The Public Life of Poetry: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey

Posted in Articles, Interviews, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2013-06-12 20:35Z by Steven

The Public Life of Poetry: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey

Los Angeles Review of Books

Jennifer Chang

1. THE STORY OF NATASHA TRETHEWEY’s life as a poet began with her mother’s death. Until then, though her father is a poet, poetry had not figured in her future plans. She was a 19-year-old college student at the University of Georgia when her mother died a tragic, untimely death.

In her telling, the young Trethewey felt the smallness of her loss measured against the immensity of the world and as if by an instinct of grief she remembered W. H. Auden’sMusée des Beaux Arts.” The poem salved her suffering, and while her story is profoundly personal, Trethewey’s turn to poetry in a time of desperate need illustrates our primal desire for consolation. “Musée des Beaux Arts” gave Trethewey both an accompaniment to her sorrow and words to make sense of her incalculable loss.

The poem remains a stalwart in Trethewey’s emotional life, and she returned to it again for solace shortly before I interviewed her on December 17, 2012. It was the Monday morning after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and the passing of poet Jake Adam York, Trethewey’s close friend who collapsed from a sudden stroke only the day before. I knew from my research preparing for the interview that York’s and Trethewey’s careers were interwoven; theirs was a conversation on poetry and the world between true friends that had over the years formed a fabric of bold intention. Both poets hail from the deep South — York from Gadsden, Alabama and Trethewey from Gulfport, Mississippi — and both have cultivated a poetics born from an intimacy with Southern history and a passionate sense of social justice.

Given their friendship, it’s hard not to see Trethewey’s work in conversation with York’s, and her poetics builds from a lineage whose stylistic range includes, among others, Yeats, Robert Penn Warren, and Gwendolyn Brooks, yet together allude to poetry’s collective efforts to, in Adorno’s words, “imagine a world in which things might be different.” Still, in the bracing reality of Monday morning, I made my phone call with greater trepidation knowing that I would be interfering on her grief and that, further, to talk of poems somehow made us more powerless and more silent after the Newtown massacre and Jake’s death. What was I doing calling the poet laureate, who was after all only a private citizen in mourning, to ask her about metaphorical language?…

Read the entire interview here.

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Special Event: An Evening with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

Posted in Arts, Live Events, Media Archive, United States on 2013-04-09 01:09Z by Steven

Special Event: An Evening with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

The Newseum
Walter and Leonore Annenberg Theater
555 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20001
Telephone: 888/NEWSEUM (888/639-7386)
Tuesday, 2013-04-16, 23:00Z (19:00 EDT Local Time, 16:00 PDT)
This event will be streamed live on

The 19th U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in PoetryNatasha Trethewey will read selections from her work, followed by a conversation with Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, about her poetry, her national role, and the place of poetry in society. She is currently the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.

Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Miss., on April 26, 1966. She is the author of four poetry collections and a book of creative non-fiction. Her honors include the Pulitzer Prize and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2012, she was appointed State Poet Laureate of Mississippi.

Emory University president James W. Wagner will also pay tribute to the university’s long history with poets and their art, much of which is housed in Emory’s Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library collections.

Emory alumni board president Isabel Garcia will emcee the evening.

The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. For more information, click here.

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An Evening with Our New Poet Laureate

Posted in Articles, Live Events, Media Archive, My Articles/Point of View/Activities, Poetry, United States on 2013-04-03 20:48Z by Steven

An Evening with Our New Poet Laureate

Steven F. Riley

2012-2013 U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey at Library of Congress (2012-09-13).©2012, Steven F. Riley

Natasha Trethewey is preoccupied about race. It is a fruitful preoccupation for which we all should be grateful.

[View the inaugural reading transcript here.]

Last Thursday, Emory University Professor Trethewey gave her inaugural reading as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in the Coolidge Auditorium of the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. After a warm introduction by the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, Ms. Trethewey arrived on stage for a handshake from Mr. Billington and a standing ovation by a packed and enthusiastic audience of 5oo (plus an extra 100 outside the auditorium).

Ms. Trethewey is the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and she is the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993. Ms. Trethewey is also the Mississippi Poet Laureate (2012-2016); winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her book of poetry Native Guard; winner of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts; four Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prizes; The Lillian Smith Book Awards for Poetry; fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study Center and the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University; 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year; 2009 inductee into the Fellowship of Southern Writers; and 2011 inductee into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. And she is the Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.

Ms. Trethewey read a selection of poems from her recently released book of poems dedicated to her poet father, titled Thrall.

The poems read were:

  • “Elegy (For my father)
  • Taxonomy:
    • De Español y de India Produce Mestiso”
    • De Español y Negra Produce Mulato”
    • De Español y Mestiza Produce Castiza”
    • The Book of Castas”
  • “Knowledge”
  • “Miracle of the Black Leg”
  • “The Americans” (“Help, 1968”)
  • Mano Prieta”
  • Torna Atrás”
  • “Mythology”
  • “Calling: Mexico, 1969
  • “Fouled”
  • “Rotation”
  • “Enlightenment”
  • “Illumination.”

