Poet Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi. Her first poetry collection, Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000), won the inaugural 1999 Cave Canem poetry prize (selected by Rita Dove), a 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Her second collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia (Graywolf, 2002), received the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, was a finalist for both the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2003 and 2000, and in journals such as Agni, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and The Southern Review, among others. She has a B.A. in English from the University of Georgia, an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University, and an M.F.A in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught at Auburn University, the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, and Duke University where she was the 2005-2006 Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies. Her most recent collection is Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin 2006), for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. (Photo credit: Joel Benjamin)
Jonathan Fink: Welcome. This is Jon Fink. I am here representing Panhandler and the University of West Florida. We are thrilled today to speak with Natasha Trethewey. First of all, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize.
Natasha Trethewey: Thank you very much.
JF: You read at UWF last spring and we all probably take undue pride in the fact that you won right after you visited us.
NT: That was one of the best readings because the audience there was just a terrific and warm audience. I felt really good, so thank you for that too.
JF: I was thinking of ways to start [the interview] and I was reading Michael Ondaatje’s new novel Diversidero and in the start of it he has an approximation of a Nietzsche quote. One of the characters says the quote, which is, “We have art so that we will not be destroyed by the truth,” which I thought was a really interesting quote that I thought resonated in the work that you do, this idea of the nature of art. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about if you see that as a connection in some ways to the artistic process?
NT: I hadn’t heard that either and it is just a lovely way of putting it. I think about another quote – Phil Levine who said, “I write what I’ve been given to write,” and I feel like some of the things I’ve been given to write in terms of their truth are very difficult things and it is only the art that in some ways frees me from the difficulty of those truths that I have to live with and carry with me. But there is another writer who has said something wonderful that I think applies to this as well and that is Shelly who said that poems are “records of the best and happiest times and the best and happiest minds,” and so for me what that means is that even when I am writing about very traumatic or difficult truths, the act of writing them, of making the art itself, is the best and happiest time and so I definitely think that art is the thing that makes truth bearable as well as sort of carries it to us in the most elegant ways.
JF: What were some of the first works that you remember reading when you were younger that served as that sort of buffer to the world or entrance to the world?
NT: I think the most significant book that I read early on—this is just what I remember from fourth or fifth grade—was The Diary of Anne Frank, and that shook me deeply because I felt that there was this little girl who was my age or so (or maybe she was a little bit older) but her voice coming across time and space articulated something that I felt I had begun to understand as a child growing up in the deep south between Mississippi and Georgia. Her experience spoke to me and I think it was reading that that I first felt what it means to have empathy for someone else who is different yet very much the same.
JF: I have always felt that as teachers of creative writing that what we are fundamentally teaching is empathy: how to conceive of the world and understand the world not only from someone else’s point of view but even your own point of view.
NT: I absolutely think so. I had an interaction with someone who will go unnamed who said that he found the idea offensive that I thought that either the goal or result of art should be empathy. He found that idea offensive.
JF: What was his argument?
NT: I think he felt that art was somehow purer than that and above basic things like human empathy. And I thought, “Well then, why am I even talking to you?” [laughing] I felt sympathy.
JF: Tolstoy used to say that you want to “infect the reader with emotion” and I think that really comes across with the fullness of experience that’s conveyed in your work, and that’s experience not just in the circumstance of what’s taking place, but the experience of the tone, the language, the rhythms, the form, the structure. I think that all of that is an embodiment of empathy.
NT: I am deeply interested in the experience of other human beings, no matter how small or seemingly trivial it is.
JF: I was thinking about this a little bit when I was reading all the books together and appreciating seeing the different types of forms and structures develop and resonate in the different books. One of the things I was interested in was the letter form—the epistle form—because it creates such an interesting scaffolding for the poem because in one sense a letter itself already has an intended and specific audience to it and [a letter] is very different than like a monologue where someone is speaking generally to the air. In the poems, the persona has a specific audience and then laid on top of that you as writer have a secondary audience that’s the reader. How do you work with the pleasures of those layers?
NT: I love documentary evidence. I love the things that we might find in a strong box, in the bottom of a closet, like letters for example. So if we find letters written from this one person to another person for an intended audience but then we open it and read it ourselves. We’re overhearing and participating in a way by overhearing that conversation and so I enjoy thinking about the formal elements of making an epistle like that because you have that intended audience to whom the persona writes that conversation and [the conversation] has to have the genuineness of the utterance to it. It has to really seem like something this person would say to that person. But at the same time it has to also be the kind of thing as utterance that is meant for a reader to encounter, that it includes so much more than that. I think the trick is coming up with how to give the information that the outsider, the reader, needs, while at the same time not creating a false document between persona and intended reader.
