Natasha Trethewey is the Library of Congress's Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2012-2013. Born in Gulfport, Mississippi, Trethewey received a BA from the University of Georgia, an MA from Hollins College (now Hollins University), and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts. Her first book of poems, Domestic Work (2000), was selected by former Poet Laureate Rita Dove as winner of the inaugural 1999 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was published by Graywolf Press. Her subsequent poetry collections include33 44Bellocq's Ophelia33 44(Graywolf Press, 2002),33 44Native Guard33 44(Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and33 44Thrall33 44(Houghton Mifflin, 2012). In 2010, Trethewey published33 44Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast33 44(University of Georgia Press), a memoir that details the struggles of her family living in Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Her honors include the Pulitzer Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2012, she was appointed the State Poet Laureate of Mississippi.
GC: This is the Poet and the Poem, from the Library of Congress, I'm Grace Cavalieri. Natasha Trethewey is with us. She's the nineteenth Poet Laureate of the Unites States, and today she's ours. So I want to say welcome from me, and from the public radio audience. I want to know something, Natasha. How did you learn you were going to be Poet Laureate, and when did this happen?
It happened on May 7. Dr. Billington, the Librarian of Congress called me at home; and I saw on my caller ID, "Library of Congress," and I thought, what can that be?
GC: They want me to give a reading!
NT: You know I'd been invited to the book festival before, so certainly it could have been something like that. I had a new book coming out, so it would have made sense. But I answered the phone, and he introduced himself over the phone, and then asked me if I would serve as the Poet Laureate, and I was thrilled.
GC: And what was your answer?
NT: I said33…44.
GC: Now let me think.
NT: Well, first of all I asked if he was joking; if this was a joke. I said, "Really, Dr. Billington, it's you?
GC: Aww. Well last night, I saw something I haven't seen in a very long time. When you came out on stage at the Library of Congress, the entire audience stood up. I thought, a standing ovation before she reads? And then a standing ovation after. So let's have our audience get a little taste of what that was about, and please give us an opening poem.
NT: I'd like to start with a poem called, Help 1968. It's after a photograph from The Americans, by Robert Frank.
GC: That was the voice of Natasha Trethewey. We're at the Library of Congress. She's our nineteenth Poet Laureate. She was born in Gulfport, Mississippi. She's the author of four poetry collections, and a book of prose. Her honors include the Pulitzer Prize, fellowships from the Guggenheim, the National Endowment for the arts, and she is presently the state Poet Laureate for Mississippi.
GC: Two at once. Are you going to visit Mississippi?
NT: I'm going to Mississippi next week, as a matter of fact.
GC: And I understand you're going to really take up residence here.
NT: That's right. I'll move here in January, and get to spend that half of my term, through June, here.
GC: And not since we've had poetry consultants, since before Congress legislated that term as Laureate, has anyone occupied that office.
NT: That's right.
GC: What made you do that?
NT: Well, I think I really wanted to start off my term by being in residence, so that I might meet with the public here at the library; this most wonderful public space of our nation. And I also have fond memories of working on my last collection of poems, Native Guard, in the reading room of the library; doing research in the archives, and then doing the poems - writing, studying, thinking - in the lovely reading room. I wanted to get some of that back. This is a very inspiring place for me.
GC: Well, Natasha Trethewey has the idea of poetry equaling service; and you're known for that. So you're bringing public service to our capital. And I think you're going to get a lot of phone calls.
NT: I bet. I hope so.
GC: Take your vitamins. The thing about your poetry, as I have been following you, and as I listened last night, is not only the father figure, which is a thread, but the triad, which we heard partly in the first poem. The triad of the mother, daughter, and father; the triangle; this is very important in your work. But, in a triangle, there's always an odd man out. So that adds a dramatic tension. There's always someone off stage in your poetry, and I find that gives it a lot of tension. Let's move on and hear some more. Let's hear Elegy.
NT: This is a slightly different kind of elegy because, of course, my father is still alive. Elegy: For My Father.
I think by now the river must be thick
with salmon. Late August, I imagine it
as it was that morning: drizzle needling
the surface, mist at the banks like a net
settling around us—everything damp
and shining. That morning, awkward
and heavy in our hip waders, we stalked
into the current and found our places—
you upstream a few yards and out
far deeper. You must remember how
the river seeped in over your boots
and you grew heavier with that defeat.
