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A Conversation With U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy Smith


April starts tomorrow, and you know what that means. It's almost time for NPR Poetry. This time every year, we call out to listeners to ask for your original poems. You can send them to us using the Twitter hashtag #NPRPoetry. And joining us again this year to help us kick off the project is Tracy K. Smith. She's currently serving her second term as poet laureate of the United States.

Welcome back, Tracy. Thank you so much for joining us and helping us start poetry month.

TRACY K SMITH: Thank you. I'm excited - excited to be back.

COLEMAN: It's become a tradition for us to speak with you every year at the beginning of poetry month. And every year, you have something new to share. And that's very true this year. You have a podcast called "The Slowdown." Can you tell me about this?

SMITH: Sure. "The Slowdown" is a daily weekday podcast. It's about five minutes long, and it involves a poem by a different poet that I read. But that poem is prefaced by a little bit of thinking about life, about the world, about feelings that in some ways the poem speaks to.

COLEMAN: When I listen to you in your podcast, you reveal an awful lot about your thinking, your viewpoints, your experiences, your fears.

SMITH: Yeah. I think poems sort of open us up in that way. They remind us of what we feel. They bring language that may not have existed for us before that can be applied to, you know, what's going on inside. I also really like the way that when you read a poem with someone else, those feelings and thoughts become part of a conversation. And so, in my mind, poems are really great at bringing us into what feels like a real and meaningful kind of engagement with other people.

COLEMAN: Last year, you wrote in The New York Times that political poetry is making a comeback. Why do you think that is?

SMITH: My sense is that it might have been around September 11 and the years that followed that heightened our willingness to talk about politics and to feel that what's happening in our country and in our name elsewhere in the world is part of our daily life.

COLEMAN: Americans really are politically divided. What does it mean to serve as poet laureate at this time?

SMITH: I feel that the narrative of a divided nation made me more eager to find ways of crossing that sense of division with poetry and going into communities that are characterized by different value systems, different ways of life. It was heartening because I found that through the medium of poetry, we had something real, vulnerable, urgent and honest to share with one another. We were opening up and talking about our lives because that's what poems do, and that's what poems invite.

And what made me really happy is that poems - unlike politics, poems don't get you fired up in a position of authority and judgment over others. You're not arguing something down when you're talking about a poem. You're saying, let me listen to this. Let me think about how it speaks to me. Let me think about how I feel different as a result of what you've just said. And I think that's a really healthy way of approaching other people, especially people whose perspectives might be different from yours.

COLEMAN: That's Tracy K. Smith, poet laureate for the United States and author of "Wade In The Water: Poems." She joined us from Princeton, N.J.

Tracy, thank you for speaking with me.

SMITH: Thank you.

COLEMAN: Starting tonight, you can tweet your original poems to @npratc with the hashtag #NPRPoetry. And each week in April, a professional poet will monitor the hashtags and then come on the program to share some of the submissions that caught their eye. Will your work be read on the air? There's only one way to find out, so get inspired and get ready to tweet. And even though Twitter has changed its character limit since we started this contest, we're sticking with the original rules. Poems must be 140 characters or less.