Tracy K. Smith, who won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019, spent Thursday, April 5, at St. Paul’s School as a Conroy Distinguished Visitor. After a poetry reading in Memorial Hall with a question-and-answer session, Smith, a professor of English and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, attended two classes and had lunch with students.
In her reading, Smith shared half a dozen poems that strive to answer the question at the center of her work, which blends the personal with the political: What does it feel like to live inside a body that is attached to a soul?
In turn, students asked a torrent of their own questions, ranging from the philosophical to the practical. Responding to one about the purpose of poetry, Smith said she considers it a way to ask questions, revisit memory, examine lost opportunities and listen longer; poetry is at once an anchor and a force that liberates the writer and reader from being lonely. “If we can read and feel, go deeper, we become larger,” she said. We can also, she added, reconfigure our understanding of history.
Anna Purvis ’22 calls it motivating for students to hear from someone so passionate about their work. “It is essential for young women, and women of color, to see other women achieve greatness,” she said. “I have recently taken to writing poetry as another form of self-expression and art for myself, and to see Ms. Smith, another woman of color, be able to live her passion, is such an inspiration to me.”
When it comes to handling writer’s block, Smith advised the writers in the room to consider it a reminder that they have something more to learn. “We write because there are things we don’t yet know,” she said. “I read nonfiction, pay attention to art in other genres and the news. A mind needs time and space to wander, and that movement helps build the poem.” This advice resonated with Lizzie Diamond ’23, herself a poet.
Diamond had the opportunity to hear more from Smith in Teacher of Humanities Sarah Ludwig’s Feminist Literature class, where Smith discussed three poems the students had read and some favorite poets, including one of Smith’s teachers, Lucille Clifton. Diamond had a revelation during their time together.
“I realized that each individual word and letter in her poems was purposeful. Every line break, every stanza, every word and every letter was purposeful to the greater meaning of her poems,” Diamond said. “I’ll take this advice to not only creative writing, but my life in general — I should take the small things and make them matter. I am incredibly thankful to have spoken to and attended classes with Tracy K. Smith.”
Ludwig, who arranged Smith’s visit, said students found the writer engaging, kind and inspiring.
“The students truly benefited from her guiding questions and her thoughtful and illuminating analysis,” Ludwig said. “Tracy brought much beauty into our day, starting with her reading, and we are grateful to her for that.”
Smith also attended Teacher of Humanities Beth Little’s creative writing class, where she led writing exercises and guided poem analysis.
The Conroy Distinguished Visitors Program
Established to stimulate and inspire students at St. Paul’s School, to enlarge their view of life, and to suggest directions in which they can serve their country and their communities effectively, the Conroy Distinguished Visitors Program invites outstanding leaders in various fields to the School for discussions, meetings, schoolwide performances and lectures. Conroy Visitors have included poet/author Maya Angelou, cellist Yo Yo Ma, the Chicago Symphony Singers, U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, three-time Olympic gold medalist Misty May-Treanor and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, among others.