“I don’t think I’m what you get when you read that poem in the best way you can. I think you are what you get.” This is what Tracy K. Smith said when asked whether her poems revealed more about their author or their reader.
Smith, former US Poet Laureate, delivered a reading of her poetry and translated work to a packed auditorium in HQ on Tuesday, April 11th. Students at Yale were already familiar with Smith through the English Department Foundational Courses, which have been featuring her work throughout the semester.
Smith started her presentation by reading a few poems from her close friend Yi Lei, whose work she translated from Chinese in My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree: Selected Poems. When talking about the translation process, Smith noted the meaningfulness of negative space in poems as she said, “Soon the language of reality will be silence.” Out of the three poems that she read, “Nightmare” seemed to resonate most with the crowd, provoking lots of snaps and “mmmmm”s as she slowly recited the words.
After paying tribute to the late Lei, Smith turned to her own poetry, prefacing it by saying that her poems are about “how we live together and against one another in America.” While Smith gave the audience plenty of insightful commentary about her poetry, her remarks about “The Angels” were particularly poignant. Explaining that the idea for the poem came to her in a nightmare, Smith recalled imagining two angels sitting across from her in a motel room, playing cards. These angels were not the stereotypical saviors that the term implies, wearing instead “leather bike gear” and smelling of “rum and gasoline.” Their message was no more welcoming than their appearance. As Smith noted in her explanation of the poem, the angels were there to tell her that she “isn’t crazy but that she is crushing herself” in the wake of heartbreak.
After Smith read the poem out loud, a brave audience member asked her whether she imagined that the angels were playing cards for her soul, to which she responded, “Oh god, I’m so glad I didn’t think about that when I was writing [the poem].” Although everyone in the room was acutely aware that they sat before a Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet Laureate, Smith’s humility and warmth distinguished her from the unapproachable speakers with whom people don’t dare to interact. Seeing that Smith embodies the eloquence and thoughtfulness that her words convey was a truly gratifying experience, especially as her response to the audience member’s question reinforced her earlier philosophy of hoping that the reader finds themselves in her poems.