All day I kept turning to watch you, how
first you mimed our guide's casting
then cast your invisible line, slicing the sky
between us; and later, rod in hand, how
you tried—again and again—to find
that perfect arc, flight of an insect
skimming the river's surface. Perhaps
you recall I cast my line and reeled in
two small trout we could not keep.
Because I had to release them, I confess,
I thought about the past—working
the hooks loose, the fish writhing
in my hands, each one slipping away
before I could let go. I can tell you now
that I tried to take it all in, record it
for an elegy I'd write—one day—
when the time came. Your daughter,
I was that ruthless. What does it matter
if I tell you I learned to be? You kept casting
your line, and when it did not come back
empty, it was tangled with mine. Some nights,
dreaming, I step again into the small boat
that carried us out and watch the bank receding—
my back to where I know we are headed.
GC: The voice of Natasha Trethewey. Rita Dove was quite right when she said that your poetry has many levels, and layers, and nuances. Not only is it a narrative, but there's much there. I was thinking of how important the father figure is, in literature, from the beginning of time, and how that's threaded through your mythology. Would you tell us about how important you think that is to your work?
NT: Well you know Grace, it was interesting when you said, about the triangle; and how sometimes someone's sort of outside of that. There may be the two that are highlighted, and the third is left behind. My last book was very much about my mother. There are many elegies to my mother in Native Guard. And I can remember sometimes Q and A's I would have with the audience afterwards, and people would ask me, well don't you ever write about your father? And he had made an appearance in my first book in some ways, but probably that absent part of the triangle that you mentioned. So, this is a book very much dedicated to him, and about him.
GC: And what is the title?
NT: The book is called Thrall.
GC: Who's putting it out?
NT: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt brought this out.
GC: Well it's a beautiful book in its appearance, and it's a beautiful book in its content. So we will go further and farther into it now. Let's have another poem.
NT: Alright. Well I thought I'd read a poem, which is a third section of a larger poem called Mythology. My father, when I was a little girl, used to recite poems to me. He also would read stories from mythology, and also other classical narratives. And one of the things that he did before I went to bed sometimes was recite, sometimes in old English, the scene from Beowulf in which Grendel is knocking on the mess hall door. This is part three, from Mythology.
In this dream I am driving
a car, strapped to my seat
like Odysseus to the mast,
my father calling to me
from the back—luring me
to a past that never was. This
is the treachery of nostalgia.
This is the moment before
a ship could crash onto the rocks,
the car's back wheels tip over
a cliff. Steering, I must be
the crew, my ears deaf
to the sound of my father's voice;
I must be the captive listener
cleaving to his words. I must be
singing this song to myself.
GC: I don't think we can underestimate how important it is to write poetry in order to find out who we are. I think that that sounds very self-absorbed, but it's not. It's quite the opposite, isn't it? To know who we are in the world, and to puzzle that out; and what you do, I realized this more in watching you than in reading you, is that you find the fiercest truth possible, and then the best possible language to parry that; to get the truth out. But you start with the deepest truth.
NT: I think I start with the deepest truths which are for me often historical truths. I am of course, as you say, interested in investigating the self, and making sense my place in the world. And it seems to me the only way to do it is to make sense of my place in the continuum of history. What are those things that happened in the past that have everything to do with this moment, and me in it.
GC: And I feel that partly the choice, in addition to your poetry, the reason you're our laureate is because of your scholarship. Because it is really such a contribution to have the poem reflected in great works of art; in historical moments. And that is what you are known for.
NT: Well poetry is exciting to me because it is about discovery; and of course so is doing research. And they naturally go together for me.
GC: Why was the word "ruthless" in your poem Elegy? Why? The word ruthless was such a pristine choice of words, and it has a light all around it in that poem. Why ruthless?
NT: Well, you know that's the first poem in the book, and I wanted to set up immediately the sense that I am making poems, not only about public history, but also about personal history. And in that way, telling the details of aspects of my relationship with my father; with my mother; and I think it does take a kind of ruthlessness to be willing to make of those things, art.
GC: Well said. Natasha has taught English at Auburn University. She moved to Emory. She's now the Charles Howard Candler professor of English and creative writing, and that's at Emory?
NT: That's right.
