She can't tell you stories of an angst-ridden childhood. She can't tell you how she published her first lyric at the age of six, or how she struck out on her own after kindergarten, or how she spent her adolescence in a suburban wasteland, misunderstood by her peers. Though she's a poet and, she admits, most poets come from such dramatic beginnings, Tracy K. Smith '94 never enjoyed these fruits of misery.
It hasn't made a difference. Unlike the work of many of her peers, Smith's poems seem more interested in art than in the artist, more curious about exploring details than about dissecting political issues or laying the poet's life on the page. Her life follows a similar pattern: She comes across as affable, always smiling, quiet, but her friends claim that her still waters not only run deep, but aren't that still to begin with. "She's not shy," says one. "She's crazy, actually."
The poet is theatrical--she once erupted into a sarcastic, silly tap dance routine at the sound of Billy Joel's "Piano Man." She had an obsession with the music of Donovan. She claimed that while falling asleep, she could hallucinate to the music of Bob Marley. She knocked on doors and asked friends to come out and play. She got kicked out of dorm crew for refusing to do her job. In the short stories she wrote in high school she concocted, for her friends' confusion, an obsession with a man wearing a ski mask, behind the wheel of a beige pick-up truck; the character drove through every story she wrote for about two or three weeks, says David C. Kammler '94, a friend from high school.
The craziness, the shyness, the affability--all the attention amuses and embarrasses Smith. She's modest--she says she's still learning to write poetry, and she wants to get to know the "something that doesn't want its photograph taken." She's afraid of sounding pretentious. She's afraid of coming on too strong. She is shy, whether she's crazy or not, and she paints herself as an ordinary kid, leading an ordinary life, content to spend most of her time alone. For this poet from the suburbs of America, it's the thinking that matters, not the biography.
"I'm more interested in the small, immediate, local, personal--in a means of seeing something much larger, how we fit into the larger picture," she says. "It's so happenstance what you write about. You're looking for connections to everything you can possibly hear aspects of your voice in. There's nothing urgent or political in my works."
It wasn't always that way. When she first came to Harvard, Smith felt pressure from many Black students to explore her own racial identity. She remembers being "attacked" for not being Black enough, for not being "down enough." She and Anita Jain '94, her best friend from across the hall in Matthews, found the new atmosphere shocking, and started a process of re-evaluating race and themselves.
"We came here a little ill at ease with the notion of speaking openly and thinking confidently about race and how we fit into it," Smith says. "We came from, if not white towns, then sets of predominantly white friends. Race was always a back burner thing, especially at that age. When you're an adolescent, you're trying to be a lot like your friends...It's easy to put it off if you're happy and no one's talking about it."
Jain jokingly calls this part of their lives "doing the race thing." The "Wacky phase" they went through together dictated much of what they felt able to do with their lives at the time: "what you read [Ellison, not Thoreau], who you would deign to go out with [Blacks, definitely not whites], what your interests were in politics--all with very little emphasis on action."
Both of them grew up in the middle-class, predominantly white suburbs that stretch across Northern California. Smith's hometown, according to Ed Miao, a friend from high school, "wasn't exactly poetically inspiring," Fairfield is the kind of place John Hughes made movies about--a commuter town halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco where the only thing for teenagers to do was to hang out at the local mall. "People had big sprayed hairdos," says Miao.
"Shopping malls and movies were the two means of exercise," says Smith. Her four oldersiblings guided her intellectual development fromthe start. One of her sisters moved back home whenSmith was entering adolescence; she took Smith toSan Francisco just at the age she needed to breakout of suburbia. "When my brother Conrad left forcollege," Smith says, "he left me Death inVenice to read. I was in the third grade."
She spent much of her time worrying about herbrothers and sisters, even as they wereintroducing her to their college friends and moremature concerns. Though her parents tried to keepher childhood worry-free, she'd overhearconversations and obsess about them. When Conrad'sroommate wasn't paying her phone bill, Smith,still in grade school, wrote the Woman a letter.
Coming back to Fairfield after a year ofcollege in the Northeast was a calculatedshock--Jain says they'd spent their first year'honing their elitist fantasies." When Smithreturned to California, she found herself, likemany of her classmates, with a new perspective onhome.
"I went back and saw how lazy and disgustingthey all were and how they ate this gross food,"she says. "I was overly confident of my owncapacities. Now I look at where I come fromdifferently, but I'm not so quick to remove myselffrom it."
None of these changes show up in her writing.She keeps her work at a remove from her outerlife; the poetry seems to grow more from hermeditative life than from experience. "There areshifts in subject matter," she says, "but they'reslight. I'm still writing poems about personalmatters, my family, but I'm writing themdifferently."
By the time Smith started blowing off steam inher first year of college, she'd written only 20poems ("and that," says Smith, "is anexcruciatingly generous estimate"). She was, likemost first-years, more interested in parties andsocializing than in anything academic--sheremembers her first year fondly as a time when shewas still very young.
"I was lazy," she says. "I got excited aboutgoing to parties, boyfriends--it was compensationfor high school." She got "remarkably drunk, likesomething out of television." She even went to afinal club, once. Jain says, "We liked to refer toourselves as those chubby, naive girls thatgiggled a lot."
Her first months at Winthrop House were thesame way. She went to the house Thursdayfests, shehung out with juniors and seniors, she spent allher time in the dining hall. Only gradually didshe start to wonder what everyone was doing withtheir time.
"I felt very watched, because that was what Iwas doing," she says. "It was the same thing everyday." At the end of that year, she was "hit overthe head with poetry," and started thinking aboutmore serious things, about mortality. In themeantime, she and her roommates decided they'dlive in DeWolfe. "I wanted to write," she says,"and I knew it was such a masturbatory thing todo--'Let me think about myself.' Rather than beseen as a recluse, I decided just to do thosethings privately."
Mabye for these reasons, she's never been a bigplayer in Harvard's literary community. She'schosen to work alone, or with artists in the DarkRoom Collective, a group of young, Black poets inBoston. She never comped the Advocate--she guesseseither it was too intimidating, or she was toolazy.
"I'm willing to be a person that writes byherself. I love workshops and feedback, but ittakes a lot of energy. You have to withdraw andthink about what you want to think about."
By the beginning of sophomore year, asthe Thursdayfests raged and she was coming toterms with Fairfield, her introspection about raceand identity only intensified. Smith decided toconcentrate in both English and Afro-Americanstudies; a seminar with Werner Sollors brought heracross a" threshold into--I don't want to sayblackness, but maybe commercial blackness,social blackness, confirmed in literature. I did alot of reading I hadn't done but should have doneby then."
She rigorously--and exclusively--versed herselfin Black history and culture. Every book shebought that year was written by a Black. The musicshe listened to was largely by Blackartists--Stevie Wonder, Joan Armatrading--and shewas "immersing myself in what I thought my selfshould be." She made efforts to make Blackfriends, and she says she was "hypersensitiveabout race, wanting to argue about it withfriends, pouncing on people for saying somethingthe wrong way."
She took Spike Lee's seminar, i