January 24, 2021

Who Gets to Be "From DC"?

If I stand in the right spot of our ninth-floor apartment, I can see the Capitol. I looked this way a lot during the past week, anxiously checking for smoke or other signs of distress that might interrupt the days around Inauguration  My gaze cuts across the vacant lot at 501 I Street SW, bare grass that has been the site of a hotly contested development plan since we moved to this neighborhood in 2015. If approved, the plan calls for a nine-story mixed-use building, and the Capitol will disappear. Never choose a place for the view, my neighbor reminds me. 

When I give readings from my books, I am sometimes introduced as "from Virginia"; other times the host says I'm "from DC." Neither feels wrong. This is my sixth rental since first moving to Dupont Circle in 2002. I spent eighteen years growing up in northern Virginia. I’ve lived in Washington, DC, just as long and almost longer. But I’d never say that I'm "from DC" on DC soil, not after having been asked—not unkindly, but firmly—So what quadrant were you born in? Which hospital?

The vacant lot in my sightline used to be Southeastern University, founded in 1879. A little further over was once 4 ½ Street SW; Myra Sklarew, my teacher at American University, wrote of her grandfather posing for a photo outside his home there back in 1913. The Titanic memorial hovers at the corner where Fort McNair meets with Southwest Waterfront Park, forever mourning those lost at sea in 1912. To live in this neighborhood is to box with one’s ghosts. My dad drove us along Hains Point to see The Awakening clawing out of the ground, back before they moved the sculpture to National Harbor. My Grandma Beasley gathered us for the Thanksgiving buffet at Phillips Seafood. My Grandma Pruett hummed along to the melodies of Arena Stage’s musicals. Here is where 22-year-old me roamed the Environmental Protection Agency building, destined for demolition and taken over in the meantime by Art-O-Matic in 2002. 

My first Southwest address was a building designed by I. M. Pei, and the second a complex by Chloethiel Woodard Smith. Both were key figures in the 1960s urban renewal movement that turned this neighborhood into a Brutalist toy-box of beautiful and, today, dilapidated forms. Their buildings also displaced thousands who couldn’t afford the new reality.

Sometimes when describing Southwest Waterfront, the other person interrupts—Oh, you
mean the Wharf?
—and I wince, caught between waves of gentrification. The pandemic has complicated my feelings toward this multi-million dollar behemoth. Restaurants where I couldn’t afford to a sit-down meal converted their pantries to bodegas that sold chicken, carrots, onions, and greens. The fancy liquor store distributed locally distilled sanitizer. When I first read The Anthem’s sign, “We’ll Get Thru This,” my immediate thought was: Okay then. We will. I needed to have someone say it. I needed for someone to spell it out in foot-tall letters.

Still, the city’s ghosts pull no punches. This past April, when it didn’t feel safe to go out, I could step out on the balcony and see cherry trees blossoming along East Potomac Park. I took great comfort in that. Now Washington Channel is disappearing, floor by concrete floor. Fifty years after our own building went up, I understand the irony of complaining about new construction or rising rent. I can still glimpse the water, if I stand in the right spot. 

In just a few weeksMade to Explode, will be published with W. W. Norton. The collection (my fourth!) has a whole section of prose poems that interrogate the strangeness of our monuments and memorials, our "living history, plus a sestina called "American Rome."  There are lots of things that I am unsure of, but one thing I do know is that DC is the right place to be as this book enters the world. I'm particularly excited that Politics & Prose is using it as the February pick for their Signed First Editions Book Club, because that will put the book into the hands of some Washingtonians who may not usually reach for poetry. 

Vienna is where my family is. Hyattsville is more affordable. Yet this neighborhood holds me, this peculiar cauldron of personal memory and cultural history just blocks from the National Mall. Maybe I won’t ever get to be a Washingtonian; maybe that was decided the moment I was born at Inova Fairfax Hospital. But I am here now. I choose DC for the view. Not a literal vantage point, or one particular set of windows, but because I am invested in what has been and what might be to come.

December 27, 2020


Sunset over ocean.

I've grieved this year. I know you have too. I lost a dear mentor. The program in which I taught closed down. I came close to getting a dream job--but did not. Another opportunity required weeks of fraught negotiation. My city's streets were invaded, helicopters a constant presence overhead. Tyrannical subversion of the law has felt like a very real possibility at every turn. A pandemic has attacked friends, family, whole communities, killed thousands, and shut down local institutions that long anchored my understanding of what it meant to live as a writer in DC. Last night, as I opened my laptop and first sat down to write this blog post, brought the news that musician Tony Rice, who shaped my understanding of bluegrass, passed away on Christmas day. 

