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The Stars Will Be Out for U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy Smith at the Honolulu Museum of Art

The poet at the Doris Duke Theatre Sat., Feb. 10 promises to dazzle and also reach out to Island audiences, a major goal of Smith’s tour of the U.S.


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After a super blue blood moon and a thrilling SpaceX rocket launch this past week, the stars are aligned for lovers of the spoken word Saturday, Feb. 10 as U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy Smith lands at the Honolulu Museum of Art for an interactive evening of poetry, discussion and, she hopes, back and forth discussion with an Island audience. Daughter of an engineer who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, the 46-year-old director of the creative writing program at Princeton University won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for her second book, Life on Mars.

 

Seeking new horizons would seem to be in her blood. She’s currently working on the libretto of an opera about “a piece of land that’s been in the same family line since slavery,” fascinated “that so many families remained on the very same land that their ancestors had been made to labor on enslaved.” Her own African-American family came from Alabama, but she’s also visited the Gullah region of South Carolina’s barrier islands for the story’s setting.

 

Tracy Smith
Photo: Courtesy of Blue Flower Arts

Smith decided that Hawai‘i would be in her plans after she was appointed to her national post last June by the Library of Congress. She soon announced an ambitious plan to combine the usual victory lap to big urban and university centers with visits to states and regions far from the literary mainstream. Her sojourn to the Islands comes courtesy of the Merwin Conservancy, the nonprofit founded by famed Maui poet W.S. Merwin, who has almost as many awards as the 2,740 individual palm species he and his wife, Paula, have successfully planted in a formerly barren 18-acre preserve.

 

After a series of private evenings with visiting writers over the past year, called the Green Room because they combine literary and environmental concerns, the Merwin Conservancy has partnered with the Honolulu Museum of Art for this 7 p.m. salon at the Doris Duke Theatre.

 

“My first trip, the pilot trip, was to some communities in New Mexico,” Smith says. “One was an Air Force base, which I chose because I grew up near one, where my father worked: Travis Air Force Base,” in Fairfield, California. “I was meeting servicemen and taking a tour, learning a little bit about what they do and having a reading that was in some ways a conversation, a seminar, including reading other work by contemporary poets,” she says. Other visits were to an opioid addiction treatment center and Native American reservation.

 

Smith traces her curiosity and love of words to a childhood in which books were at hand in her quiet, semirustic Northern California suburb. “My dad was somebody who, whenever I was bored, would say, ‘Here, read Poe, read these sonnets.’ I was still young, so it was not a case of understanding them, but of loving the way they made me feel. It wasn’t until later that I got the understanding.”

 

Readers should have no problem grasping the beauty, and often soaring clarity, of Smith’s work. Her language is accessible, occasionally slyly humorous. One memorable line talks about a man being chased by a caravan of men “like red ants let loose down the pants of America”—and yet the story floats just out of reach, expanding infinitely, like space itself.

 

That line comes from her much-cited poem of interstellar depth and sly pop sensibility, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” which takes its title from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—although the film is nowhere cited. Give it a spin here.

 

“In my own writing, what I’m trying to get at is not the voice but the mind,” she says. It’s a sentiment out of step, perhaps, with what’s fashionable in creative writing, with its emphasis on persona and performance. Smith says she’s interested in “what do you sound like when you’re talking to yourself? What are the thoughts that don’t have to be vocalized to be felt?”

 

If her poetry is any indication, audiences are in for a special evening that may offer some introspection as well as grandeur.

 

On the horizon for the Green Room salon is a possible April appearance by legendary environmental writer Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature among other books as well as numerous articles in The New Yorker and other publications.

 

Tracy Smith will read starting at 7 p.m. at the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art, 901 Kīna‘u St., Feb. 10; Tickets are sold out.

 

READ MORE STORIES BY DON WALLACE

 

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