My Night with the Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey

Way back when, before she was named Poet Laureate (yesterday), Natasha Trethewey was an equally accomplished, impressive poet who just happened to spend a day at Bloomsburg University (she was a writer-in-residence at a local university and was good friends with one of my creative writing professors, so it wasn’t a total coincidence).

I was lucky and honored enough to be asked to introduce her at her evening reading, a real treat because I had recently read her book, Native Guard, and it was the first book of poetry I had ever legitimately enjoyed (besides Ogden Nash, that is. I LOVE his poetry and I don’t care if everybody looks down their noses at Ogden Nash, I think he was a genius. I’m especially fond of his poem, “Song to be Sung by the Father of Infant Female Children“).

I don’t write poetry often (or well) and I rarely read poetry and I even more rarely enjoy it. It’s a personal taste thing. I really enjoy story and plot and characters; often, in my opinion, poetry forsakes these elements for structure, rhythm, and pretty words. But Natasha Tretheway has a story, an amazingly interesting and historically significant life story, and each poem is a fully fleshed out moment, muscled with meaning and feeling, helping you understand that history. Seriously, you have to read her bio before really appreciating her poems.

Not only that, but she was a good writing influence to be around. A lot of writers write a book and then someone likes it and it gets published; they don’t have much to offer new writers because their they were never required to be particularly attentive to their writing. That is their story. But Natasha Trethewey is completely dedicated to her craft and improving her craft. Everyone–even strictly prose writers, like me–learned something about how to improve their writing after she visited campus.

I went out to dinner with Ms. Trethewey and a chunk of the English department faculty before the reading and it was nerve wracking. Half because I was the only student there, and half because I didn’t think anything I had to say would be even mildly interesting to such an accomplished writer. But we had one of the best conversations–about race, color, and interpretation–that I still reflect upon. I’ve been fussing around with the idea of writing a short memoir about it. Someday.

Though my introductory speech is ever so slightly dated, I believe it’s appropriate to share it again. It fits as a “Congratulations on Being Named Poet Laureate” speech, don’t you think?

Natasha Trethewey received her bachelor’s from University of Georgia, her masters in English from Hollins University, and her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts.  She is the author of three poetry collections—Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, and Native Guard, which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize—and a creative non-fiction book entitled Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  We can look forward to her new collection of poetry, Thrall, which will be released in 2012.

Her work has appeared in several volumes of Best American Poetry and in journals such as Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Southern Review.  She’s the recipient of the 2008 Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence, the 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year, the Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. She is a Professor of English at Emory University where she holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry and is currently the poet-in-residence at Bucknell University.

But before all that success happened, Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi.  She admitted in an interview once that she felt it “impossible…not to return.”  The South has thus haunted her the same way her mother’s death, the “ghost of history,” and the untold stories of the Native Guard soldiers have haunted her and it is evident in her writing.  When I read Native Guard I was struck by the language heavy with graveyard metaphors and similes.  A seaport, for example, transforms into a graveyard for sunken river boats.  Death served as the delicate skeleton structure for each poem.  Throughout the book, Trethewey cannot escape because every dream, every memory, every experience is haunted.  Even tourist visits to Vicksburg, Virginia, transform into a macabre dance of “the living com[ing] to mingle with the dead.”

In another interview, Trethewey described an incident. It included:

  • a hotel.
  • an air conditioner
  • a maintenance man
  • and a recited poem.

Ever since then, Trethewey has liked to think that lots of people carry poetry around, handy, in their back pockets the way that man did. I know that her poetry certainly haunts me, and I assume you’re all here tonight because it haunts you too. Tonight, we carry her poetry.

So, please welcome Natasha Trethewey.

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4 thoughts on “My Night with the Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey

  1. Very nice. It is exciting to be around someone who has found success as a writer. I must, however, disagree with your fourth paragraph where you say “A lot of writers write a book and then someone likes it and it gets published; they don’t have much to offer new writers because their [sic] they were never required to be particularly attentive to their writing.” Most writers, particularly those who have had some success, love talking about their craft. Writers by nature are somewhat egocentric and discussing how they crafted their work feeds into that.
    Congrats to Natasha Trethewey and to you. Keep writing (and perhaps reading a bit more poetry.)

    • Maybe I’ve experienced a biased sample, but if you ever go to mainstream author events, or read the blogs of new authors who have gotten published with big commercial publishers, when they offer advice it’s predominantly about how to write query letters, how to get an agent, etc. Not that their books aren’t fabulous and they aren’t great writers, but they focus upon their writing process and how the managed to get.it.done. ofttimes citing that the book “wrote itself” or the “characters have a mind of their own,” rather than talking about how to control the beauty of a plot line and construct intense imagery in a scene. Maybe they just don’t like talking about their craft when offering advice [shrug]. But literary authors like Natasha Trethewey are definitely all about offering advice about their craft, which I find more helpful.

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