“I didn’t learn the news until it was public,” Smith said. “It was a big shock.”
The award is particularly meaningful to her, she said, because it recognizes not just her own work but the life and legacy of her late father as well. An engineer on the Hubble Telescope, Smith’s father died in 2008. While she explores her response to his death in a long, personal poem in the second half of the collection, she also examines a range of topics in a variety of disciplines, from science to religion. Paradoxically, the collection’s poems are set in a futuristic location but nevertheless explore aspects of the earthly, human experience.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful book, an elegiac collection that combines levity with gravitas — no easy endeavor,” said Susan Wheeler, the director of the Program in Creative Writing.
Smith’s win adds yet another laurel to the creative writing department’s ever-growing collection. The department is home to fellow Pulitzer winners Jeffrey Eugenides, Paul Muldoon, C.K. Williams and Toni Morrison, who now holds emerita status. John McPhee, the Ferris Professor of Journalism, was a four-time finalist for the award and finally won in 1999.
“I feel like I’m joining their ranks,” Smith said of her relationship to her colleagues. She joined the department in 2006 and has published two previous books of poems, “The Body’s Question” in 2003 and “Duende” in 2007. Her past work has already garnered a number of accolades, winning the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Rona Jaffe Writers Award in 2004 and a Whiting Writer’s Award in 2005.
A 1994 graduate of Harvard, Smith received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia in 1997 and went on to hold the prestigious Wallace Stegner Fellowship in poetry at Stanford from 1997 to 1999. Part of her job as a teacher-poet, she said, is to provide students with a living example of what a writer looks like.
“I used to feel it was something that only dead people did,” she said of writing. “The writers that I grew up reading, I didn’t think of them as live people. It must be exciting for student writers to feel like they have a model if they want to stick with it.”
Wheeler also stressed the creative writing department’s emphasis on teaching.
“Our faculty at Princeton are known for their extraordinary teaching, and their many awards are icing on the cake,” Wheeler said.