Born in 1966 to a black mother and white father in Mississippi—the tortured crucible of race relations in the United States—it is understandable that the topic of race would be a recurring theme in Trethewey’s writings. Yet we never grow tired reading her poems about race because of her innate ability to weave the personal with the historical. As a consequence, her stories are our stories. As in her poem, “Elightenment,” where she describes a trip to Monticello with her father, for a few brief moments we read how she conflates one of our founding fathers with her own father.

…I did not know then the subtext
of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh—

Without taking herself too seriously, Ms. Trethewey humorously described that the only surviving remnant of a family trip to Mexico in 1969 was a photograph of her sitting on a mule, as she began reading “Calling: Mexico, 1969.

In her series of moving poems about casta paintings, Ms. Trethewey reveals her ability to not only compel the reader to contemplate the lives of the subjects of the paintings, but also to bring the subjects of the paintings to life as in her poem “Taxonomy: De Español y de India Produce Mestiso” (Which describes a series of casta paintings by Juan Rodríguez Juárez, c. 1715).

Spaniard and Indian Produce Mestizo. c. 1715. Oil on canvas. 81×105 cm. (Breamore House, Hampshire, United Kingdom).

The canvas is leaden sky
behind them, heavy
with words, gold letters inscribing
an equation of blood—…

…If the father, his hand
on her skull, divines—
as the physiognomist does—
the mysteries

of her character, discursive,
legible on her light flesh,
in the soft curl of her hair,
we cannot know it: so gentle

the eye he turns toward her.
The mother, glancing
sideways toward him—
the scarf on her head

white as his face,
his powdered wig—gestures
with one hand a shape
like the letter C. See,

she seems to say,
what we have made

After concluding her reading with her poem, “Illumination,” Ms. Trethewey received yet another standing ovation.

Head of the Poetry and Literature Center Robert Casper concluded the event, and Ms. Trethewey entered the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building for a reception and book signing.

©2012, Steven F. Riley

©2012, Steven F. Riley



Posted in Articles, Media Archive on 2013-02-27 15:52Z by Steven


Poetry Daily

From Thrall by Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the United States

In the portrait of Jefferson that hangs
     at Monticello, he is rendered two-toned:
his forehead white with illumination—

a lit bulb—the rest of his face in shadow,
     darkened as if the artist meant to contrast
his bright knowledge, its dark subtext.

By 1805, when Jefferson sat for the portrait,
     he was already linked to an affair
with his slave. Against a backdrop, blue…

Read the entire poem here.

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US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on the legacy of the Civil War

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, United States, Women on 2013-02-19 06:07Z by Steven

US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on the legacy of the Civil War

The Washington Post

Ron Charles

One hundred and fifty years later, Americans are still fighting the Civil War, US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey said at the Library of Congress on Wednesday. The field of battle is now historical memory, and gatling guns have been replaced by symbols, but the contest over what sort of nation this will be — and was — continues, according to the 46-year-old poet.

Before a standing-room-only crowd of 300 people, Trethewey focused her remarks on Walt Whitman’s complicated response to black soldiers. Her lecture — in association with the Library’s “Civil War in America” exhibit — elegantly blended scholarship, cultural criticism and poetry…

…When she toured historic sites in her native Mississippi, where “the dead stand up in stone,” she found the same act of erasure still being carried out by memorials, plaques and even tour guides working for the Park Service. The record is “rife with omission and embellishment” that keeps “blacks relegated to the margins of historical memory,” she said. The Daughters of the Confederacy worked diligently to make sure that Americans remember the Civil War “only in terms of states’ rights, not in terms of slavery.”

Trethewey’s lecture this week was a kind of homecoming. Ten years ago, she conducted research on black soldiers in the Library of Congress and composed parts of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, “Native Guard,” in the Main Reading Room. Her most recent collection, “Thrall,” explores her life as the daughter of an African American woman and a white man, the poet Eric Trethewey…

Read the entire article here.

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Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey Will Read Civil War Poems Jan. 30

Posted in Articles, History, Live Events, Media Archive, United States on 2013-01-28 23:15Z by Steven

Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey Will Read Civil War Poems Jan. 30

The Library of Congress
News Releases
Washington, D.C.

Press contact: Donna Urschel (202) 707-1639
Public contact: Robert Casper (202) 707-5394

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey will read selections from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Native Guard,” in commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and in conjunction with the Library of Congress exhibition “The Civil War in America.”
The reading will be at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 30, in Room 119 on the first floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. A book-signing will follow. Sponsored by the Library’s Poetry and Literature Center, the event is free and open to the public. Tickets are not needed.
In “Native Guard,” Trethewey uses poetry to give voice to the Louisiana Native Guards, one of the first regiments of black soldiers recruited by the Union Army during the Civil War. Trethewey, in 2001, had researched “Native Guard” using primary-source documents from the Library’s Manuscript Division and later spent time writing the book in the Library’s Main Reading Room.
Trethewey, named Poet Laureate in June 2012 by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, is the author of four poetry collections and a book of nonfiction. In January 2012, she was named Poet Laureate of Mississippi for a four-year term and will continue in the position during her tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate.
“The Civil War in America” exhibition, which commemorates the sesquicentennial of the war, features more than 200 unique items that reveal the complexity of the Civil War through those who experienced it firsthand. Through diaries, letters, maps, song sheets, newspapers and broadsides, photographs, drawings and unusual artifacts, the exhibition chronicles the sacrifices and accomplishments of those—from both the North and South—whose lives were lost or affected by the events of 1861-1865…

Read the entire press release here.

