A Night of Poetry at the New York Botanical Garden
The Poetry Society of America Spring Benefit Honors Tracy K. Smith
Poetry is about “slowing down and bringing people together” for Susan MacTavish Best, co-host of this year’s Poetry Society of America Spring Benefit, held at the New York Botanical Garden. That theme certainly ran through the night, as literary luminaries and poetry enthusiasts gathered on a gorgeous evening to celebrate the Society and Tracy K. Smith, Poet Laureate of the United States, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the collection Life on Mars, and this year’s honoree.
As the festivities got under way, I joined the evening’s guests for a tour of the exhibit Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai’i. NYBG volunteer Sue Leffler further illuminated O’Keeffe’s work. O’Keeffe believed that one could not just sit down and paint, but rather that one had to settle into it. Her motto was “reduce, edit, and intensify,” and Leffler saw evidence of this in each one of these twenty paintings, a remarkable collection that is unusual to see, as many are culled from private collections.
At her exhibition at husband Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery An American Place in 1940, O’Keefe wrote in her Artist’s Statement, “If my painting is what I have to give back to the world for what the world gives to me, I may say that these painting are what I have to give at present for what . . . Hawai’i gave to me.”
While taking in this art, one of the first people I saw was Amy Hausmann, Senior Curator at the New York Transit Museum. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Poetry in Motion, the PSA’s signature program, which brings poetry to NYC’s subways and buses. To celebrate this milestone, an exhibition will take place at the New York Transit Museum gallery at Grand Central Terminal. Running from July 18 to the fall, the show will be a great opportunity to see, for example, a large collection of Poetry in Motion posters from the past twenty-five years. Hausmann said that Poetry in Motion is a “great way to bring poetry into the everyday experience of the customers of the MTA.” She was with Sandra Bloodworth, a previous PSA honoree and the Director of MTA Arts and Design.
During cocktail hour, spoken word artist Emilio Montilla told me he always finds the benefit to be an “uplifting environment.” That was certainly the case, as guests meandered through the Conservatory garden, which featured the tropical flowers that inspired O’Keefe, and took in the pond, with its koi and lily pads.
Later in the evening, Kevin Young, Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the poetry editor of The New Yorker, and author of 13 books, presented Tracy K. Smith with her award. Having known Smith since they were both undergraduates at Harvard, he spoke of poetry as “a country where anyone can belong, and in that place called poetry, Tracy K. remains an extraordinary citizen, dare I say, the mayor.” He went on to say “faith, being, belief, and musicality” shape “her latest, incredible collection, Wade in the Water.” Young declared, “She is one of our finest writers, surpassed only by her being an even greater person.”
Young spoke of the importance of Poetry in Motion, and related, “I even got in a cab to see my words shouting back at me one warm midnight.”
Smith accepted her award, saying to Young, “I remember going to a reading that [Young] gave when we were both students and my heart blew open. I was so grateful for the power of your voice and so inspired by the fact that someone just a little bit ahead of me in the world was doing this huge thing.”
She went on to say, “It’s been really beautiful to be drawn into the beauty and intention of another imagination…I feel that with O’Keefe . . . and just being in nature.”
Smith gave a reading, which included such poems as “Garden of Eden” and “Unrest in Baton Rouge.” She then collaborated with musicians, including her bassist brother-in-law, as she read her poem “Beatific.” This exquisite blend of music and poetry made her words come to life even more.
I caught up with Kevin Young, who reiterated that Tracy K. Smith has done a great job of bringing poetry to underserved communities, much like the PSA does. I know he’s a music lover, so I asked him what he’s been listening to lately. “Childish Gambino’s ‘This is America’—and the spinoffs!”
At the end of the night, I was able to catch Tracy K. Smith, who was cradling her award and checking on the last-minute status of her silent auction bids. As someone with a screenwriting background who now teaches film history, I was taken with Smith’s poem, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” in which she references Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 seminal science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Poetry and film have a lot in common,” she said. In the end, both mediums are “visual storytelling.” I couldn’t agree more.
The Executive Director of the Poetry Society of America, Alice Quinn, who has been with the organization for 17 years, said that one of the goals of the organization is “to present art to people who don’t expect to see it.”
On the subway ride home, still riding the high from this wonderful night, I couldn’t help but notice a Poetry in Motion poster on the D train: “Remembering Summer” by W.S. Merwin. I smiled to myself, remembering Ms. Quinn’s words and noting the everyday impact of the PSA and its ability to bring poetry to the people, in whatever circumstance they may find themselves. Summer has just begun, but this party will remain in my memory for a long time.
All photos by Andrew Kist.