The National Endowment for the Humanities turns 50 next year. William “Bro” Adams, the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, wants to make sure that the study of history, philosophy, and literature remains accessible to everyone. A conversation about his new "Common Good" initiative.
U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey was born in Mississippi, 100 years to the day after Confederate Memorial Day was established. Her mother was black, her father is white. Their marriage was against the law in the state. Her poetry explores the interplay of race and memory in her life and in American history. The past she mines is often unsettling: growing up biracial in the deep south of the 1960s, the lives of forgotten African-American Civil War soldiers, her mother’s murder and the legacy of slavery. Tretheway is the first poet laureate to move to Washington, D.C., and work out of the Library of Congress since the position was established in 1986. She’s the first southern Poet Laureate since Robert Penn Warren. And she’s the first person to serve simultaneously as the poet laureate of a state –- Mississippi –- and the nation. In 2007, she received a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, “Native Guard.” Last year, she published a follow-up titled, “Thrall.” She joins Diane to talk about the role of poetry in our everyday lives.
- Natasha Trethewey U.S. Poet Laureate and Mississippi Poet Laureate, professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University. "Native Guard," her third collection of poetry, received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. Her latest collection is "Thrall."
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Thrall: Poems” by Natasha Trethewey. Poems include “Help, 1968,” “Elegy for My Father,” and “Enlightenment.” Copyright 2012 by Natasha Trethewey. Reprinted here by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Natasha Trethewey is the first U.S. Poet Laureate to move to Washington and work out of the Library of Congress since the position was established in 1986. She's the first southern Poet Laureate since Robert Penn Warren and she's the first person to serve simultaneously as the Poet Laureate of a state, Mississippi, and the nation.
MS. DIANE REHMIn 2007, she received a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry collection, "Native Guard." Last year she published a follow up titled, "Thrall." Natasha Trethewey joins me in the studio. She'll talk about the role of poetry in our lives. I hope you'll call in with your own thoughts, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. Good morning to you, so good to meet you.
MS. NATASHA TRETHEWEYThank you, Diane. It's a pleasure to be here.
REHMThank you. Tell me, considering the fact that you are both a Poet Laureate of Mississippi and now of the country, tell me why you made the decision to move to Washington?
TRETHEWEYWell, you know, I thought that it would be a lovely to remind people that the post of Poet Laureate is a very public post. It's one that is housed in the Library of Congress, which is also a public space that we all get to go and enjoy. And I thought that for my term it would be a great thing for me to have an opportunity to meet people in the Library.
TRETHEWEYTo have visitors come who want to talk about poetry, who want to share their ideas with me, their thoughts about poetry and also to give me a chance to go back to a place that means a lot to me. I did my own research in the Library for my book, "Native Guard." And so it's a little bit about the public persona of a poet but also something very private and personal, the chance to work there.
REHMSo who do you expect will come to meet you at the Library?
TRETHEWEYWell, you know, I've already received some messages, emails from some people who are poets or people who study poetry, who are interested in just coming to see the space and getting to talk about it. So I imagine a wide range of people, students maybe. I'm hoping for ordinary folks who just have an interest in poetry or want to know more about it.
REHMAnd at 46 you are among the youngest of the Poets Laureate. Do you think that that's going to affect the way people look, not only at you but at poetry itself?
TRETHEWEYWell, it might. I think that sometimes those of us who are less familiar with poets have a certain image of poetry and poets. I remember a student of mine, a young woman at Emery University, who wanted to be a poet and yet in her mind the image of a poet was always a man. He was always older, he wore tweed and leather, you know, patches on his elbows.
TRETHEWEYAnd here she was trying to be a poet but the image in her mind, she wasn't it. there wasn't an image of herself and so I do think that, you know, when the image is different, when we can see someone else in that role we can image the possibilities of ourselves there too.
REHMDo you think there's a certain intimidation factor with poetry?
TRETHEWEYWell, there certainly was for me when I was growing up.
TRETHEWEYMy father is actually one of those older guys with tweed jackets and leather patches and a professor and I remember, you know, just sort of being the daughter of a poet. That, you would think that somehow poetry would come easily or naturally to me but at the same time, even as I listen to my father's poems and saw him at work as a poet growing up, I was still intimidated by poetry. I still thought it was something difficult to understand, less accessible to me than the short stories that I was reading and loved.
REHMAnd then you said there was a poem that you made realize that there was something in poetry for you by W. H. Auden.
REHMIf you want to read that?
