KO prepares for 2021-2022 Symposium poet Tracy K. Smith

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Tracy K. Smith will serve as KO’s 2021-2022 Symposium author, and English teacher Mela Frye (next year’s teacher) is working with the rest of the English department as they begin accepting applications from current juniors.

Tracy K. Smith was born in Falmouth, Mass. and was raised in Fairfield, Calif., deeply influenced by writers like Mark Twain and Emily Dickinson from a young age. She graduated from Harvard in 1997 with a B.A in English, American Literature, and Afro-American studies. She also earned an M.F.A in creative writing at Columbia University. She was a Stegner Fellow in poetry at Stanford University from 1997 to 1999 and served as the U.S Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019. 

She is well known for her collections of poetry, such as “Wade in the Water,” and “Life on Mars,” as well as her memoir, “Ordinary Light.” She now lives in Princeton, N.J. with her family, where she serves as a faculty member at Princeton University. She also hosts a podcast called “The Slowdown,” where she reads and discusses various poems of her choosing every week.

Ms. Frye was asked to head the 2021-2022 Symposium last October. “It’s honestly something that I think as an English teacher at KO we’re always thinking about,” she said. “It’s such an incredible program and so much fun to teach it, so it’s always on our minds.” 

Next year’s Symposium will be the first time in 20 years that KO will have a poet visiting campus, rather than an author. “Poetry is something that I’m really passionate about and love,” Ms. Frye said, “and I’ve wanted to make it more of a focus at KO.” 

She also explained why Ms. Smith stood out to her in particular. “After the events of last summer, I also felt like it was important to bring in a writer of color, and particularly a black woman, if I could think of someone who was the right match for the program,” she said. “It became clear to me really quickly that Tracy K. Smith would be a brilliant choice for a lot of reasons, and I really love her work.”

Ms. Frye noted that ultimately, choosing a Symposium author is a difficult task because there are many contributing factors involved. “For Symposium, you want someone who is accessible for Upper Prep to faculty,” she said, “and someone who’s going to be energetic enough to engage kids for an entire intense day on campus.” Despite these requirements, among many others, Tracy K. Smith “fit every category [Ms. Frye] could dream of.”

English Department Chair Catherine Schieffelin shared what made Tracy K. Smith’s work interesting for her to read. “Her poems deal with all sorts of existential questions.” [Life on Mars] is an elegy, so it was written after the death of her father,” she said. “It’s about him, and it asks really big questions about life and death and space…I think she has a really unique voice and plays with form in really interesting ways.”

The uncertainty around the state of the COVID-19 pandemic by next year has made it difficult to plan for the Symposium visit. “If last year taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected,” Ms. Frye said. “I’ve got enormous shoes to fill on how to do a remote Symposium if that’s the way we go. [Upper School English teacher] Dr. Wayne, I think, just pulled off an incredible remote Symposium, so I’ll certainly be looking to her for help if we have to go that route, but I’m hopeful we won’t have to.” 

Ms. Schieffelin said that this year’s virtual Symposium posed new challenges and opportunities. “Shifting to a remote Symposium was a big challenge, and I was incredibly lucky to be doing it with Dr. Wayne, who is so creative and thorough and is quick to think outside the box with lots of different things,” she said. “I think that we have learned so much this year with Min Jin Lee about how quickly we can adapt to that virtual format, and as long as we have an author who is comfortable with Zoom and really cares about connecting with our students, we should be fine.”

Last week, Ms. Schieffelin made an announcement regarding the application process for the 2021-2022 senior Symposium class. Rising seniors will be required to write a 300 word statement of intent as well as submit a past essay from English class as part of their applications. Interviews will be held from April 13 to May 22 with Ms. Schieffelin, as well as multiple teachers from the English department. The results will be announced during finals week.

Junior Stella Risinger expressed her interest in applying to be in next year’s Symposium class. “…It’s going to take a lot of work, but at the same time, after seeing how Dr. Wayne ran it this year and seeing stuff from classmates,” she said, “it looks really cool because it’s a lot of independent projects based around the same author’s works, so you can really analyze it from all angles.” 

In addition to a variety of in-depth, creative projects highlighting the chosen author’s work, Ms. Frye plans on restructuring the curriculum around the poet’s works for the senior Symposium class. “Over the summer I would like my students to read a book about poetry so that they’ve got a basis for it,” she said, “and then read a book of poems that [Tracy. K Smith] put together that she anthologized as not her own work, and then read one of her books of poetry.” 

Something really special about the senior Symposium class, Ms. Frye explained, is that it gives students the opportunity to become an “expert” on a real, living author, instead of “jumping around” from topic to topic. “This deep dive is something that makes it really exciting and unique,” she said.

Ms. Schieffelin said she enjoys Symposium every year. “To be honest, I’m really just inspired by the Symposium students,” she said. “Yes, the visit of a famous author every year is certainly a highlight, but seeing the teacher and the class or classes come alive and become experts in a living author, and to fan-girl out, and to really dig deeply into one author’s work and become passionate about it every year inspires me.”

Both Stella and Ms. Frye offered some words of encouragement to any student thinking of applying in the future. “Don’t underestimate yourself. If you enjoy reading, and if you can spend time reading, go for it,” Stella said. “I think it’s gonna be a blast. I’m really excited.” Ms. Frye echoed this statement. “It’s an extraordinary opportunity, and you may not get in, but that’s the worst thing that can happen,” she said.  “I’ve never heard from a student in a Symposium class that regretted taking it. It seems to me to be a really beautiful experience.”