Tracy K. Smith says she hopes to help people abandon some anxieties about reading poems.
Courtesy: Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith says she hopes to help people abandon some anxieties about reading poems.

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Tracy K. Smith, the new US poet laureate, hopes to make poetry accessible to all communities

The poet laureate is appointed by the librarian of Congress

(CNN) —  

Her Pulitzer Prize-winning work “Life on Mars” explored life by going to the stars and back. Now Tracy K. Smith, the new US poet laureate, says she wants to bring poetry down to Earth for an audience that usually doesn’t experience it.

Smith has been appointed the 22nd poet laureate consultant in poetry, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced Wednesday.

“What struck me about her poetry is that it is very direct and accessible,” Hayden said. “She shows us through these poems how to think and feel our way through these big ideas. Her poetry can be so big and sprawling in its themes, and at the same time laser-focused in its words.”

Smith, 45, is an author of a memoir and three poetry books; “Life on Mars” won the Pulitzer in 2012. She says she wants to use her appointment to share her passion for poetry with a wider audience.

Smith takes the baton from former poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, who held the role for two years, and joins a league of poets who previously held the title.

Her role, which begins in September, “seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry,” according to the Library of Congress website. During her yearlong term, Smith says she hopes to help people abandon some anxieties about reading poems and would like to focus on poetry access in underserved communities.

“I had access to it, and that is something everyone deserves,” she said. “It [poetry] brings hope, and I’m eager to have conversations with people whose voices I have never come in contact with.”

Smith, a Harvard and Columbia graduate, said for her new role she will draw on her experience and teaching approach as a creative writing professor at Princeton University.

“It’s an approach that is different from that of a literature class,” Smith said. “Let’s pay attention to choices writers have made in language and what effect those choices create, those choices that might be helpful to me and to you. It is an organic approach.”

The new poet laureate, 45, grew up in Fairfield in Northern California as one of five children. Smith first experienced language as “something exciting” in her fifth-grade class when she read a poem by Emily Dickinson. She says she was shocked by the connection she felt with the poem.

“I remember feeling really startled that someone I had never met was talking to me about something I felt and never, before reading the poem, known about myself,” she said. “It felt magical and made me want to do the same thing, to create poems and patterns of language that would be useful, exciting, inspiring and impart some kind of wisdom.”

Jim Richardson, a colleague at Princeton University, calls the laureate position a cheerleader for poetry who reminds everyone else that poetry has something for them.

“She will reach people, educate them and encourage them,” he said. “She will make them feel like they have as much to gain from poetry as anyone else, that they can be readers and they can be writers,” he said.