TRETHEWEYI'd love to. This is "Musée des Beaux Art." "About suffering, they were never wrong, the old masters. How well they understood its human position. How it takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along. How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting for the miraculous birth, there always must be children who do not want specially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of the wood.
TRETHEWEYThey never forgot that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course anyhow, in a corner, some untidy spot where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree. In Breughel's Icarus for instance, how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.
TRETHEWEYThe ploughman may have heard the splash, the forsaken cry. But for him it was not an important failure. The sun shone has it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green water and the expensive, delicate ship that must've seen something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on."
REHMAnd that was the Poet Laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey reading Musée des Beaux Arts by W. H. Auden. Tell me why that poem spoke to you so?
TRETHEWEYWell, I was in college when I first encountered this poem and it was not long after my mother died. She died a tragic death and I remember sitting in a class and this is one of the poems that we had to read from my literature textbook.
TRETHEWEYAnd it was at that moment when I read those lines, "About suffering they were never wrong," and the image at the end of the poem of seeing the tiny legs of Icarus as he falls into the sea to his own disaster, I realized that that really sort of encapsulated for me what I was feeling. That tiny little insignificant person over there suffering while the rest of the world goes about its way, not knowing, not seeing this other tiny little thing.
TRETHEWEYAnd so the poem made me feel that I wasn't alone even though it's very much about sort of being off in the distance where no one sees the suffering. It's the way poetry reminds you that someone else has felt that, meaning you're not alone in feeling that.
REHMHow did your mother die?
TRETHEWEYShe was murdered by her second ex-husband.
REHMSo she and your father were divorced?
TRETHEWEYThat's right, they divorced when I was six and started first grade.
REHMAnd did you continue to live with her or with your father?
TRETHEWEYI lived with my mother and I spent the summers with my grandmother and my father. I'd visit him also. My grandmother in Mississippi and my father was in New Orleans at the time.
REHMAnd your mother remarried?
REHMAnd what was that relationship like for you after she remarried?
TRETHEWEYWell, you mean my relationship with my mother or...
REHMAnd your stepfather?
TRETHEWEYMy stepfather. Well, my stepfather I think was always bothered by me because I was a constant reminder that my mother had been married before, that she'd been married to a white man and I was the daughter of that marriage. And so there were always tensions in that house.
TRETHEWEYOf course, which reminds me of poetry yet again, I can't not think about Robin Hayden's, "Those Winter Sundays." Of course, it's a poem about his father and not his stepfather but the kind of chronic tensions in a difficult household and the ways in which they shape us.
REHMWhy did he kill her?
TRETHEWEYWell, he was someone very much obsessed with her. He's a Vietnam veteran and I think came back deeply sacred, wounded from his time there. He had a little, well it's not little, it's, for the people who experience it as well as their families but his diagnosis is paranoid schizophrenia. And so he had been abusing her for years and when my mother finally was able to escape the marriage, first to a battered women shelter and was able to get a divorce he continued to stalk her after that until he was able to get to her, to kill her.
REHMNatasha, I'm so sorry. What a difficult time that must've been for you.
TRETHEWEYIt was a difficult time and, you know, Diane, it sometimes it still is. There are moments when the grief of that loss seems fresh, it comes back. I think that's one of the reasons I had to write the poems in "Native Guard," to deal with that ongoing sense of grief.
REHMAnd when we come back after a short break, you'll Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate of the U.S. and the state of Mississippi, read from her books of poetry, both "Native Guard" and her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "Thrall." 800-433-8850, stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. It's my honor to have Natasha Trethewey here in the studio. She is, at 46, among the youngest of the Poet Laureate of the United States. She is dually the Poet Laureate of the State of Mississippi. She's professor of English and creative writing at Emory University. Her third collection of poetry titled "Native Guard" received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. Her latest collection titled "Thrall" was published just last year. Talk about the decision you made to merge the history of your mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough and the history of the Louisiana native guard.
TRETHEWEYWell, I don't think that I knew I was merging it at first. You know, as the poet Mark Doty says, our metaphors go on ahead of us. And the poems of course become an active discovery where they show us what it is we're thinking about, what our deepest obsessions are. I began by doing the research about the Civil War soldiers, those Louisiana native guards, writing about them because they were stationed off the coast of my hometown, Gulfport, Miss.
