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A Packed Bethel Crowd Reads Poetry With US Poet Laureate

U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith treated Bethel residents to an intimate poetry reading on August 28, 2018.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Courtesy of Library of Congress

Bethel residents crowded into the town’s Cultural Center on Tuesday night to attend an intimate reading with U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith.

Smith has spent the past year traveling to remote communities and engaging residents in conversations about the role that art plays in their lives. "I’m hoping to find a practical vocabulary for compassion," she explained to her audience, "which I think is a beautiful goal; something we’ve had many opportunities as a nation to embrace, but we haven’t taken them up." Bethel was her first stop in Alaska.

Smith’s poetry explores the impacts of racial injustice and poverty in American life. Her writing also fixates on smaller, private moments, like an ordinary conversation with her young daughter. After reading excerpts of her own work, Smith read several poems from her recent anthology, “American Journal,” a collection of 50 poems by American poets which convey different perspectives on American life.

Those who attended the readings were greeted by representatives from the Library of Congress, who handed out free advance copies of the book at the door. The room was packed with Bethel high school students, educators, and parents, and Smith’s reading quickly turned into an informal discussion of the imagery at work in several of the anthology’s poems.

These are exactly the sorts of conversations that Smith says that she’s touring the country to promote. "Creating the kinds of thoughtful conversations that poetry fosters across the urban-rural divide is one way of pushing back against this notion that we have nothing to say to each other," she said, "or that we speak two different languages."

The Library of Congress quickly ran out of copies of Smith’s anthology, and several officials gave Bethel residents their email addresses so that they could personally send them more free poetry. Those who did not receive a copy of her anthology, “American Journal,” can pick it up at a bookstore or order it online on September 4.