SWF 2000 takeaway from U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K Smith
Updated: Sep 23
U.S. poet laureate Tracy K Smith plans to position her broad and diverse readership at the periphery of her next discourse.
Singapore Writers Festival, in conjunction with the US embassy in Singapore, had the privilege of hosting 2017 US poet laureate Tracy K Smith at the ongoing 2020 festival. The wide-ranging conversation with Lawrence Ypil is flavored with beautiful readings from Smith's body of work. Smith, however, notes that most of these are by a woman she's grown away from. Her current work will be quite different.
It is the Sunday before the US presidential election. It has been 7 years since #BlackLivesMatter began running as a hash-tag: 7 years of a lengthening list of colored people killed in police encounters; 7 years of widening divides and rising walls. Seven years . One might expect her, a poet-laureate emeritus and national figure, to speak about bridging divides and bringing down walls in times like this. Instead, this is what I hear her say --
She wants to write for her own people, as defined by race. While she has always had a broad and diverse readership, she now wants to address herself to black people. Yes, she will want her current audience to feel engaged in, implicated by and alerted to this discourse, but also to feel themselves at the periphery of the discourse. Yes, at the periphery! Smith observes that this position on the sidelines is an important one to occupy. She notes that while many of us are in that position everyday, it is also important for a country, her country, the United States of America, to experience that same sense of being peripheral.
As a Singaporean living in the shadow of the historically great civilizations and powerhouse modern day economies, and as one writing at the margins of English language literature, I can relate to that. It is tiring to have to constantly shout to be heard, to speak in an accent not your own, to have to parse oneself and rewrite and rewrite before one's message is understood. If it is...
It would be nice. It would be a coming home. A return, as moderator Lawrence Ypil so aptly characterizes, to the intimacy of talking with kin after talking (or trying to talk) to strangers.
There's a certain satisfaction too to seeing positions changed. To have 'all those peepur' standing at the bylines, jostling to hear us, then trying to understand 'what simi sai cock we talking', imagining that to miss out will be a loss.
Who am I to second guess a US poet laureate, me, the one who too often thinks our Singapore newspapers make too much of the Singapore writers who have 'made it abroad'. Who too often asks, why not write for ourselves, in our own voices, understood only by those who have something to do with us, here in our little Red Dot? Why not have a truly Singapore Writers Festival, with no international stars, except ;) those 'Singaporeans' published abroad?
I am conscious that Smith is a US poet laureate, who has the privilege of a broad and diverse audience whom she can still hope to engage. Moreover, as a Singaporean born, with the fear of being left out bred in, I can't help but wonder how long Smith's broad diverse audience will remain, if they are implicated and alerted, yet left standing on the sidelines. And if they leave, what then? As the old chestnut goes - If a tree falls in a forest and there is no one to hear, did it fall?
I think I'd prefer to always be leaning out even as I reach in. I'd prefer not to set anyone out on the periphery, especially not if it means adding another link to a fence or another inch to a trench. Not in these times...
What do you think?