TRETHEWEYAnd I used to take the little boat trip every 4th of July with my grandmother to go out to the fort just to tour it and go to the beach. And there wasn't any mention of those black soldiers back then when we took the trip. And I began to think that this was one of those sort of lesser known or forgotten histories that wasn't being -- even though historians of course were writing about it, again those ordinary folks like me who were just taking the trip out to the fort without being able to see a monument or hear the tour guide talk about it had no idea about this history.
TRETHEWEYAnd when I found out about it I began to write those poems but at the same time was writing elegies for my mother. It had been nearly 20 years since she'd been gone. I had moved back to the particular geography of my past where that great loss, that great tragedy happened. And so I was, you know, sort of working on two things at one time. But thinking of the poems were deeply personal, putting them away in a drawer, until I realized that what linked them -- what my mother had in common with those black soldiers was the lack of a kind of remembrance, no monument. My mother's grave had no monument.
TRETHEWEYAnd so I felt that she was sort of being erased from the landscape in that way as well. And of course there are a few other similarities. Just the idea of the kinds of Civil Wars that go on in our lives from a large grand war in a nation to the civil wars of domestic violence within the home.
REHMRead for us that poem "Monument" if you would on page 43.
TRETHEWEYYes. Monument. Today the ants are busy beside my front steps weaving in and out of the hill their 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.
TRETHEWEYI 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.
REHMAnd that is Natasha Trethewey reading "Monument," one of the poems in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Native Guard." Tell us what it was like growing up in a family where your mother was of one race and your father another.
TRETHEWEYWell, you know, I was born in 1966 in Mississippi. And it seems like so long ago of course, and yet the memories of living in sort of the Civil Rights post Jim Crow era of Mississippi are vivid in my mind. I remember being afraid a lot when I would travel places with my parents. I could see people looking at us in ways that made me feel uncomfortable, even threatened sometimes. When I was about three years old there was a cross burned on my grandmother's lawn. And we were all sort of huddled inside the house as this went on. There were constant threats like that everywhere around us.
REHMHow did your parents react to that cross burning?
TRETHEWEYWell, you know, I think that -- my parents were young. They were in their twenties. It was a time in the country where because of the Civil Rights Movement that young people were, you know, as they always are in some ways, energetic. And they knew that they were doing things for a righteous cause. I think that it terrified my mother. I think that she would've wanted to avoid as much as possible that kind of threat of violence and intimidation. My father, you know, is very sort of a tough guy. He might not say that he was frightened by it, but I'm sure it was sobering for us.
REHMHow did they meet?
TRETHEWEYThey met in college at Kentucky State College. It's Kentucky State University now but it's one of the historically black colleges and universities. And it's sort of a funny story how my father, a white man from Canada ended up there, but he -- both my parents graduated from high school when they were 16.
TRETHEWEYAnd my father spent a year teaching in the one-room school house in Mount Uniacke, Nova Scotia where he's from, and then decided to go to an American college. And he got out a guide to them to find one that he could afford, one that would also give him a track scholarship. And he got into Kentucky State and didn't quite realize that it was an all black college, and made his way down, hitchhiking the whole way and arrived on campus.
TRETHEWEYMy mother tells this lovely story about how it was when the Righteous Brothers had first come out. They had that song "You Lost That Loving Feeling." And because of their deep and soulful voices my mother and all the women in her dormitory thought they must be black men. And so they all gathered around the television one night because they were going to come on one of the variety shows. And my mother told me that just at that moment when these white guys come out singing in that soulful voice that my father jogged by the window, and it was love at first sight.
REHMOh, my goodness. And yet you've written a poem titled "Miscegenation." Would you read that for us?
REHMIt's on page 36.
TRETHEWEYMiscegenation. "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, miss 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 Mississippi. Faulkner's Joe Christmas was born in winter like Jesus, give his name for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.
TRETHEWEYMy father was reading 'War and Peace' when he gave me my name. I was born near Easter, 1966 in Mississippi. When I turned 33 my father said, it's your Jesus year. You're the same 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."
REHMI love that.
TRETHEWEYSo my parents, there were two laws that they had to break because not only was it illegal to intermarry in the state, it was also illegal to leave the state to go to a state where you could get married and then return.
REHMSo they were illegal all the way around.
REHMWhat do you think drove them apart?
TRETHEWEYWell, I think some of the -- perhaps the same idealism and excitement that brought them together in the '60s also became part of the difficulties and disillusionment that they must've had. I mean, they were young so like a lot of young couples they were still changing and growing. But I think t hey had the added pressure of living in a very difficult time and place.
REHMWhat about neighbors? How were they regarded by the people around them?
