Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States and Director of Princeton University's Program in Creative Writing, visited Princeton Day School on Friday, January 4, 2019 for a day of readings and conversations with Lower, Middle, and Upper School students.
Smith's visit was the first of this year's Imagine the Possibilities events, made possible by the John D. Wallace, Jr. '78 Memorial Guest Artist Series Fund.
Seniors Marilena Cordon-Maryland '19 and Coby Auslander '19 (great-grandson of the first U.S. Poet Laureate, Joseph Auslander) introduced Smith to an Upper School audience familiar with, and transfixed by, her work.
"Life is fast," Smith began. "When I'm not thinking actively about slowing down, I skim across the surface of things that have great depth."
Smith's recently launched podcast, The Slowdown, invites listeners to do just that, by exploring the world through poetry. As Poet Laureate, she has traveled the country with a focus on rural areas, where she says that reading and discussing poems together can open the door to fruitful conversations and forge mutual understanding.
In her consecutive presentations to Upper School and Middle School students, the poet emphasized that she views her medium primarily as a tool for asking questions. Smith's Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Life on Mars (2011) probes the future and outer space, while her latest book, Wade in the Water (2018), looks back at history and employs archival documents such as Civil War-era letters to better understand the present moment in America.
Students posed a wide range of questions, wondering how and where the author finds inspiration, whether she prefers poetry to prose, how writing implicates one's privacy and sense of self, and of course, who are her favorite writers.
Smith adeptly tailored her message for younger listeners later in the day, reading a fanciful poem about her daughter, "4 ½," that had students alternately laughing and sharing their own imaginative interpretations.
One student wondered, "When did you write your first poem?" Smith recited Emily Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" She encountered that poem at age eight and was inspired to pick up her own pen. Another student chimed in, "What was the title of your first poem?" Smith replied, "Humor. It was a very serious poem."
Tracy K. Smith joins the growing list of illustrious Imagine the Possibilities guests who have shared their talents and perspectives with PDS students since the program's founding in 1995, including Jeffrey Eugenides, Paul Muldoon, Naomi Shihab Nye, Cornel West, Jacqueline Woodson, Paul O. Zelinsky, and many more.
Since its inception, the series has been artfully curated by Imagine the Possibilities coordinator Bev Gallagher, who says of the initiative, "Princeton Day School is a place where you can dream big. It's also a place where working collaboratively with others makes a good idea turn into something really special."
Photos, above: Tracy K. Smith reading poetry in session with Upper School students; signing books for students; engaging with Lower School students after reading a poem with them. See more photos of Tracy K. Smith's PDS visit on our Flickr album, here.
More to come from Imagine the Possibilities in 2019: This spring, PDS will welcome author Laurie Halse Anderson and illustrator Sophie Blackall. Click here to learn more about upcoming ITP Series events. -Justin Goldberg