Tracy K. Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, proved Thursday evening that science fiction doesn’t just belong in the movies. Sponsored by Poetry Days and kicking off the Lowell Humanities Series this semester, Smith spoke about her most recent collection Life On Mars, which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and was chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. Smith has published two other books as well, and is currently a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.
The poems within Life On Mars experiment with imagination and space, both in a celestial and a metaphorical sense. Smith’s poems suggest a fascination with science fiction, but she admitted that the true sci-fi lover was her late father, a scientist who worked on the Hubble Telescope. His passing led her to explore questions of existence and reconciling the vast space of the universe with earthly experiences, resulting in a collection that bridges the limitless “out there” with the finite.
“I realized that being ‘out there’ helped in articulating the questions and anxieties that came as a result of grief,” she said. “It all came together in an eerily frightening way.” Smith explained that she never thought of herself as a sci-fi person, but her interest in science fiction movies combined with her father’s passion encouraged her translate those themes into poetry.
Smith began with a reading of poems that outwardly project that otherworldly experience, such as “Sci-Fi,” “The Universe is a House Party,” and “The Weather in Space,” using metaphors of space in conjunction with human experience. Her poems ranged in form and subject matter, with some discussing questions of the intangible, such as “It&Co.,” with lines such as “We are a part of It. Not guests. / Is It us, or what contains us?” Smith recognized the “value and necessity of occasionally turning to form,” and as an example of formal structure, she read “The Speed of Belief”-an elegy dedicated to her father.
Smith also looks to immediate sources for poetic motivation. “I often get a lot of inspiration to write from the news, and things that unsettle me, and things that challenge me,” she said. After reading stories about Somali pirates and realizing that mere acceptance of these events wasn’t enough, she decided to play devil’s advocate and look through the lens of the opposing side in her poem “Ransom.” Smith spoke further of hate crimes that prompted her to consider the role of compassion in society, and imagined that her father would have a compassionate view of people currently on earth. She specifically addressed five hate crimes that later manifested themselves into her poem “They May Love All That He Has Chosen And Hate All That He Has Rejected.” The speakers of the poem are the victims of the crimes, who address their assailants in the form of postcards. This poem marks a break from the fantastical elements of science fiction, as Smith expressed her desire to give a voice to those who were silenced, and attempt to gain access into the minds of those who have suffered.
Her experimentation with style prompted a series of questions after the readings, focusing on her background and advice for aspiring writers. Place and setting played a significant role in some of Smith’s poems, so she addressed the need to settle in a location that will allow creative inclinations to thrive, and to surround oneself with supportive individuals.
“When I was a grad student, I just fell in love with my classmates,” she said. “I fell in love with their poems and their desire to become poets. It’s necessary to find some way to connect with people, and to learn from them.” Smith spent her childhood in California, but ended up on the east coast after receiving her B.A. from Harvard University and her M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia University. “I liked being in New York because I felt like I could disappear there,” she said. “I needed a new place to examine with courage and honesty the stuff that matters.”
Beginning writers may tend to think that their work needs to make an argument, or have a definitive point, but Smith noted that moving away from absolutes is an essential and liberating aspect of poetry. “It was only after I realized that I could start asking things and playing with the possibilities that it became fun,” she said.
That questioning nature connects with Smith’s final discussion of faith and spirituality in connection to poetry-she noted how a poem is often written by listening to the unconscious voices. “I feel like it is a matter of quieting down the other voices that we are enthralled to,” she said. For Smith, poetry is strongly connected to being-and accepting the poem as a sentient being itself.
Editor’s Note: the original version of this article included a photograph of a speaker who was not Tracy K. Smith. The online version has been corrected to include a photo of Smith when she spoke at BC.