TRETHEWEYWell, it was actually a lot easier when we were in Mississippi in my grandmother's neighborhood, which is an historically black neighborhood that's been there since after the Civil War. My father was accepted into the community. He played baseball for my great uncle's son who had a small team. My grandmother got him a job loading crates at the shipyard on the docks. But when my father went back to graduate school in New Orleans it was a little bit harder for my mother because that group of people that he knew saw her very much as an outsider and treated her that way.
REHMSo that when the two of them, for example, would walk out of the house with you, how were the three of you regarded?
TRETHEWEYWell, in my neighborhood in Mississippi I think that we were, by the people that we knew, well regarded. I mean, because my father was connected to my grandmother and my great uncle's son who were very well known in the community. My great Aunt Sugar who lived next door had helped to start the church that my grandmother lived across the street from in an arbor. And so we were very well-known people and had lots of friends. And so when you have lots of friends, you know, people can say all right, well, we'll let him be one of us. And he was. It was when we went downtown that things were difficult.
TRETHEWEYWell, I can remember being at a Woolworth's downtown Gulfport, Miss. My father has told me this story so sometimes I think do I remember it or is it a memory given to me because he's repeated it so often. But my mother's doing the shopping and my father is holding me. And there are two white women who are standing not far from us saying, oh what an adorable little thing she is. Too bad she's black. Because, of course, at that moment, at that time they knew all the limitations that being born into that particular time and place were going to represent. Certainly that has not necessarily been the case. We had much work to do then, we have much work to do now.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we have a number of callers. We'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Winston Salem, N.C. Good morning, Robert, you're on the air.
ROBERTThank you. I really want to say congratulations on being the Poet Laureate. I was so thrilled to hear when you received this honor.
ROBERTI have really loved reading "Native Guard" and "Beyond Katrina," and next on my list -- I have actually a list of poetry books I'm reading so I've got to get the "Thrall" when I -- I'm reading a Jim Harrison book right now so...
ROBERT...so I really will tell you I'm really looking forward to this. My question is that artistically what do you envision as the poet -- your term as Poet Laureate, what would you like to accomplish? Because I guess as an avid reader of poetry I was thinking of Richard -- the poet that read at the inauguration the other day. There were a number of people that were being shown scanned over and I could see the faces of incomprehension. And I often think that, you know, poetry is actually very comprehensible. It's just learning how to read it. And sort of my view is that I would like to see the Poet Laureate being used to help people to understand that poetry is for all of us. And I will take your comments off the air. Thank you.
TRETHEWEYWell, Robert, I think you've said it. And I'm only going to sort of repeat some of the wonderful things that you've said. That's something -- the idea that poetry is accessible and available to all of us and can be meaningful to all of us is something very important to me. There are many people like Robert who are avid readers of poetry and feel that they understand poetry. But there are so many people that don't. And as I mentioned before, I was one of those people when I was growing up, even though I had the resources right in my own home to connect to poetry.
TRETHEWEYAnd so it's really important to me in this role to promote poetry to a wider audience and to bring people to it who might have gone away from it in the past because they thought it was incomprehensible, or they thought it perhaps did not speak to the realities of their everyday lives. I'd like to remind people that poetry does just that, that there is a poem out there for everyone.
REHMNatasha Trethewey. She is the Poet Laureate of the U.S. and the State of Mississippi. Her book "Native Guard" won the Pulitzer Prize. She has a new book titled "Thrall." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, Natasha Trethewey who is the 46-year-old Poet Laureate of the United States and also of the State of Mississippi. She is the daughter of a white father and a black mother. Her mother sadly was taken tragically. Your father I gather still lives.
REHMAnd where is he now?
TRETHEWEYMy father is in Roanoke, Va. He's a professor of English and a poet at Hollins University.
REHMHow wonderful. Someone called earlier and wanted to know why the poet laureate is not invited to speak at large ceremonies, for example, the inaugural. Is that not something that the Poet Laureate normally does?
TRETHEWEYThat's right. The Poet Laureate is actually chosen for the post by the librarian of Congress. And so the position is routed in the library. And so one of the things that they've done to maintain the position as it is, is that they don't ask the Poet Laureate to do any kind of state events. The Poet Laureate isn't expected to write occasional poems for various occasions. It's in some ways of keeping the poet free from doing that kind of work so that they might focus on their own projects.
REHMWhat was your reaction to the poem that was read at the inauguration?
TRETHEWEYWell, I loved the poem. I thought...
