Natasha Trethewey, 48, is the 19th U.S. poet laureate. She was appointed by Librarian of Congress James Billington.
Is there a certain way the poet laureate is supposed to be addressed?
My friends will sometimes tease me by calling me PLOTUS. Maybe there should be a title. Madame PLOTUS?
Yes! Let’s go with that. So, as poet laureate, I imagine that a lot of people send you some really bad poetry.
Well, I’ve written bad poems myself, so I’m sympathetic. There are those of us for whom it is necessary to write poetry. And if you are dedicated to that and willing to work very hard, your poems will get better. I have to believe that.
What should a great poem do?
Well, the easiest answer to that is that it should touch not only our intelligence, but also our heart. It should move us not just with its subject matter but also its musicality. For my own purposes, those are the hardest things to achieve.
Is Washington a particularly poetic city?
[Laughs] I love Washington, and I think of it as a poetic city because it has a sense of history. I like that I can walk up from the Dupont Circle Metro and read Whitman on the walls. When I’m in Washington I feel in touch with America’s past.
What is the least poet laureate-like thing about you?
Oh, my goodness. I was once head cheerleader at the University of Georgia, and I suppose that’s the most un-poet-laureate-y thing.
Are there any subjects you think are impossible about which to write poems?
Even the most difficult things — atrocities, disasters — can find their way into the language of a poem. As Shelley writes, “Poetry is the mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.”
You’ve been doing an extraordinary series on PBS about how people around the country are using poetry. Where did you find poetry that you least expected?
Rafael Campo, a physician and instructor at Harvard is using poetry with medical students. He believes teaching poetry to interns helps them to be more empathetic and treat the whole patient.
Do you think the distractions created by Internet and mobile devices get in the way of good poetry?
I do think there are myriad distractions. If I’m transferring what I’ve written on paper to my computer and that little ding sounds, I might be tempted to check my e-mail. But I also might be distracted and decide to mop the kitchen floor or hang pictures. Distractions have always been there. The writer, the poet, must always create a space to find the silence they need to work.
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