The Library of Congress by design keeps to a minimum the specific duties of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, and it is in this spirit of vagueness that our nation’s official poet is afforded the maximum freedom to pursue his or her own path.
In other words, no where in the U.S. poet laureate bylaws is it written that the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress must visit Ashe County. And while some former laureates have organized and chaired literary festivals or conferences, fresh into her second one-year term as laureate, Tracy K. Smith is under no such obligation.
In other, other words, Smith’s descent from the ivory towers of Princeton University where she holds a day job — being the U.S. poet laureate is no financial windfall; the position comes with a $35,000 stipend — to attend a small literary festival in the mountains of Western North Carolina is not only by choice, but very much in keeping with her desire to promote poetry as a way to make us, “whoever and wherever we are, a little less alien to one another.”
If this “less alien” quote promoting the desire of our nation’s 52nd poet laureate — the honor was first bestowed in 1937 but some poets, such as Smith, have served multiple years — is unfamiliar, that is understandable. Although Smith has used the position to not only use poetry as an accessible means of joining Americans from all walks of life, this particular line is from “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time” (Graywolf Press), a slim volume of poems selected by Smith and just published Sept. 4, the day after Labor Day, in association with the Library of Congress.
As a primer for Smith’s own poetry, “American Journal” is particularly good. Not only does the author in her introduction expound on the purpose of poetry, she does it in such an non-professorial way that you will wish she had been your ninth grade English teacher.
Smith, the educator, writes: “Poems call upon sounds and silence to operate like music. They invoke vivid sensory images to make abstract feelings like love or anger or doubt feel solid and unmistakeable. Like movies, poems slow time down or speed it up; they cross cut from one view point to another as a way of discerning connections between unlikely things; they use line and stanza breaks to create suspense. Even the visual layout of words on the page is a device to help conduct a reader’s movement through the encounter that is the poem. These and other tools help poems call our attention to moments when the ordinary nature of experience changes — where the things we think we know flare into brighter colors, starker contrasts, strange and intoxicating possibilities.”
Such a prompt sets up well the 50 poems to follow, ranging from life in a small town to the requisite elegies to a prime example so many will identify with, “The Poet at Fifteen” by Erika L. Sanchez: “… In your ragged Salvation Army sweaters, in your brilliant awkwardness. White dresses like Emily Dickinson. …”
Weren’t most of us poets at 15?
“American Journal” also sets up well Smith’s own slender volumes, the most recent of which, 2018’s “Wade in the Water” (Graywolf Press), is an articulate and sensitive study told in Smith’s singular voice to explore “what it means to be a citizen, a mother and an artists in a culture arbitrated by wealth, men and violence.”
If that sounds rather broad, it’s because Smith has a way of bringing the broad into sharp focus. From “Eternity”: … Every chance I get, every face I see, I find myself searching for a glimpse of myself, my daughter, my sons. More often, I find there former students, old lovers, friends I knew once and had now forgotten … as though all of us must be buried deep within each other.”
In addition to these new volumes, it is sure that Smith will reach back to her 2015 memoir, “Ordinary Light” (Alfred A. Knopf); and 2017’s “Life on Mars” (Graywolf Press), winner of the Pulitzer Prize, when she shares stories about her travels across rural America as the U.S. poet laureate.
That event was originally set for Sept. 13 in the Ashe Civic Center but has been canceled due to Hurricane Florence. Ashe Arts Council officials have indicated that the event may be rescheduled for October, with no firm date yet set. All other literary festival events scheduled this week were set to perform as planned as of Sept. 12.