The Library of Congress announced the selection of a new poet laureate, June 14.
Tracy K. Smith, 45, a graduate of Harvard University (A.B.) and Columbia University (M.F.A.), will succeed Juan Felipe Herrera when she assumes her duties in October.
Smith will join the company of other notable poets such as Rita Dove, Natasha Trethewey and Gwendolyn Brooks when she begins her term as poet laureate consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (the full name of the position).
A poet laureate is expected to promote the appreciation of poetry but how that is to be done is deliberately non-specific. The poet laureate is given wide latitude to achieve the goal as he or she sees fit.
Brenda Greene, director of the National Black Writers Conference and chair of the Medgar Evers College (CUNY) English Department, believes Smith may follow in the steps of Gwendolyn Brooks, poet laureate of Illinois and consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress.
“Gwendolyn Brooks was very much aware of form. She knew—she studied all the major poets but she also took very seriously her responsibility to engage young people with poetry. And, I imagine that Tracy Smith would be in that tradition,” Greene said. “She would help people to understand the importance of poetry as a craft and to come up with ways that they can be engaged in the creation of poetry.”
Like Brooks, Smith is also a Pulitzer Prize in Poetry awardee. Smith’s “Life on Mars” earned the prize in 2012 and her memoir “Ordinary Light” was a 2015 National Book Award finalist.
Smith is now completing a libretto on the legacy of slavery in the South, said Greene.
Ethelbert Miller, poet, literary activist and director of the African American Studies Resource Center at Howard University, sees Smith as “representative of a new generation of African American writers who are reshaping the American literary landscape.”
“I see Smith as being a person one looks to as a teacher of creative writing,” Miller said via e-mail. “This means there are many future writers whose work and vision will be shaped by her craft.”
Smith has taught at Medgar Evers College (CUNY), the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. At Medgar Evers College, Smith worked long hours alongside Greene on the National Black Writers Conference where Smith “really jumped in” as she moderated, participated and published the works of honorees, Greene said.
Smith is now director and professor of creative writing for the Lewis Center For the Arts at Princeton.
“She’s managed to do what some people have a hard time doing: to bring all of those parts together,” Greene said. “To be a mother, to be a wife, to be a poet, to be a teacher. She’s created what I call the unified whole. And that’s hard to do, and that’s a challenge to do. That’s a role model for many people who are interested in living that kind of life.”