Tracy K. Smith is an American poet and educator who served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. She is the author of five poetry collections: Such Color (2021), Wade in the Water (2018), Life on Mars (2011) (which won a Pulitzer Prize), Duende (2007), and The Body’s Question (2003). She also wrote a memoir, Ordinary Light (2015).
Her upcoming book, To Free the Captives (2023), is a poetic exploration of America’s past and present challenges and hopes.
Smith discovered her passion for writing and poetry at an early age, inspired by Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and other literary giants. She lives in Princeton, NJ with her husband and three children.
What does it mean to be free in America today? How can we reconcile the ideals of liberty and democracy with the realities of racism, violence, and inequality? How can we heal the wounds of our troubled history and create a more just and inclusive society? These are some of the questions that animate this provocative and inspiring book by one of America's most acclaimed poets and public intellectuals. Drawing on her personal journey as well as her engagement with literature, art, history, and politics, Tracy K. Smith offers a vision of freedom that is both critical and hopeful, challenging us to confront our past and present struggles while imagining new possibilities for the future. With grace, courage, and wisdom, she invites us all to join her in freeing the captives of our own making.
Such Color is a stunning showcase of Tracy K. Smith’s poetic brilliance. Spanning her four award-winning collections and featuring eighteen new poems, this volume traces Smith’s journey from a curious child to a celebrated poet, from a witness of history to a visionary of the cosmos. With extraordinary intelligence and exhilarating range, Smith explores the vast questions of existence, the mysteries of love and loss, the injustices of racism and violence, and the hope of resistance and redemption. Her voice is clear-eyed, compassionate, and daring, inviting us to share her awe of the world and its possibilities. Such Color is a magnificent retrospective that affirms Smith’s place as one of the most treasured poets of our time.
Tracy K. Smith explores America’s present and past with a keen eye and a lyrical voice in Wade in the Water, a collection of poems that connects our contemporary moment to our nation’s complex history and to a sense of the eternal. These are poems of varying scale: some capture a glimpse of song or memory; some collage an array of documents and voices; and some transcend the known world into the mystical, the sacred. Smith’s distinctive voice―curious, lyrical, and wry―examines what it means to be a citizen, a mother, and an artist in a culture mediated by wealth, men, and violence. Here, personal utterance becomes part of a larger collective voice as the collection includes erasures of The Declaration of Independence and letters from African American soldiers in the Civil War, a found poem composed of evidence of corporate pollution and accounts of near-death experiences, and a sequence based on testimonies of recent immigrants and refugees. Wade in the Water is a powerful and luminous book by one of America’s essential poets.
Tracy K. Smith tells her remarkable story in Ordinary Light, a memoir that explores her coming-of-age and the meaning of home against a complex backdrop of race, faith, and the unbreakable bond between a mother and daughter. Tracy K. Smith grew up as the youngest of five children in suburban California, loved by her parents who taught her to believe in God. But after a summer in Alabama at her grandmother’s house, she returns to California with a new sense of what it means to be black: from her mother’s memories of picking cotton as a girl in her father’s field for pennies a bushel, to her parents’ involvement in the Civil Rights movement. These startling contrasts–between her family’s past, her own comfortable present, and the promise of her future–will eventually compel her to act on her passions for love and "ecstatic possibility," and her desire to become a writer. But when her mother is diagnosed with cancer, which she says is part of God’s plan, Tracy must learn a new way to love and care for someone whose beliefs she has outgrown. Written with poetic precision and economy, this beautiful and moving kaleidoscope of self and family offers us a universal story of finding and losing ourselves amid the places we call home.
In Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith imagines a soundtrack for the universe with poems that evoke David Bowie and interplanetary travel. She explores the discoveries, failures, and oddities of human existence in a sci-fi future devoid of real dangers. She also contemplates the dark matter that keeps people both close and distant, and revisits the kitschy concepts like “love” and “illness” now relegated to the Museum of Obsolescence. These poems reveal the realities of life lived here, on the ground, where a daughter is imprisoned in the basement by her own father, where celebrities and pop stars walk among us, and where the poet herself loses her father, one of the engineers who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. This collection won Smith the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Duende is a poetry collection by Tracy K. Smith that draws inspiration from Federico García Lorca’s concept of duende, the dark and elusive force that an artist seeks to channel from within. It can lead to revelation, but it also embraces and serenades death. Smith’s poems explore history and the intersections of folk traditions, political resistance, and personal survival. Duende gives passionate testament to suppressed cultures, and allows them to sing.
This collection won Smith the James Laughlin Award.
The Body’s Question by Tracy K. Smith is a debut poetry collection that won the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African-American poet, selected by Kevin Young. In these poems, Smith confronts loss, historical intersections with race and family, and the threshold between childhood and adulthood. She gathers courage and direction from the many disparate selves encountered in these poems, until she can say, “I was anyone I wanted to be.”