Tracy K. Smith

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Date: 2017
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,359 words

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About this Person
Born: April 16, 1972 in Falmouth, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: College teacher
Updated:June 22, 2017

Born April 16, 1972; married Raphael Allison; children: Naomi, Sterling, Atticus. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1994; Columbia University, M.F.A. Addresses: Home: Princeton, NJ. Office: Lewis Center for the Arts, Princeton University, 6 New South, Princeton, NJ 08544. E-mail:


Writer, poet, and educator. Princeton University, assistant professor of creative writing, 2005--. Has taught at Medgar Evers College, Marymount Manhattan College, City University of New York, Columbia University, and Gotham Writer's Workshop; visiting assistant professor of English at University of Pittsburgh, 2005. Breadloaf Writers' Conference fellow.


Wallace E. Stegner fellow in poetry, Stanford University, 1997-99; Cave Canem Poetry Prize, 2002, for The Body's Question; Rona Jaffee Foundation Writers' Award, 2004; Whiting Writers' Award, 2005; Laughlin Award, Academy of American Poets, 2006, and Essence Literary Award, 2008, both for Duende; Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative, 2010; Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation grant; Pulitzer Prize for poetry, 2012, for Life on Mars; fellowship, Academy of American Poets, 2014; named poet laureate of the United States, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, 2017.




  • The Body's Question, selected and introduced by Kevin Young, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2003.
  • Duende: Poems, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2007.
  • Life on Mars: Poems, Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, MN), 2011.
  • Zero to Three, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 2014.
  • Ordinary Light: A Memoir, Knopf (New York, NY), 2015.

Contributor to books, including Poems, Poets, Poetry, Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, State of the Union: 50 Political Poems, When She Named Fire, Efforts and Affection: Women Poets on Mentorship, The McSweeney's Book of Poets Picking Poets, Legitimate Dangers: American Poets of the New Century, The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade, Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website, Poetry 30: Thirty-Something Thirty-Something American Poets, and New Voices: Contemporary Poetry from the United States. Contributor to periodicals, including Boulevard, Callaloo, and PN Review.



Tracy K. Smith's poetry collection The Body's Question is a "spare, honest and insightful debut verse collection," commented Douglas Danoff in Essence. The poems explore some melancholy topics related to race, love, family, and loss, but in the end they are held together by "a sense of joy of prayer," Louis McKee observed in the Library Journal. The works look at city life, the paradoxical notion that there is greater satisfaction in hunger than in fullness, and the philosophical failure of language to relay abstract concepts of love and loss.

The collection "interrogates the nature of physical and the metaphysical knowledge" of philosophy, remarked Gregory Pardlo in Black Issues Book Review. Like the episodes of life they illuminate, Smith's poems steer away from resolution; they "resist closure," Pardlo noted. Even so, the poems find their own level of balance, and it is a balancing act that Smith performs with "lyric aplomb," Pardlo stated. McKee called The Body's Question a "rich collection of stories, histories, and moments that glow with the clean, direct language of a charming new voice."

Smith published another collection in 2007, titled Duende: Poems. The title is a word used often in southern Spain, and it has many meanings attached to it, some of them contradictory. It has been defined variously as a ghost, a demon, inspiration, magic, and magnetism. The famous Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca described it as the source of any artistic action. In Smith's collection, duende is represented as "the unforgiving place where the soul confronts emotion, acknowledges death and finds poetry," according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Smith opens the collection with a quote from Lorca and then presents her own representation of the duende concept. There are thirty poems in the collection, addressing topics ranging from the personal to the political. The poet adopts various personas, including many who suffer from a sense of displacement--for example, writing from the perspective of a Ugandan girl who is sold into a marriage.

The Publishers Weekly reviewer found that Smith's writing displays "lyric brilliance," and praised not only her writing but her ability to take on weighty subjects. A reviewer for the Associated Content website commented that one of the most noteworthy aspects of the book is "a bold admittance to a fact all poets know: poetry is distorted truth."

In Life on Mars: Poems, Smith explores the unknowable aspects of death through another relatively unknowable venue: outer space. The subjects align naturally for Smith, who in this collection mourns the death of her father, a scientist who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. Making frequent reference to the pop-culture obsession with space and science fiction in the mid-twentieth century, Life on Mars is also an examination of time, childhood, and politics. Rather than seeking or offering answers, Smith's poems embrace the cosmic mysteries.

