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Poet Tracy K. Smith on the duende at Medaille

"We read poems because they change us, and our reasons for writing them hover around that same fact," writes poet and Princeton University based scholar Tracy K. Smith in her essay "Survival in Two Worlds at Once: Federico Garcia Lorca and Duende."  Smith, one of the leading voices in a new generation of African-American women poets, won the 2002 Cave Canem Poetry Prize for her book, The Body's Question (Graywolf Press 2003).  Her second collection of poems, Duende (Graywolf Press, 2007) won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets.  This Thursday, March 26th at 7 p.m., she visits Buffalo's Medaille College to appear in The Write Thing Reading Series in The Library at Huber Hall.
The Spanish poet Lorca occupies a special place in Smith's pantheon for naming his creative spirit the duende—daemon, hobgoblin, mischief maker, guardian of "the mystery, the roots fastened in the mire that we all know and all ignore."   In contrast to transcendent notions of inspiration, the duende "sleeps deep within the poet, and asks to be awakened and wrestled, often at great cost," she writes. 

Lorca located his duende in the Gypsy tradition of the "Deep Song," a predecessor to Flamenco.   His immersion in the American folk traditions of jazz, blues, and spirituals during his residence in New York City in 1929 and 1930 reinforced his theory of "dark sounds" with ideas of authenticity, rhythmic immanence, and soulfulness, and their relationship to life and art, notes Smith.  In his famous lecture "Theory and Play of the Duende," first delivered in Buenos Aires in 1933, he fleshed out the connection between the duende and the poet's struggle "to subsist, to resist absorption by a larger more powerful culture. It’s a struggle, literally, not to disappear."

For Smith, duende dictates that poems are not things we create for the reader's approval, but rather "to engage in the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely...Duende beckons, promising to impart "something newly created, like a miracle," then it winks inscrutably and begins its game of feint and dodge, lunge and parry, goad and shirk; turning its back, nearly disappearing altogether, then materializing again with a bear-hug that drops you to the ground and knocks your wind out. You’ll get your miracle, but only if you can decipher the music of the battle, only if you’re willing to take risk after risk. Only, in other words, if you survive the effort. For a poet, this kind of survival is tantamount to walking, word by word, onto a ledge of your own making. You must use the tools you brought with you, but in decidedly different and dangerous ways."

"The struggle is not merely to write well-crafted and surprising poems so much as to survive in two worlds at once: the world we see and the one beyond or within this one that, glimpse after glimpse, we attempt to decipher and confirm. Survival in the former is predicated on balance, perspective, rehearsal, breadth of knowledge and experience. But for someone fully convinced of the duende, it’s the latter world where madness and abandon often trump reason, and where skill is only useful to the extent that it adds courage and agility to your intuition.... 
"Talent only goes so far, only leads up to the door where the real reason for writing—or continuing to write—resides. After that, what pulls you inside and keeps you alive can only be need. The need for answers to unformed questions. The need for an echo back from the most distant reaches of the self. The need to stop time, to understand the undecipherable, to believe in a kind of magic...  Lorca came to understand the duende as a result of watching and listening to Andalusian Gypsy singers, whose troubled voices defy virtuosity. The best among them drag a spirit of revelation up into the room, and when this happens, the duende has been wrested from his den. They are always a kind of serenade to the resilience and the resistance that struggle creates.  The duende stirs as a way of saying: you will only stay whole by moving—day after day, note after note, poem after poem—from one world to the next.

--R.D. Pohl




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