Poet Natasha Trethewey Explores Public and Personal Histories of Race in America
The Aspen Institute
Caroline Tory, Program Coordinator
Aspen Words, Aspen Colorado
On a recent winter night, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey addressed an Aspen Words audience in Aspen, CO, on the intersection between art and activism. “[I am] a poet interested not only in the sounds of language and in its beauty, but in its ability to help us deal with our most difficult knowledge and help us move towards justice.”
Trethewey is the author of four collections of poetry: “Domestic Work,” “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” “Native Guard,” and “Thrall,” as well as a work of nonfiction, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” She served two terms as the 19th US poet laureate from 2012 to 2014, and is currently poet laureate of the state of Mississippi. Trethewey also directs the creative writing program at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is Robert W. Woodruff professor of English and creative writing…
…Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, the daughter of parents whose mixed-race marriage was illegal in the state at the time. Her writing includes many references to her father, a poet, professor, and Canadian immigrant, as well as her mother, who was a social worker. Trethewey’s poems weave together the story of her own interracial roots with the history of race in America, while also balancing this narrative with lyricism.
“It is where the poems shade toward the lyrical that I’m able to get closer to the emotional truth of a poem,” said Trethewey in her talk. As an example, she referenced the poem “Incident” from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Native Guard.” In it she tells the story of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on her family’s yard after her grandmother hosted a voter registration drive for disenfranchised African Americans in the 1960s. Reworking an initial draft of the poem, Trethewey restructured it to capture the entire story of the incident in the first four lines. This freed her to use the rest of the poem to highlight other emotional truths, such as the need to remember, which are at least as important as the particular facts of what happened.
Trethewey read a number of poems that use art as a reference point, including a series from her most recent book “Thrall.” Titled “Taxonomy”, this series of poems is based on a group of Casta paintings from 18th century colonial Mexico, which portrayed mixed blood unions in the colony…
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