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May 04, 2012

Tracy K. Smith at the PEN World Voices Festival

By Jordan Kisner | Culture

The literati has descended upon Manhattan for a week of readings, performances and panels at the PEN World Voices Festival, which will gather 100 writers from 25 different countries to celebrate the power of the written word around the world. Poet Tracy K. Smith, who was recently awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her latest collection, Life on Mars, will speak on the Memory in Harlem panel (515 Malcolm X Blvd.). Departures sat down with Smith to talk about the festival and her recent work. Memory on Harlem panel on May 5 at 5 p.m.; pen.org.

Q: Congratulations on winning the Pulitzer! What does this mean for you and for your work?

A: It’s gratifying and humbling at the same time, in large part because it feels like my poems have been invited into a more public conversation with the poems and poets who have always inspired me as a writer and a person. It’s also a profound honor to join the four other African-American poets to have received the Pulitzer since the prize’s inception: Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa and Natasha Trethewey.

Q: What poets have influenced your work?

A: That list is constantly changing. I return again and again to Elizabeth Bishop, whose poems are just so perfectly made. I love Lucille Clifton’s moral and social conscience and the spare, poignant impact of her lines. I love the largeness of vision of Jack Gilbert, whose poems, to me, feel a lot like Platonic philosophy.

Q: Life on Mars is pretty wide-ranging thematically. Did you have a sense of how you wanted the poems to cohere in the reader’s mind?

A: I always put a lot of thought into the architecture of a collection of poems. I want each of the individual poems to play an important role, but I also want the reader to move through the book with the sense of being taken on a journey. With that goal in mind, I look at the ways poems seem to speak to one another, and I use arrangement to heighten that sense of conversation.

Q: Why do you look forward to the PEN Festival?

A: I have such respect for PEN’s commitment to literature and freedom. As a writer, I don’t know what is more important than the kinds of questions that literature teaches us to ask, and the freedom to go in pursuit of their answers.

Q: What festival events are you planning to attend?

A: This is a situation where I wish I could be in more than one place at once! I’m very interested in the Doon Arbus, Michael Cunningham, Francine Prose and Diane Arbus event, because the relationship between photography and poetry has been important to me for such a long time. I’m also quite curious about the Writing from the Domestic Workers United workshop. It’s going to be an amazing weekend.

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