Trethewey reading at the Library of Congress in 2013
April 26, 1966 |
Gulfport, Mississippi, U.S.
|Alma mater||AB, University of Georgia,
MA, Hollins University,
MFA, University of Massachusetts Amherst
|Notable awards||Pulitzer Prize for Poetry
Poet Laureate of Mississippi
United States Poet Laureate
Lamont Poet at Phillips Exeter Academy
As much as we love each other, there is some growing difficulty in my adult relationship with my father. Because we're both writers, we're having a very intimate conversation in a very public forum.
My father, Eric Trethewey, is a poet, so I had one right inside the house. And on long trips, he'd tell me, if I got bored in the car, to write a poem about it. And I did find that poetry was a way for me, I think as it for a lot of people, to articulate those things that seem hardest to say.
My obsessions stay the same – historical memory and historical erasure. I am particularly interested in the Americas and how a history that is rooted in colonialism, the language and iconography of empire, disenfranchisement, the enslavement of peoples, and the way that people were sectioned off because of blood.
When I was born here in Gulfport in 1966, my parents' interracial marriage was still illegal, and it was very hard to drive around town with my parents, to be out in public with my parents.
My mother and my father divorced during the time that my father was getting his Ph.D. at Tulane.
When I write notes in my journal, I'm just trying to scribble down as much as possible. Later on, I decide whether to follow some of those first impressions or whether to abandon them.
Writing 'Native Guard,' I didn't know I was working on a single book. I began writing that book because I was interested in the lesser-known history of these black soldiers stationed off the coast of my hometown.
'Memory.' 'Race.' 'Murder.' That's what they say about me. I am an elegiac poet. I have some historical questions, and I'm grappling with ways to make sense of history; why it still haunts us in our most intimate relationships with each other, but also in our political decisions.
I think the biggest thing that I have to do is to remind people that poetry is there for us to turn to not only to remind us that we're not alone – for example, if we are grieving the loss of someone – but also to help us celebrate our joys. That's why so many people I know who've gotten married will have a poem read at the wedding.
I think I felt at some point that I couldn't understand poetry or that it was beyond me or it didn't speak to my experience. I think that was because I hadn't yet found the right poems to invite me in.
I find myself frequently introducing myself to someone, saying that, you know, I've grown up black and biracial in the United States.
It is a tremendous honor to be named poet laureate, but one that I find humbling as well, because it's the kind of thing that makes me feel like – even as it's been bestowed upon me – I must continue to live up to what it means… Being the younger laureate in the age of social media is a new challenge.
The first thing I tried to do in the months after losing my mother was to write a poem. I found myself turning to poetry in the way so many people do – to make sense of losses. And I wrote pretty bad poems about it. But it did feel that the poem was the only place that could hold this grief.
My own journey in becoming a poet began with memory – with the need to record and hold on to what was being lost. One of my earliest poems, 'Give and Take,' was about my Aunt Sugar, how I was losing her to her memory loss.
When you begin to think about the past, you realize how much of it is lost to us.
I think that as a poet, I am always concerned about history and baring witness to history. But so often, it's through the research that I do, the reading.
It's so necessary to try and record the cultural memory of people. To set it down for generations to come. To better understand where we are headed. The problem is, a good portion of what we choose to remember is about willed forgetting. Which we all do, I believe, to protect ourselves from what is too difficult.
I've been telling my students, 'Imitate, imitate.' And they say, 'Well, what if I plagiarize, or what if I'm not original? I want to be myself.' And I always tell them, 'Your self will shine through'… If you allow yourself to feel deeply and honestly, what you say won't be like anyone else.
My name is Natasha Trethewey, and I was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966, exactly 100 years to the day that Mississippi celebrated the first Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1866.
Isolated and unincorporated, North Gulfport lacked a basic infrastructure: flooding and contaminated drinking water were frequent problems. Although finally incorporated in 1994 – not long after the arrival of the first casino – many of North Gulfport's streets still lack curbs, sidewalks, and gutters.
When I'm actually writing by hand, I get more of a sense of the rhythm of sentences, of syntax. The switch to the computer is when I actually start thinking about lines. That's the workhorse part. At that point, I'm being more mathematical about putting the poem on the page and less intuitive about the rhythm of the syntax.
I overheard things in the Woolworths when I was a child, people saying, 'Oh, poor, little thing,' as if they had some understanding that I was being born biracial into a world that was still very difficult for interracial marriages and biracial children.
Writers, particularly poets, always feel exiled in some way – people who don't exactly feel at home, so they try to find a home in language.
For a long time, I've been interested in cultural memory and historical erasure.
I've been most happy to be an advocate for the kinds of grassroots things that people are doing who care about poetry.
Even though I am the daughter of a poet, and my stepmother is also a poet, growing up, I didn't think I could understand poetry; I didn't think that it had any relevance to my life, the feelings that I endured on a day-to-day basis, until I was introduced to the right poem.
Often as a poet I find that I am somewhat outside an experience I want to hold onto, consciously taking mental notes or writing them down in my journal – for fear that I will forget. It's not unlike being on a trip and taking pictures, your face behind a camera the whole time – the entire experience mediated by a lens.