Large, bare trees on a beach shore. Human figure in distant background.

I'm grateful to all the writer-friends who have stayed active on social media, who have given us dialogue beyond the latest doom-scrolling (a word I did not need before 2020); I simply found it difficult to be one of them. If you're seeing this it means you didn't give up on the possibility of my posting here. I'm grateful for that, too.

Sea shore with tidal pools and a bright patch of green algae.

There were beautiful moments of this year. Friends had babies. My sister got married. We brought home Sal the Wonder Cat. My husband and I worked through sharing a small space day in, day out. Made to Explode got its coverI can't be glib about silver linings, but I can recognize the planting of seeds that will bloom. I'll see you in 2021.

Close-up of bed in a beach-themed room, cat with black and white head hiding behind pillows.

September 24, 2020

Transcript of The Slowdown (9/24/20)

I woke up to a flurry of notes from folks excited that my poem, "The Piano Speaks" (part of my second collection, I Was the Jukebox) is featured as part of Tracy K. Smith's podcast "The Slowdown." I'm excited too! 

But I believe in fighting for optimal access, which means podcasts should come with transcripts. Since they didn't release one, I made one to post here. 

Please ask podcast producers to create and release transcripts of their shows. The more pressure we create as a community, the more likely our requests will be honored. Eventually this can (and should) become a baseline standard of access. Access is love. 

#479: Transcript of The Slowdown Podcast with Tracy K. Smith

September 24, 2020 [Click here to visit the site's page with audio] 


[[Opening announcement for Better Help online professional counseling services. Listeners get 10% off the first month of services with the discount code “Slowdown.” Go to www.BetterHelp.com/slowdown to learn more and make an appointment.]]


[Background music, instrumental.]


I’m Tracy K. Smith and this is The Slowdown.


[Music break.]


You know how they say that, when confronted with a photo, most peoples’ natural inclination is to seek out themselves? I suspect this might also be the case on videoconferencing platforms. I have Zoom meetings most every day, and I hate to admit it, but of all the faces in the tiny grid, my eyes keep gravitating back to my own. Is that what I look like when I talk? I find myself thinking. How is that the expression I make when I listen? What’s up with my mouth? And on, and on. I think I may have found the true culprit of the “Zoom headache.” 


My kids are the same way. For them, Face Time is just a chance to make loony faces in what is, essentially, a flashy mirror. With a tap of button I hadn’t previously known existed, they can turn themselves into foxes, or sharks, or—much to my dismay—poo emojis. Which is why it’s so exciting when I find them enthralled by a mound of dirt in the backyard, or bent over the pages of an actual book. They’ve wriggled free of the human compulsion for self-scrutiny. For however long it lasts, they’ve forgotten themselves entirely. 


The same goes for me when I sink into a good book, or sit in the backyard chasing after a woodland creature with just my eyes. That rapturous self-forgetting helps me temporarily cut ties who I am, and what I lack, and how soon I ought to get back to the task of trying to keep up with my betters. It’s been hard to get to that state under the current conditions. Everywhere I look, there’s evidence of me. Best are the days when something unexpected takes me by surprise. A song comes on, even a song I’ve heard a thousand times before, but this time it opens up a new door. Or, I turn the page onto a rapturous metaphor and finally, thankfully, I’m carried far far away from the cage of my own self-regard. 


I guess this is another of the lifesaving properties of art: the ability to carry us far beyond the limits of our known selves. Because the world is full of fascinating perspectives, and sometimes one very good form of self-care is to get lost in the world outside your head. 


Today’s poem is “The Piano Speaks,” by Sandra Beasley.


The Piano Speaks


After Erik Satie


For an hour I forgot my fat self, 

my neurotic innards, my addiction to alignment.


For an hour I forgot my fear of rain.


For an hour I was a salamander

shimmying through the kelp in search of shore,

and under his fingers the notes slid loose

from my belly in a long jellyrope of eggs

that took root in the mud. And what


would hatch, I did not know—

a lie. A waltz. An apostle of glass.


For an hour I stood on two legs 

and ran. For an hour I panted and galloped.


For an hour I was a maple tree,

and under the summer of his fingers 

the notes seeded and winged away 


in the clutch of small, elegant helicopters.


[Background music, instrumental.]


The Slowdown is a production of American Public Radio in partnership with the Poetry Foundation. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, on the web at arts.gov.



Update: The Slowdown has added an automated transcript service.