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A Love Note To Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

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Connie Pan

Senior Contributor

Connie Pan is a writer and editor from Maui, Hawai‘i. She earned an MFA in fiction from West Virginia University and a BA in creative writing from Grand Valley State University. Her writing has appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Carve, HelloGiggles, PRISM International, The Billfold, and elsewhere. An excerpt from her novel-in-progress was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Instagram: @csnpan Twitter: @panlikepeter

During a trip to the historic Ferry Building in San Francisco, I bought American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time. The anthology features poetry by Jericho Brown, Victoria Chang, Natalie Diaz, and Ross Gay, among others. Every place I visit, I browse for a special title to buy as a souvenir. Often, I choose poetry because it’s my first love. While checking out, the Book Passage bookseller commented on my purchase, “Anything Tracy K. Smith does, I trust it.” I dizzied myself nodding.

American Journal Tracy K. Smith cover

My second read of 2019, sure enough, Smith succeeds in her goal of connecting the reader, me, with “fifty different real or imagined people with fifty different outlooks on the human condition.” A red carpet of poets, suddenly I need to add armfuls of new collections to my bookcases. The earliest published poem in the anthology features an excerpt from Robert Hayden’s “[American Journal].” Mr. Hayden, named the first Black American U.S. Poet Laureate in 1976 (then called a consultant in poetry), inspired the book’s title.

On November 26, 2018, Smith, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, American Public Media, and the Poetry Foundation, released The Slowdown. While traveling the country for her reading series “American Conversations: Celebrating Poems in Rural Communities,” Smith’s idea for the podcast sprouted. In “U.S. Poet Laureate Brings Poetry to Podcast and Radio Audiences with The Slowdown,” Smith praises technology for the “ability to collapse the distance between people—to give you the feeling that there is one person out there speaking directly and only to you—geography is no longer a barrier to participation.” Smith adds, “I think this is a perfect medium for talking about the very real and natural ways that poems speak to the daily experience of being alive.”

The five-minute podcast features introductions written by Smith followed with poems by poets like Franny Choi, Safia Elhillo, Joy Harjo, and Javier Zamora read by Smith. Late to the earbuds, I missed the first eight episodes. Sob! But I marathon-listened to everything available while folding laundry and organizing my closet, while brushing my teeth in the morning or at night, while dusting, while eating spaghetti, while driving. The episodes are short enough that they don’t eat my data. On days my alarm clock doesn’t scream at me to wake, I cuddle in bed and listen to the new episode.

A treasure of a poet laureate, I look forward to witnessing what Smith, whose term ends in April, does in the future. Thank you, Ms. Smith, for putting poetry in our hands and ears.

Wade In The Water Tracy K. Smith coverAnd now I begin Wade in the Water, a holiday present from a dear friend. Smith has exposed me to so many poets and poems, I’m excited to submerge myself in her writing. I leave you with the first line of the first poem in the collection, “Garden of Eden”: “What a profound longing / I feel, just this very instant, / For the Garden of Eden / On Montague Street / Where I seldom shopped, / Usually only after therapy, / Elbow sore at the crook / From a handbasket filled / To capacity.”