Pain, history & memory: US Poet Laureate muses on creativity

Natasha Trethewey signs a copy of her book Native Guard at the University of Michigan. (Photo by Jalissa Gray, Wikimedia Commons)
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August 30, 2014 - 8:30am

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey likes to say that geography is fate. She was born in the deep South in 1966, just one year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act and two years after the Civil Rights Act. She’s coming to Nebraska to deliver the annual Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities as part of the E.N. Thompson Forum on World Issues.


You’d think that Natasha Trethewey would have a life-long love of poetry, but that's not the case. Trethewey, a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, says she's like a lot of Americans: she loved poetry as a child — her father was a poet — but fell out of love as she got older. It wasn’t until later in life that she came back to it.

“I think I was hurt into poetry. Not only by the history of my south, the brutal and violent and also terribly beautiful history of my Mississippi, but also, the death of my mother when I was 19. Those two things hurt me into poetry. And it was a poem that after that tremendous loss of my mother, brought me back to poetry,” Trethewey said.

2014 Governor's Lecture in Humanities

"The Quarrel With Ourselves"

When: Wednesday, September 10,2014 at 7:30pm

Where: Lied Center for Performing Arts in Lincoln, NE

(Photo courtesy Emory University)

The moment happened when she was, “sitting in a class in which the professor was reading to us Musee de Beaux arts. Auden’s poem that begins, 'About suffering they were never wrong, The old masters.' And it was a moment of feeling that someone else had felt exactly what I was feeling. That isolation that you feel in your own grief when the world seems to go on indifferently as if nothing has happened. I wasn’t alone any more when I read that poem.”

Trethewey just competed her appointment as US Poet Laureate. The Librarian of Congress James Billington wrote that Trethewey’s poems “dig beneath the surface of history…to explore the human struggles that we all face.”

“Even when I’m writing about history I’m really writing about the present. We need only look around us to see what’s happening in the nation right now, to see the vestiges of segregation and Jim Crow, and our difficult trials as Americans in our struggle for justice and a more perfect union,” Trethewey said.

For Trethewey, that history also hits close to home. When her parents, Gwendolyn and Eric, got married in 1965, they had to hide it because interracial marriage was still illegal. Trethewey has written four collections of poetry and a book, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. In all her work, she weaves her family’s stories with history, from stories about an all-black Confederate regiment in Louisiana to Casta Paintings showing mixed race families in Colonial Mexico.

Watch Natasha Trethewey read her poem "Elegy" at Emory University

“I adhere to the notion that it is a poet’s job to record the cultural memory of a people. It seems to me a duty that I’m happy to take on, the burden of history. To grapple with our history as Americans, in a way that allows all of us to think about the past and the ongoing issues in American life and how they relate to us as individuals.”

Recently, she’s been studying the work of another poet with roots in the south: Robert Penn Warren. You might know him as a novelist, he wrote All The King’s Men. But Warren also wrote poetry – he even served as Poet Laureate from 1944 to 1945. 

“I have been interested in his poetry as well as his prose writing. Particularly the prose books, