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Tracy K. Smith Named U.S. Poet Laureate


The Library of Congress today named Tracy K. Smith as the nation's new poet laureate. NPR's Lynn Neary spoke with her about her new role.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Tracy K. Smith is keenly aware that she's taking on the job of the nation's chief poet at a time when the country is deeply divided and uncertain about the future. But that doesn't scare her.

TRACY K. SMITH: What excites me is that I'm an ambassador for poetry, which is something that I wholeheartedly believe in and that has been a - a force of stability and consolation throughout my life. And I think that's - that's good news.

NEARY: Smith is both a poet and a teacher. She's a creative writing professor at Princeton. And her experience as an educator may prove useful as she sets out to spread her love of poetry to as many people as possible.

SMITH: I would love to go to places where people might be struggling, where people might wonder if there are voices out there for them. I like the fact that poetry is something that's a lifelong occupation. And so the young are included in this audience I'm interested in, and so are people closer to the end of their lives.

NEARY: Smith's poems, collected in three volumes - "The Body's Question," "Duende" and "Life On Mars" - take on subjects as vast and mysterious as space and as intimate as imagining the moment of conception.

SMITH: From what dream of world did you wriggle free? What soared and what grieved when you aimed your will at the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?

NEARY: Smith says in her poetry, she looks for the connections between the large questions of life and the small, day-to-day moments that keep us grounded.

SMITH: I'm always writing poems that are thinking about my private space as a mother, as a - a wife, as a child of parents. And then there are poems that cause me to look up and say, I wonder what it feels like in this other context that I'm separated from by geography, or by time or something else.

NEARY: Poetry, says Smith, is a gift you can turn to at moments that feel fraught or when the world seems uncertain. And at a time when empathy is in short supply, a poem can be a path to understanding.

SMITH: I feel like we are often in a position of just having to rush through everything. And when we rush, our center of focus is ourselves. We don't feel like we have the time or the luxury to look up and say, oh, look, this person is moving through the world too. I wonder what she feels. Or, you know, I wonder what's - what's in the heart or in the, you know, mind of this man that's sitting right next to me. A poem helps you to do that.

NEARY: Smith begins her duties as poet laureate in the fall, taking over the job from Juan Felipe Herrera. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.