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An Interview with Tracy K. Smith

When Beethoven incorporated Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” into his Ninth Symphony, it was a radical call for equality, freedom, and brotherhood. In celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, Carnegie Hall commissioned former United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith to reimagine Schiller’s poem as a contemporary meditation on community, politics, and spirit. Inspired by Schiller and Smith, New Yorkers of all ages showcase their own interpretations as part of All Together: Songs for Joy in Zankel Hall on April 5.

Smith’s adaptation will be performed next December in Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage in the culminating event of All Together: A Global Ode to Joy, the Weill Music Institute’s (WMI) yearlong project led by conductor Marin Alsop that connects10 presentations of the Ninth Symphony across six continents.

Smith recently spoke with Aaron Siegel, WMI’s director of special projects, about her poem and artistic process. Following their conversation, members of WMI’s learning community shared some of their songs created in response to Smith’s version of “Ode to Joy.”

Being asked to be involved in this project must have raised some fears. What drew you in?

What caused me to ignore the terror that the proposition awoke in me was the idea that joy is at the heart of this poem and this song that we all have inside of our bodies. I think about joy a lot. It’s something that we have to seek, make space for, and welcome. Joy is harder and bigger than happiness, I think. Joy is a gift, but it’s also a kind of choice or sacrifice to invite and admit something as large as joy into your life, something that’s pointed equally at you as it is at others, something we must work to build or grow. I think about it a lot as a parent. I cry all the time when beautiful things happen, and I cry at the difficult things that make me feel like I need to change. That’s what joy feels like to me. I don’t think I knew it truly when I was a younger person and thinking mostly about my own wishes and needs. The notion of joy excited me in general, but also because this current moment in America and in the world seems terrifying to me. It seems like a moment where the work of joy and the work of offering and humble reflection is vital to our survival as a species. This project felt like a good way to think actively about these urgent questions.

How did the experience of working on a poem that would be set to music change your experience of writing it?

I’m always listening as a poet. When I’m writing my own free verse or formal poems, I’m listening to musical aspects of the language like rhyme, meter, rhythm, and repetition. And I’m also listening for silence, because I feel like silence is the heart of a poem. In between all of the worlds that create realization and feeling sits the large presence that I think we’re trying to beckon when we make art. Silence in a poem is what I think really speaks to us. I was thinking about those things when I was working on this project, and I was also thinking—having worked with composers a little bit—that I know there are some things I do naturally with language that make it harder to sing. I have a habit of adding small syllables, extra steps that create a lilting rhythm, which can be cumbersome when you’re trying to sing. I tried to reign some of that in.

As someone who doesn’t speak German, what kinds of challenges did you face in terms of interpreting the original poem?

A rudimentary translation is often not as graceful or nimble as the original. I assume that there’s some layer of agility that was nailed into place for clarity, so I didn’t want to try and dress up or reformulate exactly what the English translation of “Ode to Joy” communicated in my own adaptation. I was looking for what felt like essential guideposts and hot spots, things that really spoke to me, like one stanza of the translation that reads“All creatures drink of joy / At nature’s breast.” I felt the sense of the meaning. Everyone has access to nature as this nurturing, motherly presence. But I didn’t want to say anything exactly like that. I made my version, “Joy like water, milk of mothers,” more concise and more verbal and contemporary feeling to my ear.

You mentioned the large presence of a poem in relation to silence. When you read “Ode to Joy” for the first time, how did you know when you felt that presence? What did it feel like?

I like words that point to something that we can feel but can’t always name. “Whoever” is one of those words for me in the poem. “Whoever has created / An abiding friendship” is the line. It’s about imagining community, and it’s inviting me to imagine what that community might look like in my own terms. There’s a large sense of devotion here. There’s a sense of God and creation, and the unity and beauty of creation. I like that, and I wanted to try and inhabit it in a way that also acknowledged what is troublesome and perilous about this thing to which we all belong. Those two poles together created a charge that felt like a presence.

Since the poem is called “Ode to Joy” and people associate it with the famous melody, they tend to feel like it’s going to wrap them up in a hug and send them on their way with a smile. The original poem, and certainly your adaptation of it, is not really like that.

The first line of Schiller’s—“Oh friends, no more of these sounds!”—is a rejection of something. The whole point of this poem is not that joy is everywhere, but that there’s so much that we’ve been focusing on that isn’t joyful. Let’s turn away from that and deliberately make space for this other thing. And that’s kind of exciting. We are actively making these sounds of trouble and despair and darkness, and to be able to say that this can be useful to what I’m dealing with right now is also very exciting. My poem thinks about the planet. It thinks about the impending—or not even impending anymore—disaster that climate change has brought about. It also thinks about the division, violence, and fear that we see and sometimes perpetuate. I was excited to be able to work with things that felt so real and pressing in this project, and to be able to ask them to help me get at something joyful.

What are your hopes for your adaption and how it will resonate with audiences?

I hope that it feels familiar. I hope that some of the questions and wishes that drive the poem speak to similar feelings in the reader and listener. I hope that it creates a sense that maybe we agree on the big things, like joy, survival, and mending damage. That feels important to me. I also hope that the language feels alive, and that it feels grounded in a voice that you could hear in conversation. That’s important to me as a writer. I believe that I’m trying to connect to something that’s elevated, but I love when the language that’s doing that feels practical.

Tracy K. Smith Shares Her Understanding of Joy

Former United States Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith explores the idea of joy through her adaptation of Frederick Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy.” This conversation is part of Carnegie Hall’s yearlong project All Together: A Global Ode to Joy, which connects new presentations of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony across six continents in honor of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

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