JF: I know this is a hard question to answer, but how practically do you do that? How do you anticipate what it is a reader will need to feel drawn into the poem?
NT: Well, I think the imagery, the things we always use in a poem. In writing letters you could certainly write shorthand and say, “Well you remember what happened there,” but instead you can say, “I recall the color of the leaves that day,” and the person to whom you might be writing a letter, even though they know the thing you’re taking about, they have the image created for them too. I think that people wrote letters like that – that the letters were vivid and full of imagery, and so the letter poem is doing that not only for the intended recipient of the letter but for the reader of the poem as well.
JF: What I have always appreciated about the imagery in your books is when the images contain a sort of tension in opposites, and that’s something I see resonating in both the individuals poems and collectively. Specifically, I think of the poem “Flounder” in the first book where you have the image of a flounder flipping back and forth and it’s clear that the image itself contains the tension of opposites. And then something like “Genus Narcissus” in your most recent book – I love the development of the daffodils, which is a singular image, but has very different interpretations for the persona and her mother. What is the pleasure of that tension in opposites?
NT: Sometimes you find that the image is always—I suppose it was Pound who said, “The image is always the apt symbol.”
JF: Yes, “The natural object is always the adequate symbol.”
NT: And I find that so true because I can’t imagine inventing something better than the actual flounder, for example, to represent my own tension as a mixed-race person—a person of a black parent and a white parent which my great-aunt Sugar was trying to help me understand and in her subtle ways which she talked about things. A flounder that is black on one side and white on the other has other characteristics that are interesting about it. A flounder has what, a single eye that goes straight through its head or its eyes are on one side of its head?
JF: Yes, it has one on each side I think.
NT: I could certainly have used that image instead, but that’s not the one that was necessary for that opposition that you’re talking about. I get excited (I assume like most folks) reading the OED. When I was working on “Genus Narcissus” the poem began for me just in a recollection of picking daffodils. Who knows where you go from there and how we get there and I don’t know if I can necessarily demystify the journey of how I get from one place to the other. But I did know that day something was missing for me from the poem and I went and I looked in the OED because I felt like if I did some research (which is always the place that I turn to), that if I knew something else, maybe it would help the poem go in an [unanticipated] direction. And I looked it up and that’s when I found that daffodils were genus narcissus—that they were a narcissus flower, which I had not known. I did not know either that, even as I was aware when daffodils appear in the landscape, I didn’t know that part of their lifespan was to bloom early and to die young and so when I read that in the dictionary, I thought, “Well, here’s why perhaps I was drawn to the symbol of daffodils.” Not only did I literally pick them for my mother, but also there was another resonance they had that spoke to the very nature of her life, her short life.
JF: It’s a beautiful poem. I know many times when we are teaching, a lot of what we are trying to do is demystify the writing process, right?
JF: Because you read something that seems so perfectly controlled and polished and finished and then students will read that and say, “Well clearly the writer knew this to begin with.”
NT: Right. Well you can tell your students I did not. I believe it echoed in the poem because there’s a moment for me where the poem just changes and it’s that moment where I say, “childish vanity.” Just the two-word sentence there. Before I got there, I was like, “Where is this going?” I looked in the dictionary and I thought, “Here is where this has been about all along.”
JF: What are some of the other avenues for research that you use or see?
NT: Well, beyond the dictionary—I think the dictionary is the best one, I love staying in there and reading all the definitions and the usages of the word because it opens so many doors for figurative language that I may not have ever opened—also, I always do historical research. I always figure that there is always something more to know, even about things I think I know a lot about, and so, again, the dictionary is the easiest place to go to that first, but [I also go to] other histories [like] primary documents including paintings and photographs. I think of those things as places to go to do research because you are trying to do this thing in your head, but then you think, “Well, let me go and look at this again.” Research can be looking at the primary document of the photograph.
JF: What was the story (I remember you telling me about this) where you first came to understand your subject matter? You were looking at the paintings at Virginia maybe? Someone was with you and said, “This is your subject matter”?
