Capitol Hill To Undergo Changing Of The Guard With New Poet Laureate

Jun 17, 2017
Originally published on June 17, 2017 7:26 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a changing of the guard on Capitol Hill coming this summer. And no, we are not talking about a new senator or congressperson. We are talking about the new poet laureate of the United States. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith will take over this job in September. She was named to the post this week by the Library of Congress.

And Tracy K. Smith joins us now from Princeton University, where she teaches creative writing. Professor Smith, Tracy, thank you so much for joining us. congratulations.

TRACY K. SMITH: Oh, thank you. And thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Can you just tell us, how does one get the news that one has been named the poet laureate of the United States? Do people with uniforms come in to your office and deliver this in person, or how does this work?

SMITH: Well, it's only slightly less dramatic than that. I got a phone call from the librarian of Congress asking if I would be willing to step into the position. And, you know, it was something that kind of floored me, a huge honor and a surprise and something that didn't feel real for a little while.

MARTIN: You say you're coming to Washington where titles are important. Your official title is poet laureate consultant in poetry. And your official job description on the Library of Congress website states that the poet laureate seeks to, quote, "raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry," unquote. So that's the job. Any idea of how you might do that?

SMITH: Well, I have the sense that bringing poems and poetry to people is a great way of raising their awareness of the value of poems. I think that when you are in contact with a voice like the kinds of voices that live in poems that's speaking to you about something that's powerful but oftentimes also familiar, you connect to that. And I think that just bringing poetry to places where people are listening or might be willing to listen is one way of kind of fitting the bill.

MARTIN: What is poetry for? How would you defend it? Is that the right word? Defend that - the importance of it, why it matters, what would you say?

SMITH: Well, poetry gives us a vocabulary for the feelings that don't easily fit into language. And it's not a static vocabulary because we as beings are constantly changing and contradicting ourselves and growing and coming up against problems that feel completely new or happinesses that feel completely new.

The other thing that I think poems are really good at doing is teaching us that it's not just the feelings inside of ourselves that matter. We can also find a deeper connection to others by acknowledging the feelings that they house as well. And so for me, a poem is also a real vehicle for empathy.

MARTIN: I do wonder if you have any hesitation about taking this post, coming down to Washington at a time when many people describe the atmosphere here as toxic. And I just wondered, what made you want to come and take this job right now?

SMITH: I understand that reaction. We're in the midst of a lot of, you know, what everyone is describing as divisive language. The things that poems encourage us to acknowledge are more vital during times when we're up in arms about where we're going as a nation or where we're going as citizens. So I feel like the answer was a clear yes once I was able to acknowledge it in those terms.

MARTIN: That's Tracy K. Smith. She has just been named the poet laureate of the United States. She takes up her post in September. Tracy K. Smith, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SMITH: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.