Author Crush: Tracy K. Smith
February 25, 2016
By Anastacia Renee Tolbert, WITS Writer-in-Residence
Tracy K. Smith’s Duende (2007) opens with:
This is a poem about the itch.
That stirs a nation at night.
And closes with:
If wind on the horizon,
Thundering the trees,
Making all of our houses small—
I want to tell you, dear reader, to enfold this beginning and end around you, as you’d cradle nostalgia or memorize the outline of a lover’s face. Duende: even the sound of the word leaves me at pause or praise or please. Federico García Lorca defined duende as the elusive ability of the artist to channel creative and sublime power from within; for Lorca, this power comes from encountering death, “the pain which has no explanation,” which the political violence in Smith’s work often circles around.
To say Tracy K. Smith is a prolific writer is absurdly true—but it then sounds as if she only writes a lot. She does, but that’s not the reason why readers inhale her work, leaving us experiencing a euphoric alphabet crush, a word association infatuation. After reading Duende cover to cover, the truth is yes; I am literary crush-ing on Smith’s Duende, wheel-turning and in awe over the way she carries readers through multiple portals without letting them know space and time will be traveled.
There is always a road,
The sea, dark hair, dolor.
Always a question
Bigger than itself—
They say you’re leaving Monday
Why can’t you leave on Tuesday?
There’s a certain sense of disorientation in Smith’s writing. It is not the kind of writing that elicits the question, how did I get here? where readers don’t feel as if they have any road signs, in other words, the proverbial sound notifications signaling when the writing morphs. Instead, Duende fits under the category of Doctor Who’s telephone teleportation device, Harriet Tubman’s underground railroad, Oya’s gatekeeping for the dead—envision layered worlds within worlds within dimensions, within the constructs of a clear beginning, middle and end.
Smith’s poem “History” reads as a short novel, its stanzas broken into thematic groups and assigned section titles. In Part Three of “History,” titled “Occupation,” the first stanza avoids the use of flowery language, refusing to solicit the reader’s forgiveness:
Every poem is the story of itself.
Pure conflict. It’s own undoing.
Breeze of dreams, then certain death.
Every poem is a world.
After reflecting on why Smith is one of my author crushes, it occurs to me that I enjoy writers who intentionally take risks, who utilize the entire space on the page by filling up the white space (or decide the poem is not complicit enough to fill up the entire page). More importantly, most of my author crushes aren’t afraid to intentionally challenge or discuss issues of race, sexuality, spirituality, romance and history/herstory.
Lastly, but hardly a final thought regarding Tracy K. Smith: she isn’t interested in a single topic, nor does she engage readers in formal predictability—a literary crush has to keep me guessing just what the heck might be on the next page. Through global storytelling, many of Smith’s poems tackle questions regarding the mistreatment of marginalized people and oppressed voices. If you are new to Smith’s work and plan to see her when she graces Seattle, treat yourself—pick up a copy of Duende and read “History.”
Anastacia Renee Tolbert is a queer super-shero of color moonlighting as a writer, performance artist and creative writing workshop facilitator. She has received awards and fellowships from Cave Canem, Hedgebrook and VONA. She is the 2015-16 poet-in-residence at Richard Hugo House. Her “chapbook 26” was published by Dancing Girl Press, and she is a 2015 Pushcart nominee.
 I asked complete strangers at Elliott Bay Bookstore how they felt about the word enfold vs. clutch. We had a meaningful conversation that led to Smith’s precise word choice—the magical way she invites readers on what looks like a small journey of a single word, when, without warning, they end up in a land with far more depth, far more profundity, and far more layers than anticipated: epic, soil, pity, hook, beer, soot, tent, feed and small.
 On page 64 of Duende, readers enter the portal of “Into the Moonless Night,” a poem about four female teenagers of color kidnapped in Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance, the rebel group led by Joseph Koney. Smith’s work in this poem is grotesquely beautiful. She weaves a chorus of bottomless, wanting, haunting personal narratives from each girl. Early in the poem, one speaker, Jennifer, says: “This is not myth. / My body did not sing. It stank.”
 When Smith talks about race, she doesn’t make readers feel as though they’ve signed up for diversity training—she says what she wants, unapologetically. In “History,” she writes, “This poem is Creole. Kreyol. / This poem is a boat. Bato. / This poem floats on the horizon / All day all night. Has leaks / And a hundred bodies at prayer. / This poem is not going to make it.” As the reader, I want to resuscitate the poem so that it lives—my crush seeks to understand her craft and why the poem might not make it. What is most heart-palpitating: the poems always do make it. Smith knows how to end a poem even when the subject matter lends itself to neither resolution or revolution.