For Natasha Trethewey’s first term as U.S. poet laureate, she instituted weekly office hours — a professorial approach to an artistic post — inviting members of the general public to visit with her at the top of the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building.
“What I learned was how people perceived poetry in America,” Trethewey says. “How, maybe, people have turned to poetry for a lot more reasons than we know about.” How some readers have specific recollections of the moment when they were turned off by poetry, by the sense that it was something to be labored through rather than enjoyed. How there is a perceived divide between spoken-word poets and ivory-tower MFA poetry candidates.
“A lot of people came because they heard the question I [said I] wanted answered at the beginning of my term,” Trethewey says. “Which was: The role of the laureate is to bring poetry to a wider audience; I wanted to know how I might do that.”
On Monday, Librarian of Congress James Billington announced that he was appointing Trethewey to a second term. “One of Natasha’s quotes that I like particularly is that there is a poem for everyone,” Billington said in a phone interview of Trethewey’s efforts to connect with the public. “We don’t force a broader role on any laureates, but she’s done it so wonderfully.” Her weekly hours at the Library were made possible by her choice — unprecedented in recent years — to relocate to Washington from her home in Georgia, giving her a better venue to receive visiting poetry lovers.
For her second term, Trethewey will expand her venue to the whole of the United States: Her signature project will involve filming a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, in which she and NewsHour senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown travel the country for a series of on-location specials that examine societal issues through a poetic lens.
“Prisons, inner-city schools,” Trethewey offers as potential locations. “How poetry helps women tell their stories at domestic violence shelters.” Not necessarily how it contributes to the “healing process,” she says, searching for a better phrase, but how poetry can help people make sense of their own experiences. The locations she’ll choose are ones that have particular resonance to her own life: When Trethewey was a teenager, her stepfather murdered her mother, and her brother was jailed on drug charges.
“I wanted to bear witness,” she says, “with personal testimony of why poetry can matter.”
Trethewey’s home base for her second term will be back in Atlanta. She’ll move out of the Foggy Bottom home she’s been renting in time for the fall semester at Emory University, where she is a professor of English and creative writing.
“I love so much about Washington,” she says. “I love how green it is, how historic.” Her time in the area has been marked by wandering and exploration. “Most days I end up getting 10 miles in because of the places I love to walk” — up near the embassies on Massachusetts Avenue, through an old cemetery in Georgetown, down the hour-long route between her home and the Library and the office hours for the waiting public.
“Natasha seems to feel that poetry has a public place in the world, and I like that very much,” says PBS’s Brown. “She wants to show people that it doesn’t just live in libraries and universities . . . she wants to go out and see where poetry lives out in the country.”