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US Poet Laureate Smith gives reading to full house


Current United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, left, talks with IU Provost Lauren Robel, right, before the start of a poetry reading Thursday in the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center. Smith, who is the 52nd U.S. poet laureate, won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2012.  Matt Begala Buy Photos

Tracy K. Smith, the 52nd and current United States Laureate, read her poetry in front of an overflowing Grand Hall in IU’s Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center on Thursday night. 

Despite the full house, the room was silent when Smith spoke. Bloomington came to listen.

“I can’t think of a better way to develop literacy and community building than poetry,” Adrian Matejka, Indiana’s Poet Laureate, said in his introduction. 

This marks the second time in three years that IU has organized a reading from a U.S. Poet Laureate. Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Latino to receive the position and honor, came to Bloomington in 2016. 

First introduced by Provost  Lauren Robel and Matejka, Smith then read several poems from her newest collection, “Wade in the Water.” These poems included “Declaration” and “The United States Welcomes You.” Following the reading, Matejka and Smith sat down in two chairs facing the crowd and had a moderated conversation, discussing her duties as U.S. Poet Laureate and what she seeks to do with her work.

“I knew I wanted to do something,” Smith said during the conversation. “I also felt that poems could be a great way of finding connections between people who might not have anything ostensibly in common.”

As U.S. Poet Laureate, Smith seeks to raise the national awareness and appreciation of poetry. An idealistic hope for “the human family” rings throughout her poetry. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2012 for her collection, “Life on Mars,” and is one of the most decorated and influential poets alive. 

Throughout the night, she described herself as two things: a poet and a human being. Although most of the poems she read came from her newest collection, “Wade in the Water,” the first poem she read was written by one of IU’s professors, Ross Gay. 

Ross Gay, director of creative writing at IU, center, talks with an audience member and United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, left, before a poetry reading Thursday evening in the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center. Gay is the author of three books of poetry and is a winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.  Matt Begala Buy Photos

Smith’s own work, while vastly diverse, all shares the same imagery and musicality that has become her signature style. As Robel said, her work “makes people listen to one another.”

Lauren Pictor, an IU freshman and English major, couldn’t find a seat at the packed reading, but stood in the back and listened. 

“I love poetry," Pictor said, laughing. "I like poetry I don’t understand the first time I read it."

Deshaun Clarke, a graduate Accounting student, found himself standing among the overflow, waiting patiently, yet anxiously, for Smith to begin. 

“I’m pretty new to Bloomington, just came from a really small school before this," Clarke said. "I chose IU because of events like these."

Clarke uses poetry and writing as a way to take his mind off everything and all the math involved with his major. He said his favorite poets include “a lot of random spoken word people” and Smith herself.

“I’m really excited for this reading,” he said. “I’m excited to see what her motivation is. That’s what I really want to know.”

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