GC: You're at Emory now. And you were the Lehman Brady joint chair professor of documentary in American studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina.
NT: That's right.
GC: Both at once?
GC: Okay. Then you served as the James Weldon Johnson fellow in African American studies at Yale, Beinecke Library.
GC: Couldn't you hold a job? What is it with you, Natasha?
NT: The whole time that I was taking those posts, I was actually an Emory professor.
GC: Oh they're visiting professorships?
NT: So they're just visiting professorships.
GC: And you're taking sabbatical?
GC: Ah. That's excellent. I have to mention your prose, because I really believe that it's important for a poet to be able to right prose.
GC: And Beyond Katrina was such a different book from any other book about that disaster, because of your approach.
NT: Thank you.
GC: Can you tell us, first of all, why beyond Katrina, not after Katrina? That word is such a poet's word.
NT: Well, because the book wasn't simply about the aftermath of Katrina. It was beyond both into the past, and into the future. What the, sort of, making of my hometown was that led up to that moment of the storm and its aftermath. And then a projection; a kind of meditation into the future about what Katrina is going to mean in the rebuilding and recovery efforts in people's lives for many years to come.
GC: Let's go, give a little taste of some of the historical detail that you use in your work. So, it could be, ekphrasis? Is that the word?
GC: Tell us about that word.
NT: Well, I'm going to read an ekphrastic poem, which is of course, just a poem about a work of art. And I refer constantly in my work to other works of art; to be in conversation with them.
GC: Are you an art historian?
NT: I am not. But I've had to study enough in order to understand something about the iconography of paintings.
GC: It's clear in your work that you really know a lot about art; in all of your books.
NT: Well that's another fun part, as I said, about doing research and writing poems. This is after a painting by Diego Velazquez, circa 1619. It's called Kitchen Maid at Supper with Emmaus or the Mulata.
She is the vessels on the table before her:
the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher
clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red
and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar
and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angled
in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls
and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung
by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled
in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand.
She's the stain on the wall the size of her shadow—
the color of blood, the shape of a thumb. She is echo
of Jesus at table, framed in the scene behind her:
his white corona, her white cap. Listening, she leans
into what she knows. Light falls on half her face.
GC: Natasha Trethewey. We're at the Library of Congress, and she will be in residence here for 2013. Your poetry does not try to convert anyone. Your poetry does not try to persuade us, or give us a polemical idea of how things should be; even though the poet stands between us and society, which is a pretty big bridge. But yet, it does persuade us. Can you explain that awareness, and how that happens?
NT: I've thought about that a lot; and I want to make use of imagery in poems to show a vision of the world. And of course it is as I see it. But I want to present it in the poems in such a way that you might see it also; that might persuade you. And so, the image is the thing that does the work of argument for me.
GC: The work of argument; that's going to be a good title for an essay. So move us further on into your own work, please.
NT: Why don't I read Illumination now. Because this is very much a poem about research, and knowledge, and trying to continue the process of, the ongoing process, of the life of the mind; of discovery. Illumination.
Always there is something more to know
what lingers at the edge of thought
awaiting illumination as in
this second-hand book full
of annotations daring the margins in pencil
a light stroke as if
the writer of these small replies
meant not to leave them forever
meant to erase
evidence of this private interaction
Here a passage underlined there
a single star on the page
as in a night sky cloud-swept and hazy
where only the brightest appears
a tiny spark I follow
its coded message try to read in it
the direction of the solitary mind
that thought to pencil in
a jagged arrow It
is a bolt of lightning
where it strikes
I read the line over and over
as if I might discern
the little fires set
the flames of an idea licking the page
how knowledge burns Beyond
the exclamation point
its thin agreement angle of surprise
there are questions the word why
So much is left
the printed words and the self-conscious scrawl
between what is said and not
white space framing the story
the way the past unwritten
eludes us So much
is implication the afterimage
of measured syntax always there
ghosting the margins that words
their black-lined authority
do not cross Even
as they rise up to meet us
the white page hovers beneath
silent incendiary waiting
GC: Oh. Those three bullets, at the end. And you believe this so much, you don't even have to look at the page.
NT: You know, when I work on poems, I end up memorizing them so that I can work on them anytime, anywhere, without the pages in front of me. So often I am just reciting.
GC: They're embedded.
NT: They are embedded.
