Celebrating American She-Poets (31): Tracy K. Smith, “Like a woman journeying for water …”

Tracy K. Smith (b. 1977), Pulitzer Prize winning poet and new U.S. Poet Laureate

“When some people talk about money
They speak as if it were a mysterious lover
Who went out to buy milk and never
Came back, and it makes me nostalgic
For the years I lived on coffee and bread,
Hungry all the time, walking to work on payday
Like a woman journeying for water
From a village without a well, then living
One or two nights like everyone else
On roast chicken and red wine.”  Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars


On Wednesday Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden announced the appointment of Tracy K. Smith as the Library’s 22nd Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2017-2018. Smith will take up her duties in the fall, opening the Library’s annual literary season in September with a reading of her work in the Coolidge Auditorium.

Smith, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a professor at Princeton University, succeeds Juan Felipe Herrera as Poet Laureate.

“It gives me great pleasure to appoint Tracy K. Smith, a poet of searching,” Hayden said.

“Her work travels the world and takes on its voices; brings history and memory to life; calls on the power of literature as well as science, religion and pop culture. With directness and deftness, she contends with the heavens or plumbs our inner depths—all to better understand what makes us most human.”

“I am profoundly honored,” Smith said. “As someone who has been sustained by poems and poets, I understand the powerful and necessary role poetry can play in sustaining a rich inner life and fostering a mindful, empathic and resourceful culture. I am eager to share the good news of poetry with readers and future readers across this marvelously diverse country.”

Smith joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including Juan Felipe Herrera, Charles Wright, Natasha Trethewey, Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass and Rita Dove.

The new Poet Laureate is the author of three books of poetry, including Life on Mars (2011), winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; “Duende” (2007), winner of the 2006 James Laughlin Award and the 2008 Essence Literary Award; and The Body’s Question (2003), winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith is also the author of a memoir, Ordinary Light (2015), a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in nonfiction and selected as a notable book by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

For her poetry, Smith has received a Rona Jaffe Writers Award and a Whiting Award. In 2014, the Academy of American Poets awarded her with the Academy Fellowship, given to one poet each year to recognize distinguished poetic achievement. In 2016, she won the 16th annual Robert Creeley Award and was awarded Columbia University’s Medal for Excellence.

In the Pulitzer Prize citation for Life on Mars, judges lauded its “bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain.” Toi Derricotte, poet and Academy of American Poets chancellor, said “the surfaces of a Tracy K. Smith poem are beautiful and serene, but underneath, there is always a sense of an unknown vastness. Her poems take the risk of inviting us to imagine, as the poet does, what it is to travel in another person’s shoes.”

Born in Falmouth, Massachusetts in 1972, and raised in Fairfield, California, Tracy K. Smith earned a B.A. in English and American literature and Afro-American studies from Harvard University and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Columbia University. From 1997 to 1999, she was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University. Smith has taught at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, at the University of Pittsburgh and at Columbia University. She is currently the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities and director of the creative writing program at Princeton University.


Background of the Laureateship

The Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center is the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1937, when Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library. Since then, many of the nation’s most eminent poets have served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and, after the passage of Public Law 99-194 (Dec. 20, 1985), as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry—a position which the law states “is equivalent to that of Poet Laureate of the United States.”

During his or her term, the Poet Laureate seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry. The Library keeps to a minimum the specific duties required of the Poet Laureate, who opens the literary season in the fall and closes it in the spring. In recent years, Laureates have initiated poetry projects that broaden the audiences for poetry.


The Great Hall of the U.S. Library of Congress. Public domain photo.

The Library of Congress is the world’s largest library, offering access to the creative record of the United States—and extensive materials from around the world—both on site and online. It is the main research arm of the U.S. Congress and the home of the U.S. Copyright Office. Explore collections, reference services and other programs and plan a visit at loc.gov, access the official site for U.S. federal legislative information at congress.gov, and register creative works of authorship at copyright.gov.


This feature courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress; photo credit slowking4 under GNU Free Documentaton License 2.0

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CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (29): Emma Lazarus and Liberty Lighting the World … “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887

Emma Lazarus, 1849 – 1887

In a letter to Emma Lazarus about Alide, an episode of Goethe’s Life. the Russian novelist Turgenev wrote  “An author who writes as you do is not a pupil in art anymore; he is not far from being himself a master.”

