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Transplants: Rolex mentor and protégé Tracy K. Smith & Hans Magnus Enzensberger

In many ways, they couldn’t be more different, a young California transplant writing poetry in Brooklyn and a titan of German thought. She is a professor at Princeton and he has made a public point of eschewing institutional life. But the year Tracy K. Smith spent with her Rolex Arts Initiative mentor Hans Magnus Enzensberger has transformed her literary life. The award-winning poet (author of collections including Life On Mars & The Body’s Question) has, under Enzensberger’s watchful eye, turned to prose and is writing a memoir.

“I am still trying to figure out how to do it,” she says. “Hans Magnus has been good at helping me not to worry about that unending white space, waiting to be filled. If I am concerned about some big question – say, how to write about my father, Hans Magnus invites me to think small scale. He prompts me to write a scene.”

American audiences might not be familiar with Enzensberger, but he has been one of the leading figures Germany’s intelligentsia left for most of the last century. He is a poet, author, essayist, publisher, playwright and translator. In fact, he translated some of Smith’s poems into German, which opened her eyes to the potential reach of her work.

“I suppose I’d always assumed that my audience was going to be ‘local,’ but Magnus has been really wonderful about encouraging me to view the work as capable of reaching people in much more distant places and positions,” she says. “I really cherish the image of him guiding my poems into his own language.”

For Enzensberger, the chance to be a mentor has forced him into a role he has spent most of his career avoiding: teacher. “It has always been very important to me to be an independent person,” he says. “The classical idea of a mentorship is that of an unequal relationship. But it is not selfless on the part of the teacher. The mentor needs to take something away from it.”

And he has. Enzensberger credits Smith with exposing him to an entirely different United States than the one he has experienced living in, and visiting, America. For a man who thrives difference and shuns singularity, it’s always good to find something new in the familiar.

This post is sponsored by Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in partnership with Sundance Channel.