Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Anne Azzi Davenport
Anne Azzi Davenport
Natasha Trethewey is a two-time U.S. poet laureate and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her collection “Native Guard.” Now, she has written a memoir about her childhood, the murder of her mother and her own career calling. Titled “Memorial Drive,” the book came out Tuesday. Jeffrey Brown has a conversation with Trethewey for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
She is one of our most acclaimed poets, a two-time poet laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her collection "Native Guard."
Now Natasha Trethewey has written a memoir of her childhood, the murder of her mother, and her own calling as a poet. The book is published today.
And Jeffrey Brown has this conversation for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.
"Three weeks gone, my mother came to me in a dream, her body whole again, but for one perfect wound."
In the poem "Articulation," Natasha Trethewey writes of the violent death of her mother, and how that forever shaped her own life and work.
"How then could I not answer her life with mine, she who saved me with hers? And how could I not, bathed in the light of her wound, find my calling there?
Natasha Trethewey was born to a black mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough, and white father, Eric Trethewey. It was 1966 in Mississippi. Mixed raced marriages had only recently been legalized, but Jim Crow customs continued.
In 1972, her parents divorced. Her father, who became a poet and English professor, died in 2014. The young Natasha spent her teenage years in Atlanta, where her mother met and married another man, Joel Grimmette, who would beat, abuse and, in 1985, murder her.
Natasha was 19 at the time. Now, at 54, she's written "Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir."
I am trying to pay homage to her, but also trying to remember her, trying to get back a little bit of what I buried and tried to forget so many years, because parts of it were painful.
You write about how, at a certain point, you realize that abuse was taking place, that she was being beaten. And you write about knowing it, not wanting to know it.
I think that's the kind of way that trauma can divide you. You can be conscious of something, but try so hard to bury it, so as not to feel the pain of it.
I think that's what I was trying to do, trying to live with a smile on my face, as if that weren't the story behind it.
And then you describe yourself sort of shutting down for years on end, right, kind of losing years, turning away, trying to forget, but, of course, never really forgetting.
I think that the body does not let you forget. Trauma waits to remind you that it still exists inside in myriad ways. And it kept finding me.
When she became a public figure, as poet laureate, Natasha saw articles written about her make her mother's killing almost a kind of footnote.
And I thought, if that was going to continue to happen, that I needed to be the one to tell her story, so that she could be put in her proper context, as the reason that I am a writer.
Over the years, taking notes on legal pads and in notebooks, she pieced together memories, dreams, police and court documents and more, all incorporated into the book. At one point, she even writes in the second person, addressing her younger self.
The second person was an attempt to show that kind of split in my mind, trying to divide myself from the self that's experiencing that trauma.
And so I wanted to enact that in the prose by speaking to the self. And that section ends: You know. Look at you. Even now, you're trying to distance yourself from that.
"Ask yourself what's in your heart, that reliquary."
As her memoir makes clear, there's no distance between the trauma and the writer Natasha became.
Her most recent collection, "Monument<" contains some of her most direct poems about her mother.
And we saw it up close, the empathy and focus on how stories impact lives, in the year-long "NewsHour" series "Where Poetry Lives," when our travels with Natasha, then poet laureate, took us to a Brooklyn dementia program.
I started writing because I didn't have another way to cope.
A Seattle writing workshop for troubled teens.
What kinds of things have you written about?
A Detroit elementary school.
We all tell ourselves stories about our lives, whether we're writers or not. That's the way that we give meaning and purpose and shape to what seems chaotic, random.
Being able to do that, to tell a story, to tell one's own story, I think, is empowering.
You write of how, eventually, it's story, it's metaphor. Eventually, it's poetry. Those are the things that helped you come to understand what had happened and how you, in fact, survived.
The facts sometimes are difficult and banal, but seeing them through the lens of metaphor helped me see that what seemed merely senseless is, if I think about my own calling to be a writer, it redeems what would otherwise be senseless, gives it meaning and purpose.
So you see a direct line from all of this in becoming the writer that you became?
I don't think I'd be a writer without that existential wound. As Lorca pointed out, that in trying to heal the wound that never heals lies the strangeness in an artist's work, that kind of awareness of death that can make something, not just beautiful, but something also meaningful in a different way.
I think, at 19, I was telling myself that I had experienced that wound, and that I would have to make something of it. And, as Rumi said, the wound is the place where the light enters you. And it did.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.
Watch the Full Episode
In his more than 30-year career with the NewsHour, Brown has served as co-anchor, studio moderator, and field reporter on a wide range of national and international issues, with work taking him around the country and to many parts of the globe. As arts correspondent he has profiled many of the world's leading writers, musicians, actors and other artists. Among his signature works at the NewsHour: a multi-year series, “Culture at Risk,” about threatened cultural heritage in the United States and abroad; the creation of the NewsHour’s online “Art Beat”; and hosting the monthly book club, “Now Read This,” a collaboration with The New York Times.
Anne Azzi Davenport is the Senior Coordinating Producer of CANVAS at PBS NewsHour.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: