A Conversation with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith

The Director of Creative Writing at Princeton University and Pulitzer Prize winner sat down with us to discuss how New Jersey has affected her work.

Photo by Eliza Griffiths

New Jersey Monthly: Congratulations on being appointed poet laureate for a second term. Was it a position you were hoping to hold onto?
Tracy K. Smith: Yes, I did want it. The first term went quick. I hope to cover more ground in my second year. I see it as an opportunity to strengthen my relationship with poetry by going into small communities I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. The position puts me on the ground that way and gives me a sense of what different places are like, and what the people who live in them see and hear in poems. I love having a change of perspective and a chance to find out what people are thinking about.

NJM: You’ve been teaching at Princeton since 2005. When did you make the move to New Jersey?
TSK: I moved here in 2014 from Brooklyn, and it’s been heaven. I love it. The natural world has gotten into my experiences and my poetry since I’ve been here. It’s a whole new stage of life.

NJM: Did you move here because you wanted a backyard and trees for your kids?
TSK: That’s pretty much it. My husband and I have three kids, an 8-year-old girl and twin boys who are about to be five….We both teach at Princeton. My husband teaches the freshman writing program. Every time we’d go to work we’d think, We work in a different state than where we live. Maybe that doesn’t make the most sense.

NJM: With three kids, your teaching job and the poet laureate thing, finding time to write must be a challenge.
TSK:
Having kids makes you much more resourceful and less wasteful. I used to fritter away my time hanging out, going shopping, meeting people for lunch. Now I’m more careful about how I spend time.

NJM: What do you do for fun here?
TSK: We go to the Shore in the summer, which I love because it’s such a different experience of the beach than what I grew up with in California. We go to playgrounds and art museums. Princeton University has a great art museum. And the Princeton campus is a great place for us to let the children run around. They love that; they feel it’s familiar.

NJM: You mentioned that the natural world has woven itself into your work since you’ve been here. How?
TSK: A huge part of it is the trees and the open space. There are woods behind my house that lead to a lake, and it’s amazing. If you take a few steps in that direction, you’re in a different world. You hear the sound of life. Foxes, deer and groundhogs are our neighbors. Those things affect my sense of metaphors. Now I have other directions to turn to when I’m trying to think of analogies.

NJM: Where do you usually write?
TSK: I try to write at home when the kids are at school. We have a mid-century house that’s newly renovated, so it’s pretty open, and there are lots of windows that look out onto trees. I like to sit by the window and watch what’s happening.

NJM: Who are your favorite New Jersey poets and writers?
TSK: Brenda Shaughnessy is one of my favorite poets. She’s at Rutgers-Newark. And then there are my colleagues at Princeton: Jim Richardson, Paul Muldoon, Susan Wheeler. Also Mark Doty. I know he lives in New York, but he was my teacher at Columbia and now he’s at Rutgers.

NJM: Anything you miss about Brooklyn?
TSK: I loved being in my 30s in New York and having a really active social life, but I don’t really miss that. I’m almost 50. I’m called by different things now.

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