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The nation’s poet

Posted in Articles, Biography, Media Archive, Poetry, United States, Women on 2012-10-08 01:11Z by Steven

The nation’s poet

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Personal Journeys

Rosalind Bentley, Arts and Culture writer

Personal Journeys is a new weekly feature for readers who like good writing and good story-telling

The National Book Festival along the Mall in Washington is thronged with readers and authors who’ve come to revel in the written word on this fall day in 2004.

Just three years old, the festival has been forged by first lady Laura Bush and the Library of Congress in the belief that literature is a living thing, that the right words, composed in just the right way, can push a life forward.

To the podium steps poet Natasha Trethewey.

Her work illuminates people in the shadows: a seamstress stitching her way through segregation; an early 20th-century prostitute so fair skinned she can pass for white; a dock worker’s wife who keeps her husband’s supper warm as she waits for him well into the night.

Into some of her poems she has woven her own complex story: the blending of the black and white blood that made her; her blood tie to her native Mississippi; the blood of her mother, cruelly spilled.

What binds the characters? It is that in the body of American letters, they have routinely been pushed to the edge of the page by other protagonists deemed more “universal.” This day Natasha reads poems that bring their marginalized stories to the center…

…2012: It’s May. Natasha is the incoming chair of the creative writing program at Emory University and the newly minted poet laureate of her home state of Mississippi. She gets an unexpected call from the Library of Congress. Billington and his colleagues have been following her work since her first reading at the book festival. They are impressed with her 2007 collection, “Native Guard.” They are also taken with “Beyond Katrina,” her 2010 meditation on the psychological and structural wreckage dotting Mississippi’s Gulf Coast landscape years after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall.

Billington believes the time for this kind of poet is right now. She is only 46 and in the prime of her artistic life. This will signal that the library is looking forward. He offers her the highest United States honor a poet can achieve, poet laureate of the nation.

Saying yes isn’t hard, though the honor humbles her, even makes her a little nervous…

…Sept. 13, 2012: The audience in the auditorium of the Library of Congress in Washington leaps to its feet. Applause crashes against the stage where a black woman in a dark dress stands, her hands clasped to her heart. Today, she looks as though she might burst with joy. This is U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, about to officially open the library’s literary season with a reading. She has come to tell an American story….

Read the entire article here.

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Poet Laureate Inaugural Reading

Posted in Live Events, Media Archive, Poetry, United States on 2012-09-17 23:34Z by Steven

Poet Laureate Inaugural Reading

Library of Congress
Coolidge Auditorium, Thomas Jefferson Building (ground floor) (view map)
10 First Street, SE
Washington, D.C.
2012-09-13, 19:00 EDT (Local Time)

Natasha Trethewey, the 19th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry of the Library of Congress, will kick off the Library’s literary season with a reading. The event is free and open to the public. A reception and book signing will follow.

For more information, click here.  Also, a list of 2012/2013 public readings by Poet Laureate Trethewey are here.

View the inaugural reading here.

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‘Thrall’ by Natasha Trethewey, the poet laureate of the United States

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Poetry, United States on 2012-09-14 21:39Z by Steven

‘Thrall’ by Natasha Trethewey, the poet laureate of the United States

The Washington Post

Elizabeth Lund

Thrall. By Natasha Trethewey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 84 pp.

Natasha Trethewey’s “Thrall” is a must-read collection that equals the power and quality of her third book, “Native Guard,” which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize . “Thrall” also demonstrates why this 46 -year-old writer is worthy of her recent appointment as poet laureate of the United States.

Trethewey, the daughter of an African American woman and a white man, explores racial attitudes and stereotypes throughout this slim volume, using both personal and historical lenses. The book opens with a gorgeous, understated poem about a fishing trip she and her father took years ago. That experience and their difficult relationship create an underlying tension that shapes the entire book. What readers notice first, though, is the poem’s engrossing imagery:

drizzle needling

the surface, mist at the banks like a net

settling around us —

everything damp

and shining…

Read the entire review here.

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Miss., US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey to read poetry at JSU

Posted in Live Events, Media Archive, Mississippi, United States, Women on 2012-09-03 23:37Z by Steven

Miss., US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey to read poetry at JSU

Jackson, Mississippi

Special to The Clarion-Ledger
Pulitzer Prize winner and current Mississippi and United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey will read her poetry at Jackson State University at 3 p.m. Sept. 20 in room 166/266 of the Dollye M.E. Robinson College of Liberal Arts Building.

This event will be hosted by the Margaret Walker Center at JSU and is free and open to the public.

In January, Trethewey was named the Mississippi Poet Laureate for a four-year term. Soon after, she was named the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress. Trethewey is the first person to serve simultaneously as a state and U.S. laureate.

Read the entire article here.

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