The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Tracy K. Smith about her collection Life on Mars.
This is an edited transcript of the Poetry Book Club discussion with Tracy K. Smith. Every month The Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts a discussion online with the club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can read the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club click here.
This conversation was edited by Rumpus Poetry editor Brian Spears.
Sean Singer: What is the thinking behind the many rhetorical questions in this book?
Tracy K. Smith: Well, I started asking questions in poems when I realized that it was really difficult to “know” everything in question, everything that is at stake in whatever the poem is concerning itself with. It feels like an honest move to me to nod toward what I don’t know or what I wish I could know.
I hope it asks the reader to wonder some of the same things, even briefly.
Brian: I’m a fan of that myself. I grew up in a world where answers were everywhere, and now I’m a big fan of questions
Melissa Barrett: I liked that– I think the charm of this collection is how humble it is in the face of unknown. I was also reminded of “The Body’s Question.”
Brian: Exactly, Melissa, or even the unknowable.
Sean Singer: That would explain why, although political and personal spaces are often thought about as definitive, full of clarity, and final, your book seems to ask more than it answers. What do you think about it?
Tracy K. Smith: Thanks. I can’t imagine what other stance a person could honestly take. The questions I was dealing with felt troubling and vast. Even the political ones–and I wanted to push myself past some of my own initial reactions.
I was asked to put the book into context recently, and I realized that it really is trying to ask that question in “The Body’s Question:” What do you believe in? I guess it’s once of my obsessions.
Katelyn: Yeah that’s what I liked about the collection too–posing questions seems a lot more genuine than trying to answer what we can’t know. I wondered about the scientific facts you play with in the poems–are those things you researched specifically with writing poems about them in mind, or were they just facts you found out and filed away that then made it into the poems?
Sean Singer: 2. In “They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected” you present a series of postcards from murder victims to their killers. How did you arrive at this set of people, and how do you place them within the other themes in your book?
Tracy K. Smith: Sean, I had been reading the paper over the course of a month or so, and I was so moved and hurt by all of these crimes happening in what felt like quick succession. I wanted to imagine a space for the victims to speak from, and I wanted to push myself a bit to think in a more complex way about the perpetrators.
I guess that poem straddles the idea of the ever-after, which runs through the beginning of the book, and the day-to-day realities that those of us in the here and now are married to, willingly or not.
Brian: That poem was sort of the anti-matter version of the Jeffrey Dahmer poems that Thom Gunn wrote. Those were intensely disturbing, and these were too, but in a different way.
Tracy K. Smith: Katelyn: I have such a minimal ability to truly process scientific fact. I tried very hard to learn something about quantum physics, but the ideas kind of evaporated really quickly from my mind. So the poems in which space is considered were, at least in part, attempts to make something “stick.”
Sean Singer: How do disparate pieces of content become integrated across multiple threads in a book? Is this a question of form, content, order of poems, or something else?
Gaby Calvocoressi: Hi All!!! Sorry to be late…really spotty internet. Hey Tracy!
Tracy K. Smith:Wow, that is a big question, Sean. I think that I reassure myself with the idea that the source of the poems–my imagination, my vocabulary, my obsessions, the particular period in time during which they were written–will serve to unify them somewhat. Beyond that, I look to placement to underscore themes. I want poems to speak to one another.
But I also find myself trying to fill in gaps, once the manuscript starts to take shape, by writing into the absences as I see them.
Melissa Barrett: I think that postcard section is one of the riskiest moments in the book. I love how it strays from tone/voice of the other poems, but still is connected to the book’s larger idea. Did you ever second guess yourself writing that, or including it in this collection?
Tracy K. Smith: Melissa, I didn’t second-guess the writing of that section. I felt like I needed a shift in my head from the kind of outside perspective that I fell into as an observer. That section allowed me to imagine voices for the victims, and then I realized it was a way to get past the anger–I wanted the victims to be compassionate in a way. And that was unsettling.
Brian: I wondered about the poem “The Universe is a House Party,” in part because I assigned it as a final to my students last term. I read the end of it, that line “Of course it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.” in a fairly sinister way. None of my students did. I’m afraid I overthought it a bit.
