Tracy K. Smith

poet laureate icon
1972 –
Poet Laureate of the United States, 2017–2019

Tracy K. Smith was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts, on April 16, 1972, and raised in Fairfield, California. She studied at Harvard University, where she joined the Dark Room Collective, a reading series for writers of color, created by Sharan Strange in 1988. She went on to receive her MFA from Columbia University.

Smith is the author of the memoirs To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul (Knopf, 2023) and Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015), as well as five poetry collections, including Such Color: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press, 2021), which was awarded the 2022 New England Book Award in Poetry; Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018), winner of the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry, and shortlisted for the 2018 T. S. Eliot Prize. Her debut collection, The Body’s Question (Graywolf Press, 2003), won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 2002. Her second book, Duende (Graywolf Press, 2007), won the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011) won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She also edited the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (Graywolf Press, 2018). She is also the author of the memoir To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul (Knopf, 2023). 

A starred review of Smith’s work in Publisher’s Weekly noted her “lyric brilliance and political impulses.” A review of The Body's Question in The New York Times Book Review stated,

The most persuasively haunted poems here are those where [Smith] casts herself not simply as a dutiful curator of personal history but a canny medium of fellow feeling and the stirrings of the collective’s this charged air of rapt apprehension that gives her spare, fluid lines their coolly incantatory tenor.

Smith is the recipient of the 2014 Academy of American Poets Fellowship. About Smith, Academy of American Poets Chancellor Toi Derricotte said:

The surfaces of a Tracy K. Smith poem are beautiful and serene, but underneath, there is always a sense of an unknown vastness. Her poems take the risk of inviting us to imagine, as the poet does, what it is to travel in another person’s shoes. The Academy is fortunate to be able to confer this fitting recognition on one of the most important poets of our time.

Smith served as the twenty-second poet laureate of the United States from 2017–19. Her other awards and honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, a 2004 Rona Jaffe Writers Award, a 2008 Essence Literary Award, and a 2005 Whiting Award. She was the Poem-a-Day Guest Editor for April 2019 and 2018, and in 2021, Smith was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In 2024, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is a professor of English and of African and African American studies at Harvard University, as well as the interim director of creative writing.