Natasha Trethewey is a product of the South, born in Gulfport, Miss., 46 years ago, although her father (white) and her mother (black) were forced to leave the state to marry. She is a daughter who at 19 came to know profound grief when her stepfather shot and killed her mother.
A professor (Emory University) and Pulitzer Prize winner (in 2007 for the poetry collection “Native Guard”), Trethewey this month will become the first poet laureate of the United States to take up residence in the nation’s capital. Trethewey recently spoke with Style’s Eva Rodriguez about how she found her voice, how her experiences shaped her as an artist and why she decided — for the next few months, at least — to call Washington home. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.
The first thing I tried to do in the months after losing my mother was to write a poem. I found myself turning to poetry in the way so many people do — to make sense of losses. And I wrote pretty bad poems about it. But it did feel that the poem was the only place that could hold this grief.
I found a poem, W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.” It begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, The old Masters . . .” And it goes on to describe the [Pieter Breugel] painting of Icarus. In the foreground, of course, there’s everything else: a ship, a horse scratching its behind on a tree. All those things. . . . But then at the very end of the poem — Icarus falling into the sea.
And what it made me realize is that my grief felt like that. It felt so deeply personal and so invisible to the rest of the world. The world was going on about its way while I was over there, this tiny individual suffering what seemed to me a huge loss, what was to me a huge loss. That poem showed me that I wasn’t alone in feeling that way. That’s what poetry can do for us — to remind us when we feel most alone, we are not at all.
I think of Heraclitus’s axiom [that] geography is fate. And being born to the particular geography of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, also at a particular historical moment. I can’t imagine that I could be anything but the thinker and poet that I am. Also, I think that about losing my mother. How different I might be had that singular tragedy not happened to me at 19.
I started out in graduate school to be a fiction writer. I thought I wanted to write short stories. I started writing poems at that point only because a friend of mine dared me to write a poem. And I took the dare because I was convinced that I couldn’t write a good poem. . . . And then it actually wasn’t so bad. And then I showed it to my fiction professor, who said, “Oh, Tasha. You’re a poet.”
It is a tremendous honor to be named poet laureate, but one that I find humbling as well, because it’s the kind of thing that makes me feel like — even as it’s been bestowed upon me — I must continue to live up to what it means. . . . Being the younger laureate in the age of social media is a new challenge. I still think of myself as a Luddite when it comes to social media. I’m not someone who is on Twitter. I’m not someone who is actively on Facebook. But I do think it would be interesting to find ways to use social media to get poetry out there to a larger audience.
There are really two lines of thinking for me about making the decision to come to Washington for part of my term. On a very personal level, I have fond memories of spending a lot of time in the Library of Congress working on my collection of poems “Native Guard.” I was there over a summer doing research in the archives and then writing in the reading room at the Jefferson building. So the idea of getting to go back to a place that has been deeply inspirational for me is exciting.
The other line of thinking is that it’s a way for me to make even more public the public role of poet laureate. Being in there, in my office . . . might mean I’m more accessible to people who not only live in the District but also who travel to the District. I like the idea that people might even get to sit down and have a conversation about poetry with me. I like the idea of what I might learn from the public, about how they see the role of poetry in their own lives.