Writers of the World: Tracy K. Smith

Kansas City received a real treat last weekend. The Kansas City Public Library brought Tracy K. Smith, the poet laureate of the United States to do a reading and q&a session!

Listening to such a highly-respected writer read her work was truly a spectacular experience. It’s always special to listen to a writer read his or her own work and also receive commentary about it and I encourage everyone to attend a similar event at some point.

When you go to events like these, you get unique information about the work. I loved hearing what inspired Tracy to write each poem and what she was exploring and thinking about along the way. Plus, she had a lot of insight to share. One of my favorite things I learned was how Tracy approaches writing a poem. First, she says, she starts with a question and then she sets out to answer the question. I’ve never thought about writing poetry in this way and it really got my mind turning. For me, on the rare occasion that I choose to write poetry, I am inspired by a phrase that pops into my head.

Tracy also had thoughts on how poetry is taught in school. Instead of focusing on the hidden meaning of things, she suggests focusing first on answering the question: What do you notice? I think that Americans in general aren’t very good at noticing things. We are notorious for going about our business and letting everything else fade into the background. Something that will always stick with me is something I learned from my  friend from Japan who now lives in SF. She said that the thing that bugs people from other countries about Americans is the way we’ll converse with someone going the other direction, but keep walking. So, saying Hi how are you just in passing. She says it suggests to others that you’re not really interested and too focused on your task. I do this all the time, and yet, every time I do, I think about this.

Anyway, I’m getting off topic here. The audience also asked the inevitable question that, in my not so humble opinion, marks them as wholly out of touch with language, its purpose and its fluidity, by asking what she thinks as a POET about hip-hop and texting (I’m paraphrasing here) and the supposed harm it has done to the English language. Of course, as a student of language, she responded that language changes and that it reflects society and everyone’s experiences. She didn’t disparage people or various pieces of American culture. This, for me, was the expected answer, particularly from someone who has written poems in dialect! Someone may not like the changes happening to our language, but as the ways we interact with each other and the world around us change, so does the way we describe and communicate within those new parameters. Language is a reflection of who we are as a people. Anyway, I’ll jump off my soap box.


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Attending the reading with Tracy K. Smith was a twofold experience for me. First, I went as a lover of poetry and poetry readings. But, I also went as a writer. As a fiction writer, poetry still plays a big role in my identity and I find it to be a huge influence on my own personal style and voice. Reading and listening to poetry is one of my secret weapons when it comes to writing rich scenery with lots of detailed descriptions or unique phrases. I’m always interested in a clever turn of phrase and I try to create those where possible in my own writing. I’m definitely part poet, at least, I like to pretend I am. Even if poetry isn’t something that you consider part of your arsenal, I highly encourage you to attend a reading. Poets have a special relationship with words and I find that I think more deeply about words and phrases and come away from a reading with new ideas and ways to look at everyday objects and subjects.

In Kansas City, we are lucky to have such fantastic programming at our local library. Our library consistently brings fascinating people to town to share their work, knowledge and experience with us. If you’re a local, definitely check out the Kansas City Public Library’s upcoming events list!



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