Journey Into Words:
Tracey Schmidt and the Inner Image
By: Laura Hope-Gill
Asheville poet Tracey Schmidt knows the power of the creative path, that it will often begin in a darkness and carry us out of it to a new life. “Right after I began writing poetry, I was driving down I-26, and a poem knocked on my window to be let in. I knew, as a photographer, what happens if you don’t let the muse in when she comes to visit… She goes to someone else’s house. So I pulled over, after desperately attempting to hold the poem in my memory for the 10 minutes before I could pull over, and then downloaded it. I read it, and read it again. It started out like this: ‘I have fallen in love with the world.’ I thought to myself, ‘That does not express how I feel about my life at all.’ I had been dealing, very uncharacteristically, with a serious depression that I could not shake. Sitting in my car under a blooming dogwood tree, reading that poem again, I realized that it was true. That I had fallen in love with the world, and that I had not realized it had happened. When I understood, in that moment, that poetry has the power to tell us when our depression has ended, that it has the power to inform us about what we are feeling when we ourselves don’t know, that is when I said. ‘I’m in.’”
It has happened to many a seer over the centuries and millennia: this immutable awakening that cannot be resisted. It is the soul’s call for us to abide, from one moment on, to what James Hillman calls its “code.” The code requires we hold fast to life as it churns and renews us, even as it carries us through our darkest hours, trusting that, in the words of Rumi, via Robert Bly, the soul is here for its own joy. This joy is the journey, wherever it may take us.
Tracey continues the tradition of embracing life in her collection I Have Fallen In Love with the World, published locally by Logosophia Books, an independent house that celebrates the mystical realm as poets and writers such as Schmidt and also James Davis, discover it. Tracey has always written poems, as many have, yet it was not until five years ago that she began “writing in earnest.” Her journey is one that many can recognize. A moment came in her life when the world seemed to be telling her it was time. These instructions often come in the form of other people. For countless creatives, James Navé is this figure as he runs his globally attended Imaginative Storm workshops, opening people up to the creative forces within. Tracey and Navé have been friends for years, and together they have, as poets do, urged one another on into the creative sphere.
“I moved to Asheville in 2000 from Atlanta. Literally three days later was at a WomanSong concert, where Glenis (Redmond) opened. I think a seed was planted. I saw that this is a city that supports and appreciates poetry. A bit later, I had just typed up one of my old poems on my Mac, and local poet James Navé happened to walk into my office. He is now a great friend and compatriot, and I trust his views on poetry and performance immensely. He asked me who the poem was written by. I very reluctantly admitted I had. ‘It reminds of Hafiz,’ he said. My response: “Hafiz? Is that like Prince or Cher? What’s up with that—why can’t people get last names?” He responded,” No, Hafiz is a 14th century Sufi master, more read in the Middle East than the Koran, and one of the newest translations is just out.”
Navé was referring to the work of Daniel Ladinsky who would become Tracey’s collaborator and friend.
Tracey discovered that the voice within her resonated with an ancient voice, one that has influenced and inspired many a 20th, and 21st, century poet, from Robert Bly to Western North Carolina’s Thomas Rain Crowe. The voice of the Sufi vision also rises in the works of Rumi and Sultan Bahu, poets for whom the lyric tensions exist not so much within the things of the world, as they do in a majority of American contemporary poetry, but soar above the material world in a realm where the Soul dances with the Divine. They are poems of communion.
Tracey embarked on a path to further comprehend what this voice rising within her was. “So my work had had this Sufi-Hafiz quality, even before I knew who Hafiz was, or that poetry was such a revered and ancient art form in the Middle East. Navé told me about Daniel Ladinsky’s translations; THAT was interesting to me. We went to see Daniel read six weeks later at Malaprop;s. I sat on two inches of my chair, bought seven copies and gave six away. I was literally amazed poetry could have that kind of effect on me, as it had truly never happened before.”
Having discovered a connection with a tradition, Tracey wholly took it on. “I was inspired by Maya Angelou’s insistence that people memorize poems and began memorizing Daniel’s work. I would recite them to myself while driving, whip them out when I found myself in a bad mood, and share them at dinner parties. I found they had a remarkable quality of transforming a bad mood immediately.”
The next figure to enter into Tracey’s story is the much-beloved author and writing teacher, Peggy Tabor Millin. “Writing nurtures the inner life and transforms the outer world of women writers,” reads the mantra on Peggy’s website, Clarityworks.com through which she offers retreats, prompts, facilitation and classes that support a woman’s writing practice. “A friend gave me a scholarship to Peggy Millin’s writing class, and she used poetry as a warm up tool.”
