CLEVELAND, Miss. — Natasha Trethewey smashes stereotypes about poets. She’s not stuffy. Or shy. Or aloof.
As U.S. poet laureate, the 46-year-old describes herself as a “cheerleader” for the written word. She chooses the label deliberately, not only because she was head cheerleader at the University of Georgia in the late 1980s (Big hair! Big smile!), but also because, as a younger laureate, she wants to bring a sense of energy to the position.
“I want to ask ordinary people if poetry can mean something to them,” Trethewey told The Associated Press during an interview at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.
“When kids look at broccoli they call it ‘little trees,’ because they see it not just for the word ‘broccoli.’ They see it for what it looks like, the image,” Trethewey said. “We, as adults, forget to think like that. We forget to think figuratively and have to be reminded.”
The librarian of Congress, James Billington, named Trethewey as the nation’s 19th poet laureate in June, and she began the one-year position in September. She has already given speeches and public readings in Washington, D.C., and in two states where she grew up, Mississippi and Georgia.
Many of her poems explore the interplay of race, memory and history.
Trethewey, whose late mother was black and whose father is white, was born in Gulfport, Miss., in 1966, when their interracial marriage was against the law in the state. (A 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case that originated in Virginia struck down such bans nationwide.) Her parents divorced when she was young.
Trethewey’s latest collection, “Thrall,” was released in late summer. Some poems explore her complex relationship with her father, Eric Trethewey, who’s also a poet. Many were inspired by 18th Century “casta” paintings by Spanish artists, which catalogued the complex system of labels that society gave to children of mixed-race relationships in Mexico and other parts of the new world:
“an equation of blood —
this plus this equals this — as if
a contract with nature, or
a museum label,” she writes in a poem called “Taxonomy.”
Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her 2006 collection “Native Guard,” which focuses on two disparate topics. One is the history of the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Civil War regiment assigned to Ship Island off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The other is the personal history of her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, who was killed two decades ago by a stepfather Trethewey feared.
In addition to serving as the U.S. poet laureate, Trethewey is serving for four years as poet laureate for Mississippi. Then-Gov. Haley Barbour gave her the title in January, before he left office. She is the first person to serve simultaneously as poet laureate for a state and the nation.
Fred Moten, professor of modern poetry at Duke University, said Trethewey is one of many younger poets whose work pushes the boundaries of defining American identity.
“She’s an extraordinarily well respected figure in contemporary American poetry,” Moten said. “What she does is let people know that American racial history is not just this thing of the past.”
Trethewey is director of the creative writing program at Emory University. Her husband, Brett Gadsden, is a professor of African-American studies at Emory. Starting in January, the couple will move for a semester to Washington, D.C., where she has an office at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center.
Here are excerpts of the AP interview:
AP: Do you find yourself reading and re-reading work of previous poets laureate?
Trethewey: “My predecessor, Phil Levine, is one of my favorite poets…. And of course Rita Dove is one of my favorites…. Maxine Kumin. Robert Penn Warren — his work has meant a great deal to me. I’d like to think I’m in conversation and kind of extending a conversation with Warren — his thinking not only in his poems, ‘Tell me a story of deep delight,’ but also his thinking about the legacy of the Civil War (and) his book, ‘Segregation,’ about his return to the South after the walls of segregation had fallen in the ’50s.”
AP: Besides poetry, what do you draw upon for cultural references? Do you immerse yourself in pop culture?
Trethewey: “I love mystery novels…. I love seeing the dramas played out in academic departments, particularly English departments. I started reading these when I was going up for tenure. I would sneak into the faculty dining room, get my lunch and go over in a corner and get out one of these paperbacks and read it and look around at my colleagues.”
AP: Are there any hokey demands on you as poet laureate? Do people think you should write a poem about every state or certain historical figures?
Trethewey, laughing: “Fortunately, the laureateship doesn’t involve the necessity of writing any occasional poems, or poems commemorating state events or anything. I do imagine, however, that being ensconced in the poetry room, which has a lovely balcony that overlooks the Capitol from one direction and the Supreme Court out of another window, that being there will be inspiring…. And it might lead to a new project in my own poems, a new kind of consideration of historical memory.”
AP: You said you want to open a national conversation about poetry. One way people think about poetry is ‘Roses are red, violets are blue…’ How do you combat silly stereotypes with something more serious?
Trethewey: “I think what may be worse is the other stereotype about poetry, and that is that it is so difficult and inaccessible that ordinary people can’t understand it, that it doesn’t speak to our lives in more specific ways, that it’s lofty or elitist. So I think people might even enjoy the limericks and that kind of stuff because at least they’re kind of fun and playful. But I think both of those things can kind of drive people away from poetry and not think that it has any relevance in their lives. And I understand it because I was one of those people. Even though I am the daughter of a poet and my stepmother is also a poet — growing up, I didn’t think I could understand poetry, I didn’t think that it had any relevance to my life, the feelings that I endured on a day-to-day basis, until I was introduced to the right poem. And the right poem is a different poem for everyone….. No matter how people think about poetry or think they think about it on a regular basis, people turn to it in some of the most trying times in our lives. We also turn to it in times of triumph and joy.”
AP: What was your revelation with poetry? Was there a particular poet or work?
Trethewey: “I started trying to write poetry after my mother was killed. And I wasn’t writing good poems about it, but it seemed to me that the only way to express what I was feeling was in a poem…. I can say that when I read Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts,’ that begins, ‘About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters…’ He’s describing the Breughel painting, ‘Landscape With the Fall of Icarus.’ There’s this horse in the foreground and you see a big ship sailing by and there’s a tiny little Icarus falling into the sea, very much in the bottom corner of the painting, almost so that you wouldn’t see it unless you look closely enough. That was what grieving was like — the whole world sailing by, going on, you know, its day-to-day actions, the sun shining, everything, but me over there in the depths of my grief, feeling very much alone. Reading the poem made me feel that I wasn’t alone … that I was part of something larger than my own individual grief.”
AP: Do you ever worry about sounding too much like other poets?
Trethewey: “I’ve been telling my students, ‘Imitate, imitate.’ And they say, ‘Well, what if I plagiarize, or what if I’m not original? I want to be myself.’ And I always tell them, ‘Your self will shine through’….. If you allow yourself to feel deeply and honestly, what you say won’t be like anyone else.”