Tracy K. Smith Visits China
At SupChina, Anthony Tao documents his recent visit with Tracy K. Smith—in the back of a van in Beijing where Smith made one of her first overseas appearances since becoming poet laureate of the United States. “In fact, last week marked Smith’s second time in Beijing, following a trip in April” Tao notes. From there:
On both occasions, her main purpose was to visit a poet she’s co-translating, Yi Lei (伊蕾), who was very influential in the 1980s and 1990s but remains obscure outside of Asia (a fact that might soon change, with the pending publication of a Smith-translated book). Smith was introduced to Yi’s work in 2013, starting with her most famous poem, “A Single Woman’s Bedroom” (独身女人的卧室). “I just felt so much connection to her,” Smith says. “It’s a long poem written in many brief sections, which is something that I tend to do with my work; it’s a poem that’s thinking about female identity and sexuality and subjectivity; and it’s also moving toward these large-scale thoughts about philosophy and about humanity, and I was just so drawn in by her voice.”
Despite only reading the poem via translator Changtai Bi’s rigid initial draft, Smith was infected by Yi’s “urgent energy.” “I could tell there was a lot happening in this poem that I was drawn to,” she says. She eventually translated all of it.
We sat down with Smith – in the back of that van, remember – to talk about the nature of language and poetry, and what she likes about Beijing.
Anthony Tao: The New York Times said you planned to use your time as poet laureate to go into small towns and rural areas as a “literary evangelist,” to spread the gospel of poetry, as it were. How do you feel about that phrase?
Tracy K. Smith: I sort of set myself up for that phrase because I was talking about poetry as good news, thinking about how, despite all of the discouraging input we get from the media, poetry allows us to process that information, to reflect upon our lives, and to talk to each other in ways that are necessary and humanizing. I guess I don’t mind that moniker. What I’m more interested in is the possibility of going into these small communities and listening and sharing and thinking about what poetry means in different places, and I think that will be instructive to all of us.
AT: Beijing is obviously neither a small nor a rural place…how’s your Chinese?
TKS: Xiexie [谢谢, thank you], that’s what I’ve been able to say. At my age, I feel, “How would I ever?” But I have such a desire to come back to make this more of a regular place in my life, so maybe I can learn.
Read more at SupChina.