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3:13 pm
Wed May 21, 2014

Natasha Trethewey Ends Her Tenure As U.S. Poet Laureate

The role of the United States Poet Laureate is to raise the country’s consciousness about poetry and to spark passion for the craft.

At the conclusion of her two-year tenure as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey has done that and more.

As her term comes to an end, she joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to reflect on her work, her unique past and the state of poetry today.

Interview Highlights: Natasha Trethewey

On when and why she started writing poetry

“Like a lot of people, if I go way back, I can say that I started writing poems in elementary school, which had a lot to do with my father being a poet, but also because my parents were divorced by that time. I was attending a school that had great instruction in poetry, and we started writing poems as early as the third grade, and some of my earliest poems were about American history. I had a teacher who bound them and put them in the school library, so I felt very much like a poet in the third grade. But I didn’t start writing poetry seriously until I was in graduate school. You know, if the troubled beauty and terrible, violent history of racism and injustice of my home state hurt me into poetry, so did losing my mother when I was 19 and a freshman in college. So I also started writing poems then to try to deal with that grief.”

On why poetry still matters

“You always had naysayers coming and saying that poetry doesn’t matter anymore. The very first consultant in poetry, David Auslander, in 1936, the year before he became the first consultant, wrote an article defending poetry yet again against one of those naysayers, and he talked about all of the technological changes that were happening in 1936, and if you read what he says, it doesn’t sound any different than our contemporary moment, with all of our gadgets and distractions. And yet, when I talk to people around the country, I still find there are so many people who feel the impulse not only to write poetry, but to read it.”

‘Limen’ by Natasha Trethewey

LIMEN

All day I’ve listened to the industry

of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree

just outside my window. Hard at his task,

his body is a hinge, a door knocker

to the cluttered house of memory in which

I can almost see my mother’s face.

She is there, again, beyond the tree,

its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,

hanging wet sheets on the line — each one

a thin white screen between us. So insistent

is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be

looking for something else — not simply

the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift

the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,

tireless, making the green hearts flutter.

 

“Limen” from “Domestic Work: Poems” by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2000 by Natasha Trethewey. All rights reserved.

Guest

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

Natasha Trethewey is ending her two-year term as Poet Laureate of the United States. On the PBS series "Where Poetry Lives" she traveled the country, including a visit to the Alzheimer's Poetry Project in Brooklyn. Here she is sitting on the floor with preschoolers who'd come to visit the older residence.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO CLIP)

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I'm a poet.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: I'm a poet.

TRETHEWEY: And I know it.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: And I know it.

TRETHEWEY: And my feet surely show it.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: And my feet surely show it.

TRETHEWEY: Because they're longfellows.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Because they're longfellows.

YOUNG: At 48, Natasha Trethewey is among the youngest ever to hold the title of Poet Laureate, and the only ever to simultaneously hold the same title in her home state, Mississippi. She's the daughter of a mixed race couple, her father, the white poet, Eric Trethewey, her 2006 Pulitzer Prize winning book "Native Guard" told the story of an all-black regimen in the Union Army, many killed by fellow white soldiers. That personal history is a part of her poetry.

We thought we'd check in with the country's laureate, or consultant as they used to be called, one last time. Natasha Trethewey, welcome.

TRETHEWEY: Hello there. Thanks for having me.

YOUNG: And for those who have not heard the history, just touch on it, what the personal history and how it shapes you.

TRETHEWEY: I think often of W.H. Auden's poem, his memorial to Yates in which he wrote: Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry. That relates to my own history, because of course, my native land, my home state, Mississippi, my region, the Deep South, hurt me into poetry.

And that had a lot to do with, as you mentioned, my parents' marriage being illegal at the time they got married in 1965. They had to leave Mississippi in order to go to somewhere where they could get married, so they traveled to Cincinnati and got married there. It was also illegal for someone to do that, to go outside of the place and then return as a married couple. So they actually broke two laws in trying to love and marry each other.

YOUNG: When did it first go from your hurt to the paper?

TRETHEWEY: Well, you know, like a lot of people, if I go way back, I can say that I started writing poems in elementary school, which had a lot to do with my father being a poet, but also because my parents were divorced by that time. I was attending a school that had great instruction in poetry, and we started writing poems as early as the third grade, and some of my earliest poems were about American history.