 “Emma Lazarus is a new name to us in American poetry, but ‘Admetus’ is not the work of a ‘prentice-hand’; few recent volumes of verse compare favorably with the spirit and musical expression of these genuine effusions of Emma Lazarus.” The Boston Transcript, c 1871

“What Emma Lazarus might have accomplished, had she been spared, it is idle and even ungrateful to speculate. What she did accomplish has real and peculiar significance. It is the privilege of a favored few that every fact and circumstance of their individuality shall add lustre and value to what they achieve. To be born a Jewess was a distinction to Emma Lazarus, and she in turn conferred distinction upon her race.” Josephine Lazarus, Emma’s elder sister who gather her poems together and published them in two volumes, The Poems of Emma Lazarus, 1881

“Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Emma Lazarus

EMMA LAZARUS, poet, writer and activist, was by all accounts shy and she died at thirty-nine years, much too young. Nonetheless she accomplished a lot in addition to that for which she is most well-known, The New Colossus, the sonnet that is on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty (Liberty Enlightening the World) in New York Harbor, having been installed there in 1903.

Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (1886) by Edward Moran. Oil on canvas. The J. Clarence Davies Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

Unveiling of the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World (1886) by Edward Moran. Oil on canvas. The J. Clarence Davies Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

“The copper statue, designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, a French sculptor, was built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886. It was a gift to the United States from the people of France. The statue is of a robed female figure representing Libertas, the Roman goddess, who bears a torch and a ]a tablet evoking the law upon which is inscribed the date of the American Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776. A broken chain lies at her feet. The statue is an icon of freedom and of the United States, and was a welcoming sight to immigrants arriving from abroad.” [Wikipedia]

In fact Lady Liberty greeted my own father and maternal grandparents and their children as they entered the harbor just as she probably did for the families of those reading here today. Their children and grandchildren learned the poem by heart in school. I suspect the majority of us took the ideals expressed as our own.

The bronze plaque inscribed with Emma Lazarus' poem, The New Colassus.

The bronze plaque inscribed with Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus.

A hymn to America, the “Mother of Exiles,” The New Colossus, was written to raise money for the construction of the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty.

The New Colossus – 1883

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Emma Lazarus

Emma came from a large Sephardic-Ashkenazi family, the father’s side from Germany and the mother’s side from Portugal. Her maternal great-grandmother was also a poet.  Emma’s first book of poems was published by her father when she was fourteen and apparently showed much promise. She continued to write poetry and eventually wrote a five-act play, a novel and a short-story as well.  She was a linguist, editing and translating works from the German, notably those of Goethe and Heinrich Heine. She wrote fourteen essays entitled Letters to the Hebrews. She was a forerunner in advocating a Jewish homeland, predating Theodore Herzi. She was friends with and an admirer of the American political economist, Henry George, who was instrumental in the birth of several reform movements of the Progressive Era. Essentially, George believed that workers should own the value of what they create, while the land should be held in common. Ralph Waldo Emerson was both friend and mentor.

Emma Lazarus received many posthumous awards. The Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award is sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society (New York and Massachusetts) and P.S. 268 in Brooklyn is named for her.

Life and Art

Not while the fever of the blood is strong,
The heart throbs loud, the eyes are veiled, no less
With passion than with tears, the Muse shall bless
The poet-sould to help and soothe with song.
Not then she bids his trembling lips express
The aching gladness, the voluptuous pain.
Life is his poem then; flesh, sense, and brain
One full-stringed lyre attuned to happiness.
But when the dream is done, the pulses fail,
The day’s illusion, with the day’s sun set,
He, lonely in the twilight, sees the pale
Divine Consoler, featured like Regret,
Enter and clasp his hand and kiss his brow.
Then his lips ope to sing–as mine do now.

– Emma Lazarus

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CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (28): Emily Dickinson … to find that phosphorescence, that light within

Emily Dickinson at sixteen years o age

Emily Dickinson at sixteen years, 1846

“PHOSPHORESCENCE. Now there’s a word to lift your hat to… to find that phosphorescence, that light within, that’s the genius behind poetry.” Emily Dickinson

41rt1zipr5l-_sx319_bo1204203200_Emily Dickinson was famously reclusive and wrote 1,775 poems, few of which were published during her lifetime. When her opus was finally published posthumously, it wasn’t well received. Today, however, she is considered one of the most significant of American poets. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is my favorite collection. The poems are organized chronologically, allowing us to see her development from teen years into the darker poetry of her maturity.