Mark Folse: Brian, I had the same reaction to that line: sinister.
Melissa Barrett: Yes! Definitely sinister.
Tracy K. Smith: Oh, I like “sinister” as a descriptor there. Yes, it was a moment of criticism.
Brian: Mark, I know that it comes from the Stephen Hawking notion–and he’s not the first, just the latest– that if aliens show up, they won’t be bearing roses.
Mark Folse: “To Serve Man. It’s a cookbook!”
I think Rod Serling got to that idea first.
Sean Singer: Are poems political statements, or is the act of writing a poem a political statement, or both?
Tracy K. Smith: I think poems are moments of contemplation and conversation. When they allow for a more challenging kind of engagement with events then I think there is the opportunity for something political to happen.
Melissa Barrett: I felt the same critical tone in “Cathedral Kitsch”–”Does God love gold?”
Mark Folse: Yeah, there was some strong reaction to starting out with God in the first poem on the discussion list but “Cathedral,: “It & Co” and several others point to a complex mediation on the line I can’t find right now about that which pushes against us.
Tracy K. Smith: The other night, I read “Cathedral Kitsch” and someone described it as reverent. I tend to think of it as a bit more mischievous than that. It’s a look at the image of God we project in spaces like that. And the reflection of ourselves that shows through.
Gaby Calvocoressi: I agree completely with that statement. One of the things the group has been discussing a great deal this month is the way form works in the book. I wonder if you might talk about your use of and riffs on traditional forms. Does this become part of the idea of a more “challenging” manner of engagement?
Tracy K. Smith: God kind of barged in, and I didn’t ask him to leave…. I was trying to consider what felt like big things: my father’s death being foremost among them. But I don’t think of God as simply a religious figure. I thought that marrying him to Space–which we feel more comfortable accepting as a vast unknowable given–might make it easier, or more acceptable, to let ideas of God or belief or the need God(s) spring from into the book.
Mark Folse: Can you talk about about It, the recurrent theme of God, It, the sense of the larger other out there: “like some novels, vast and unreadable.”
Melissa Barrett: And there’s some criticism of the vendors hawking tshirts in “The Museum of Obsolescence.” Is part of the intent of this book to instruct us against consumer culture and toward a sort of spiritualism?
Katrina: Hi tracy (and all) — katrina here from the west coast on the cusp of the witching hour so i may be brief — but i wanted to day thanks to tracy for this book (and yes, i do want to chat with you about coming to read here) and also to say i really appreciate how you marry the personal politic with a more universal politic — how intensely intimate yet resonant a poem like SACRAMENT is (and Gaby, I’ve been thinking about your question the other day about navigating the personal, so thanks for that stimulation, too!) Actually, though I feel I’m interrupting (sorry!!) i’d love to hear a bit about the spacing in Sacrament… And, apropos of what you actually all are speaking about — I love the possibility of reverence in poetry –. And, accessible reverence. Of course, accessibilty is such a loaded word, hunh? No need to derail the conversation you’re having!!
Tracy K. Smith: Okay, i want to try to address all of these great comments….
Mark Folse: To echo Gaby, to Lorca’s thoughts about Duende transcending form enter into it. Saw your poem and essay on poets.org and pulled up the copy of the Lorca’s Duende lecture this afternoon that lives on my hard drive.
Gaby Calvocoressi: Ooh echo. I love that word in the context of this book. “ghost form” is another term Ive been thinking of a lot with this book, how it challenges our own notions of readership…a real gift of the cagey-ness of form in the book.
Tracy K. Smith: Melissa: I am not ever trying to instruct in a poem. It really goes against my sense of what a poem is to try and use it as a vehicle for pushing a belief or conviction. The elements of the world that come in, like vendors or assailants or God, come in because I’m wondering about them. Wanting to see how they might fit into the larger questions I’m grappling with.