REHMSo did I.
TRETHEWEY...I think that Richard Blanco is just a lovely poet. And what moved me most about the poem was the balance, this lovely marriage between the civic poem that is there to speak nationally to and for all of us, wed with the personal. There was a moment in the poem in which he says something like, I hate to misquote him, but his mother rang up groceries for 20 years so that he could write this poem.
TRETHEWEYThere were a few other little personal moments in there. But what those personal moments do are they resonate with our own experiences, even if it's not exactly the same thing. I thought the poem was inclusive, small-d democratic in its inclusion, the perfect poem for such as occasion.
REHMLet's go back to the phones to Silver Spring, Md. Good morning, James.
JAMESGood morning. I'm so excited to speak with you, Ms. Trethewey.
JAMESAnd I thank you for the focus, as I understand it, of your campaign and as the Poet Laureate and for your coming on the show this morning, which is talking about how to make poetry more accessible to the wider community. I wanted to speak from my own experience briefly and then ask a question. So I'm a poet myself and also a grass roots organizer. Excuse me. And I worked -- I'm temporarily relocated to the D.C. area myself, so I'm excited to come and visit you over at the library.
TRETHEWEYI hope you will. Thank you.
JAMESYes. I think it's lovely that you're making it an open space like that. But for 18 years I lived in a little town called Gainesville in the north of Florida, which is the University of Florida town, and was involved with a weekly poetry reading through an institution called The Civic Media Center, which is an alternative library and community organizing space there. And every week for 18 years and still to this day every Thursday night we have an open reading where anyone can come and share their poetry.
JAMESAnd what I've found is that there's this tremendous gap between the poetry street and the official world of poetry which lives primarily through academic institutions and a few venerable publications like Poetry Magazine. And what I found from talking to my fellow poets and doing the work of organizing and promoting a weekly reading was that what was most valuable to them was that sense of community, not only an audience, but an engaged audience of which they were part themselves for each other's work and to really get poetry out to working class people, not just have it be the property, this precious property of academic institutions.
JAMESAnd I wonder what's been your own experience with what's called the Spoken Word Movement as exemplified by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the Def Poetry Jam?
TRETHEWEYI'm glad that you talked about your own experience with the weekly reading series. That's the kind of thing that really makes me happy to see. In my own town in Georgia where I live now, there's also a lot of that going on. And just around the corner from my house, there's a place that has it on Sunday nights. And anytime you go there, the lines are out the door for people to get in to sign up to read their own poems. And they do a kind of blend there. There's sort of the open mic, two sets of that, with an invited featured reader in the middle. And I've gone to do that a couple of times.
TRETHEWEYThe guy who organizes it is just a fabulous promoter of poetry in and around the Atlanta area. And it brings out a great crowd. I think you're right to say that there can feel like a great divide between what may be happening in the bars, in the cafes, on the streets and in the academic setting of the university. I think oftentimes people don't realize that there are many poets who participate in both of those worlds. You mention the Nuyorican Cafe, for example. And my former professor, Martin Espada, who taught me at the University of Massachusetts, also is a poet who is very big in that scene.
TRETHEWEYSo he was blending a kind of, you know, academic presence with a more public presence out in, you know, among the people in the streets who are doing spoken word. I think that the more we come together, the more that we see that there are things that we have in common as poets, that -- and as listeners of poetry, that it can only increase the health of poetry in America. And I think the story that the caller had reminds me that poetry is doing just fine.
REHMWhat about the small publications, the magazines of poetry?
TRETHEWEYWell, you know, that's where I started publishing my poems. My father, you know, sat me down and said, you know, so this is what you have to do. And he gave me all these small magazines. And that's where I started sending my poems. I still like to do it because I love supporting them. Not too long ago I had to write a letter to one of those small magazines. It's a magazine called Cave Wall that's only been going for a couple years. I know the people who started it. And they are committed to finding poems that are going to matter to their readers.
TRETHEWEYAnd what I loved when I first started sending poems out many, many years ago is that I felt that the anonymity that I had was wonderful, that all you did was send your poems, the words on the page were the only things that mattered to someone who was going to open that envelope and decide whether or not to publish them. It didn't matter what you looked like or who you were or what your name was. I loved that about them. I still love that about them.
REHMHow popular, how widespread are they?
TRETHEWEYWell, I mean, every year I think someone starts a new one probably.
REHMA new magazine.
