Monday, February 13, 2012

Monday Muse: New Mississippi Poet Laureate

. . . I can get lost in writing a poem
 and forget what time it is. . . .
~ Natasha Trethewey*

Natasha Tretheway recently was appointed Mississippi's Poet Laureate. She fills the position vacated on the death in November 2010 of Winifred Farrar

My post on Farrar (click link above) contains information about the selection, appointment, and duties of the Poet Laureate, who serves a four-year term.

* * * * *
What interests me most about poetry is the elegant envelope of form
and the kind of density and compression that a poem demands. 
Because of those demands, I think I get to work more with silences
 than if I were writing prose. The silences are as big a part
 in my poems as what is being said . . . my poems do a lot
 of work with what is implicit. . . .
~ Natasha Tretheway, Interview at Waccamaw**

Gulfport, Mississippi, native Natasha Trethewey is the author of Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Bellocq's Ophelia (Graywolf Press, 2002), and Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000). Her new collection, Thrall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), will be published this fall.

Tretheway also is the author of Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (University of Georgia Press, 2010), a book of creative nonfiction that Trethewey has described in her poem "Liturgy" as "my pilgrimage to the Coast, my memory, my reckoning. . . ." In addition, she is the editor, with Jeb Livingood, of Best New Poets 2007: 50 Poems from Emerging Writers (University of Virginia Press, 2007).

I do feel that poets should take on the responsibility of recording
or re-recording the cultural memory of a people. . . I walk around
through the world thinking always of what has come before, that
it's still present, and I think it's my job as a poet to tend to that.
~ Natasha Trethewey, Interview at Waccamaw**

Birthplace and heritage, childhood and family life, death and loss and hope, race and racism, historical erasure (what gets made invisible or buried, left out of history books) and the impulse to recover story, place (the geography and metaphor that are the South) and exile, and the role of memory and remembrance and what it means to "go home" are all themes or subjects explored or celebrated in the poetry of Trethewey, the daughter of a white professor and black social worker who were divorced when the poet was six. Trethewey was just 19 when her abusive stepfather shot and killed her mother. Out of such a past Trethewey has produced often astonishing poems, for which she uses traditional forms that, she told a Bookslut interviewer, serve as "a tool of restraint" in writing about "experiences that are pretty difficult for me."

Trethewey's poems are rich in unfussy, taken-from-life detail, build evocatively line to line, are controlled in tone but not without emotion, and make especially effective use of repetition, so that restatement becomes a means to restore or bring back to memory those stories and relationships that are both described and not, that are personal yet belong to others, too. Two strong examples:

In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong — mis in Mississippi.

A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving

Faulkner's Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given him
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in

My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
I was born near Easter, in 1966, in Mississippi.

When I turned 33 my father said, It's your Jesus year — you're the
age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name —
though I'm not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.
~ "Miscegenation"

Not the fleeting bruises she'd cover
with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint
of a scope she'd pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she'd steady, leaning
into a pot of bones on the stove. Not
the teeth she wore in place of her own, or
the official document — its seal
and smeared signature — fading already,
the edges wearing. Not the tiny marker
with its dates, her name, abstract as history.
Only the landscape of her body — splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal — her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
~ "What Is Evidence"

Trethewey's poems have appeared in numerous literary magazines and periodicals, including Agni, American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, Callaloo, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, The Massachusetts Review, New England Review, North American Review, Poetry DailyPoetry NorthwestThe Southern Review, and storySouth.

The Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, Trethewey is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize (2007), for Native Guard; a Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts (2008), a Lillian Smith Award for Poetry (2001), Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters prizes (2001, 2003), and a Cave Canem award (1999), for her debut collection, Domestic Work. Trethewey also has been a fellow at Beinecke Library at Yale University, Guggenheim Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and The Rockefeller Foundation. She was named Georgia Woman of the Year in 2008 and inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2009 and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in 2011.


All poetry excerpts © Natasha Trethewey

* Quoted at "The Shelf: Natasha Trethewey", Teresa Weaver on Georgia Writers, Atlanta Magazine, September 1, 2010

"Trethewey Named State Poet Laureate", SunHerald, January 17, 2012

Natasha Trethewey Poems Online: "Letter Home", "Monument" (Audio), "Pilgrimage", "Providence", "Theories of Time and Space" (Audio), and "Vespertina Cognitio", All at Academy of American Poets; "Flounder" and "History Lesson" at Poetry Foundation; "Myth" (Audio), Poetry Foundation; "My Mother Dreams Another Country" (Audio) at NPR; "Myth", "Miscegenation", and "Providence", All at PBS NewsHour Poetry Series; "Miscengenation", "What Is Evidence", and "Pastoral", All at Swampland; "Mexico" at Poetry Northwest; "At the Owl Club" and "His Hands" at African American Review via JSTOR; "Miscegenation" at Poetry Daily; "Flounder" and History Lesson" at Poetry Out Loud; "Domestic Work, 1937" at American Poems; "Monument" at Poetry Everyday; "Blue Book - June 1911" at The Alchemist's Kitchen; "Elegy", "Flounder", "Pilgrimage", "Providence", "Letter Home", "Miscegenation", "History Lesson", "Southern History", "Domestic Work, 1937", and "Theories of Time and Space", All at AfroPoets; "At Dusk" at Scribd; "Naming", "Father", "Belloq", "Blue Book", "Portrait #1", "Portrait #2", "Photography", "Disclosure", "Spectrum", "(Self) Portrait", All at storySouth

Natasha Trethewey, "Congregation", The Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall 2009 (A series of poems is available to subscribers of VQR. A podcast at Studio 360 is available here.)

Articles by Natasha Trethewey at First Things

      Noteworthy Features and Interviews

"Mississippi Meditation: A Poet Looks 'Beyond Katrina'", NPR, August 18, 2010
Terry Gross, "Natasha Trethewey: If My Mom Could See Us Now", Fresh Air at NPR, January 20, 2009

March McKee, "A Conversation with Natasha Trethewey", The Missouri Review, March 2010

Ange Mlinko, "More Than Meets the I", Poetry Magazine Article 

** Quoted from Daniel Cross Turner, "Southern Crossings: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey", Waccamaw, Fall 2011, No. 8

Jake Adam York, "Jake Adam York Interviews Natasha Trethewey", Southern Spaces, June 25, 2010 (Video)

      Reviews and Other Resources


Lisa W. Rosenberg said...

Thank you for this; Natasha is a truly inspiring woman!

S. Etole said...

These tear at a person's heart.

Louise Gallagher said...

This is awesome -- and I always wanted to change my name to Natasha.

She is as beautiful as her name.