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Pulitzer Prize Winner Trethewey Discusses Poetry Collection

April 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: “Truth be told, I do not want to forget anything of my former life.” Those are the first words of a poem called “Native Guard,” about a group of ex-slaves who fought in the Civil War.

There’s a great deal of remembering personal and collective history in the book that has won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, also called “Native Guard.” The author is Natasha Trethewey. This is her third volume of poetry. She teaches creative writing at Emory University.

And congratulations to you.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, Poet: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why explore history? What are you trying to do?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, for a long time, I’ve been interested in cultural memory and historical erasure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Erasure?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Erasure, those things that get left out of the landscape of the physical landscape, things that aren’t monumented or memorialized, and how we remember and what it is that we forget. I wanted to kind of restore some of those narratives, so those things that are less remembered.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the particular story of the “Native Guard,” the group I referred to, how did you come to that?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, I used to go out on the island every summer for the Fourth of July with my grandmother and tour the fort.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is off the coast of Mississippi?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: It’s just off the coast of Gulfport.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ah, Gulfport.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That’s right. And there’s a fort out there. And the Daughters of the Confederacy has placed a plaque that mentions all the names of the Confederate soldiers, but there’s not a similar monument listing the names of the Union black soldiers that were there. And I started to wonder why that part wasn’t acknowledged on that island, and I wanted to tell a fuller version of the story.

Tying personal, collective history

JEFFREY BROWN: And why poetry? I mean, why does poetry let you explore these erasures that you're talking about?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, I think it's the elegant form of it. For example, in this book, I used a lot of forms that had repetition or refrain, like the blues, the blues sonnet, or a pantoon, so that I could say the lines over and over again. It seemed to me that, in order to try to inscribe or to reinscribe what's been forgotten, I needed to say a thing and to say it again. And the repetition of form and poetry I thought was an elegant way to do that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you also tied this larger collective history to some very personal and very painful history.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your mother was killed by her second husband?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: What were you trying to go back and express about that, about your mother?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, I wanted to erect a kind of monument to her life, because 20 years -- I was approaching the 20th anniversary of her death. And I'd started researching the Native Guards, because I thought that what I was interested in was that aspect of buried history, a collective American history. But what I came to realize, as I began researching and writing, is that I hadn't erected a monument to the life of my own mother and that I should be the native guardian of her memory, as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, in a sense her life had been erased, to use your word?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: From the landscape, that's right. I hadn't put a marker on her grave just like those Native Guard soldiers on Ship Island.

'Monument'

JEFFREY BROWN: There's a poem here that you wrote called "Monument." Would you read that for us?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I'd be happy to.

"Monument."

Today the ants are busy

beside my front steps, weaving

in and out of the hill they're building.

I watch them emerge and--

like everything I've forgotten -- disappear

into the subterranean, a world

made by displacement. In the cemetery

last June, I circled, lost --

weeds and grass grown up all around --

the landscape blurred and waving.

At my mother's grave, ants streamed in

and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising

above her untended plot. Bit by bit,

red dirt piled up, spread

like a rash on the grass; I watched a long time

the ants' determined work,

how they brought up soil

of which she will be part,

and piled it before me. Believe me when I say

I've tried not to begrudge them

their industry, this reminder of what

I haven't done. Even now,

the mound is a blister on my heart,

a red and humming swarm.

JEFFREY BROWN: "A reminder of what I haven't done," "everything I've forgotten," "a world made by displacement," all of the themes you're talking about.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Yes, trying to remember those things and to put it down in words, so that it stands up longer than my memory of it will.

Growing up biracial in the South

JEFFREY BROWN: Your mother was black, your father white.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was not easy when you were a young child in Gulfport.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: No, it was pretty difficult. And I've felt from an early age a kind of discomfort being in public with my parents, because I knew that people were staring at us. 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how did you come to poetry? Was poetry a way of seeking identity?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Natasha Trethewey, congratulations again. Thanks for joining us.

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Thank you so much.