Newsmaker: Tracy K. Smith

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet returns to prose with new release

November 1, 2023

Tracy K. Smith. Photo by Andrew Kelly.
Tracy K. Smith Photo: Andrew Kelly

Author, professor, and librettist Tracy K. Smith is as prolific as she is distinguished. She has won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (for 2011’s Life on Mars), earned a National Book Award nomination (for her 2015 memoir, Ordinary Light), and served as 2017–2019 US poet laureate. With To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul (November, Knopf), Smith offers a stirring and spiritual collection of essays that channel the voices of her ancestors and confront the racial and social unrest of the present. American Libraries spoke to her about communing with loved ones through writing, the tenor of today’s book bans, and making collections more accessible.

To Free the Captives was written in response to assaults on Black life and the racial reckoning this country was experiencing in 2020, but the book is mostly set in the past. Were there challenges to weaving the historic aspects with more personal narratives?

It was hard for me to pull the past away from the present. I kept thinking about the reality that my parents and grandparents and the generations that came before them had endured, and I wanted to try and tap into the sense of strength, beliefs, hope, and resilience that they built and claimed. There was a vocabulary of spiritual seeking that began to emerge. The work veers from public to archival to psychic to familial—these are the spaces that we’re turning to for clarity and a sense of possibility. It makes me more and more certain that our civic discourse is too limited. It cleaves to a language of logic, to the sense of hierarchy that institutions often default to. These are not the terms and values that will save us.

In your book, you comment on “the violence of the archive,” how the historical record often erases marginalized people and is maintained for an “authorized few.” What can libraries do to improve access to everyone’s stories?

One of my favorite libraries, which I mention briefly in the book, is Rose Library at Emory University [in Atlanta]. It’s a rare books and manuscripts library with a massive archive, but it’s porous. There are classes of students handling materials, it’s a lively hub, and there’s this ethos that these materials belong to all. Imagine if we were willing as a nation to gather around all the voices that we can find. We’re living in a moment where there are so many voices seeking to do quite the opposite, saying that certain history is now taboo or contestable.

What do you make of this current wave of book banning that is disproportionately targeting books by and about Black and LGBTQ+ authors and characters? Are you hopeful that we’ll overcome this?

What we’re witnessing with book banning is a convulsion of fear that someone is going to be forced to give up something that they have held onto for a long time and benefited from. But we can trust that there are enough of us who are aware of the enormous liberating capacity that a clear-eyed and courageous understanding of where we come from can offer. We’ll move past this moment.

I hate to see books taken away from young people whose lives can really be transformed by realizing there are other people who have experienced what they’re going through. Every time a book is banned, there are more of us watching, more of us calling attention to the value of voices that are marginalized by systems of power. I feel a movement taking shape.

What role have libraries played in your life?

I love the feeling of privacy and community that libraries foster, and I’ve loved that since I was a child, wandering around and choosing books to take home. It’s a democratic space. We live in spaces marked by status, by levels of membership, by market-driven allegiance. We go to the airport, and we’re queued up based on how many miles we have. But a library is about going someplace to be fed. All are hungry, if we really think about it, for what books and the community of literature offers. It feels restorative, and it’s something that we need right now more than ever.


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Savala Nolan. Photo by Andria Lo.

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