Thursday, December 20, 2018

A gift from the government. Really. -- Dec. 20, 2018 column


If the frenzied pace of life and the blitz of breaking news have left you desperate for a time out, there’s help from an unlikely source: the federal government.

Tracy K. Smith, the poet laureate of the United States, has a new podcast.

I hear you: “Oh, great, another podcast. Just what we need.” But wait. “The Slowdown” invites us to do just that every weekday – slow down.

It’s only five minutes, and you don’t have to be an English major to enjoy the experience.  

Smith starts each episode with a thoughtful meditation on something she has done or seen that connects to the poem she then reads. Her voice is calm and friendly, her insights are engaging and the poems she chooses are conversational and unfussy.

“The Slowdown” is a counterpoint to the constant clash and clang of everyday life. It provides a pause, time to step outside ourselves and think about something we normally wouldn’t.

“Life is fast, intense and sometimes bewildering. But poetry offers a way of slowing things down, looking at them closely, mining each moment for all it houses,” Smith said when announcing the podcast. It launched Nov. 26 and will air on public radio stations starting next month.

I was among journalists who interviewed Smith by phone last year soon after Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden appointed her the nation’s 22nd poet laureate. I wondered if she was up to the post that’s been held by such distinguished poets as Robert Frost and Rita Dove.  

But Smith has proved to be an able poetry advocate, taking poems to rural places through her American Conversations tour and using today’s technology to summon us to “see the world more clearly through poetry.”

The poet laureate receives a $35,000 stipend and $5,000 travel budget annually, but, no, this is not your tax dollars at work.

The position is funded through a private endowment that established the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center in 1937 and contributions, as they say, from people like you. The podcast is sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, based in Chicago, and supported by the center.

The poet laureate post was officially called Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress until 1985, when Congress dreamed up the clunky title Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Robert Penn Warren served under both titles, 1944-45 and 1986-87.

Smith, 46, earned a B.A. from Harvard and a master’s in creative writing from Columbia. She teaches at Princeton and is the author of four books of poetry and a memoir.

She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for “Life on Mars,” which the Pulitzer jury called “A collection of bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain.”

The poet laureate is not political, and Smith believes poetry can bring people together.

“I dreamed of using poetry as a way of building a bridge between people in cities and university towns, where poetry festivals and reading series are quite common, and those in rural parts of the United States, where such programming doesn’t often reach,” she wrote in a blog post.

“Because poems put us in touch with our most powerful memories, feelings, questions and wishes, I imagined that talking about poems might be a way of leaping past small-talk and collapsing the distance between strangers,” she wrote.

Her travels to New Mexico, Kentucky, South Carolina, Alaska, South Dakota, Maine and Louisiana have included stops to read and talk about poetry at libraries, community centers, a veterans’ home and a women’s prison.

She edited “American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time,” an anthology with work by 50 living American poets, published in the fall.

“Poetry invites us to listen to other voices, to make space for other perspectives, and to care about the lives of others who may not look, sound or think like ourselves,” she said.

So spend five minutes with “The Slowdown.” Let me know where it takes you.  

© 2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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