Tracy K. Smith On The Politics Of Poetry


Talking with U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith invited her brother-in-law, who held a hulking double bass, up to the stage. At their annual Spring Benefit at the New York Botanical Garden, the Poetry Society of America honored Smith, our current U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of many prizes (including the Pulitzer). To celebrate, Smith read from her new collection of poems, Wade in the Water, with some family assistance: a two-piece jazz band. “Every least leaf / Shivers in the sun,” she read, bassline thrumming behind her, “while we sit, bothered, / Late, captive to this thing commanding / Wait for this man. Wait for him.” I spoke with Smith after the dinner, about her current work as Poet Laureate, her latest book, poetry’s role in the world today.

Your role as U.S. Poet Laureate is an apolitical one, yet you hold it at a time where everything feels intensely political. How do you negotiate it?
I think about it in terms of what possibilities language affords us: for thinking differently, more deeply and complexly; [for] admitting to more vulnerabilities than we are encouraged to in the fast-paced, highly adrenalized, combative stream that we live in. Issues are polarizing and you fall into a camp, [but] poetry doesn’t allow that to happen. You're being pushed towards new ways of hearing and seeing. It's exciting for me to celebrate the different things that language allows us to hear and ask and wish. You can do that everywhere, you can do that with anyone.

Your latest book, Wade in the Water, also feels very timely. It's very much about America: making explicit reference to some of the most iconic and formative moments in American history from the Civil War to the literal Declaration of Independence. What were you thinking about when you were bringing these poems together? How do you think this book speaks to this particular American moment?
I was trying to listen toward history, to see what it might have of value to say to right now. We are really still in the middle of a knot that in some ways we thought had been unraveled a generation ago. I'm thinking mostly about race, but I think that sense of fear and apprehension that sits between people doesn't stop at race. I love that a lot of the book, while it's digging into the sense of the political, is also thinking through the vocabulary of love and compassion. Writing the poems made me feel kind of excited and hopeful.

Tell me about the incredible travel you've been doing as Poet Laureate. That’s your official project?
We have a name for it now: it's called “Every America.” I’m going to rural communities. I've done three trips that the library has organized, then I've been invited to a lot of small, rural communities over the last year.

These are audiences that don’t often have a living, published writer in their midst. Even if these places aren't necessarily new to you, the experience of being in them on official poetry business must be. Has the experience changed your relationship to writing at all?
I’ve taken this as an opportunity to celebrate the work of other contemporary American poets, and it's reinvigorated my relationship with a lot of the poems that I've been sharing. Going into different communities and talking about poems that I've lived with for some time, and asking what they cause listeners to think of, what associations come to mind—it's changed the poems for me. I see how they are useful in other vocabularies, in other life circumstances, in other geographies. That's really exciting.

I just did an event in Wyoming that wasn't part of the official project but it was a really beautiful visit to a small community. I did a workshop and the next day one of the participants said, "Okay, I’ve never had a lot of confidence with reading poetry, but now I get it.” You just kind of send it through your filter and see what you respond to, see what it activates and speaks to. I love that idea, that my filter is different from your filter. There are things that are going to resonate with me that might resonate with you but in a completely different way.

Do you think this experience—getting to know how people all across the country respond to poetry—will change how you yourself write?
I'm sure this experience will bring other questions to me. I don't think about the end result. Eventually, if I’m doing a good job, maybe it will have a public life. I know I’d like to write about this experience. I have a feeling it might be in the form of prose: essays about my experiences visiting people's homes, driving through the beautiful landscapes. I don't know what that will look like. But I’ve never thought about audience. [I write] the way I think.

How has the Poetry Society of America impacted your work or life?
Oh gosh, when I was a student here—and even just a citizen of New York—going to the events sponsored by the PSA, I realized, “Oh there's an ocean of contemporary poetry, and it's possible to remain immersed within it.” The PSA makes that easy to do.

Poetry-in-Motion is inspiring, instructive. It’s this huge public service. Even without realizing it, it's repairing so much of what, in our day-to-day lives and the environment we live in, is kind of eroding. Poetry allows you to stop, to think, to struggle a little bit with another voice, with another perspective, to say “There’s something here worth listening for.” It allows you to say, “God, there's something in the periphery that could be more central to me if I allow it to be.” We need that. Even just being here at the Botanic Gardens, among beautiful, exuberant life. We're supposed to be here. Poetry is another version of that—the real.

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds



Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.