In terms of form….I resisted it for so long as a writer. Perhaps because I felt like I wasn’t meticulous enough. But then I realized that what everyone says about the constraints being liberating, or capable of leading you to say things you didn’t know wanted to be said was true. The formal moments in “The Speed of Belief,” for example, were the direct result of sitting down with the need to write but without the sense of how to begin. So I turned to form as a starting point.
Thanks, Gaby. I’m interested in this idea of “cagey-ness.” Is that something you see in the shifting modes in the long sequences?
Brian: I looked at those t-shirt vendors as an example of how some things are eternal–Jesus and the money changers at the temple sprang to mind, for example, and the vendors now know to set up where a crowd’s going to come by.
Melissa Barrett: Ah, interesting Brian.
Mark Folse: Gaby–ghost form for the villanelle-like piece?
Gaby Calvocoressi: Yes. And then you do this amazing thing of exploding it. I’m really blown away by the virtuosity and muscularity of these poems. Oh! Cageyness! Okay..
Gaby Calvocoressi: Yes. ghost form meaning the poems that are metered in such a way that they make you look for the form (which makes one have to realize that we want form on some level) and then sometimes you find it but sometimes you don’t
Tracy K. Smith: I think that might be my “need” to vary things somewhat within the closed forms. “Solstice” sets out to be a villanelle. I guess I consider it to be a villanelle with substitutions.
Gaby Calvocoressi: And when you don’t you can actually feel on such a deep level the act of your own engagement in the poem…the physical sense of trying to find that form
JS: isn’t form always there? even if ‘ad-hoc’ …
Gaby Calvocoressi: It’s very powerful in these poems that to some extent are about this massive passivity one pushes into or against.
I do think of those long sequences as “cagey I mean that in the best way
Tracy K. Smith: Well, form is always there, but it’s often private, of our own making, and less regular/recognizable. I rely on that idea of form a great deal in the longer sequences. I literally feel myself coming up for air after one section is finished and thinking, “how am I going to get to the next resting point?” And then a formal device comes in, even if it’s something only I am aware of.
Katrina: Thanks for the comments on “Sacrament.” I think of those spaces, the double spacing, as something that offers slowness and silence to the poem. Something that allows you to feel yourself descending a little bit more slowly into the place the poem seeks to go. Literally, I was trying to write myself into a great understanding of what childbirth puts a woman in touch with, of what to expect.
Sean Singer: Also, perhaps form is a way to resolve the tedium of the short personal lyric, which seems to be the norm now from many, many poems.
Tracy K. Smith: “Tedium” is an interesting (and appropriate) word! I guess there is something about dealing with one’s own “stuff” that can be, well, chore-like. The form says, “let’s go about it in a different way; let’s make this into work that feels like play.”
Katrina: wow: *tedium of the short personal lyric* — possibly explosive
Tracy, we crossed in the ether about tedium..
Tracy K. Smith: Witching hour, indeed!
Katrina: but i was going to add that i like the way the form of Sacrament echos the form in section 8 of the title poem, and elsewhere, and i like the way it proclaims itself and indeed does slow things. such risky (!) business (unfortunately) writing about some of these issues of maternity, creation, etc.
Gaby Calvocoressi: But also “When your small Form Tumbled Into Me” and “Willed In Autumn”…I think those are two of the most startling poems I’ve read in a very long time, in both cases because we think we know what they are (a kind of love poem or poem of desire) and then they become so deeply physical in ways we can’t imagine. And I think the formal ease with which we experience those poems (“I dream a little plot of land and six kid goats” being an example of this) gets us right to the space where the picture we make of the scene we’re in destabilizes us completely. Anyway…I’ve gone on and gotten lost! They are cagey and ghostlike. In the best ways.
Melissa Barrett: I agree, Gaby–those are two of my favorites
JS: maybe i missed it, but if not, can you say something about the title? why bowie? i saw nothing about “sailors fighting in the dance hall” …
Tracy K. Smith: I had been trying to write David Bowie into a poem for a long time. There was a moment, when I was writing “Duende,” where I wanted to bring in everything that was important to me. All the personal quirks. Zappa made it in, but I never figured out how to bring Bowie in. When I saw the nature of what I was wondering about in this collection–space, time, distances, eternity, loss, and also the things we do to one another here–I felt like I had to draw him in, nod to this figure who has been so important to me as a person. I wanted to “out” myself a little, and also feel like I was speaking into a place where Bowie and what he represents had been.
