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Tracy K. Smith Is Named 22nd U.S. Poet Laureate

Tracy K. Smith in 2012. (Jason DeCrow / AP)
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Emma Niles, an assistant editor at Truthdig, graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a degree in political science. She has worked for the National Women’s Law Center and Ms. Magazine.…
Emma Niles

Tracy K. Smith in 2012. (Jason DeCrow / AP)

Tracy K. Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Princeton University professor, has been named America’s 22nd poet laureate, the Library of Congress announced Wednesday. Smith, whose volumes of poetry touch on social and political issues and include elements of science fiction and history, plans to use her role to bring poetry “to parts of the country where literary festivals don’t always go.”

“Poems are friendly, and they teach us how to read them,” Smith told The New York Times. The Times adds that Smith joins the ranks of “some of the country’s most revered poets, among them Rita Dove, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic and most recently, Juan Felipe Herrera.” She is the nation’s sixth female to hold the position of poet laureate as revised in 1985, and the third African-American woman.

“I am profoundly honored,” Smith stated in response to receiving the title. “As someone who has been sustained by poems and poets, I understand the powerful and necessary role poetry can play in sustaining a rich inner life and fostering a mindful, empathic and resourceful culture.”

A new poet laureate is appointed every year and serves from September to May. The post comes with a $35,000 stipend, funded by a private gift from railroad magnate Archer M. Huntington.

Smith’s 2011 collection of poetry, “Life on Mars,” which earned the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2012, is filled with musings on science, ancestry and race. One reviewer described the collection as “a wild, kaleidoscopic elegy for her father, Floyd William Smith, a black man who grew up in pre-civil-rights Alabama and went on to work on the Hubble Telescope as an engineer.”

“I was thinking about loss, and thinking as someone who was about to become a parent,” Smith, who has three children, told the Times. “The distancing device of science fiction was helpful, and it changed the metaphors.”

“Her work travels the world and takes on its voices; brings history and memory to life; calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion, and pop culture,” Carla Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, said in a press release. “With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths—all to better understand what makes us most human.”

Other poems in the “Mars” collection, the Times adds, “are pointedly political,” but Smith does not plan to advocate for these issues in her new role.

“Rather than talking about social issues, I want to give more readers access to more kinds of poems and poets,” she said. “Poetry is something that’s relevant to everyone’s life, whether they’re habitual readers of poetry or not.”

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