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Tracy K. Smith

7 p.m. Friday, April 19, 2024

Moderated by D.Colin, UAlbany alum, poet, and educator
Reading and McKinney Writing Contest Awards,
EMPAC Building, Concert Hall, Rensselaer (RPI),
110 8th St, Troy.
For more information, contact

Tracy K. Smith, 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her book Life on Mars, will speak at the 83rd annual McKinney Writing Award ceremony on Friday, April 19 at 7 p.m. in the Concert Hall of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The event is free and open to the public.

In addition to Life on Mars, Smith is the author four books of poetry, most recently Such Color: New and Selected Poems, and two books of nonfiction, To Free the Captives: A Plea for the American Soul and Ordinary Light, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. She is also an editor, translator, opera librettist, professor of English and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, and Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at Harvard Radcliffe Institute.

“The 82nd McKinney Annual Reading Series and Award Ceremony falls on Rensselaer's Bicentennial year, presenting a unique opportunity to celebrate the mission of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (HASS) to foster interdisciplinary collaborations and address urgent and complex challenges,” said Skye Anicca, lecturer in HASS at Rensselaer and chair of the McKinney Award Committee. “Smith's 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Life on Mars, particularly highlights the possibilities in examining science and technological progress through a humanistic lens that recognizes the power and responsibility inherent in human innovations.”

The McKinney Award recognizes top writers in the Rensselaer student community. An average of 230 students enter each year to compete for a total of more than $4,000. Cash prizes are awarded in both graduate and undergraduates divisions in four different categories: Creative Prose and Drama, Poetry, Academic Essay, and Electronic Mixed Media Using Language.

For more information, contact

The event is sponsored in part by the Rensselaer Annual McKinney Writing Contest and Reading; Vollmer W. Fries Lecture; Department of Communication and Media; School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences; Rensselaer Union; Friends of the Folsom Library; and the NYS Writers Institute.

About the book

In 2020, heartsick from constant assaults on Black life, Tracy K. Smith found herself soul-searching and digging into the historical archive for help navigating the "din of human division and strife." With lyricism and urgency, Smith draws on several avenues of thinking--personal, documentary, and spiritual--to understand who we are as a nation and what we might hope to mean to one another.

In Smith's own words, "To write a book about Black strength, Black continuance, and the powerful forms of belief and community that have long bolstered the soul of my people, I used the generations of my own patrilineal family to lean backward toward history, to gather a fuller sense of the lives my own ancestors led, the challenges they endured, and the sources of hope and bolstering they counted on. What this process has led me to believe is that all of us, in the here and now, can choose to work alongside the generations that precede us in tending to America's oldest wounds and meeting the urgencies of our present."

To Free the Captives touches down in Sunflower, Alabama, the red-dirt town where Smith's father's family comes from, and where her grandfather returned after World War I with a hero's record but difficult prospects as a Black man. Smith considers his life and the life of her father through the lens of history. Hoping to connect with their strength and continuance, she assembles a new terminology of American life.

Bearing courageous witness to the terms of Freedom afforded her as a Black woman, a mother, and an educator in the twenty-first century, Smith etches a portrait of where we find ourselves four hundred years into the American experiment. Weaving in an account of her growing spiritual practice, she argues that the soul is not merely a private site of respite or transcendence, but a tool for fulfilling our duties to each other, and a sounding board for our most pressing collective questions: Where are we going as a nation? Where have we been?

(Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

Tracy K Smith's To Free the Captives
Tracy K. Smith, credit Rachel Eliza Griffiths
About the EMPAC Building.

The event with former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith will take place at RPI’s EMPAC Concert Hall, 110 8th Street, Troy NY 12180.

EMPAC is located on the corner of 8th Street and College Avenue in Troy NY 12180.

Please park in the College Avenue parking garage adjacent to Cogswell Laboratory.

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