Last year, Tracy K. Smith won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for "Life on Mars," an elegiac, philosophical exploration of grief, existence, science and faith. Written in an accessible, narrative style after the death of Smith's father, an optical engineer who worked on the Hubble telescope, the book takes its name from the classic song by David Bowie, of whom the poet is an enormous fan. Smith, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University, will appear this week at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. She spoke to us by phone from her home in Brooklyn, N.Y.
What did winning the Pulitzer mean to you?
Well, it was pretty thrilling. After the prize, I was able to go do some readings in [South] Korea, which I probably would not have been asked to do otherwise, simply because the exposure for the work has changed. It's changed my sense of the community that I'm a part of, because I feel like the conversation that I might have been having privately with poets in far-flung places is now something that can become literal, and I imagine that that's probably going to push my poems into a different kind of place.
South Korea aside, have you noticed a change in your audience because of the prize?
I did hear from a lot of people who don't consider themselves readers of poetry. And I know that there are people who don't really buy books of poetry until a big prize like the Pulitzer is announced, and then they say, "OK, I'll buy that book this year, and I'll see what that's like." And that's a lot of people. [Laughs] So it's exciting, because I feel like in some ways, as writers, we're like ambassadors for the art that we've chosen. So it's nice to imagine that there's a possibility that my beliefs and sensibilities about poetry might invite someone to not just read my book, but to read other books that might seem somehow related or accessible.
Have you heard the new David Bowie song?
I heard part of it. I was driving to work yesterday when NPR mentioned there was a new album, and I almost got into an accident. I was really thrilled.
What is it about Bowie that appeals to you?
I feel like his voice is the voice that I grew up with. But when I got older, I really started to just envy and value the kind of imaginative shape-shifting that he's been capable of over the span of his career. And the really beautiful fiction of all of those different characters. I think there was something really liberating to me, even as an adult, thinking that our sense of our selves is something that never really needs to be fixed.
"Life on Mars" asks some really big questions — the biggest, in fact. After you completed the book, did you have a greater understanding of those questions, or feel better able to reconcile with the fact that those questions are unanswerable?
The big things that were really personal and important for me were those questions about grief and loss and wanting to understand how I needed to imagine my parents — both of my parents are deceased — where they were, what they were a part of and what the distance from me was. So the book has all of these different speculations that it plays with and muses over. One of the things it helped me to do was say, "OK, I don't feel that this version of God and heaven that I grew up with is adequate. And I'd like to try and find something that's bigger than that and more mysterious — satisfyingly mysterious. It was such a coincidence to me that the language of science became helpful. I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but it wasn't until I was working on the poem "My God, It's Full of Stars," which was one of the last poems I wrote for the book, that I remembered that my father had worked on the Hubble during the early '80s. It created a wonderful kind of synthesis for me between the urge that I had to say that the religious construct that I grew up in isn't satisfying to me. How can science and what I vaguely understand about it help? And then, to realize my father was involved in a very similar pursuit. So that was really beautiful for me, and it helped me to say goodbye to him.
Tracy K. Smith will read from her work 2 p.m. Tuesday (with Tony Hoagland) and 8 p.m. Thursday (with Thomas Lux) during the Palm Beach Poetry Festival at the Old School Square Cultural Arts Center in Delray Beach. At 2 p.m. Saturday, she'll appear on a panel to discuss "Beloved and Influential Poems." Admission is $15 for these readings. Go to PalmBeachPoetryFestival.org.