I started out in graduate school to be a fiction writer. I thought I wanted to write short stories. I started writing poems at that point only because a friend of mine dared me to write a poem. And I took the dare because I was convinced that I couldn't write a good poem… And then it actually wasn't so bad.
Dismissals of poetry are nothing new. It's easy to dismiss poetry if one has not read much of it.
My mother was murdered by my step-father, my brother's father, who was also named Joel, twenty-five years ago. Whatever sadness or burden I've been living with since then, my brother's also been living with, but he's lived with the added burden of having the exact same name as our mother's murderer.
I think that it's hard enough being an adolescent and wanting so much to fit in with your peers, your schoolmates, and to erase any sign of difference, to be part of the group. And being biracial but also being black in a predominately white school marked me as different.
Often it seems that there are writers who are their best selves on the page. That Seamus Heaney was as genuine and deeply admirable in person as in his poems was to me a gift, then as now.
When kids look at broccoli, they call it 'little trees,' because they see it not just for the word 'broccoli.' They see it for what it looks like, the image. We, as adults, forget to think like that. We forget to think figuratively and have to be reminded.
The entirety of 'Bellocq's Ophelia' was a project, and I was interested in doing research and looking at photographs and writing about them, imagining this woman Ophelia and what her life was like and the kinds of things she thought about.
My father is a poet, my stepmother is a poet, and so I always had encouragement as a child to write.
I think often people don't realize the great diversity of Southern writing because in their minds, if you're not from the South, it can seem regional and small, and of course that's not the case at all when you start to read the work.
I love mystery novels… I love seeing the dramas played out in academic departments, particularly English departments. I started reading these when I was going up for tenure.
Growing up, my birthday was always Confederate Memorial Day. It helped to create this profound sense of awareness about the Civil War and the 100 years between the Civil War and the civil rights movement and my parents' then-illegal and interracial marriage.
Even as I think of myself as a 'rememberer,' I also know my memory is probably doing all this work to reconstruct a narrative where I come off better.
A poem I write is not just about me; it is about national identity, not just regional but national, the history of people in relation to other people. I reach for these outward stories to make sense of my own life, and how my story intersects with a larger public history.
One of two historically African American communities that sprang up along the Mississippi Gulf Coast after emancipation, North Gulfport has always been a place where residents have had fewer civic resources than those extended to other outlying communities.
From the catbird seat, I've found poetry to be the necessary utterance it has always been in America.
In the early 1970s in Atlanta, I attended what had formerly been an all-white school but had become a black school after integration and white flight. Perhaps because of this, the teachers created a curriculum that included a focus on African American literature and history year-round, not just in February.
Before I was ever a poet, my father was writing poems about me, so it was a turning of the tables when I became a poet and started answering, speaking back to his poems in ways that I had not before.
I was always very aware of the nature of the place where I was growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi, how that place was shaping my experience of the world. I had to go to the Northeast for graduate school because I felt like I had to get far away from my South, be outside it, to understand it.
In my own life, I believe it was an early education in poetical metaphor that helped me to grapple with and make sense of all the difficult and traumatic things that were to come.
The more I've gotten interested in writing about history and making sense of myself within the continuum of history, the more I've turned to paintings, to art. I look to the imagery of art to help me understand something about my own place in the world.
When I was growing up there, North Gulfport was referred to as 'Little Vietnam' because of the perception of crime and depravity within its borders – as if its denizens were simply a congregation of the downtrodden.
People always want to be on the right side of history; it is a lot easier to say, 'What an atrocity that was' then it is to say, 'What an atrocity this is.'
I am interested in 18th century natural philosophy, science, particularly botany, the study of hybridity in plants and animals, which, of course, then allows me to consider the hybridity of language.
It took me years of attempts and failed drafts before I finally wrote the elegies I needed to write.
On a very personal level, I have fond memories of spending a lot of time in the Library of Congress working on my collection of poems 'Native Guard.' I was there over a summer doing research in the archives and then writing in the reading room at the Jefferson building.
The experience of poetry could bring my mother back to me. Poetry offers a different kind of solace – here on earth.
Often people would mistake me for white when I was younger, and I didn't correct them; there would be a period of time that they just thought I was.
My parents had to go to Ohio to get married in 1965 because it was still illegal in Mississippi. My white father and black mother.
'NewsHour' is very interested in poetry, but they're also interested in not just that something's cute to add on at the end of their programming, but something that actually is integrated into the news.
I think there is a poem out there for everyone, to be an entrance into the poetry and a relationship with it.
I know that my tendency is to be linear, and I'm trying to find ways to subvert that. And so in 'Bellocq's Ophelia' my device for subverting it was to tell the story and then to tell it again; it always circles back to this one moment, and it's not linear, but it's round in that way, and much of 'Native Guard' is like that.
I think people turn to poetry more often than they think they do, or encounter it in more ways than they think that they do. I think we forget the places that we encounter it, say, in songs or in other little bits and pieces of things that we may have remembered from childhood.