first ever by a poet laureate on official business.
However, it might not be the last one.
Smith was asked near the end of her reading when she planned return.
The question also got the audience laughing, but Smith didn’t take long to answer.