GC: If history is something that we agree on, we'd make an agreement that this is what history is.
NT: We agree that things happened in the past.
GC: Exactly. And you are changing the agreement in your poetry. You're saying, wait a minute; this is not my history. I have another take on this. That's a big contribution.
NT: Well I think that often we are in contention about history. I mean, there are perhaps documentary evidence we can use to make sense of the facts. But there are always interpretations that people add to those facts; what a particular thing meant at a given moment. And so, I am looking a little bit slant at certain kinds of histories, because certain things have been left out occasionally. There are erasures that are based on both unintentional and willed forgetting.
GC: Yes. The voice of Natasha Trethewey. Let us have some more poetry. I think we are going to move into a long final poem, or two short final poems?
NT: Well, why don't we look at Rotation. This is one of the only truly formal poems in this book. There were many poems in traditional forms in my last book, and I was trying to break out of form a little bit in this book; to release myself; to have a different kind of freedom with the line. But this is a pantoum.
GC: Would you explain that please?
NT: A pantoum is a poem that has a series of repeating lines, that - the main thing is that in the first stanza, which is a four line stanza, lines two and four become lines one and three of the next stanza. And so on, and so on, until the poem ends. And when it ends, you come back to the original lines one and three, which hadn't been used yet; and they become two and four of the very last stanza.
GC: Got that? But I'll tell you, let me just simplify it; form is the way we hold our arch. And form is the way we hold the tumult inside us, right?
NT: That's right
GC: And let's hear how she does it.
Like the moon that night, my father—
a distant body, white and luminous.
How small I was back then,
looking up as if from dark earth.
Distant, his body white and luminous,
my father stood in the doorway.
Looking up as if from dark earth,
I saw him outlined in a scrim of light.
My father stood in the doorway
as if to watch over me as I dreamed.
When I saw him outlined—a scrim of light—
he was already waning, turning to go.
Once, he watched over me as I dreamed.
How small I was. Back then,
he was already turning to go, waning
like the moon that night: my father.
GC: There is such longing in your work; that one wants to go to the next page and get more of it. Do we have another page?
NT: I started looking at Mexican Casta paintings. These are paintings in colonial Mexico across the entire eighteenth century that represented the mixed blood unions that were taking place. And you know, when I first started looking at them, I was obviously fascinated by them, because they represented the mixed blood offspring of the different parents, and the taxonomies; the names created to name the different blood mixtures. And I didn't really know that I was looking in many ways at images of my own family. But of course that's, I'm certain, why I was compelled to look at them in the first place.
GC: They're very formal, aren't they?
NT: Yes, they're very beautiful constructions. They painted them, and often different painters created the exact same scenes, and so you would see different skill levels by the different painters. And so I use a very beautiful sequence of them by Juan Rodriguez Juarez, which are circa 1715. The poem is a four part poem, and the last part is called The Book of Castas. I'm going to read from that one.
GC: Can you read us the last part?
NT: Yes. I was just going to also say that, what the Book of Castas is; if you were born a mixed blood in colonial Mexico, your name and taxonomy would be recorded in the Book of Castas. So this is how they kept a record of the mixed blood people who were born.
GC: And what does taxonomy actually mean?
NT: It is just, when you think about even plants, the various names of blood mixtures. So for example, they believed that indigenous blood, indian blood, over a few generations of mixing with white blood, could be purified to whiteness; but that the taint of African blood was irreversible. So you had names like, "Mulato Turning Backwards," "Hold Yourself in Midair," and "I Don't Understand You." This is from Taxonomy. The Book of Castas.
GC: Natasha Trethewey. She's the nineteenth Poet Laureate of the United states, and this is the Poet and the Poem from the Library of Congress. The program is produced by Forest Woods Media Productions. Post production by Mike Turpin, We wish to thank the library of Congress for making this program possible. Funding is provided by the Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry. And special thanks to Katherine Wood and Candace Katz, for supporting poetry on public radio. Our associate producer is Ken Flynn. Our engineer is Mike Turpin. I'm Grace Cavalieri.
Visit Amazon.com to pick-up titles by Natasha Trethewey
To hear this interview with Grace Cavalieri, click here. Grateful acknowledgement to the Poet Laureate office/ the Poetry and Literature Center of the Library of Congress; and to Natasha Trethewey.