While pointing out what he felt were a few poetic missteps, New York Times Book Review critic Joel Brouwer nevertheless hailed the collection, writing that "Smith shows herself to be a poet of extraordinary range and ambition. ... As all the best poetry does," he added, "Life on Mars first sends us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled." Poet and critic Dan Chiasson wrote in the New Yorker that "Smith's central conceit allows her to see us, our moment, as specks in the future's rearview mirror. Futures and pasts are, in astronomy as in poetry, all mixed up." Library Journal contributor Diane Scharper called the collection "hypnotic and brimming with irony." Smith received a Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars in 2012.

Smith's volume Ordinary Light: A Memoir largely explores the author's childhood. Smith's mother, who died soon after the author graduated from college, also takes center stage. Smith touches on her mother's deep religious faith and on the intricacies of growing up black in a predominantly white community. Smith writes about her mother's battle with colon cancer, and about growing up in Northern California during the 1970s. Smith explains that her father worked at the Travis Air Force Base as an engineer, and her family was one of the only black families in the area. Discussing the memoir in an online Harvard magazine interview with Sophia Nguyen, Smith explained: "I started working on this memoir in earnest in 2009, but it's a project that I had been wanting to undertake for many years. My mother passed away in 1994, and I wanted to write about her, and think about that loss and about the family that she was really the center of. As early as 1999, I made some of the first attempts to write about some of these early memories, but I found it difficult to finish any of those pieces. I kept starting things and then feeling overwhelmed by the material, too close to that loss to really have any sense of writerly discipline or perspective in relation to it." She added: "My daughter was less than a year old at that time. Becoming a parent was one additional thing that helped me develop the necessary perspective, if that makes sense. Not only did I have access to my own feelings and recollections but suddenly I had a way of imagining what my mother, as a parent, might have been thinking and worrying about, and weighing in her mind."

Praising the author's efforts in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Carol Memmott remarked: "Ordinary Light shines bright not because of extraordinary events that occurred in Smith's life but because of the warm glow the memoir casts on the simple everyday life of a young girl yearning to do great things." Richard Thompson Ford, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, was also impressed, asserting that "the star here is less the author than the writing itself: Like a Noguchi table, Smith's prose is sturdy, functional and at the same time exquisitely beautiful." Ford went on to conclude that "Ordinary Light glows not from the flare-ups of dramatic conflict and trauma, but from the steadier supply of insight derived from the habits and gradual transformations of everyday life." And a Publishers Weekly critic declared: "This is a nuanced memoir with a quiet emotional power."




  • Smith, Tracy K. Ordinary Light: A Memoir, Knopf (New York, NY), 2015.


  • Black Issues Book Review, March-April, 2004, Gregory Pardlo, review of The Body's Question, p. 25.
  • Booklist, February 1, 2015, Donna Seaman, review of Ordinary Light, p. 18.
  • Essence, March, 2005, Douglas Danoff, profile of Tracy K. Smith, p. 136.
  • ForeWord, February 28, 2011, Jen Steinnorth, review of Life on Mars: Poems.
  • Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2014, review of Ordinary Light.
  • Library Journal, September 15, 2003, Louis McKee, review of The Body's Question, p. 62; May 15, 2011, Diane Scharper, review of Life on Mars, p. 89.
  • Newsday, April 15, 2015, review of Ordinary Light.
  • New Yorker, August 8, 2011, Dan Chiasson, review of Life on Mars, p. 71.
  • New York Times Book Review, August 28, 2011, Joel Brouwer, review of Life on Mars, p. 15.
  • Publishers Weekly, May 21, 2007, review of Duende: Poems, p. 35; March 2, 2015, review of Ordinary Light, p. 77; March 30, 2015, Craig Morgan Teicher, "Ordinary Life, Extra Ordinary Light," p. 44.
  • San Francisco Chronicle, April 15, 2015, Richard Thompson Ford, review of Ordinary Light.
  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), March 29, 2015, Carol Memmott, review of Ordinary Light.
  • UWire Text, November 13, 2014, "Professor Profiles: Tracy K. Smith," p. 1.


  • Associated Content, (June 27, 2008), review of Duende.
  • Cave Canem Poetry Prize Website, (July 8, 2008), biography of Tracy K. Smith.
  • Harvard, (April 9, 2015), Sophia Nguyen, author interview.
  • Medgar Evers College of City University of New York Website, (July 8, 2008), faculty profile.
  •, (February 28, 2012), biography of Tracy K. Smith.
  • Princeton University, Lewis Center for the Arts Website, (February 28, 2012), biography of Tracy K. Smith.*


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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000163565