TRETHEWEYAnd, you know, you know, sometimes you hear sort of this criticism that, you know, people are just starting these little magazines so that all of their academic poet friends will have somewhere to publish. I don't think that that's fair. I think people start little magazines because they love the words. They love -- and they want to get the work of poets that they like out there to the world.
REHMLet's go to Houston, Texas. Good morning, Anita.
ANITAGood morning. And I'm a big fan of the show, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
ANITAI was struck by the similarities between what Natasha, what you were talking about as you grew up. My daughter is nine and she is biracial. Her father -- biological father is Caucasian and her biological mother was African American. And we are a same sex couple raising her, so it's not legal for us to be married in the State of Texas.
ANITAAnd we -- so she has these differences and she loves art. So she loves to draw and sketch and paint. And I wondered about -- we encouraged her to do that, of course, to express herself. And some environments amongst our friends she's very comfortable and other times I think I worry more about how we're being perceived than she does. But I just wondered about how poetry and how your art form might have helped you to process and deal with and express the times and the significant changes that you were going through as a family.
TRETHEWEYMm-hmm. Yes. Oh, thank you for your question. You know, I think I first turned to poetry to make sense of the history I'd been given. And in that way, it was a kind of outlet and a way to grapple with the realities of my own experience. Later on the more I wrote poetry, it changed for me in some ways. It's still something that I absolutely have to do, but I feel like the mission is greater now than just offering comfort to myself.
TRETHEWEYI feel like there are things that it's necessary for us to say to one another, for us to hear one another. And because poetry is the best way we have of reaching not only the intellect, but also the heart, because poetry creates that sense of empathy in us. It is for me now a way to speak very intimately to a reader. And I do think, you know, that people find in art the need and the necessity and the ability to convey those most difficult and necessary things.
REHMThere's a poem you wrote in 1968 titled "Help." And I think actually it references 1968 rather than having you have written it in '68. Would you read that for us?
TRETHEWEYYes. This is a poem after a photograph from the series "The Americans," by Robert Frank. "Help 1968. When I see Frank's photograph of a white infant in the dark arms of a woman who must be the main, I think of my mother and the year we spent alone, my father at sea. The woman stands in profile back against a wall holding her charge. Their faces side by side. The look on the child's face strangely prescient, a tiny furrow in the space between her brows. Neither of them looks toward the camera, nor do they look at each other. That year when my mother took me for walks, she was mistaken again and again for my maid."
TRETHEWEY"Years later she told me she'd say I was her daughter. And each time strangers would stare in disbelief, then empty the change from their pockets. Now I think of the betrayals of flesh. How she must have tried to make of her face an inscrutable mask and hold it there as they made their small offerings, pressing coins into my hands. How like the woman in the photograph she must have seemed, carrying me each day, white in her arms, as if she were a prop, a black backdrop, the dark foil in this American story."
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have a number of emails. Please comment, this is from Janice. "Please comment on the article in yesterday's Washington Post about the death of poetry. With practitioners like Natasha, it is hardly so. But I'm curious to hear your take on it."
TRETHEWEYYou know, I actually didn't see that article. But I think that they've been proclaiming the death of poetry for a very long time, and it just keeps kicking. So I will definitely go back and read it. I think that the idea is that no one cares about poetry, no one reads poetry. And yet we know that there are thriving literary magazines. We know that audiences go out to readings all the time. I know this. We host readings at the university all the time. And lots of people come to them. Lots of people stand in line to sign up at the cafes to read their own poems. I think poetry is still very much alive and people are finding different ways to come back to it.
REHMAnd, of course, that depends a great deal not only on the child's experience, but what he or she hears from teachers, from professors, from the world around him or her.
TRETHEWEYRight. I was thinking about some of the ways that we come to poetry when we're younger. And I remember there's a moment when you're a child and poetry is fun because it's rhyme, it's the repetition of certain sounds, it's the pleasure of saying certain words on the tongue. All of that is just sheer delight. And then there's a moment where -- and this is not true for everyone, but I think it was the case for me, that I had to learn poetry in order to answer questions on a test. And that wasn't so much fun. But when you just read a poem for sheer delight and just allow yourself to hear it and to feel it in your own body, in your own breath, then we can love poetry again.
REHMAnd on that note, I want to congratulate you once more as the new Poet Laureate for the U.S. and the State of Mississippi, and also for your wonderful poetry, so vivid, Natasha.
TRETHEWEYThank you, Diane.
REHMI've looked at her book "Thrall" and her Pulitzer Prize winning book "Native Guard," Natasha Trethewey. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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