Tracy K. Smith, newly-appointed United States Poet Laureate, discussed religion with Paul Elie, senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center, as part of the Faith and Culture Lecture Series. The conversation took place in Riggs Library on Oct. 26. The role of Poet Laureate involves working with the Library of Congress to encourage national appreciation for poetry.
Smith, author of “Life on Mars” and “Ordinary Light,” spoke to an audience of students and professionals, including Bishop Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture. Smith discussed her memoir, “Ordinary Light,” and read excerpts from her forthcoming book, “Wade in the Water.” Elie’s questions centered mainly around the influence of religion and motherhood on her works, as well as her responsibilities as Poet Laureate.
Smith read “Wade in the Water,” the title poem from her new book, and “Unrest in Baton Rouge.” The first poem references African American spirituals, situating the piece in relation to both African American and Christian traditions.
The next poem Smith read directly relates to contemporary social strife. “Unrest in Baton Rouge” was inspired by a photograph taken by Jonathan Bachman of a woman in a flowing sundress standing unarmed in front of a line of riot-gear clad police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest on July 9, 2016. The poem explored the theme of love as well, its role as both a comfort and a threat.
When asked about the role of faith in her upbringing, Smith said she grew up praying before every meal and for comfort and strength in difficult times. “I was taught there is a lot more at work, and you cling to it. You can have a relationship with that… That sense of credulity, I guess, came really naturally to me,” Smith said.
But Smith’s experience of faith has not been without struggle or inner conflict. “I’ve struggled with faith, what I want to call it, what it means, what group it means I belong to. The writing of my last two books particularly enact that, and I think they help me come to a place where I’m willing to say ‘yes, I need to pray.’ I have three kids, and I don’t know what this world has in store for them. I pray,” Smith said.
On this note, Elie asked Smith whether she thinks about how to communicate her ideas regarding religion to her young sons and daughter. In response, Smith said “I want them to have someone they can say ‘I’m scared’ to who’s not me. I want them to believe that there is something possible that can’t be explained. And I also don’t want them to feel that believing that gives them the authority to judge or condemn people who don’t believe that or who believe a different thing.”
Elie and audience members repeatedly asked Smith to discuss how she, as Poet Laureate, can help to guide contemporary discourse and avoid social turmoil and incivility. Bishop Tighe asked Smith if she thinks poetry can be a unifying force. “I really really want to believe that it can,” said Smith.
Bishop Tighe spoke about the nature of God’s love as something infinite and freely given, to which Smith responded, “The language that we’ve been thrust into is the opposite of that because it’s driven by the principles of an economic market where everything is valuable because it’s finite.”
Smith discussed the contrast between today’s language and the language of poetry. “Once you become interested in the other things language can do, I think you become a little bit distrustful of what I just named, all of those things, those tropes of the market. And so even if you’re not reading a poem, when that comes at you, you feel it as the assault that it is,” Smith said.
Smith concluded by saying, “If we have those things—love, compassion, and empathy—and we also have what is essentially like a BS meter, then we’re in good form.”