Thanks, Gaby. That’s a really wonderful way of reading those poems.
Mark Folse: Maybe it helps to be a Bowie fan. I had a hard time getting Starman out of my head in the first half of the book.
JS: am i understanding correctly that it’s more about bowie as an icon instead of anything from that song [or disc] in particular?
Gaby Calvocoressi: Almost as good as reading them next to a lagoon in Miami. No. Seriously, they are so incredible. They do this thing I’m really interested in where the subtlety of language brings you to a place where you have to make the picture of the bodies yourself. And then you do and it is SO physical and intimate and you are there. It’s a true moment of voyeurism and the form does that. It’s incredible. I think its that political moment you spoke of earlier.
Brian: Whereas I didn’t really get the Bowie references because I didn’t listen to him before the 80s when he’d transformed again
Tracy K. Smith: In terms of Bowie, I think it is more about him as a figure. Some “cosmic ace” who has a handle on everything I (and most of us) don’t. Of course he doesn’t, but he represented that in a way to me. It’s playful, too. And I hope that the title becomes mine in a way, too.
Brian: See and now I’ll link “cosmic ace” with “Bowie’s in Space” from Flight of the Conchords. What’s wrong with me?
Melissa Barrett: I’m curious about the sectioned poems– Do they generally come to you in sections? Are they written together, or over a period of time? Anything you can say about writing this way would be appreciated!
Tracy K. Smith: In terms of the sectioned poems, it used to be a mode that came very naturally to me; my poems seemed always to want to be about more than would fit in one fluid motion. But with this book, all the shorter poems came first, and then I felt like I wanted more connective tissue–more glue–to marry the themes and tones together. That’s where the longer sequences came in. I was pushing myself to stitch things together, and the poems kind of mirrored that impulse, I guess.
Gaby, I always feel a little naked reading “Willed in Autumn,” and when the goats come in, I am so relieved!
Gaby Calvocoressi: You bet you are!!!
I love it
Tracy K. Smith:
I have to say, thank you all for such insightful observations and questions. Is there something that got lost back there that we should circle back to?
Katrina: tracy — i like knowing this about the process — that the short ones came and then the long ones are the floss that chain-stitches them together; it’s so interesting to consider the ways (!) books come, formally.
Mark Folse: I haven’t read Duende (just the poem itself) but if Zappa enters into it, its on my list. Do iconic musicians enter into your work? Do you listen to music as your write?
Katrina: the poems have such music of their own…
Tracy K. Smith: I live with music. At a certain point when I first started teaching, I was really pushing my students to let everything in to their work–not to exclude the stuff that didn’t feel important. And then I realized that all of the pop music that I live with was important to me, and I wanted to let it in. So Zappa and Bowie and The Band and (though it’s not pop) Camaron de la Isla found their ways into poems.
JS: tracy, thx- “we were so turned on, you thought we were fakers …” [another bowie line from hunky dory]
Mark Folse: Zappa, Bowie and The Band. If this weren’t virtual, I think I’d ask you out for a drink after this.
But I think every generation since the 60s has lived in and with their music in a way previous generations did not. From car radios to Ipods, it’s ever present.
Brian: You’re right about how we live with music, Mark. It seems to me that we have more ways to be intimate with it now than we did in the past.
Sean Singer: The themes seem unified with the leaps of forms (ghost or not), like a boustrophedon; it’s a word that means “ox-turning,” texts that move bi-directionally, flipping and reversing. I think the meditations in the book feel most passionate when they’re physical (e.g. the poems Gaby mentioned) and less so when their spiritual (that’s just me). The form is the physical manifestation of the abstraction.
