Tracy K. Smith arrived at Harvard in 1990 as a teenage undergraduate, unsure of her creative path and wary of the onset of adult life. Adjusting to life away from home in California and dealing with her mother’s recent cancer diagnosis, she found solace in her first creative writing workshops with renowned poets, including Lucie Brock-Broido and Seamus Heaney, where she learned how to use her writing to express and comprehend her deepest feelings.
“I remember being 19 or 20, sitting in those classrooms, trying to live a life on this campus as an adult. I felt vulnerable and confused in so many ways,” said Smith, a 1994 graduate of the College who this summer joined the Harvard faculty as a professor of English and of African and African American Studies and the Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.
Smith had been reading and writing poetry since grade school, but “just taking the time to move through a poem and gather a sense of its insights helped me to name the things I was feeling. It saved my life, in a way,” she said.
Those foundational experiences fueled Smith’s nearly 30-year career, during which she received a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, a National Book Award nomination, and served two terms as the 22nd poet laureate of the United States (2017-19), among many other accolades. She is the author of five books of poetry — “Wade in the Water,” “Life on Mars,” “Duende,” “The Body’s Question,” and the forthcoming “Such Color: New and Selected Poems” — and a memoir, “Ordinary Light.” She directed the creative writing program at Princeton before she joined the faculty at Harvard.
Recalling the joy and challenges of her own early studies, Smith set out to create a similarly life-changing space for a new generation of writers in her fall course, “Poetry Workshop: Form & Content.”
“I love the feeling of trust and investment that takes shape, often quickly, in a workshop. I feel inspired by the risks my students take and illuminated by their reactions to the work of poets I love,” she said, noting the inclusion of poets like Jericho Brown, Su Hwang, and Michael Kleber-Diggs on the fall syllabus. “That moment when we begin to recognize that we have forged a collective vocabulary for talking about poems — it feels like a revelation every time. A workshop also keeps me honest, in a way, because the students are pushing themselves to write poems and take new risks every week, and I often feel compelled to write in solidarity with them.”
In her own work, Smith explores themes of love and desire, justice, loss, and human connections across time, history, and difference. Critics laud her clear language, expansive storytelling, and her engagement with the thorny paradoxes of everyday life and larger questions of American history, justice, and racism.
“I love the moment when I start to sweat a little bit as I’m writing, when the poem that I’m working on urges me to realize that I’m also a of part of the problem — whatever it might be — that my poem is helping me grapple with. I love it when my poems remind me that if I’m invested in making a situation better, I need to let go of some of the things that I’ve long done or some of the strategies that I’ve long resorted to, both as a writer and a person,” she said.
“That’s the space where I think poems make us better people, where they can make us perhaps willing to acknowledge the contradictions that we’re tangled up in all the time.”