Tracy K. Smith’s fifth collection and first career-spanning volume, Such Color: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf, Oct.), offers some of the former poet laureate’s best poems, as well as 30 pages of new work that tackles America’s legacy of racism.
What was it like curating poems from your first four collections alongside new work?
The radical upheaval of 2020—the Covid crisis, and the urge toward racial reckoning that many of us felt compelled by and implicated in—led me to seek new forms of contemplation. My creative process changed; it became more visceral, more meditative, more engaged with questions of my own literal and literary ancestry. I think I was driven to the page by a sharper sense of desperation than I’d known before. The poems I found myself needing to write during this time were driven by a different kind of music and energy: rhythmic, insistent, oftentimes emulating a kind of call-and-response. Revisiting the work from my earlier books, I guess I was seeking to gather up poems that seemed capable of conversing with the music and the conscience driving the new work.
Reading over your earlier work, what links do you see between books?
The Body’s Question felt very much like a book in which I claimed or professed an individual subjectivity: a body, a history, a set of passions and beliefs. Duende seemed to mark the moment where I said, “Okay, I’ve written from the perspective of an individual consciousness. What happens if I explore the perspective—and the contradictions—of myself as a citizen of a nation?” Life on Mars married my preoccupations as an American to questions caught up in my awareness of myself as a human, as a member of a planetary species. The next impulse my imagination cleaved to was the inverse of that project: earthbound, rooted not in the future but in history—in particular in the racial history that sits at the center of life in this country.
How did your time as U.S. poet laureate, in 2017–2019, widen your view of poetry?
During my laureateship, I had the pleasure of talking about poems with wide-ranging communities of people who, mostly, did not consider themselves to be writers or even avid readers of poetry. Those conversations often focused upon what poems made people feel and what poems spoke to in terms of people’s experience of love, loss, family, and community. It was a remarkable reminder that poems are practical everyday tools that can help us name and face our most complex and bewildering feelings.
How would you describe your new poems?
My new poems are written from a raced place. I am writing from and to the community of Blackness as I recognize and experience it. The we in these new poems is a Black we. Sometimes there is a you in these poems that sits outside that community. In those instances, I’d like to invite the tension and attention, of listening across lines of difference that have long been seen as intractable.