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

– Emily Dickinson

Apart from reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate her and her work then to see William Luce’s one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, starring Julie Harris.  It’s available to watch on YouTube and it’s a must if you are a lover of poetry and theatre and looking for some budget-wise charm this coming weekend. Order dinner in, set out the candles and wine … and Enjoy!

The play follows Emily Dickinson at the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. It incorporates Dickinson’s work, diaries, and letters in a reenactment of her life with her relatives, friends and acquaintances. It’s engaging and often wry … as is the poet herself.

The original Broadway production, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly and starring Julie Harris, opened on April 28, 1976 at the Longacre Theatre. It ran for 116 performances. A Wall Street Journal reviewer wrote . . .

“With her technical ability and her emotional range, Miss Harris can convey profound inner turmoil at the same time that she displays irrepressible gaiety of spirit.”

Harris won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for a Unique Theatrical Experience, and won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording. She appeared in a televised PBS production and toured the country with the play for a number of years. [sources: Wikipedia and NY Times]

Luce and Harris collaborated on other wonderful plays including Bronté.  A broadway playwright, Luce also wrote Barrymore, which with family I was fortunate enough to see on stage starring Christopher Plummer many years ago. That was a bit of heaven.  Luce wrote Lucifer’s Child based on the writing of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Lillian about Lillian Hellman and Zelda, which became The Last Flapperabout Zelda Fitzgerald. If script writing is one of your interests, you could probably do worse than reading a few of  Luce’s plays.

51hlj5jhdkl-_sx329_bo1204203200_


The recommended read for this week is Robert Pinsky’s Singing School, Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry. No rules or recipes here just learning by studying the pros. Charming. Fun.

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CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (27): Hélène Cardona … Poetry is language for the ineffable, what is impossible to write…

Hélène Cardona

Hélène Cardona, American poet, literary translator and actor

“I travel the corridors of mind, synapses
of chaos, frenetic amnesia, beguiling
impulses, diffusion of heaven,
past portals to crystalline temples”

excerpt from Cornucopia in Dreaming My Animal Selves

So often I want to shout: Don’t talk to me about the human condition in sociological terms. Don’t give me a technical analysis of the poem. Don’t talk to me about theology. There’s a place for all that but what I really want is your visceral response to life, art and to the Ineffable. In Hèléne Cardona’s poetry, we get just that. One of Helene’s gifts is to render the mysterious and mystical in often poignant terms expanding the boundaries of physical space into the unfettered space of psyche and Spirit. Writing from her sacred space, Hélène speaks to us in a silken web that is both imaginal and mythic, a space inhabited by visions and creatures we all know. Read with a still mind and open heart,the experience is somewhat like meditating and finding oneself in Rumi’s field where “the world is too full to talk about.”

hcI was first engaged by Hélène’s art when I read Dreaming My Animal Selves, Le Songe de mes Ames Animales (Salmon Poetry, 2013), a surreal pathway in legend, myth and fancy. In her latest book, Life in Suspension, La Vie Suspendue, she explores life after loss, the loss of her mother Kitty, and the search for succor and healing.

“I hear beyond the range of sound
the ineffable, the sublime, my mother’s
breath, grandmother’s smile, ancestors’
voices, to soothe and heal the sorrow.”

excerpt from Search of Benevolent Immortality in Life in Suspension

Both books express an intimacy with nature and broad cultural exposure. The poems were written in English and include Hélène’s own translations into French.

Hélène Cardona is a poet, literary translator and actor, whose most recent books include Life in Suspension and Dreaming My Animal Selves (both from Salmon Poetry), and the translations Beyond Elsewhere (Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac, White Pine Press), winner of a Hemingway Grant; Ce que nous portons (Dorianne Laux, Éditions du Cygne), and Walt Whitman’s Civil War Writings for WhitmanWeb.

She has also translated Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Aloysius Bertrand, Maram Al-Masri, Eric Sarner, René Depestre, Ernest Pépin, Jean-Claude Renard, Nicolas Grenier, and her father José Manuel Cardona. A Romanian translation of Dreaming My Animal Selves was published by Junimea Editions in 2016. Her work has been translated into 13 languages.

