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  • Clara Cartrette

Poet Laureate of the United States is coming to Columbus County

National Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry is coming to Columbus County, a cultural honor that has never been bestowed on the county before.

The announcement was made by Janice Young, president of the Reuben Brown House Preservation Society (RBHPS), which is sponsoring her

visit. She said Pulitzer Prize winning Tracy K. Smith who was appointed Poet Laureate in September 2017, is scheduled to be in Columbus County March 6-7.

Smith is coming here at the invitation of the Reuben Brown House Preservation Society, a bonus to the 25th anniversary of Reuben Brown House’s A.R. Ammons poetry contest for students next year. Young said Janice Simms and Pat Ray, co-chairs of the project to bring the poet laureate here, had worked diligently to make it happen.

"At 45, Smith is unusually young to receive the honor," Carolyn Kellogg said after interviewing the lauded poet and educator. "From a childhood in Fairfield, Calif. — which is between San Francisco and Sacramento — to winning the Cave Canem poetry prize for 2003’s 'The Body’s Question' and on to being awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her most recent collection, 'Life on Mars,' Smith has shown a singular focus and dedication to her craft."

Young said tentative plans, which are subject to change, are for Smith to have a public reading, along with some students on March 6, with a reception to follow in the Reuben Brown House. Plans for March 7 are for Smith to interact in reading and talking with seventh graders from all over the county, with a master class at the Columbus County Arts Council building with about 20- juniors and seniors from all over the county, and there may be a session with Southeastern Community College students.

“The poet laureate title often caps off a career, but you’re getting it at 45. What does that mean to you?” Kellogg asked Smith.

“There’s a different kind of weight that I’ve been mulling over in that regard,” Smith replied. “Anytime acknowledgement comes — and this is the greatest acknowledgement that I’ve experienced ever as a writer — it makes me feel like, OK, someone’s listening, and someone wants me to keep doing what I love and need to do. And that feels really good. Beyond that, I try and push away any sense of the external pressure to be a certain kind of writer, and really focus on the work that sustains me, which is quiet, and it’s private, and it’s contemplative I feel really fortunate that Natasha Tretheway, who was also a young laureate, is a friend — seeing how her work as a writer continues to grow and change, and she’s pushing herself now into a new genre. I feel heartened that this doesn’t have to be the end point of anything in my career, but rather a turning point,” Smith said.

“Being poet laureate includes having a public engagement role. Do you know what you might do?” Kellogg asked.

"That’s something I’m beginning to think about,” Smith answered. “Luckily I have a little bit of time to formulate a clear sense of what I’d like to do, and what might be still new for the office. I know my curiosity as a writer and as a person makes me really interested in moving to parts of the country that I haven’t explored through writers festivals or through the kind of campus visits that I do on a regular basis, and engaging with people who may be readers of poetry and may not. And listening to what their reactions to this art form sound like, and what kinds of stories within their own set of experiences are spoken to. What stories get activated by that conversation. I have this idea that this forum of the laureateship might open up inroads to different, quieter kinds of conversations than I’m used to having, in places that have maybe less access to festivals or reading series.”

During another interview, Smith talked about the role of poet laureate and the “power of poetry to break down political and personal barriers.”

Asked if she had advice for young poets, Smith said everybody says “read, read, read, and I think it’s really true. That’s essential. But I think it’s also important to read against your taste, to read the things you don’t love, and see if you can learn how they’re built and what they achieve and whether those tools can be useful to you. And I’m also always urging my students to allow their poems to be a site for them to wrestle with the things that are actually urgent to them as people. Don’t just think that poems have to be about certain beautiful, noble things. Poems can be about what you’re burdened by in your actual life, or what your deepest questions are drawing toward. Even if you don’t have the answers to them, poems can be useful in that pursuit.”

For people who write off poetry as a genre and are intimidated by it, she would say to them to forget everything you’ve been taught about trying to get to the ulterior motives of a poem and just listen to the words. Trust what they make you feel, what they make you remember, and what they remind you of. Those are going to be really useful avenues into an authentic encounter with a poem.

The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry is appointed annually by the Librarian of the United States Congress.

The Reuben Brown House Preservation Society is an IRS Code 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Contributions to the RBHPS are fully tax-deductible for federal income tax purposes.

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