Pulitzer Prize Winner, Ex-Poet Laureate to Visit UTEP
Last Updated on January 28, 2020 at 12:00 AM
Originally published January 28, 2020
By UC Staff
An accomplished academic whose accolades include a Pulitzer Prize and the title of former U.S. Poet Laureate, will share her thoughts about race, inclusion and society’s shared responsibility toward a common future at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, at The University of Texas at El Paso.
Tracy K. Smith, professor of creative writing and chair of the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University, will participate in a reading of her poetry and Spanish translations of her 2018 book of poems, “Wade in the Water,” (“Atravesar el agua”) in UTEP’s Tomás Rivera Conference Center on the third floor of the campus’ Union Building East. Organizers will follow the readings with a question-and-answer session with Smith led by Sasha Pimentel, associate professor of creative writing at UTEP.
Critics have lauded Smith for her ability to weave art, music, history and other disciplines throughout the liberal arts to create prose that engages readers. They have called her one of the most relevant poets of her generation.
She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2012 at age 39 for “Life on Mars,” one of her four books of poetry, and the Library of Congress appointed her in June 2017 the 22nd U.S. Poet Laureate. She served two one-year terms.
Smith said she was excited to share her work in a bilingual format alongside Andrea Cote Botero, the assistant professor of creative writing at UTEP who translated “Wade in the Water” into Spanish. The guest speaker said she plans to discuss how she and Cote rendered poems into Spanish. Vaso Roto published the Spanish/English edition in December 2019. The official U.S. release of the bilingual publication will be at UTEP.
“‘Wade in the Water’ is a book concerned with questions of citizenship and social justice, which have been central to American life throughout history,” Smith said. “I'm grateful for the chance to engage in the conversation around such topics with readers in El Paso and elsewhere for whom Spanish is central to everyday life.”
In her book, Smith reflects on U.S. history and its present as told through “found poems,” or letters that African American soldiers sent to their relatives and to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Cote said the technique allowed the writer to create a dialogue with voices from the past without erasing their original value. The UTEP educator said the book was an example of how difficult it is to create without input from others.
“I told (Smith) about the symbolic value of the border community of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, and she was very excited about performing in our community,” said Cote, who added that she hoped the bilingual presentation would create an interactive and informal cultural experience.
Margarita Mejía, a third-year creative writing graduate student, said she was a fan of Smith’s work because of the Spanish translation. The native of Colombia, who also is a published poet, said the bilingual prose opens Smith’s creative universe to another group of appreciative admirers.
“From a unique imagination and a feminine point of view, the author explores race, oppression, identity, body, and infamy in history, with a voice that strikes and redeems,” Mejía said.
Denis O’Hearn, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said it was an honor for the college and the University to host Smith, whose other accolades include the 2006 James Laughlin Award and the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She also has received an Academy of American Poets Fellowship as well as the Rona Jaffe Award and the Whiting Award.
“Our Creative Writing faculty includes some fine poets, maybe even a future poet laureate, so we will be sure and extend her the warmest of welcomes," O’Hearn said.
Smith, who will sell and sign many of her books after the official program, also will meet with students from the Liberal Arts Honors Program, the African American Studies Program (AASP) and the Department of Creative Writing, which is one of the event’s main sponsors.
Other sponsors are UTEP’s College of Liberal Arts, the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects, the Department of English and the AASP, as well as the Humanities Collaborative at El Paso Community College-UTEP.