NT: Oh, right. This was when I was still at Massachusetts, and it was photographs. My teacher was Margaret Gibson. I was at UMass working on my MFA thesis. A lot of poems from my MFA thesis are, of course, poems that made it in to Domestic Work, particularly the title sequence of Domestic Work. She and I went to a gallery on campus that had an exhibition of photos up that were depicting the great migration of African Americans in the early twentieth century from the cotton fields of the deep south to places like Chicago. So they were on one side of the room. On the side of the room there were these photographs of blacks in New England around the turn of the century that were taken by a photographer who traveled around a lot and his name is Clifton Johnson. Clifton Johnson did a lot of travel narratives and to places like “The South” and he would go and write the narrative and take a lot of photographs. So these were his photographs up on the wall as well and she looked at me and she said, “Look at this. Look really closely at this because these are the people you’re talking about,” and until that moment I hadn’t thought that, as I was writing my grandmother’s story, that I was writing a larger narrative of a people, that her story (that seemed so personal and so family) was also a story that spoke to the larger condition of people in the Jim Crow south.
JF: You mention in your most recent book the theme of psychological exile—the E.O. Wilson quote. What’s the quote exactly?
NT: “Homo Sapiens is the only species to suffer psychological exile.”
JF: How do you interpret that, both literally as a quotation and aesthetically in your own work?
NT: Quite literally that I could live in the deep south—so I am not physically removed from my home, my south, the place that made me—and yet I am not fully a part of it either, and the fact that my parents’ marriage was illegal when I was born in Mississippi, that the very fabric of government and custom and law in my home state wanted to do things to prevent me from existing. I can’t image how you would get a greater sense of exile from the very beginning of your life as soon as you know that. I think poets are people who are like this; for whatever reason you feel psychological exile because you’re always an outsider to something, no matter how “inside” you are. As a southerner, as a native Mississippian, I feel like I am always on the outside trying very hard to stake my claim in a state, in a region, in a country that renders me sort of less than a full participant. But language is like that too. Our relationship to language is also a great sense of exile. As Robert Hass says, “A word is elegy to the thing it signifies.” So there is already that distance and that remove. But we have to live in it in order to try to make sense of what we have, and so there is always that disconnect.
JF: I think that a poem that illustrates that well—one of the poems that I absolutely love in you most recent book—is “Myth,” how the language itself sort of circles and turns back, and the representation of the language itself becomes a way of conveying meaning right? Could you talk a little about that form and structure and how it repeats?
NT: I didn’t know this when I was working on the poem, but there is a form called a palindrome. Of course I know what a palindrome is, “Ah, Satan sees Natasha,” “A man, a plan, a canal, panama.” [laughing]
JF: “Able was I ere I saw Elba”
NT: It never occurred to me that a poem could read line by line one way and then to reverse it all and go the other way. When I was working on “Myth” I just was trying to create the feeling of going into sleep and into a space where we often dream alive those people we’ve lost and that there is often that moment of waking up where for a couple of seconds the person is still alive, or at least you think, and then you readjust and realize they’re not. And to me that really seemed just like Orpheus descending into the underworld to try to bring Eurydice back and when he turns and looks at her she vanishes again just like that moment of opening your eyes after waking—that fleeting, instant disappearance of this person who has been there with you in a dream. So I had gotten to the end of the first section of the poem and thought, “Is this where it ends?” and I don’t know what (again this is the thing about demystifying) lead me to look at the poem backwards. I wasn’t going there when I started it, but I got to what I thought was the end, but it was not the end, it was a hinge instead and I did not know what the other side of the hinge was, that it was actually a mirror image. There are also some tricks that people do, like how you read your language to check it for some internal integrity of sound, and I think I was doing that. Perhaps I was remembering the late Shahid Ali. While he was at UMass he used to make students read their poems backwards just as a way to sort of find the weak spots. I think that is a way of finding a hinge too, because if you read it backwards maybe what you thought was the crux of the poem isn’t really it and it appears somewhere else. So I think I must have do that and seen with my eyes really big that the poem can indeed enact exactly what I was tying to convey. So not simply that the words would suggest it, but that the movement could enact that movement of descending and then returning. It almost seems like a happy accident. Sometimes the best things are.
JF: Carver used to says that a writer is someone who is willing to sit and stare at something longer than anyone else. What you are saying specifically, which I think really resonates, is how that inversion was fitting to that specific poem and that content, that it wasn’t an arbitrary decision, but it was one that grew organically out of the process and subject matter itself. That universal awareness of forgetting you have lost someone and then remembering them—what is so heartbreaking about that is that you have that dual sensation of for an instant they are alive again, but then you have to re-experience, even if in a smaller way, their loss secondarily, so that sense of loss is continual rather than singular.
NT: That’s right. It happens over and over again.
JF: Would you read it for us?
NT: I’d be happy to. [reads poem – see insert at the end of the interview]
JF: Thank you. I am also interested in sequences and series of poems, and structurally what that allows you to do both narratively and imagistically. What do you feel are the generative elements of a sequence?
