Kristen Tracy stops and stares as a sudden shower douses a zebra, savanna grasses swaying beneath the western Michigan wind. Today is her birthday, and after long nights spent studying sonnets and rhyme schemes in her doctoral studies, her sleep-deprived body aches to be still and simply watch for a while.
Later, Tracy does what she can to recapture the moment, spinning her experience into the 17-lined poem "Rain at the Zoo."
It's moments like these that grace "Half-Hazard," the collection of poems that won Tracy the Emily Dickinson First Book Award from among 1,000 manuscripts. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tracy also received $10,000 for her work, which will be published by Graywolf Press in October 2018.
Graywolf Press and Tracy collaborated in brainstorming the title "Half-Hazard," deciding that the name should reflect the events that lie at the heart of the author's writing — that of tragedy — which ironically puts a positive spin on her work.
Tracy still remembers being with her family in the car crash that killed her younger brother. Only a 7-year-old at the time, Tracy also recalled how the worry pervaded every waking moment that her expectant mother would lose her baby girl in the ordeal.
Fortunately, her sister miraculously lived. But years later in a tragedy that mirrored the first, Tracy's sister also died in a car accident at 14 years old.
"These twin tragedies have adjusted my lens of how I notice the world," said Tracy. Surprisingly, that lens is positive one, and is particularly evident in Tracy's writing. "You're able to be funnier. That's a terrible way to get there, but I do feel like my poetry and my children's writing is really fused with humor," she said.
"Sometimes those tragedies really turn somebody into a comedic force."
An author of 12 middle grade and young adult novels, Tracy has been published with Simon & Schuster, Penguin, Random House and Disney Hyperion, writing stories that she hopes will help readers "fine-tune their moral compass" as well as provide a good laugh.
Her poems also have a "certain wit" and humor about them, said Tracy. At one point, she even worried that the word "luck" appeared too often in her manuscript. "I want to lift people up," she continued, reflecting on the tremendous loss she experienced early in life. "That's just a natural position I want to be in."
As a young girl growing up in a small town in Idaho, though, Tracy didn't plan on writing being her professional career. A "reluctant reader" all her life, it wasn't until Tracy signed up for a few poetry classes at Loyola Marymount University that she discovered she had a knack for the art.
After receiving her B.A. from LMU, Tracy received three additional degrees: a master's in American Literature from Brigham Young University, a master's in fine arts from Vermont College and a Ph.D. from Western Michigan University. Her poetry was also published in more than two dozen literary journals. Still, despite her accomplishments, the writer said there were many times when others told her to give up the craft.
"Everyone thought I was crazy," she said, remembering that people often told her, "You can't make it as a writer."
But rather than steering Tracy towards a more practical career, Tracy said the naysayers had the opposite effect and propelled her instead towards writing fiction. Of course, there was still some trepidation: "Novels seemed so long," she admitted. "I didn't feel that I had the muscle to endure."
Rooting her fiction in her past gave Tracy the drive to keep going. "I absolutely love writing funny books for young readers, for kids roughly the age I was when I experienced such tremendous loss," she said. Writing for teens also reminds Tracy of her sister, making the experience all the more meaningful for her, she continued.
But after 20 years of revising her poetry and being published in more than two dozen literary journals, Tracy wasn't sure her manuscript would actually be published on its own. "Poetry takes a long time to get right," she said. "I wasn't sure that it would ever happen. And so to win this award — it is just a game changer."
People often think of poetry as a riddle, "like there's some sort of right answer," Tracy said. For her, though, it's about seeing the world in a different light, about inspiring others and making them laugh. "There's so much funny running throughout the manuscript," she said.
"The sad stuff. It's there. It's important. It shaped me," Tracy acknowledged. "But as things stand now, I am delighted by life. And I am delighted that my poetry manuscript has found its way into this world."