Anisfield-Wolf Winner Tracy K. Smith On Compassion And Citizenship

Tracy K Smith and the cover of her book, Wade in the Water
Tracy K. Smith [Rachel Eliza Griffiths]
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Tracy K. Smith thought her research into documents from the Civil War and the preceding Antebellum years would feel remote. Instead, she found the voices in letters from that era quite recognizable.

Smith shares some of those voices in addition to her own in “Wade in the Water.” The poetry collection combines letters from African-American soldiers and their family members, including pleas to President Abraham Lincoln, along with comments from a slave owner.

“It’s a book in which I was really trying to grapple with questions of anxiety around America and contemporary America where questions of racial difference seem to be as unresolved as they were a generation or more ago,” Smith said.

The Pulitzer-Prize winning poet comes to Cleveland this week as an honoree of the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for “Wade in the Water.”

The title poem in the collection was inspired by a real encounter at a ring shout — religious ritual first practiced by African slaves — while Smith was travelling in the South.

“The poem tells of being approached by a woman and told ‘I love you',” Smith said. “That gesture felt like such a benediction. It didn't wipe away the sense of the past, but it reminded me that one of the things that has sustained the black community over centuries is the sense of love and faith.”

Smith wrote of compassion and citizenship in “Wade in the Water,” something she continued exploring as she served as poet laureate for the United States for the past two years.

“We’re so habituated to making assumptions about other people's stories and their motives, and we tell ourselves that we know where other people are coming from. I don't think that's the most healthy approach to relating to anyone, and it's particularly unhealthy in a climate where there's so much tension and mistrust,” she said. “What compassion does is, it says 'I, like you, am subject to many different feelings, and I'm worthy and so are you of a kind of good faith.'”  

One outgrowth of her laureateship is a podcast, “The Slowdown,” produced by American Public Media. In each episode, Smith shares a poem by another poet and meditations on related topics.

“I really do believe that poetry is something that encourages us to let down our defenses and to think vulnerably and compassionately about the lives and the voices of other people,” she said.

Tracy K. Smith accepts the 2019 Ansfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry for "Wade in the Water" Thursday in a ceremony at Playhouse Square's State Theatre.

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