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Tracy K. Smith and Jacqueline Woodson Talk Reading, Race and Spreading the Gospel of Literature

In 2018, the writer and poet Jacqueline Woodson was appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. The author Tracy K. Smith is in the second of her two years as the poet laureate of the United States. In the midst of National Poetry Month, the two joined up to talk about reading, poetry, black history — and how their missions overlap. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

You both have official national roles, and it’s such a big country. How do you make an impact?

JACQUELINE WOODSON I’m going to Alabama, I’m going to Mississippi, I’m going to Texas and having conversations, and then figuring out how they can continue the conversation once I’m gone. I’ve been going to prisons and detention centers in underserved communities where people haven’t met authors, so I can talk to them about the power of reading, show them that when we have these conversations about books, we’re changed by them. I have this idea that many people think books are “not for them.” Access to them has been denied in a sense to certain classes, certain races. Sadly.

TRACY K. SMITH I’m going to community centers, libraries, rehab centers. I was in New Mexico and South Carolina, and there are about six more trips. I’m trying to figure out how to have the conversation we have about poetry at book festivals or readings, but in the rural and central parts of this country. It’s been beautiful. I have this belief that we are so vulnerable when we open ourselves up to literature. We’re reminded of these real parts of ourselves.

WOODSON: When I go to a boy’s detention center I’m talking about books by Jason Reynolds and Kwame Alexander and Rita Williams-Garcia; when I go somewhere else I’m talking about graphic novels. I’m gauging the audience and helping them figure out which books make a natural entry point. It’s work though. [She laughs.]

SMITH It’s a wonderful kind of work and it asks a lot of you, too. It’s exciting but exhausting.

WOODSON And kind of heartbreaking, because the more you do, the more hunger you see. We could be on the road 365 days a year and we still wouldn’t fill the need of the people who are being denied. There’s so many underserved people, underserved institutions, there’s mass incarceration. I feel good when I’m in those spaces, and when I get out I’m like, oh, I should be going to three more places today.

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