tv Book Discussion on Ordinary Light CSPAN April 20, 2015 7:30am-7:52am EDT
statement. but one of my main wishes and wanting to write about my mother was to explore the impact of her death on my life explore a relationship, think about the different versions of myself that i was with and without her your isil -- also the really strong wish to bring her to write for my children were born after she was gone. it just struck me as so heartbreaking when i was pregnant with my daughter, who is now five come that she would never know this person. one night i was lying in bed and my husband said why don't you read a book about your parents? why don't you write a book that will can tell her who they were? i had such a feeling of anxiousness and fear at the task that is exactly what i needed to do. the book though became a lot more than that. it became a story about figuring
out who i was and who i had been. so i think some of the largest discoveries that a reader or my daughter might make a probably not about my mother but about her mother. >> one of the things i got out of "ordinary light" was the differences between you and your mother and your experiences growing up african-american into united states. >> right. the generational difference does one really big marker that determines a different set of experiences obviously that she had growing up in the south in the '30s and '40s and 50s that i had growing up in california and massachusetts in the '70s '80s '90s. when i was a child i had a hard time framing the questions i had about her experience into words. i think i knew that there was a huge piece of african-american history that contained pain that my parents had been, you
know, experiencing that editor did you think about that. and so the whole segment of my life i kind of shied away from. i remember learning about the civil rights movement in grade school and seeing those images of people with fire hoses at the national guard and feeling so worried retroactively for the people in my family and the way that i chose to do with as a child was to simply back away from it to allow science to create a kind of buffer. i wanted to write into that silence in this book as well and find ways of interrogating that anxiety data had and also trying to come a little bit closer to maybe a kind of empathy with my parents and their parents in the experiences they would been dealing with as young adults in
the u.s. during a time when racial tension and racial violence were at a tremendous height. thinking about the difference between then and now, sometimes i'm very saddened by the fact that it's not as vastly different. there's a section in this memoir where i remember a story that i was told about a great uncle or great, great uncle who had been murdered by a white man for money that he had obtained from selling some of his own property, and nothing happened. justice was not served. it wasn't even a question. and thinking about that now as after which icann was editing the book in preparation for publication during this year when we have so many verdicts that don't really feel that much different was really chastening i guess. >> tracy smith camile stockbug incident in your childhood when you're in school and teacher tells you, you are special and
are very excited about that. that. >> yes. i was in high school. i was in high school and one of my teachers in a really well-meaning lady said there'll be a lot of opportunities that come your way and you should take advantage of them. i thought that was great, that's what i want to do your part are special, go somewhere. he tempered a stable something i don't think was wrong as an adult looking back. he said your an african-american woman and that's going to open certain doors for you and you should be receptive to that. when i heard they a friend like that something had crumbled inside of me. maybe it was in part the flip side of that same piece of myself it wasn't comfortable thinking about racial difference and the way that implicates us in terms of experience and the possibilities. i also lived with that voice in my head for years and getting into college and wondering to
what extent was it the fact of my demographic identity and to what extent was it about my own abilities. i think a lot of people wrestle with this. i think it's a competition issue, and i think there are a lot of disparities in terms of the way that blacks and whites were people from different ethnic and socioeconomic background live and the opportunities that come into contact with. so i think it's a valid thing to try and seek diversity in the institutions like princeton or harvard, where i went. but the feeling of shame that that might sometimes trigger is something that if you like we need to talk about. i think it's a result of lopsided or shortsighted conversations about race and about affirmative action, which was a topic that was kind of loud when i was coming of age. i don't think we figured it out.
