Natasha Trethewey, United States Poet Laureate

It was a hot muggy Monday evening in my studio on the North shore of Louisiana’s Lake Ponchatrain, just about an hour’s drive from Gulfport, Mississippi, Natasha Trethewey’s birthplace. Ms. Trethewey had just finished a hard day’s work in the Mississippi Department of Archives and History in Jackson when I phoned her.

Natasha Trethewey, photo Crampton

Natasha Trethewey, photo Crampton

Daniel Reinhold: Why don’t we start with the obvious?  What are you doing with the archives? 

Natasha Trethaway: Well, I’m just beginning to gather some information for a particular history I’ve become interested in recently. I was looking for records of all of the men executed in Mississippi’s traveling electric chair for a 15-year period from 1940 to about 1955. I’m trying to find out not only their names, but also the locations that the chair traveled to around the state.

DR: Are you able to find any photographs of these men?

NT: I did.  I found just today a photograph of the first man executed in the chair, three photographs of him being strapped into the chair, his bare feet, the executioner leaning over before giving him another jolt of electricity.  It was pretty harrowing to look at.  I didn’t expect to see those today.

DR:   In Bellocq’s’s Ophelia and Domestic Work you also work with photographs.  I was curious what you might say about how that called you, or if it just happened.

NT:   I think that photographs always called to me. I’m always drawn to what Roland Barthes called “punctums” in photographs, those things that are little sparks, drawing your attention.  In a particular photograph I was looking at today, it was a dog, someone was holding a small dog in his arms while looking at the electric chair, and the dog was looking at the electric chair.  I was struck by that.  It’s seeing that kind of thing that draws me toward writing a poem even more than some of the other things that might have been going on in the photograph.  I’ve always been drawn to photographs because I’m such a visual person. Having an image to begin with when I’m writing a poem always seems to lead me in some interesting direction.

DR: When you work with images, do you tend to seek out images like with Bellocq, or do you find random images moving you?

NT: Both.  I think now, today, I was seeking out some of those images, but there have been times when I haven’t been looking for them that I’ve come across them and felt compelled to write.

DR: I was fascinated by a detail in Bellocq’s Ophelia, which was that the subject that was being photographed, the photographer’s model, also eventually took up photography herself and there’s sort of a recursion, or a sort of circle: she was becoming the photographer after being photographed.

I’m drawn to form in that way because of the possibilities that the poems suggest that I might follow—not the other way around.

NT: Right.  Well, I think it was necessary for her to find a way to take some kind of agency and to reverse the lens in a sense, not to always be the one on the end of the lens being looked at, but someone instead who had the kind of subjectivity to look outward at the world.  I think, perhaps, that some of the idea for handing her the camera and making her an apprentice came from my reading about Victorine Meurent who was the model for Manet’s Olympia—a painter herself who even exhibited a painting at a salon in Paris. But then the trail that might lead us to her, show us more about who she was and where else she went, goes cold. I liked the idea of her also being an artist and trying to forge her way as an artist while working as an artist’s model.

DR: In Native Guard, you’re writing about your mother and the racial climate of the Deep South. How did that process work, what kind of struggle was there or what kind of a release? And in correlation with that, there are a lot of forms in your work (the sonnets, etc.) so while writing Native Guard how did those two things work together and affect you?

NT:  Well, in Native Guard in particular, I learned early on (while working on that unrhymed crown of sonnets in the voice of the soldier) that repetition was an important element of what I was trying to do.  That is, in trying to inscribe or re-inscribe those narratives and stories—histories that had been erased or forgotten or not recorded fully—it was important not to just say a thing, but to say it again.  And so repetition became the formal element that I turned to most, which is why there’s the crown of sonnets. There’s the blues sonnet which requires repetition, there’s a ghazal which has a refrain, there’s a pantoum, a villanelle with repetition, as well as the repetition of certain words and motifs throughout the entire collection.  To me that was the main scaffolding of form – the idea of repetition. It underscores my handling of those difficulties you mentioned.

DR: Are there any forms that you’d like to still tackle? The canzone, or something farfetched…

NT: You know, I don’t think of it like that. I don’t think of tackling a form just because it’s there.  I think of using form only when something formal suggests itself in a poem I’m beginning to work on. I’m drawn to form in that way because of the possibilities that the poems suggest that I might follow—not the other way around.

DR: Are there any people – name the top three that come to your head, who have influenced or informed your work.

NT: The top three?  [laughing]

DR: Or five or as many as you want.

NT: Well, I should name my father because he’s a poet and my first poetry teacher – that’s Eric Trethewey.  Toni Morrison is always a big influence for me—her elegant language but also her themes and the fierce way that she approaches the work she has to do. Working on Native Guard I turned to some Irish poets: Seamus Heaney, Yeats, Eavan Boland, to help make sense of my South, my history, my sense of psychological exile.  When I was first starting out I loved two books, and carried them around with me in graduate school.  One, by Rita Dove, Thomas and Beulah, and Yusef Komunyakaa’s Magic City because they took me both to my material and to my landscapes.  You know, his Bogalusa landscape is similar to my Mississippi landscape.

DR: As this is an Antioch journal and we’re focused on social justice, do you see poetry and politics as…well, exactly how do you see them?

NT: You know I’m really impressed with Antioch’s focus on social justice and I’d like to model what we’re doing on an undergraduate level at Emory on Antioch’s graduate social justice component because I’m interested in that, in poetry—beyond aesthetics—for what it can do and show us about our lives and the history that we’re wrapped up in, the ongoing challenges that we face.  I gave a lecture called (borrowing from George Orwell’s title) “’Why I write’:  Poetry, History, and Social Justice.” It is my argument that those things that compel me to write—the idea that poetry might not just be beautiful, but that it also might do something is very important to effect what Seamus Heaney calls “the redress of poetry.” It might help change the way we think about the world we live in, or the world that we’d like to live in. That is, it might help us make it better.

DR: That leads me to think of Beyond Katrina, obviously a lot happened to a lot of people and you spoke in your lecture about the difference between the New Orleans disaster and the Gulf Coast disaster, but also your sense of coming home and your sense of being distanced from that.  And do you want to say anything about Katrina or the book or that whole thing?

NT: [Laughs] That whole big thing…well, I saw this on the side of the road: it was a politician’s political campaign slogan, and the sign read “Katrina isn’t over.”  And I think that’s true – it isn’t over.  I think it will be awhile before we’re distanced enough from it to really understand its impact on the region and people.

DR: Thank you.  And now, the final question:  I asked this of Kevin Young when he was at Antioch and I’ll ask it of you:  How do you like your grits?

NT: [Laughs] That’s pretty good.  I happen to really like cheese, so some good cheese mixed into my grits and salt and pepper is good.  As a child, they gave me grits and sugar, but I grew out of that, so either plain or with a lot of cheese.

Natasha Trethewey is the newly appointed United States Poet Laureate.  She also holds the distinction of being a professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta.  She has authored three poetry collections: Domestic Work (2000) which Rita Dove selected as the winner of the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book by an African American poet, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2006) about the imagined life of a mixed-race prostitute who lived in the red-light district of New Orleans in the 1900’s, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard (2006) comprised of poems about the Civil War as well as moving elegies to her mother.  In addition, she authored the non-fiction book Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010).  Her forthcoming collection Thrall, which is said to focus on her relationship with her Canadian poet-father, is due out this year.  Ms. Trethewey suffuses her oftentimes historical work with her intense personal background as a bi-racial woman from the South born to a black mother and white father.  Her quietly powerful poems draw us in with their intimacy, emotional knowledge and beautifully saturated close-ups into the lives of those who would not otherwise be seen.