Tracy K. Smith is the new poet laureate

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In her memoir, "Ordinary Light," poet Tracy K. Smith describes reading a poem by Emily Dickinson in her fifth-grade class and feeling a flash of recognition, as if she were "privy to magic."

"I couldn't help but memorize a poem whose meter had worked upon me quickly and in a way I didn't quite yet understand," she writes. "Its rhyme scheme cemented, for me, a new sense of inevitability."

Soon after, Smith wrote a short poem, "Humor," and showed it to her teacher, who urged her to keep writing.

More than 30 years later, Smith has published three volumes of poetry and collected some of the field's most prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

Now the Library of Congress has named Smith its new poet laureate, the nation's highest honor in that field. With the appointment, announced Wednesday, Smith will take on a role held by some of the country's most revered poets, among them Rita Dove, Louise Gluck, Billy Collins, W.S. Merwin, Charles Simic and, most recently, Juan Felipe Herrera.

Smith, 45, said she planned to use the position to be a literary evangelist of sorts, by visiting small towns and rural areas to hold poetry events.

"I'm very excited about the opportunity to take what I consider to be the good news of poetry to parts of the country where literary festivals don't always go," she said. "Poetry is something that's relevant to everyone's life, whether they're habitual readers of poetry or not."

Smith is the 22nd poet to take on the position, which dates to 1937 and is officially titled poet laureate consultant in poetry. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said that she had been drawn to Smith's work because of the way her poems blended personal observations and experiences with weightier, universal themes.

"She takes on issues like death and spirituality and history and makes them relatable," Hayden said. "These aren't simple poems, but they are direct, and you can get into them based on your experience."

Toi Derricotte, a poet and chancellor on the board of the Academy of American Poets, said Smith's commitment to poetry organizations like Cave Canem, and her skill as a creative writing teacher, made her well suited to being an ambassador for the form.

"She's been remarkable as a citizen in the community of poets," she said. "She'll change a lot of people's ideas about poetry."

Smith often plays with genre in her work and says it serves as "a distancing device." Some of the verses in her 2007 collection, "Duende," were inspired by westerns. Her 2011 collection, "Life on Mars," which won the Pulitzer, is inflected with dystopian themes and tropes from science fiction. Many of the poems are meditations on cosmic affairs, like the incomprehensible vastness of space and humanity's efforts to understand our place in the universe, but the collection is also anchored in the personal. The escapist, fantastical themes in the collection are blended with intimate reflections: mournful, elegiac verses about the death of her father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope.

"I was thinking about loss and thinking as someone who was about to become a parent," said Smith, who lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband, Raphael Allison, and their three children. "The distancing device of science fiction was helpful, and it changed the metaphors."

Other poems in the collection are pointedly political. In a surreal section of "They May Love All That He Has Chosen and Hate All That He Has Rejected," a long poem about racism and bias, the victims of hate crimes write postcards to their assailants.

Smith was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Fairfield, California, the youngest of five children. Her father worked as an engineer at a nearby Air Force base. Her mother, who was a teacher, died of cancer when Smith was just out of college.

Writing always came naturally to Smith. In elementary school, she read Dickinson and Mark Twain, and began to think of herself as a writer. As she developed her craft over the years, she drew inspiration from work by Elizabeth Bishop, Seamus Heaney and Rita Dove, among others.

She graduated from Harvard with a degree in English and Afro-American studies. She received her MFA from Columbia University and published her first collection, "The Body's Question," in 2003.

Lately, Smith, who is the director of the creative writing program at Princeton University, has been working on a libretto for an opera composed by Gregory Spears, about the legacy of slavery in the South.

"We live with this history and in some ways we are responsible for attending to it, even though it can be taxing," she said.

History is also a recurring theme in her forthcoming collection, "Wade in the Water," which Graywolf Press will release next spring.

Although Smith often takes on current social and political issues in her poetry, she doesn't plan to use her position as poet laureate to advocate social causes, she said. Instead, she aims to be an advocate for the medium itself and to instill the same awe she felt when she read Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" as a girl.

"Rather than talking about social issues, I want to give more readers access to more kinds of poems and poets," she said. "Poems are friendly, and they teach us how to read them."

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