NT: I like the way that a sequence can build upon certain images that of course become motifs throughout a sequence of poems and build a kind of tension. I love how a sequence allows me ([although] I think I am someone who tends more towards a linear narrative) to do sequences that circle back on themselves. I am really interested in how I can tell a story that is obviously a liner story that has a beginning, middle and end, and yet by circling back through the sequence it doesn’t have simply that straight line through it. I mentioned those images and how they become motifs and how they are repeated or echoed throughout a sequence. I find that I like very much very subtle repetition and the way that certain sounds as well as certain images echo throughout a sequence. I think Native Guard is made up of individual sequences. There is the “Native Guard” poem. There is a four-part poem called, “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi.” I think the elegiac poems for my mother can be read as a sequence, and yet Native Guard, the whole book, is also a sequence, although people will read it in whatever order possible, which is also fine because it is a sequence which is not exactly linear. [laughing] You can start and go around and around. I think I answer questions like that too. I start out with an answer and then I go over here and then I circle back to it.
JF: In “Southern History” it ends with the persona feeling complicit. The persona says [referring to the teacher’s presentation of the past], “it was a lie my teacher guarded. Silent, so did I.” The persona feels implicated in perpetuating the lies of history through her silence (and I’ll let you answer the question instead of answering it [laughing]) But how do you see that resonating throughout your books or as an artistic directive?
NT: I think it is my artistic directive. I was contemplating this recently because I just came back from doing the Page-Barbour Lectures at the University of Virginia, and I was lecturing on (I was “meditating” I should say) the Mississippi gulf coast. The title was, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Present, Past and Future.” And after Native Guard came out and I started giving readings, and even more so after the prize, and I talked to people, I often got the question, “Are you going to write about the gulf coast now, after all of this that has happen? After the storm and the rebuilding?” and I kept thinking, at first, “Well, No. Native Guard was my elegy to the gulf coast.” I thought that I was done and then Ted Genoways asked me if I would do this and I took it on foolishly, I think. I’m happy now because I’ve come to think that I would have abandoned my own directive had I not, and that my silence right now as the native daughter I have tried so hard to position myself as, the silence of that native daughter at this moment, would have been that kind of complicit silence that relegates some history to the margins. And so—I am going around in a circle again—but I absolutely see my role as a poet in some way is to try to recollect the collective and historical memory of a people through the very individual people because I have always been deeply concerned with erasure: those things that are left out of the larger story. To me, the only way we can tell a fuller version of history is to try to reclaim and to get as many of those erased stories back into the larger narrative.
JF: What has been your recent impression about how things are going on the gulf coast after the hurricane?
NT: There is all the rebuilding stuff, all the problems that are germane to the idea of what will be rebuilt and for whom and how. But in my own way I am also thinking for the future in how the actual rebuilding, the construction of the buildings and economy that we need, is connected to the kinds of monuments and memory making that are being built right now too. The memory of the coast is being rebuilt brick by brick but also word by word in terms of the recollections. The people I talked to on the coast are worried that they will be forgotten, that the man-made tragedy and travesty of New Orleans—while it gets, rightfully so, the attention that it gets—in some ways is playing a role in subjugating the story of the natural disaster that happened to the citizens on the Mississippi gulf coast. So that is a story that needs to be told and remembered and we need to erect the kind of markers of collective memory in the nation that let us keep that story too.
JF: What are you working on now? Can you talk about it?
NT: Oh, well I had begun working on a new book of poems before I found out about the prize which has made me very busy the last few months.
JF: We feel so sorry for you. [laughing] There, there. There, there.
NT: All I will say is that toward the end of working on Native Guard I was hanging out in front of my OED just reading some definitions and I looked again at the word “native” because I just kept thinking—I continue to think—about what it means to be native to a place and I was really surprised to find that the first definition, the primary definition of the word, was not at all what I expected. I was imagining something like the way that a plant is native to a region, or I might say, “I am a native of Mississippi.” But the definition that came up was, “Someone born into the condition of servitude, a thrall.” And, of course, “thrall” means “slave.” So I was thinking about what is it to be enthralled to anything, to language, to memory, to nostalgia?
JF: Well we will look forward to it. Thank you Natasha it was a real pleasure.
NT: Thank you, Jon
I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,
the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking
you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.
Again and again, this constant forsaking:
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning.
But in dreams you live. So I try taking,
not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow.
The Erebus I keep you in — still, trying —
I make between my slumber and my waking.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hallow.
I was asleep while you were dying.
—from Native Guard