Literature and Writing Department to host annual Robert M. Gay Memorial Symposium

This year, the guest speaker will be Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States and Pulitzer Prize winner.

Piper Summer, Contributing Writer

Simmons University’s Literature and Writing Department will host the annual Robert M. Gay Memorial Symposium in the Linda K. Paresky Conference Room, on Thursday, April 27, at 4 p.m.

This year, the guest speaker will be Tracy K. Smith, the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States and Pulitzer Prize winner. The Massachusetts native is a current professor at Harvard, as a faculty member of the English and African American Studies departments. 

When asked about the primary emotion that drives her work, Smith responded, “I’ve been talking about grief a lot, but… I think it might be hope… so much of our culture, so much of our species, so much of life on this planet seems to be closing down, closing in, growing more scarce, more vulnerable, there’s this zero-sum game mentality that we’ve accepted… but hope is a path beyond those things.”

Dr. Patrick Sylvain

When discussing her creative process, she spoke about how many mediums inspire her, “[Different forms of art] are in conversation with each other all the time… I’ll say ‘What would happen if I were following the principles not of language but of dance, at this moment in my poem?’ I’m usually moved to ask those kinds of questions when I come across a roadblock of some kind… Music is actually one that is easy for me to turn to because I can say music involves speed, slowness, silence, and noise… I’ll listen for moments in my poem where some sort of shift… needs to happen in order to sustain the energy or the continuity.”

As stated on the Symposium website, “Critics have praised Tracy K. Smith’s expansive storytelling, flawless language, and her engagement with the paradoxes of everyday American life.” Dr. Patrick Sylvain, a professor of Literature and Writing at Simmons, will moderate the event.  The lecture is funded by an endowment left by Robert Malcolm Gay, who was the chair of the department at Simmons. Past guests have included Martín Espada, Robert Pinsky, and Marah Gubar. 

Dr. Patrick Sylvain


Smith will also be the featured writer for Sidelines, the literary magazine at Simmons University. Her works include five poetry collections, including “Life on Mars,” a memoir, “Ordinary Light,” alongside contributions to anthologies and literary magazines.

Dr. Sylvain stressed the importance of community events like lectures as an important part of the university experience. “Lectures are a way to encounter writers and thinkers who are not part of a university… because we are a part of the Simmons community, it’s simply decent… to show up… we have an invited guest, and we are going to welcome that guest. We do that by participating fully, it becomes community engagement, it becomes intellectual engagement, and it is enriching our horizons even if we are not interested in poetry.” 

Some of her works will be available for purchase at the bookstore ahead of the event. There will be an opportunity for students to have their books signed alongside listening to a reading by the writer. Registration for the event is available online through Eventbrite, and will also be available to watch virtually.