Tracy K. Smith, the 52nd Poet Laureate of the United States, is greeted by Alaska State Writer Laureate Ernestine Hayes before Smith’s reading at the Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Tracy K. Smith, the 52nd Poet Laureate of the United States, is greeted by Alaska State Writer Laureate Ernestine Hayes before Smith’s reading at the Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith brings poetry to the people

Laughs and free books mark poet laureate’s visit

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.

“I’d like to come back soon,” Smith said.

Tracy K. Smith, the 52nd Poet Laureate of the United States, is greeted by Alaska State Writer Laureate Ernestine Hayes before Smith’s reading at the Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Tracy K. Smith, the 52nd Poet Laureate of the United States, is greeted by Alaska State Writer Laureate Ernestine Hayes before Smith’s reading at the Andrew P. Kashevaroff Building on Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

More in Neighbors

teaser
Living & Growing: What do you regret in life?

This is a question that everyone needs to ask themselves.

Jane Hale (Courtesy Photo)
Coming Out: Being a man

You don’t have to show off your emotions, but you do have to feel them.

t
Gimme a Smile: Inflation 111

I was going to title this essay, “Inflation 101,” but the number keeps going up

"Our grief is real and despair or anger are often ways of trying to escape the pain with a little dose of control. I’m going to offer a third option; I have a fart machine I’ll sell you," writes Tari Stage-Harvey (Unsplash / Braydon Anderson)
Living & Growing: Healing in humor

“I resist the devil, and often it is with a fart that I chase him away.”

t
Writers’ Weir: Two poems by Monique Crisafi

Southeast Alaska-inspired poems by Monique Crisafi.

To say that our community and culture is riddled with political and social potholes is an understatement. (Unsplash / Matt Duncan)
Living & Growing: Driving safely on the road of life

May I invite all of us to slow down, especially when it comes to passing judgment…

Thx
Thank yous for the week of July 10, 2022

Thank you, merci, danke, gracias, gunalchéesh.

Jane Hale (Courtesy Photo)
Coming Out: In my seventieth year

Eyes undimmed, vigor unabated, ears unshot.

Tari Stage-Harvey (Courtesy photo)
Living Growing: Working up pollen

Being reminded again of the power of community