Devil’s Lake


Interview with Tracy K. Smith

Q: I’m curious about the inception of your newest collection, Life on Mars. In some ways, this feels like a major departure from your two previous books, The Body’s Questions and Duende, with its sci-fi motifs, its pop culture references, and its level of playfulness. But in other ways—deeper ways—this feels very much in communion with your previous books in its meditative quality, its focus on political injustice, and its elegiac tenor. When you began writing the poems that would make up Life on Mars, what were your goals, and did they evolve?

I first started thinking about the concept of science-fiction in a very playful way. I had written the poem “Sci-Fi” back when I was working on the poems in Duende, but decided against including it because it felt so out of step with the rest of that collection. But I loved the idea of what life in the future might look like. The more I thought in that direction, and the more films I watched as a way of feeding into that image, the more I started to realize that space and time and the distant future were becoming metaphors for American life, for a sense of American destiny, for the evolution and decline of the culture we belong to.

Then my father died and I realized that the idea of the universe as something vast, mysterious, and fundamentally unknowable was a useful framework for thinking of death and for examining some of the feelings and ideas that emerged as a result of my own grief.

Q: This is a bold book in many ways, in terms of subject matter, big declaratives, and daring forms (I’m thinking in particular of the letter sequence). I feel like a project like this could have turned out very differently but that its mastery comes from its control. With so many risks, what sort of limitations or boundaries—if any—did you set for yourself when you began to write these poems?

Early on, I developed the sense that the “soundtrack” of the book, if there was one, should be quiet. I love the feeling of suspense and danger that comes across during the quietest moments in a film like Kubrick’s 2001, and I thought that, whatever else I was going to be doing in the book, I would like for the poems to strive for a sense of calm, of quiet, of a kind of stoicism. But I also wanted and needed to give voice to some very urgent and un-parsed feelings, which led me to certain received forms like the sonnet or the villanelle or terza rima.

The longer sequences like “They May Love All that He Has Chosen … ” were examples of forms or formal devices that I tried to impose upon the types of restless, agitated feelings triggered by some of the events unfolding in the news while I was working on the book.

Q: Your long poem “They May Love All that He Has Chosen and Hate All that He Has Rejected” is inspired by a series of tragedies that occurred during the spring of 2009. Could you speak a little about your process of writing a poem that deals and uses such real and specific and brutal accounts?

I felt like every day during the month of May and into June of that year, I would wake up to news of some other terrible crime. I guess that is true of every day, really, but the events that pushed me into that poem felt different because they weren’t perpetrated by institutions but rather individuals. Citizens who, in many cases, had made a conscious decision to act systematically against other citizens based on a set of privately held beliefs. I wanted to step into a kind of conversation between the people who committed the crimes and the victims, and to push myself past the easy, initial reaction of mere anger. I wanted to hold myself accountable to a higher standard of response, to step into a complicated sense of compassion. The poem became a vehicle for that.

Q: You’re a master of the sectioned long poem. I’ve admired the ones in your previous books and Life on Mars includes some of your best. What’s the process like for you in constructing and writing a long, sectioned poem? Do the different sections come to you while you are in the same mindset of that singular poem, or do they come more slowly and gradually? Furthermore, do you set forward to write a long poem, or does that reveal itself to you later in the process?

I tend to write long poems in what feels like a single extended gesture. Typically, a first draft will develop over the course of several days or weeks, allowing the topic to shift and broaden in my imagination. I love the open space this kind of process seems to create. It allows me the opportunity to listen, as if I were composing a musical suite, for opportunities to modulate sound, pacing, context, diction, lyric pitch.

What I find is that each successive section pushes the poem in a direction that requires me to create a counterbalance elsewhere. Something journalistic seems to necessitate something based on sonic texture, or something narrative seems to necessitate something more lyrical and leaping. If I take a wrong turn in a particular section, I usually don’t realize it until the whole poem is finished and I’ve lived with it as a whole for a while.

I was drawn in by the final section of this book. In some ways (such as landscape, subject matter), this section is more earth-bound than the rest of this book. Throughout Life on Mars, heaven and earth—so to speak—come into juxtaposition again and again. Was this a deliberate decision to create spaces within the book—such as section four—that deal more directly with an earthbound interior experience? How did you go about creating a place where poems such as “Sacrament” and “When Your Small Form Tumbled into Me” (which are visceral and physical and bodily) coexist with poems like “The Weather in Space” and “My God, It’s Full of Stars” (which are more spiritual, contemplative)?

It wasn’t until the manuscript was nearing completion that I started to think how I might go about organizing the book, or how all of the poems I had been writing were going to manage to co-exist. I trusted that the questions and obsessions that had been foregrounded in my mind would create a kin dof thematic unity.

But once I did start to think about the book’s architecture, I wanted to offer the reader a kind of journey. I knew that the poems about private experience would be the most grounded, full of the most concrete particulars, and perhaps most familiar to a reader. I guess I hoped that moving through the farther-flung metaphors of space and God and through the difficult elegy of news-events, might inflect the final section with the echo of something slightly troubling.

Q: What will come after Life on Mars?

I’m working on a memoir right now. I haven’t been writing poems for some time, but some of the questions I find myself grappling withabout the natural world, the environmentmake me think I’ll be drawn back to poetry soon.

TRACY K. SMITH received degrees in English and Creative Writing from Harvard College and Columbia University and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University from 1997-99. She is the author of three books of poetry: Life on Mars, Duende, and The Body’s Question. Smith is the recipient of the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a 2004 Rona Jaffe Writers Award, a 2005 Whiting Award and the 2006 James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, and is the Literature protégé in the 2009–2011 cycle of the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative. She has also taught at the City University of New York, University of Pittsburgh, and Columbia University.