U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey Talks About Her New Job and Fourth Book
Natasha Trethewey is a familiar face to NewsHour viewers and Art Beat visitors. She first talked to us in 2006 as she returned to her hometown in Mississippi to witness the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Then we caught up with her in 2007 after her book “Native Guard” went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. In 2010, we talked to her about her book “Beyond Katrina.”
Recently, Trethewey took on the job of poet laureate of the United States, appointed by the Librarian of Congress, and published her fourth book, “Thrall.” She is also a professor of English at Emory University and serves as laureate for the state of Mississippi. She visited us in our studio last week.
A transcript is after the jump.
JEFFREY BROWN: The new official face of American poetry is one familiar to NewsHour viewers. Natasha Trethewey has just taken on the job of poet laureate of the United States, appointed by the Librarian of Congress. She’s the author of four books of verse, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Native Guard” and her latest, “Thrall.” Trethewey is 46, she’s a professor of English at Emory University and also currently serves as laureate for the state of Mississippi, where she was born. Welcome back, and congratulations.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: The laureate post sometimes is given to an older, well-established sort of star of the poetry world. You are younger, mid career, still out and about, growing.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s right.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is it a different energy? Is it a difference sense that you bring to this?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, I’m hoping that my youth, relatively speaking, means I’m also energetic and can bring a lot of service to the role, rather than simply ceremonial or honorific as it certainly is.
JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see the role? I guess, it’s an interesting question, right?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, you are the cheerleader for poetry, a promoter.
JEFFREY BROWN: A cheerleader?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s right, but the role really is to try to bring poetry to as wide an audience as possible, and so it’s my job to think of as many ways possible to do that.
JEFFREY BROWN: And how have you thought about that? I saw that one thing you are planning to do is actually be in residence here in Washington and at the Library of Congress.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That is the first thing. I’ll be the first one to have done that in a very long time, so I’m hoping that in that capacity I’ll be able to have regular office hours, invite people to the poetry center to talk with me about poetry and what’s important about it in our lives in that office.
JEFFREY BROWN: There is the proverbial, ‘What is the role of poetry in our culture anyway?’ It’s always interesting that here we are in the middle of a political campaign you hear a lot of one kind of rhetoric. Poetry is a different kind of language, right?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s right, that’s right. Poetry is — I said this the other day, I think — it’s way more diplomatic than we ever are in our everyday lives
JEFFREY BROWN: More diplomatic?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s right.
JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Because it can speak to all of us. It helps us not only to grieve our losses but to celebrate our joys and triumphs. It is open to all of us. It’s the best thing we’ve got. It’s the most humane repository for our feelings and our thoughts, our most humane and dignified thoughts.
JEFFREY BROWN:Your new book, you have it there. It picks up on some themes that we’ve talked about before here, I know, your interest in history, in family, your own families experience race. Tell me about the new book.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: The new book started with an investigation of Mexican casta paintings. I was very interested in these because they represented the mixed-blood unions that were taking place in the colony across the 18th century. I was, of course, drawn to them because they had the picture of the parents as well as the offspring and the taxonomy, the names created for those mixed-blood children. So it was like looking at portraits of my own family.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well explain that to people. That is, your own history. As I recall, an illegal marriage at the time.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s right. 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.
JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that you want to look at through the poems, when you want to explore that history?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I’m trying to make sense of my own contemporary experience across time and space. To make sense of myself through the lens of history. These things are not new to us; they’ve been going on for a long time, and people have been thinking about them for a long time, and my experience now is reflected through that larger public history.
JEFFREY BROWN: Is there a poem you could read for us?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Yes. I’d like to read a poem that’s a slightly different take on the elegy, because my father is still alive.
— For my father
I think by now the river must be thick
with salmon. Late August, I imagine it
as it was that morning: drizzle needling
the surface, mist at the banks like a net
settling around us — everything damp
and shining. That morning, awkward
and heavy in our hip waders, we stalked
into the current and found our places–
you upstream a few yards, and out
far deeper. You must remember how
the river seeped in over your boots,
and you grew heavy with that defeat.
All day I kept turning to watch you, how
first you mimed our guide’s casting,
then cast your invisible line, slicing the sky
between us; and later, rod in hand, how
you tried — again and again — to find
that perfect arc, flight of an insect
skimming the river’s surface. Perhaps
you recall I cast my line and reeled in
two small trout we could not keep.
Because I had to release them, I confess,
I thought about the past — working
the hooks loose, the fish writhing
in my hands, each one slipping away
before I could let go. I can tell you now
that I tried to take it all in, record it
for an elegy I’d write — one day —
when the time came. Your daughter,
I was that ruthless. What does it matter
if I tell you I learned to be? You kept casting
your line, and when it did not come back
empty, it was tangled with mine. Some nights,
dreaming, I step again into the small boat
that carried us out and watch the bank receding —
my back to where I know we are headed.
JEFFREY BROWN: An elegy for your father even though he’s still alive. What made you want to do that?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: The poem actually elegizes something else, not the loss of the person but a loss of a certain kind of relationship with the person. So he’s still here, but some part of our relationship as father and daughter has changed. It’s different now the older I get, the older he gets.
JEFFREY BROWN: For those who you know, don’t get poetry or feel disconnected from it, do you think of them when you are writing and, of course, now that you are taking on a very public role as the laureate?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I do think of them when I’m writing, because even though I’m the daughter of a poet I think I felt like that myself at some point.
JEFFREY BROWN: You felt disconnected or …
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Yes, 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 think there is a poem out there for everyone, to be an entrance into the poetry and a relationship with it.
JEFFREY BROWN: What was it for you that will help people? Who did you read or who do you read give the models?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I was going to say, when my mother died the poem that made sense to me and invited me into poetry was Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” That begins, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters.’ You know, it’s a poem that goes on to describe how this tiny little image of Icarus falling into the sea while everything else is going on around the world, that’s what grief sometimes feels like, that you are the only person experiencing it and the whole world is going on about its business without you. That actually comforted me in my loss.
JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a very personal take on things. Are you excited now about the public role that you are taking on?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I think so. I’m very —
JEFFREY BROWN: You think so?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I think I am. I’m a little, well, you know, it’s a big responsibility, and I want to do it well and so that means that I’m a little anxious about it and so it means that I’m also going to try very hard to find the best ways to do it.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Natasha Trethewey is the new poet laureate of the United States. Your new book is “Thrall.” Nice to talk to you.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Nice talking with you, Jeff.