Smith will speak to the student body during Assembly and afterwards will be answering questions in the lower library. At the end of the day, she will lead a poetry workshop in the Weissman Room. During previous workshops, visiting poets have described the writing process behind their own works and have even looked at and helped revise student pieces. The intended atmosphere of the workshop is rather intimate, making space limited.
Smith was born in 1972 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, and then moved to Fairfeld, California, as a young child. Smith has received a prestigious education attending Harvard, Cambridge, Columbia, and Stanford. Smith currently is a professor at Princeton University and says she enjoys teaching.
When asked how Hopkins was able to book Smith, Faye Prendergast, Head Librarian and member of the Poetry Committee, jokingly said, “Luck.” In truth, the Poetry Committee worked very hard and started meeting almost a year in advance of Smith’s visit. Prendergast was introduced to Smith by a literary agent who mentioned the poet as “someone who really liked working with teenagers.” Just as Smith became U.S. Poet Laureate in June of 2017 and her schedule was starting to fill up, Prendergast was able to secure Hopkins a spot.
The United States Poet Laureate serves as the country’s offcial poet, and as such it is the most prestigious honor a poet could receive. The Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness and appreciation for the reading and writing of poetry. Hopkins has hosted some big names in the poetry world. Smith will be the fourth poet laureate to visit, but the first one to visit while holding the title.
Smith said she plans to use her position to bring poetry to parts of the country where it doesn’t usually reach. “Rather than talking about social issues, I want to give more readers access to more kinds of poems and poets.” She explained that her goal is to help others feel the way she does about poetry.
English Teacher Brad Ridky said that he is excited that such an infuential poet is visiting Hopkins and “downright giddy” with anticipation. “I think I love the idea of poet laureate because there are so many people who seem to be famous for things I don’t care anything about. But a poet? For writing poems? That truly deserves fame,” added Ridky.
One of Smith’s goals as Poet Laureate is to make poetry an everyday affair. She wants readers to abandon the mindset that poetry has to rhyme or is all about birds and vases.
At the age 45, Smith may be the youngest poet who has ever visited Hopkins. Prendergast is excited for the modern and diverse perspective Smith will bring: “The committee wants to make sure that the people don’t have a stereotypical idea of who poetry belongs to or who is a poet. And so we try to bring people of different backgrounds and cultures.”
Smith’s poetry is dense with references to contemporary culture and layered with meaning. Prendergast commented, “Her poems are not quick. She has an incredible range and a sense of the complexity of culture.” Smith often writes longer poems: “Her poems are often a narrative...She’s interested in not only the short lyrical outcry but the bigger story,” stated English Teacher Chris Jacox, one of the primary facilitators of Smith’s visit.
Jacox is impressed by Smith’s versatility, “In her memoir, she talked about writing for opera. She’s not just limited to poetry. To be able use language well in different genres is a mark of skill.”
Smith has said that her inspiration as a young girl was Emily Dickinson. She was attracted to the rhyme scheme and meter of Dickinson’s poetry. Jacox compared Smith to her idol, “She’s like Emily Dickinson in that she is able to take the small personal world and see the connections to the really big world not just at the national level but at the cosmic level. And I’m really impressed by that level.”
Ridky also introduced another beneft of having Smith speak at Hopkins: “Since she’s a poet, we can do more than just ogle her from afar and take selfies with her face,” explained Ridky. “We can read her poems, ask her real questions, and get thoughtful answers.”
Jacox advised students on how they could get ready for Smith’s visit, “The best way to prepare is to read her work even if it’s just one or two poems. Just one poem is a window in, and it doesn’t have to be a complicated one.”
“Us & Co.,”
We are here for what amounts to a few hours,
a day at most.
We feel around making sense of the terrain,
our own new limbs,
Bumping up against a herd of bodies
until one becomes home.
Moments sweep past. The grass bends
then learns again to stand.
"Us & Co.” copyright © 2011 by Tracy K. Smith. Reprinted from Life on Mars by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. www.graywolfpress.org