Tracy K. Smith: Interesting, Sean. I think the spiritual stuff (I resist that word, but I can’t think of another) is, by nature, less passionate. It’s scary, chilling, to think about life and what might wait beyond it. But I guess I do more and more. I feel like I’ve been living with death for a long time, wanting to feel comfortable with it, to speak to it. And then my daughter’s birth (I was pregnant when this book was written) also seemed to have me inching toward a ledge that opened up another unknown. It’s not passion but some other thing that those poems are concerned with. And the effect is, I guess, cooler.
Melissa Barrett: I’m wondering about the “& Co’s” in two of the poems — “It & Co.” and “Us & Co.” I love these two poems, and partly for their mystery. In the former, I read “it” as the mystery of life, belief, “the largeness we can’t see”–but I don’t know how to define the “co.” “Us & Co.” is, I think, the perfect end to a poem: meditative, open, optimistic . . . Is the “us” the general reader?
Mark Folse: Us seems a perfect statement of the experience of reading a book of poetry. I took it to be the reader (and the author).
Tracy K. Smith: Thanks, Melissa. I think the “Co.” came to mind when I imagined those things were part of a system, or systems. Something that might be orderly and scientific, or bureaucratic, or corporate….. It was a playful gesture, too, I think.
Mark, I just read your comment from 5:47. Thank you, Sir!
Sean Singer: Well, “Savior Machine” should be required reading for anyone thinking of going back to psychotherapy.
Brian: Why do you resist the word spiritual, Tracy? I’m an atheist myself, but i feel like you’re talking about something that’s a bit more universal than a personal god.
Mark Folse: Strange that a set of friends were batting around a video about Somalia, pollution and piracy this afternoon (and I confess I scanned your poem of to Scribd to share it with them), and they all thought it was wonderful, and they’re not as a bunch poetry people.
Tracy K. Smith: I think the word “spiritual” always feels both too mystical and too easy. Not sure if that makes sense, but I wanted to hold myself to something in the poems where belief crops up. I didn’t want to just make it about believing in nature or energy. I guess I needed to grapple a little with the particular God I grew up with, and also to find a way to drag some of those concerns into a context where scientific law (rather than religious law) governed.
Mark Folse: I would agree with Brian. God is not the subject I would say of the more spiritual moments, just another name for what you are trying to discover from any number of approaches, like a tiger circling its cornered prey.
Brian: I can see that, Tracy, especially the too easy part.
We’re closing in on the hour (already? he says) so if a lurker wants to get a question in, now’s the time.
Katrina: i’m curious about that ledge — and what is a miraculousness (childbirth) … but it’s definitely risky for a poet/mother to write these poems, right? If they’re good (as yours are) it’s to everyone’s benefit! have you ever felt any resistance to poems addressing these subjects? sorry — one ear on three kids covered in garden dirt and using knives in the kitchen!
Tracy K. Smith: Katrina, after I became pregnant I felt completely ashamed that I had never had much interest in pregnancy or childbirth before. I was so floored by the amazing process, this huge portal into life on earth that a woman’s body becomes. It felt so enormous, so sci-fi, and so important. I didn’t hesitate to broach those topics once they became important to me. (But I felt like a cad for never feeling that kind of awe before the whole thing became personal.)
Melissa Barrett: So we’ve been talking a bit about the “spiritual” poems and the more physical, sexy ones . . . Tracy, are we identifying these poems correctly? Did you intend to have two different “types”/topics presented? Early on in the book (in The Largeness We Can’t See) “lust” and “God” appear in the same line. As I was reading, I kept these two things together–I didn’t really separate them. But perhaps I should?
Katrina: i think the “spiritual” marries the “physical” not necessarily only in sexy ways but in maternal/creative ways, too. not that that’s not sexy!
Tracy K. Smith: Melissa: Oh, that’s so interesting. I don’t think those things should be separate. They exist together in our lives. But they push us in different directions. I wish there were more time for that strain. Very interesting.
Katrina: tracy — i love this response about being floored!
Tracy K. Smith: Again, i must say that it’s been really gratifying to talk with all of you. This is one of the first broad conversations I’ve had about the book since it came out, and it’s really interesting to learn what you’re seeing and hearing there. Thanks for the time you’ve put into thinking about these poems!