Confluence plays a major role in the soul’s journey toward the kind of communion celebrated in Sufi poems. Tracey’s journey was no exception, “I went to her classes because I was trying to finish a book I was working on about my time with Native American elders. I created a museum-touring photography exhibit about Native Americans while I was living in Atlanta, and many people have asked me to write down the text panels, made up of extensive interviews I conducted with them. Poetry just kept coming out of my pen while writing the book.” The confluence here expands beyond the mere need for a “teacher” and into the broader picture of the universal awakening occurring in America.
Tracey’s images comprise an exhibit entitled The Awakening of Turtle Island: Portraits of Native Americans which has toured eighteen museums and was included in the Olympic opening ceremonies in Atlanta. The work, visible at Tracey’s website, presents tribal elders in traditional dress. At first, the extractive images of Edward Curtis of the 19th century daguerreotypes come to mind, but then it becomes clear that Tracey’s photographs propose to expand awareness of tribal teachings. The accompanying text states: “… our delicate relationship with the environment and of the original Native Americans who viewed themselves as an integral part of nature and as its stewards. Turtle Island is the name given by Native Americans to America. Hence, the name of the exhibit infers… the spiritual awakening of America.” While certainly Tracey was committed to conveying the teachings of the union between people and nature, it would seem the process of writing carried her deeper into her own awakening, and opened her path further.
“Then a client, to whom I was teaching photography, gave me some money to take a month off to finish the book. It was Carol Koury, who started Sow True Seed Company here in Asheville. I went down to a retreat center to work on the book, and poetry just kept rolling onto the paper. I would grab total strangers there and begin reciting the work I had just written. It was the kind of place where you could do that, and everybody just loved it and asked for more.”
As her path continued to open, Tracey developed a friendship with Daniel Ladinsky. “He heard from some mutual friends that I was there writing, and came to meet me. We recited poetry over tea and mango sorbet with Thomas Rain Crowe, who happened to be there on retreat as well. A visitor heard us reciting; he was trained on sitar, and he came in and began playing these stunning classical Indian ragas while we were reciting. Basically I thought to myself, “God, go ahead and take me now, because I will die a happy woman.” I simply felt like I had died and gone to heaven.”
Daniel and Tracey kept in touch through email and occasionally running into each other at the The Meher Spiritual Center, where Tracey goes once or twice a year. They read there last year together, for the first time, “and it was heaven all over again. So we decided to do a few more readings together.” They will read together in Tryon, Asheville, and then in Charlotte (see details below) followed by a few more readings scheduled for spring in Georgia and summer in Colorado. This is the first time in nine years that Daniel has agreed to come out and read, which adds yet another luminous thread to the ever-weaving story of how creativity brings people into one another’s path at just the right time.
Looking back at her journey, Tracey recalls it has not been an open-armed freefall into the Creative. “I fought the idea of writing poetry quite intensely at first. I thought to myself, ‘Oh, that’s just what I need: another hobby that does not make any money!’ But I had a number of experiences with poetry that showed me the power that it has to help us be more in touch with our hidden and elusive feelings.” She has also discovered that while poetry facilitates communion between the Soul and the Divine, it also facilitates the same among people here in the world, “I also realized early on, while sharing my work, that experiences I have had which I thought were unique to me, were actually extremely universal; and that lifted some kind of kinetic burden I had been carrying for years. It pushed me right into the poetry ocean, where I have been swimming ever since.”
Tracey Schmidt is the poet of I Have Fallen in Love with the World (Logosophia Books). Daniel Ladinsky has authored many translations and interpretation of Hafiz, among them: A Year with Hafiz: Daily Contemplations. His work is quoted by Eckhart Tolle and Matthew Fox, among others. Tracey and Daniel will read at The Bookshelf in Tryon Thursday, February 16th and at Malaprops on Saturday, February 18th. For ticket information for Malaprop’s, please call 828-254-6734. To view and read Tracey’s images and poems, visit TraceySchmidt.com.
Laura Hope-Gill is the founding director of Asheville Wordfest and Marketing Director at Grateful Steps Publishing House and Bookshop (now Foundation). She has written The Soul Tree and two books about Asheville architectural history, Look Up Asheville I and II (all from Grateful Steps). She lives in Asheville with her daughter.