Category Archives: Tracy K. Smith

Poets and Prizes (and what about this Pulitzer Prize anyway?!)

The Best Poet…?

A while back someone told me that there is old adage among poets and that is “the best poet never wins.”  This was in regard to poetry contests including standup slams, I believe.  It’s a humbling thought for the person who does come in first place and also a conciliation for those who don’t.  I’ve always thought this perspective kind of levels the playing field somehow.

Recently with the woman poet, Tracy K. Smith, winning the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry it made me think about this saying.  Strangely, however, for me is one of the reasons I started this blog was my puzzlement concerning the author, Harper Lee, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her first novel (!) a To Kill a Mockingbird and how she never published another book since.  So what is this Pulitzer Prize anyway?  Is this similar to winning a writing or poetry contest?  It doesn’t seem so.  Is it for a cumulative body of work?  Not necessarily, as in the situation of writer, Harper Lee.

When the Pulitzer Prize began to be awarded in 1917, it was for several categories of the written word: best American novel, best American drama, best books of biography, history and (since 1921) poetry, all of these works having been published by American authors.  In 1962 the category of nonfiction was added for works that did not fit into the other categories.

The Pulitzer is also awarded to the best work done in several distinct fields by American journalists during each year.  In 1942 a Pulitzer Prize in Photography was added to the journalism awards and this was further subdivided into two different types of photography awards in 1968.  Beginning in 2007 online writing awards in all the journalism categories excluding photography were added.  A prize in music composition was also added in 1943 based on Joseph Pulitzer setting aside money for a music scholarship that later it was decided to make it a prize also.

So how did the Pulitizer Prize begin?  It started when Joseph Pulitizer, an American newspaper owner and philanthropist, bequeathed a fund of money in his will in 1911 for the establishment of the Columbia University School of Journalism.  In the creation of this fund Joseph Pulitzer requested that the annual interest be used for prizes in writing.  Currently winners receive a certificate and $10,000.

Looking at a list early literary winners it turns out that most of the novels and plays sound familiar (i.e., The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder; “A Streetcar Named Desire” by Tennessee Williams, etc.).  A more recent lists of winners includes Beloved by Toni Morrison; A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan; “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson; and “Wit” by Margaret Edson.

Just to keep things a bit interesting prizes aren’t always granted in each category.  In fact, announced just this week for the year 2012, no Pulitzer Prize for the best novel was granted; evidently there was not an agreed upon consensus concerning the novel entries for this award.   This has not happened since 1977 and has caused a bit of a stir in the writing and publishing realm.  Journalist Jimmy So writes about this situation in the Daily Beast:

Thankfully in poetry this year there is Tracy K. Smith — she won for her third book of poem, “Life on Mars.”  Twelve years ago in the year 2000, another Princeton poet/professor C.K. Williams also won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for his poetry book “Repair.”

Congratulations to poet, Tracy K. Smith!

       Poet, Tracy K. Smith receives 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry

Tracy K. Smith, a poet and assistant professor of creative writing (at Princeton University), was awarded this week the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her third collection of poems “Life on Mars.”  Not familiar with this poet and her work, I’ve been trying to read up on her and compiled here some information about Ms. Smith and a selection of her poetry.

Ms. Smith’s was raised in northern California in a family that she has said has strong Alabama roots.  Her education background includes receiving degrees in English and creative writing from Harvard College and Columbia University.  She was also for two years, from 1997 – 1999, a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University.

A review of Ms. Smith’s work has stated she is a poet who displays “lyric brilliance and political impulses.” Her first book of poems entitled “The Body’s Question” (2003) won the Cave Canem Prize.  Her second book of poetry, “Duende,”was very well received, having won several awards including in 2008 the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.  This collection also won the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets, which is the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book. 

Ms. Smith joined the Princeton faculty in 2006 and teaches creative writing there at the Lewis Center for the Arts.  Among her responsibilities is her working with students in poetry writing workshops and guiding other students as an adviser while they write their senior thesis in poetry.  

Flores Woman

A species of tiny human has been discovered, which
lived on the remote Indonesian island of Flores just
18,000 years ago. … Researchers have so far unearthed
remains from eight individuals who were just one
[meter] tall, with grapefruit-sized skulls. These
astonishing little people … made tools, hunted tiny
elephants and lived at the same time as modern
humans who were colonizing the area.
Nature, October 2004

Light: lifted, I stretch my brief body.
Color: blaze of day behind blank eyes.

Sound: birds stab greedy beaks
Into trunk and seed, spill husk

Onto the heap where my dreaming
And my loving live.

Every day I wake to this.

Tracks follow the heavy beasts
Back to where they huddle, herd.

Hunt: a dance against hunger.
Music: feast and fear.

This island becomes us.

Trees cap our sky. It rustles with delight
In a voice green as lust. Reptiles

Drag night from their tails,
Live by the dark. A rage of waves

Protects the horizon, which we would devour.
One day I want to dive in and drift,

Legs and arms wracked with danger.
Like a dark star. I want to last.

(published 2007, from the book of poems “Duende” by Tracy K. Smith)

Stint as newspoet — January 2012

Earlier this year Ms. Smith spent a day at the NPR studios of the program “All Things Considered” as their first Newspoet.  The purpose of this NPR project was for a poet to spend all day in the NPR newsroom, and at the day’s conclusion, compose a poem reflecting the news of that day.

Ms. Smith proved to be a trooper, and while she found the experience “delightful and a little terrifying,” she managed to write a poem at the day’s end before she departed.

(This poem was inspired by the news report “After Bombings, an Exodus from a Nigerian City” where recent attacks by a radical Muslim group resulted in people fleeing the city of Kano).


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.