She contributes essays to The London Magazine, is co-international editor of Plume, and managing editor of Fulcrum: An Anthology of Poetry and Aesthetics. She holds a Master’s in American Literature from the Sorbonne, received fellowships from the Goethe-Institut and Universidad Internacional de Andalucía, worked as a translator for the Canadian Embassy in Paris, and taught at Hamilton College and Loyola Marymount University.

Publications include Washington Square Review, World Literature Today, Poetry International, Dublin Review of Books, Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Warwick Review, Irish Literary Times, Poetry Salzburg Review, and elsewhere.

Acting credits include Chocolat, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Jurassic World, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Mad Max: Fury Road, Inception, and Mumford. She is the Computer voice in the TV series Heroes Reborn and her many voice characters include Happy Feet 2 and Muppets Most Wanted. For Serendipity she co-wrote with director Peter Chelsom and composer Alan Silvestri the song Lucienne, which she also sang. http://helenecardona.com

“Poetry is language for the ineffable, what is impossible to write, the mystery. I seek the light within that mystery. We are stretched to the frontiers of what we know, exploring language and the psyche. The poem is a gesture, a movement, an opening towards a greater truth or understanding.” Hélène Cardona

AN INTERVIEW WITH HÉLÈNE CARDONA

JAMIE: Hélène both the collections I’ve read are beautifully crafted and graceful, ripe with all that is profound and mystical in life. Your love of language is evident in each poem and in the fact that you’ve studied and master several. Tell us how this love was birthed. How did it become clear to you that language – in one way or another – would be a major path in your life?

HÉLÈNE: I grew up in France, Switzerland, Spain, Monaco, England, Wales, Germany and Greece, and absorbed different cultures and ideas.

I go back and forth between French, English and Spanish the most. My father is Spanish and my mother Greek, so I grew up speaking all three languages at home. I deepened my study of Spanish at the Sorbonne, the Universidad Menendez Pelayo in Santander, and the Universidad de Baeza in Andalucía.

I started learning German when I was eleven or so, and went on to study it at the Goethe Institute in Paris and later in Bremen, Germany. I loved German right away. It feels very familiar and comfortable to me, as if I had a past life in Germany.

I loved language early but it was not obvious to me that it would be a major path in my life at first. That’s because I was a math major in high school, which led me to medical school when I was seventeen. After two years I had a breakdown. it was like giving up my soul. I went through a deep depression and nearly died. Which is what saved me. It was a deeply transforming spiritual experience and put me on my path.

JAMIE: Your life is busy with acting, voice over work, translating, teaching, mentoring and the usual things we all must attend to: friends, family and the daily prosaic activities of maintaining life and livelihood. How do you transition from all that into your time for writing? Tell us something about your writing regime.

HÉLÈNE:  My ideal writing regime is to write every night. In reality it’s more cyclical, with periods of more intense writing, and times where I write much less.
Regardless, I have notepads I carry with me, where I write things down throughout the day. I also have a notebook by my bed, where I write my dreams in the morning.

JAMIE: Congratulations on your many awards including most recently the Pinnacle Book Award for Best Bilingual Book of Poetry for Life in Suspension. What made you decide to do bilingual collections?

HÉLÈNE: It was my first publisher’s idea and it was brilliant. French is my native language and English is my fifth but it has become my language of choice. So I mostly write in English now. Translating my poems into French, my mother tongue, helped me tremendously because I made some beautiful, creative discoveries and revised the English in the process. It’s become a dance between the two languages.

JAMIE: Congratulations on being a Translation judge for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards. What can you tell us about the experience?

HÉLÈNE:  I was very honored to serve as a Translation judge for the PEN Center USA Literary Awards, along with Hilary Kaplan and André Naffis-Sahely. I’ve been a member and supporter of PEN Centre USA and PEN America for many years. PEN champions “the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.” Their goal is “to ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.” As for PEN Center USA, its “mission is to stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.” We judged work produced or published by writers living west of the Mississippi River in all genres: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Two works really stood out: Forbidden Pleasures: New Selected Poems, Stephen Kessler’s gorgeous translation of Luis Cernuda – the winner -, and Woman in Battle Dress, Jessica Powell’s stunning translation of the bold novel by Antonio Benítez-Rojo, which was one of the finalists.

