This Brooklyn literary star doesn’t have name recognition of Paul Auster, the book sales of Jonathan Safran Foer, or notoriety of Amy Sohn — but she has one thing those esteemed borough scribes covet: a Pulitzer Prize. Bookish Brooklynites will put down their unfinished manuscripts and snatch up their Moleskines when poet Tracy K. Smith spins words with rhyme Tuesday at Long Island University’s Kumble Theater for the annual “Starting from Paumanok” discussion on American culture and letters. Smith, who took home the book world brass for her 2012 collection “Life on Mars,” checked in with reporter Kenneth Rosen before the big talk to discuss her upcoming work of nonfiction and life as a writer in Brooklyn.
Kenneth Rosen: Give me the Cliff’s Notes version of your “Starting from Paumanok” lecture.
Tracy K. Smith: I will be talking about poetry and empathy and ways that poems can make us more mindful of the others that we might seek to understand.
KR: Have you read the classic Walt Whitman poem that gives the lecture its name?
TS: I’ve read it, but I’m not drawing from that.
KR: You just won the Pulizer Prize — you can draw from anything you like. Did your life as a writer change after earning poetry’s top honor?
TS: Yes, there have been a lot of little changes which is great, but it has been exciting and overwhelming at the same time. Doing a lot of engagements and traveling. It’s funny because you can live your life writing quietly and then all of a sudden something like this happens and I find I spend so much time talking about my work and talking about writing that I’m just having to fight for the time to get new work written. It’s a little bit ironic, but I’m grateful.
KR: When you do find time to write, what are you working on?
TS: I’m working on finishing up a memoir. It’s about my family. It’s about growing up in California in the ’70s and ’80s — about faith, religion, the loss of a parent.
KR: So you’re not a Brooklyn native?
TS: I’ve been here for at least 13 years, but I grew up on the West Coast. I think I switched coasts when I went to college.
KR: Where are you now?
TS: I live in Boerum Hill. It’s great, I love it — a lot of great restaurants that, now that I have a child, I don’t go to as often. But I’m also discovering it’s a great place to raise a family.
KR: How does living here reflect on your writing?
TS: I always felt that Brooklyn was my ideal writing retreat. There’s a feeling of space and time that I didn’t have when I lived in Manhattan. Also, so many writers live here now for whatever reason so in one way it feels like part of a community of people working quietly toward the same goals.
Tracy K. Smith will lead the “Starting from Paumanok” lecture [Kumble Theater at Long Island University, DeKalb and Flatbush avenues, (718) 488–1624], today at 6:30 pm. Free.