>> somebody who grew up in california, why did you choose harvard undergrad? >> yeah, i wanted to be in a place that to my mind had visible history. growing up in california where everything seemed brand-new, i was really intended by the mystique of the east coast old things and bring the buildings. but also in some ways is probably a very unimaginative choice because harvard just today seemed like a great place to be studying. i don't think our perspective on it was that nuanced at the time. i thought this was one of the best schools in the nation and what would mean if i could go there? what would i learn and what would i be come into contact with? ultimately i think was the right choice. i had a wonderful four years there and i found poetry there which i don't know that i would
have in the same way if i'd been somewhere else. >> what did of poetry mean to you? >> i think when i was an undergrad i was initially enchanted by the way that a poem, in looking at something that was very small, local and perhaps even inconsequential could open up a powerful kind of revelation for the reader. the more i thought about and the more i attempted to write poems i realized the revelation that happening also for the poet, not just premeditated things. fear about making choices and listening to what those choices yield and then taking the next. it's almost like this mysterious pursue. and it seemed like a really helpful tool with which to examine the everyday as i knew it. at the time in my life although i wasn't consciously making the connection between poetry and
some of the larger experiences that i was wrestling with such as my mother's illness, being able to stop time and a poem and ask all the right questions, the kinds of questions that you lead you in real-time, that seem like a power i really needed. i wasn't writing many poems that were directly about my mother's illness at the time but i think thinking about memory and begin thinking about how looking at the right thing in the right way to tell you something you didn't think you knew. all of that was really comforting, grounding for me. when i think back to that time i also realized that that kind of devotion data filter what language could do in a poem was probably a really wonderful alternative to the language of faith that i had grown up with. and i think i was sort of struggling to find a kind of
comfort within belief, especially think about the kinds of like freedoms you are eager for at age 18 19 20 is still happening but actively at that time that made me hungry for a kind of distance from the person i've been as a child when i was my mother's child, when is lookingwindowslooking at home. somehow poetry à la betake to the kinds of steps into a sense of what was and also what was important to me as a person. >> do you ever surprises of while writing a poem? >> oh, yeah. i mean, ideally that's the role for any poem. if it doesn't happen i feel maybe the poem isn't done yet or the poem isn't ready to view it. my last book of poems was thinking a lot about my father who passed away about seven years ago, and i didn't know
what i was after. i just knew that when i sat down to write it i wanted to be able to dwell on aspects of a relationship or on my memory of him that would make me feel close to him again. and one thing that i discovered and this is probably connected to some of the things i discovered in writing his memoir was that i was looking for a version of god a 50 that event in my life probably since inception god as a touchstone in my family, somebody or something that no matter what i do isn't going to go away. i wasn't seeking to promise so from a fence just a sense of relief but trying to find conference that the figure to whom i had entrusted my father was sufficiently large and sufficiently mysterious. and i think that in the old testament the god of the
sistine chapel, didn't seem to fit the bill for me at that point in my life. i was really fascinated by what i could comprehend of physics and think about space as a literal place, thinking about some of the images from the hubble space telescope and out they had given a visual vocabulary for a sense of this vast beyond that we are somehow part of. and i wanted to try and mary my private sense of belief and my private sense of grief to something as large and permanent and unknowable as a backdrop. and so that was a big surprise but i didn't think that was what i was writing poems at that time. and i'm curious about what the next set of poems will yield in terms of surprises. >> where did the title "ordinary light" come from? >> i was looking for a long time for the title of this book come and a colleague of mine evan
white said that sometimes the title can just come from a quiet phrase within a book. as i was going back and rereading the book and i decide to stop listening to these future large markers which would've been trying to do initially had to think about gestures that might save a lot about somebody subtle revealing that have played in this book the meditations it kind of stems from. and there was a moment in late in the book where i remembered it being out in an orchard at night with two french in high school but also lost their mothers. and we were out there looking up at the night sky and listening to all the night noises and trying to figure out what we believe and who we were that we were these motherless girls. and that was his wish that flickered in my mind to be able to run back into the safety of the house where somebody's
mother would be saying come on girls, it's time for you to be getting to bed. just the ordinary light of the house that is, in fact, where everyone is there and had one is to present. that image seem to say so much about what the book was trying to recollect. if i look at it from the outside, i think it might also have to do with a small space that we occupy for a short period of our lives with the family or with the central others that make us who we are and how temporary that is another so much beyond, so much, either glittering brightness that yields these are the kinds of clarity's, or the dark spaces. you know, what waits for us from what we might not know how to name. so thinking about it in terms of
these gradients of light seemed helpful to me. >> there's a period towards the end of your mother's life where she sat up in bed essentially, sick from cancer and said i know tracy is going to be a writer. >> yeah. >> why did you include that in your book? >> it was was a moment to really frighten me what happened and also may be helpful. it was a strange event because my mother was heavily medicated at the time and sometimes she would say things and then immediately say oh i'm just confused, this is the medication, just ignore that. and on this night she said, she was kind of monitoring, and i said, what's going on? who are you talking to? she said that our two angels there with me and one of them just told me you were going to become a writer. and i felt not to worry that this might not be rational thought. i felt myself in the presence of something that was very
tremendous and terrifying for that reason. thinking that if it is true that at the end of our lives the veil between this world that we know in the world that we are about to enter or even return to becomes porous. what is there? what is there watching? and to also hear my mother reflect on this conversation that she was having i guess it having i guess suggested to me a few things. on that she might really be going, you know. i knew she was dying i also was living with a kind of denial that maybe this isn't real. maybe everything will change and everything will be fine. so it kind of made me have to accept that she was accepting that her life was in thing.
