Congratulations to Tracy K. Smith, Pulitzer Prize Winner in Poetry: Getting to That Untamed, Untrained Place to Write.

21 Apr

My daughter is screaming in the next room because she wants her father to give her something he is not willing to let her have.  Her little voice has swelled and stretched so it now seems to be something she could, if she wanted, ride down the stairs and out the front door of our building.  I want! I hear her say, the a of it opening up into a wide, flat surface, while the anger winds and unwinds itself like the engine of a well-built vehicle. I waaaant!

When I first started writing poems seriously, I remember longing for that kind of unappeasable need, longing to tap into something capable of causing so much internal unrest I’d have to step aside and let it have its way.  I didn’t have my daughter’s sense of purpose, perhaps, or her innocent belief in the veracity of her own need and the determination of the world to serve it.  I only knew that I wanted to feel something stirring, churning, coming apart and together.  I wanted to say something that threw me off balance, that seemed to erupt from a place I hadn’t learned to stifle.

Instead, I sat at my desk eking out statement after considered statement, trying to break through the thick veneer of control I’d acquired through years as an obedient daughter and conscientious student.  I didn’t know how to say anything that I hadn’t first examined, double-checked, tested for leaks.

I waaant! The echo of it still swirls in the air, though for the moment my daughter sits silent over a plate of toast and a preponderance of butter.  Does that feeling ever completely go away? How do we find our way into the need from which poems are made?

Maybe it’s worth noting the things that are presupposed by such a question: that for a poem to succeed, it must have some kind of real necessity riding on it; that we write poems because they better enable us to live and understand (or bear) our lives; that our poems are emissaries for some part of ourselves we can’t normally access or face, at least not with any kind of predictability. I guess those are my givens, the conditions under which I operate as a writer.  For another kind of writer, perhaps such concerns don’t apply.  But this morning—in my apartment with the little voice sailing through the rooms, now elated, now at the peak of its fury, now humming quietly to itself in a lilting key—I’m willing to say that our particular givens are not things we choose. We are born into them, encoded with them, destined either to struggle against them or learn to live peaceably together.

I remember the year that I first managed to get close to that untamed, untrained place—the place under all of the controls and the decorum I’d built up over the years.  It happened, I guess, without my knowing, but when I noticed it I was sitting on my couch in my apartment in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.  I was not yet 30, not yet quite gainfully employed, living a kind of wanton adventure (it seems now), hand to mouth, in touch with a literal urgency that rumbled every few hours out from my empty gut.  It was the year I became resourceful.  Pretending to be an expert at a whole host of things a less desperate person would back wisely away from. Some nights my then-husband and I heard neighbors raging against one another through the walls.  Other nights, we were those neighbors.  Exhausted, hopeful, frightened, with no choice but to keep going, keep racing to greet the oncoming traffic of opportunity and necessity, I was not so much who I had been trained all my life to be, but just a scaled-back, stripped-down version of myself. An elemental me.

I sat on that couch as summer light filtered in through the thick red drapes I’d stitched myself.  All of my unfinished poems were spread around me—poems I’d known how to begin but never how I was supposed to get myself back from where they seemed to be wanting to lead.  My then-husband was in the next room, oblivious to the world outside his sketchbook.  We had a cat that sat on the dormant radiator watching, willing me on. Looking at my poems, I decided that, one by one, I’d let my life spill into some of their holes; I’d let my own messy, in-progress existence come into contact with the material I’d culled from watching the world from a too-safe distance for so long.

I was hungry.  I was worried about my marriage.  I missed my mother, whose death still felt fresh, though it had already been years. I entertained a whole series of fantasies about the person I was, and each of them felt real; why not make them real?  I believed in God and the afterlife.  I had shaken myself free of some of the moral quandaries that had weighed upon me in years past.  There was so much experience I was dead-set to have.  I was lonely.  I was afraid.

That’s what I plugged the holes in my poems with.  Bits and pieces of the questions, wishes, fears, nightly cries.  If my speaker was an illegal immigrant, or an abandoned wife, or a soul waiting to be born, I took a piece of my own haphazard life and did what I needed to make it fit.  I asked my questions. I voiced my rage. I put my fears into the speakers’ mouths.  It wasn’t always a straight line from me to them, but the glue of my own urgency bound me to the poems, making them tools for looking more clearly and objectively at what I was living within or beneath.  Investing part of myself in the poems made them valuable (for me) in ways that went beyond craft.  I realized they were capable of helping—in some cases teaching—me to live my life.

My daughter runs into the room and says Mommy writing? Even she knows what it feels like when I am trying to make something happen in language. Trying to make sense. Does she know how to tell if what I am saying really is true, or if it’s merely the truth I need to make now, at this moment? If she could look at me then, and at the poems I’m remembering, would she know how to judge if they did what I am claiming they did? Would she find a precursor to her own brand of house-on-fire want there in those lines about the men and women I met or merely wrote into being on my way to becoming her mother?

I don’t know whom I’m accountable to in saying this. Maybe that life I lived for a while and then left.  Maybe the poems, which have taken on lives of their own. Maybe the woman sitting there on her couch telling herself, if I can just say this now, here, in this way, just let it out word by word onto the page, I can slip out of this life far enough, or into it deeply enough, to feel, even just briefly, free.

Tracy K. Smith is the author of Life on Mars (Graywolf 2011), Duende (Graywolf 2007) and The Body’s Question (Graywolf 2003).  Since 2005, she has taught Creative Writing at Princeton University. 

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