Reading Politics and Art in the Poetry of Tracy K. Smith (NEMLA 2020 Panel)

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Northeast Modern Language Association

CFP for the 51st Annual NEMLA Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, March 5 - 8, 2019

Tracy K. Smith, with four books of poetry, a volume of memoirs, a Pulitzer Prize and two stints as America's poet laureate, has every claim to be a major American poet at the pinnacle of success. It is easy to dwell on the mainstream acceptance that this success has earned. Her work is often described in highly aesthetic language, with an emphasis on its beauty and craft, and she sits neatly in the American poetic tradition. Among those poets she considers “most necessary” she invokes Seamus Heaney, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin (Ordinary Light 336). 

And yet it would be a mistake to over-emphasize the aesthetic side of Smith’s work. Smith has consistently confronted historical subjects. Wade in the Water, for example, has an entire section of poems is drawn from letters by African Americans caught up in the civil war.Yet while Smith claims the term “political poetry” for her own work, she also defines it against a more obvious aesthetic of rage and rejection: “political poetry,” she writes, “has done much more than vent. It has become a means of owning up to the complexity of our problems, of accepting the likelihood that even we the righteous might be implicated by or complicit in some facet of the very wrongs we decry” (“Political Poetry Is Hot Again”). To be political, for Smith, is first and foremost to be complicated. It is to be aware of our own inevitable intermixture in the world we condemn. 

In this panel we will look particularly at how these ideals unfold in Smith’s own work, and how her treatment of race aligns with current understandings of identity politics. While we will not shy away from questions of the quality and meaning of Smith’s work, and analyses of individual poems, the greater questions to ask are about what Smith’s success means for both African-American and American poetics in the early twenty-first century. 

Contributors are invited to critically reflect on political readings of Smiths’ work, analyses of individual poems, or to discuss such topics as Smith’s relationship to history (poetic or otherwise), her contemporaries, or verse form. This list is not exclusive, however. Most importantly, we will seek to add to the discipline’s appreciation for the importance of Tracy K. Smith’s work. 

For more on NeMLA:

NeMLA 2020 will be held in Boston March 5-8 2020 at the Marriot Copley Place

The panel invites 300 word abstracts for 15-20 minute papers. The deadline for submission is September 30, 2019. Please submit your abstract via the NEMLA submission portal ( 

Applicants are not required to be NeMLA members at the time of submission but accepted speakers will have to become members by December 9, 2019.

For further information, please contact the chair of this panel, Steven Nardi ( Steven Nardi is adjunct faculty at The College of Mount Saint Vincent with a specialty in twentieth century poetry and poetics.