and then what would that mean? what would that force feedback except as well if i were going to be faithful to her sense of her life. and also i guess frightened me because it also meant that maybe someone was telling her you can stop worrying about your child this is what will happen. she will be okay. and then of course, it also have been affirming and wish i had for myself. seemed really wonderful. all of those feelings terrified me in conjunction with one another. it was something i needed to return to and while on in language. i think so much of what i ask a writer in doing is trying to find ways that language could help me understand what happens you know maybe what has happened or maybe what is happening in terms of understanding of what that means
and what i should be moving toward as a person, as an individual. language helped me calibrate my sense of experience and it helped me clarify my sense of what had happened. for coming back to memories like that, i think was really a matter of trying to come to grips with these things have happened and maybe couldn't face head-on in real-time. >> what's your goal as a professor of creative writing here at princeton? >> i want to give my students access to the kinds of tools that will help them interrogate the world as they know it and i don't know there's much more than that. i think that's a really nuanced task. you know, it involves reading closely everything differently than one might read in a
literature class. and my classroom we are looking at craft a basic choice is that writers make in trying to say okay, using this metaphor, what possibilities are being opened up and how does the writer to get of them and what is yielded and what do we as readers deal own experience or come to recognize as a result? i think that you know, the riders wish is to come into what feels like like this will contact with his or her material. just because of the nature of the time it's either material that happened in the past and that we are trying to return to and understand differently, or mechanical that has happened at a great remove and that we might not have little access to it that we have. that might be a bomb that takes you to an of geographical location or another person's
experience that is removed from you because of who and where and when you are. but then the our whole regions of the imagination that writing gives us access to and so sometimes we are writing about things that were not real at all that haven't happened but are just these premises that our minds invent and that also might be important to scour and excavate and question. and i just want to give my students as many tools that might help them to mind those different kinds of materials. >> tracy smith won the pulitzer in 2012 for her book of poetry, life on mars. she's written a memoir, "ordinary light." here's the cover. you'reyou're watching booktv on c-span2. were on location at princeton university.
>> you are watching a booktv on c-span2. this weekend when visiting st. augustine, florida, with the help of our local cable partner comcast. next we visit with author thomas graham whose book mr. flagler st. augustine examines the light -- the life of henry flagler who was hard to develop with developing for eastern coast into a tourist destination. >> we are in the grand part of the hotel ponce de leon in st. augustine, florida. this was the era of the most elegant winter resort hotel in the country when it opened in the 1880s, and this room was used for receptions on occasions. president grover cleveland had a reception here, admiral dewey had a reception here. president-elect warren g.
harding in 1921 had a reception here. so it's a room that is full of history. the hotel ponce de leon was built by henry morrison flagler. now, flagler is a man who is very little known outside the state of florida. but he was one of the wealthiest men in america. he essentially had been a cofounder of standard oil company with john d. rockefeller. and in the early years of standard oil, rockefeller and flagler were best friends. they had homes on euclid avenue in cleveland near each other. when standard move its headquarters to new york city, rockefeller and flagler had homes across the street from each other on fifth avenue. into office back in cleveland they pushed their desks back to back so