JAMIE: Among other works you translated Walt Whitman into French. How – if at all – the experience of translating your own work differ from translating the work of others?

HÉLÈNE:  With my own work I feel freer to make changes to the original, because I’m only accountable to myself.

JAMIE: Who is the poet (or poets) who have most influenced you?

HÉLÈNE: I’ve been writing poetry since I was ten. Growing up I read poetry and plays and devoured novels. I read all the classics like Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. I loved Balzac. I read most of The Human Comedy. It is composed of a series of stories and novels, some historical like The Chouans (which remains one of my favorite with Old Goriot, Cousin Bette, The Lily of the Valley and The Wild Ass’s Skin) mostly depicting French society in the first half of the 19th century. The genius of it is that characters reappear from novel to novel and the reader keeps asking for more. I enjoyed the French playwrights Molière, Racine, Marivaux and de Musset, the Spanish playwrights Calderón de la Barca, Lope de Vega and Lorca, and Shakespeare of course. I discovered English literature and started spending my summers in England and Wales studying English philology. I would later discover Henry James and fall in love with him the same way I fell in love with Balzac.

Some of my favorite poets, in no particular order, are Anna Akhmatova, Mallarmé, Rilke, H.D., Emily Dickinson, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Aragon, Alberti, Lorca, Neruda, Machado, Cernuda, Breton, Cocteau, Robin Coste Lewis, Lee Upton, Éluard, Blake, Rumi, Yeats, Marie Ponsot, David Mason, Hafiz, David Wagoner, Louise Glück, Dorianne Laux, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lao Tzu, Sharon Olds, Geoffrey Hill, Thomas McCarthy, Rita Dove, Wisława Szymborska, Warsan Shire, Heather McHugh, Chase Twichell, Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Larry Levis, Hart Crane, and John FitzGerald.

JAMIE: Our readers have a strong interest in poetry as a healing agent, as witness to the human condition. In what ways do you feel your poetry fills these needs?

HÉLÈNE:  For me, poetry is a process of self-revelation, an exploration of hidden dimensions in myself, and it is also at the same time a way to become myself, a process of individuation I try to create throughout my life – a profound experience of the fundamental interconnection of all in the universe. Moreover, writing is cathartic as it extends a search for peace, for serenity, rooted in a desire to transcend and reconcile the fundamental duality I see in life. Ultimately, I seek expansion of consciousness.

helenecardonalis1200pxPOEMS FROM LIFE IN SUSPENSION, La Vie Suspendue (a collection in English and French)

The three poems are shared here with Helene’s permission and are under copyright.

A House Like A Ship

I live in a house like a ship
…..at times on land, at times on ocean.
I will myself into existance
…..surrender, invite grace in.
I heed the call of the siren.
…..On the phantom ship
I don’t know if I’m a wave
…..or cloud, undine or seagull.
Lashed by winds, I cling tight to the mast.
…..Few return from the journey.
I now wear the memory of nothingness
…..a piece of white sail wrapped like skin.

Hélène Cardona
From Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016)

Galactic Architect

From the bottom rung of a ladder in the sky
I hang in the void.
Ultramarine is all I need.
Let it be simple,
build a cottage for the spirit
to rest and soar.
I trust, self contained, in equipoise,
resources at my fingertips —
deep-rooted ghosts supporting
the foundation of a throne
to explore and claim whole worlds —
surprised to find you here with me
lighting up my life.

Hélène Cardona
From Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016)

Twisting the Moon

Now is the time to know
that all you do is sacred.
—Hafiz

We shared the coast of Maine in June,
hundreds of whales, lobster
…..sandwiches, buttermilk pancakes
…….and a room in Bar Harbor with antique tub.
They’re now a cloister of shadows loved,
goldsmith of the music of time.
…..She left when circumstances met.
I dream of offering her strawberries on sacred moons,
healed by the beauty of memories,
…..ready to start over as if knowing nothing.

– Hélène Cardona
From Life in Suspension (Salmon Poetry, 2016)

Hélène’s Amazon page is HERE and her website is HERE.

© Intro, Jamie Dedes © poems, interview responses and book cover art,Hélène Cardona

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