I had a teacher who bound them and put them in the school library, so I felt very much like a poet in the third grade. But I didn't start writing poetry seriously until I was in graduate school. You know, if the troubled beauty and terrible, violent history of racism and injustice of my home state hurt me into poetry, so did losing my mother when I was 19 and a freshman in college. So I also started writing poems then to try to deal with that grief.

YOUNG: Wow. Can you give us a sense just - we'll hear a reading from you, but can you throw out some of the lines that were composed because of these feelings that have stayed with you?

TRETHEWEY: When I was working on my collection, "Native Guard" that has a long sequence of poems in the voice of a black Union soldier who was stationed off the coast of my hometown, I wrote it in a series of unrhymed sonnets, a crown of sonnets, so that the last line of one sonnet becomes the first line of another sonnet. One of those last lines was some names shall deck the page of history.

And I had to begin the next sonnet with that same line, and I had to finish, of course, a new way. And so the next poem begins, some names shall deck the page of history as it is written on stone. Some will not.

Now in those two lines, the beginning of one poem and the end of the other, I see both of the things I've been trying to deal with as a writer, forgotten or lesser known histories, things that have been erased from the landscape.

The line some names shall deck the page of history is about those black Civil War soldiers, what their colonel was saying on the day that they buried several of them who had been shot down by their own troops, by other white union soldiers in a skirmish.

When the line begins the second time, I realized writing it that I was also writing about my mother. Some names shall deck the page of history as it is written on stone, some will not. And realized that I had not put a stone on my mother's grave. And so hers was one of the names not being inscribed into history on stone.

YOUNG: By the way, have you sense done that?

TRETHEWEY: You know, I have not, and I'm a little embarrassed when I get asked now, but in many ways I think that the larger monument that I created was the book of poems itself. When it came out, "Native Guard," I had as the dedication to my mother in memory. And within days of the book winning the Pulitzer Prize and getting lots of attention, I realized that I had created a monument to Natasha Trethewey's mother and not to Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough.

And so in the new revised draft, a version of the book that appeared, I add her name to it. And that becomes, I think, a bigger monument.

YOUNG: Do you think poetry matters in the way that it once did. I don't know if we're romanticizing the time of Whitman and Frost, but now we have social media. Twitter is in and of itself kind of a form of poetry in 140 characters, but is that supplanting, people sitting down and writing four lines?

TRETHEWEY: Well, I don't think so. You always had naysayers coming in and saying that poetry doesn't matter anymore. The very first consultant in poetry, Joseph Auslander, in 1936, a year before he became the first consultant, wrote an article defending poetry yet again against one of those naysayers.

And he talked about all of the technological changes that were happening in 1936. And if you read what he says, it doesn't sound any different than our contemporary moment, with all of our gadgets and distractions. And yet, when I talk to people around the country, I still find there are so many people who feel the impulse not only to write poetry, but to read it.

YOUNG: Well, we are in the waning hours of your reign. You are the PLOTUS.

TRETHEWEY: That's right.

YOUNG: Poet Laureate of the United States. Can we have a reading from you of one of your works?

TRETHEWEY: Yes. This is a poem that's called "Limen," and I didn't know what the word meant until I wrote the poem, which is one of the joys of writing poetry. But a limen is the actual physical threshold of a door. But it's also the threshold to an emotional or psychological state.

Limen. All day I've listened to the industry of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree just outside my window. Hard at his task, his body is a hinge, a door knocker to the cluttered house of memory in which I can almost see my mother's face. She is there, again, beyond the tree, its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves, hanging wet sheets on the line, each one a thin white screen between us.

So insistent is this woodpecker, I'm sure he must be looking for something else, not simply the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift the tree might hold. All day he's been at work, tireless, making the green hearts flutter.

YOUNG: Just beautiful. Natasha Trethewey, U.S. Poet Laureate 2012 to 14, also, by the way, Robert W. Woodruff, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, thanks so much for speaking with us.

TRETHEWEY: Thank you.

YOUNG: And best of luck in your post-PLOTUS life.

TRETHEWEY: My civilian life, yes, thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: And we'll post that poem at hereandnow.org so you can linger over those images of the woodpecker as door knockers, just quite something.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

And I'm wondering if I should start calling you RYOTUS, Robin Young of the United States.

YOUNG: Yes, you should.

HOBSON: All right, good.

YOUNG: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I am RYOTUS.

HOBSON: I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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