Lucille Clifton’s Collected Poems is such a monument to a vision and a moral conscience. It feels like a Bible for the modern age—something that could save people.
"Life on Mars" alluded to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Starman and other films. If we were to peek into your Netflix cue, would there be a good amount of Sci-Fi fantasy?
Not so much anymore. In fact, you wouldn’t find much of anything in the cue these days, which speaks mostly to the effects of parenting upon my attention span, free time, and sense of indulgence. But when I was working on the poems in Life on Mars, I was watching quite a lot of Sci-Fi, very pointedly. I wanted to gather a clear memory of the particular aesthetic sensibility that characterized the 1960s and 70s view of the future. I also wanted to dip back into the nostalgia that those films trigger—privately as well as culturally. But I’d divide the films into different camps. Kubrick’s film, to me, sits at the top of the Sci-Fi canon, along with Tarkovsky’s Solaris, perhaps—films that open up a sense of grandeur and mystery. And then there are the movies that are perhaps a bit more dated, a little kitschy, many of which happen to star Charlton Heston, that kind of felt like a tender reminder of America during what now feels like its “adolescent” stage.
Moving forward, I think the themes that I’m becoming interested in will have to do with the environment in a more terrestrial sense. The planet, the water, natural resources. I don’t yet know if or how cinema will play into that, but I do love the way that film helps ensure that my vocabulary for whatever I’m considering remains, at least in part, visual.
In "Duende" you channel individuals such as John Dall (a displaced Native American), a nine year old girl whose dead body was found on a Rio street, and three woman who were kidnapped by a resistance army in Uganda. In "Life on Mars" you write about prisoners from Abu Ghraib, and a father who kept his daughter locked in a cell. What is it about these displaced characters that attracts you to them?
I think a poem, by its very nature, urges a deep commitment to subjective experience, and so it’s something that very often helps me to explore some of my ongoing questions about the nature of experience. I’d wager that the basic theme running throughout all of my poems is some version of this question: “What are we doing to one another?” Those real people that you mention are people whose stories disturbed me rather powerfully and thereby pushed their way into my poems.
Do you find that the stimulus for many of your poems come from outside sources (news stories, popular culture) or is there an emotional impetus, which you then frame within the context of historical events?
I think it’s got to be some combination of the two that makes me responsive to certain public events, and allows me to see them as related to one another and illustrative of a larger theme—a theme that often bleeds over into my understanding of some aspects of my own private experience. I think that’s just how our imaginations work, as humans. We take in the world, and the questions that it sets into motion help us to order our sense of what is happening around and within us.
I imagine it was overwhelming to win the Pulitzer Prize. Did it affect your writing life? What are you working on right now?
Mostly, it has made me a busier person than I’ve typically been, which means I have less time to write than I prefer. But the prize has also brought me into a larger and more diverse conversation about poetry and the culture—a conversation that will certainly amplify the kinds of themes I seek to explore in future poems.
What poets do you keep going back to?
Lately, it’s been Lucille Clifton, Jack Gilbert, and Elizabeth Bishop.
You've taught at a number of universities. If you could give one piece of advice to an emerging poet, what would it be?
I really do think that nothing teaches us how to write poems more than reading them, and reading across genres, schools, eras and tastes. Beyond that, I’d also say that it was very liberating to realize that I could ask questions in poems without having to answer them. It’s allowed me to be honest with myself about what I don’t understand. I believe that it is usually what we haven’t yet come to grips with that makes for the most interesting material.
What natural talent (besides the ones you have) would you like to be gifted with?
If I could sing, I might not have started writing poems.
What's your current state of mind?
TRACY K. SMITH received the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent collection, Life on Mars. She teaches at Princeton University.