NewsPoet: Tracy K. Smith Writes The Day In Verse

Jan 27, 2012
Originally published on July 25, 2012 2:40 pm

Today marks the start of an exciting project at All Things Considered called NewsPoet. Each month we'll be bringing in a poet to spend time in the newsroom — and at the end, to compose a poem reflecting on the day's news.

The first poet to participate is Tracy K. Smith. She has received degrees in English and creative writing from Harvard College, Columbia University, and was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University. Her latest book of poems is titled Life on Mars.

Smith sat down with All Things Considered's Melissa Block to talk about writing a poem in a hurry. She called the day she spent with NPR's producers "delightful, and a little terrifying."

But reflecting on the headlines isn't exactly a new activity for Smith. In fact, she said she often finds that news events are "things I am thinking about and wrestling with and trying to understand better." And for a poet, there's no better way to do that than to write.

Asked where she got the idea for this poem, Smith explained that she came to the morning news meeting at All Things Considered, where she got a preview of the day's stories. Then she sat down to do some background reading. "I just listened to what seemed to rise to the surface for me," she said.

It got easier when she found a point of view that she could identify with: One story by Ofeibea Quist-Arcton — about Nigerians fleeing violence in the north of the country — struck a particular chord. "The sense of individual lives and individual bodies gave me a starting point, Smith explained." Her poem responding to that story is below.

All Things Considered's Newspoet is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman.

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I was reminded today of these lines from the poet William Carlos Williams: It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there. I was thinking about that because we're starting an experiment on the program to find poetry in the news. Each month, we'll be bringing in a poet to spend the day with us at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and, at the end, to compose a poem reflecting on the day's news.

And to start our series off, we've invited Tracy K. Smith to be what we're calling our news poet. Her latest book of poems is titled "Life on Mars." And all day, Tracy has been here following us around, thinking about today's news and shaping that into verse. Tracy, welcome. It's been great having you here. How did it go?

TRACY K. SMITH: Oh, it's been delightful and a little terrifying also.

BLOCK: I was thinking this is sort of an unfair task to have you do a poem on command in such a limited amount of time and specifically to sort of be following on the headlines. Is that a weird position to be in for you?

SMITH: Well, only the time constraint, I think. I often find that news events are things I'm thinking about and wrestling with and trying to understand better. So generally, I find myself taking time and trying to maybe inform myself a little bit more about stories that have struck me in one way or another. And writing a poem is one of the first approaches that I take to - trying to understand something a little bit better.

BLOCK: Huh. When it came to actually sitting down and starting to write, how did you have the germ of an idea? What was the trigger for you?

SMITH: I find that it's easiest to get into a poem if I can find a particular subjective point of view. And so one of the stories in today's news about Nigerian southerners leaving the north in an attempt to kind of escape violence really struck a chord because of the women's voices that were quoted in the story. And so the sense of individual lives and even just individual bodies gave me a starting point.

BLOCK: Great. Well, Tracy K. Smith, let's listen to the poem that you came up with today.

SMITH: "New Road Station." History is in a hurry. It moves like a woman, corralling her children onto a crowded bus. History spits go, go, go, lurching at the horizon, hammering the driver's headrest with her fist. Nothing else moves. The flies settle in place, watching with their million eyes, never bored. The crows strike their bargain with the breeze. They cluck and caw at the women in their frenzy, the ones who suck their teeth, whose skirts are bathed in mud. But history is not a woman, and it is not the crowd forming in a square.

It is not the bright swarm of voices chanting no and now, or even the rapt silence of a room where a film of history is right now being screened. Perhaps history is the bus that will only wait so long before cranking its engine and barreling down the road. Maybe it is the voice coming in through the radio, like a long distance call, or the child in the crook of his mother's arm who believes history must sleep inside a tomb or the belly of a bomb.

BLOCK: That's the poem "New Road Station" written today here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED by Tracy K. Smith. Tracy, thanks so much for coming in.

SMITH: Thank you.

BLOCK: And stay tuned: Once a month, we plan to invite a poet into our process, and we'll bring you their lyrical impression of the day's news. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.