Lies, Light, McCarthy Visiting Author Program at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart in Princeton, New Jersey

2016 Visiting Author, Tracy K. Smith

2016 Visiting Author Tracy K. Smith (Photo © Marlene Lillian)
2016 Visiting Author Tracy K. Smith (Photo © Marlene Lillian)

Ms. Smith gave a public reading at Stuart on Thursday, April 14 and spent the day with our students on Friday, April 15, 2016.

“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.” —Toi Derricotte

“Smith’s spare yet beautiful prose transforms her story into a shining example of how one person’s shared memories can brighten everyone’s world.” — Minneapolis Star Tribune

Tracy K. Smith is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light (Knopf, 2015) and three books of poetry. Her most recent collection of poems, Life on Mars (Graywolf, 2011), won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and was selected as a New York Times Notable Book. The collection draws on sources as disparate as Arthur C. Clarke and David Bowie, and is in part an elegiac tribute to her late father, an engineer who worked on the Hubble Telescope. Duende (2007) won the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award. The Body’s Question (2003) was the winner of the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. Smith was the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writers Award in 2004 and a Whiting Award in 2005. In 2014 the Academy of American Poets awarded Smith with the Academy Fellowship, awarded to one poet each year to recognize distinguished poetic achievement.

Smith’s poems embody the lyrical, rhythmic quality of masters such as Federico Garcí­a Lorca. At times political, whimsical, and always meditative, they speak largely to the role of art and to the conception of what it means to be American, dealing with the “evolution and decline of the culture we belong to.” Her work also explores the dichotomy between the ordered world and the irrationality of the self, the importance of submitting oneself willingly to the “ongoing conflict” of life and surviving nonetheless—or as in Smith’s own words, “poetry is a way of stepping into the mess of experience.”

Her memoir, Ordinary Light, “begins with a harrowing scene at the deathbed of Smith’s mother, who died in 1994,” writes Craig Morgan Teicher: “From there it circles back to Smith’s early childhood, tracing her growth not just as a writer, but as someone who must learn the hard lessons of puberty and early adulthood, as well as what it means to be a black woman growing up in suburban California. Her discovery of poetry is part of this, but the most remarkable moments in this book are the ones in which Smith deals with ordinary trials, which she treats with rare insight and heart.” Booklist calls Ordinary Light “a gracefully nuanced yet strikingly candid memoir about family, faith, race, and literature” and praises Smith for her ability to “hold our intellectual and emotional attention ever so tightly as she charts her evolving thoughts on the divides between races, generations, economic classes, religion and science and celebrates her lifesaving discovery of poetry as ‘soul language.’” BBC’s Between the Lines, says simply, “Ordinary Light is a lament, an homage, a discovery, a blessing.”

After her undergraduate work at Harvard, Smith earned her MFA at Columbia before going on to be a Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University from 1997 to 1999. She is currently the Director of Princeton University’s Creative Writing Program, and has also taught at Columbia, City University of New York, and the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Princeton.

About the Visiting Author Program

The goal of the Visiting Author Program is to bring world-class authors to Stuart who will share their knowledge and experiences with the students. Work on the program begins many months prior to the author's visit and culminates with Visiting Author Day.

In 2012 Naomi Shihab Nye gave a public reading in Cor Unum upon her arrival. Her reading was followed by a book signing and a private reception in her honor. The next morning, Ms. Nye had tea with selected Middle School students, and then spent time in the Lower School where she led a Q&A discussion with our young students. An impromptu sing-a-long with our youngest in the preschool was followed by lunch with our Senior Scholars and the faculty of the English Department. The afternoon concluded with a private reading for Upper and Middle School students.

Bringing the Best Contemporary Authors to Stuart

At Stuart we believe that every student, from the youngest preschooler to the graduating senior, should read and hear the best contemporary writing of her day. To that end, Stuart’s Visiting Author Program was created in 2008 to bring the best contemporary writing into our curriculum.

Every year, the works of our Visiting Authors are integrated into every class level. In 2009, students encountered the Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry of Paul Muldoon; in 2010, the fiction of Jonathan Safran Foer was a particular highlight; and in 2011, students were honored to read the essays and fiction of Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, Jhumpa Lahiri.  In the fall 2011, Stuart students eagerly began preparing for the 2012 Visiting Author, Naomi Shihab Nye, whose picture books, poems for girls, essays, fiction, and poetry collections shaped and inspired English and Language Arts classes. Through her writings and visit, 2013 novelist Edwidge Danticat gave our students a social awareness of the Haitian-American experience. The success of the Visiting Author Program in the Lower and Middle School curricula in particular is one of our proudest achievements.

Connecting Students through Experience

Senior students do much of the work. Every year, a select group of seniors, known as "Senior Scholars," visits preschool - grade 8 classes to engage students with the work of the Visiting Author. When Jonathan Safran Foer came to visit, a student talked about the motif of a scavenger hunt in his book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and read some excerpts of the novel to kindergarten students. She then designed a magical scavenger hunt with kindergarteners that wove together a narrative. The hunt was followed by an extremely interesting conversation comparing the work of understanding a narrative to the work of a scavenger hunt. These conversations have a profound effect on the way students think about their own writing and what the role of an ideal reader should be.  To then meet the author a week or two later, and to ask him or her questions, is to make the connection even stronger.

Stuart's Language Arts and English faculty works very hard, at grade every level, to embrace and honor the work of a new author, and spend months preparing the students for Visiting Author Day. The result is a truly unique and magical day.

Lies, Light, and McCarthy

The Visiting Author Program was the dream of a beloved alumna, faculty member, and former English department head, Victoria Flournoy McCarthy '71. A fund to support the program was established in her honor after her death, and is named after Stuart’s three former English department heads: Betty Lies, Nancy Light and Victoria McCarthy.

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Poetry in Motion 5K Run 2015

The Lies, Light, McCarthy Visiting Author Program at Stuart is supported by generous donations as well as The Poetry in Motion 5K Run held each spring.

2015 Visiting Author, Mark Salzman. Photo by Jessica Yu.
2015 Visiting Author, Mark Salzman. Photo by Jessica Yu.
Jane Hirshfield. Photo by Nick Rozsa
2014 Visiting Author, Jane Hirshfield. Photo by Nick Rozsa
2013 Visiting Author, Edwidge Danticat
2012 Visiting Author, Naomi Shihab Nye
2011 Visiting Author, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jhumpa Lahiri
International best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer will be the featured author at Stuart Country Day School’s second annual Lies, Light, McCarthy Visiting Author Program.
2010 Visiting Author, International best-selling author Jonathan Safran Foer
Students in the Lower School with Paul Muldoon during his visit to the school for the first Visiting Author Program.
2009 Visiting Author, Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Muldoon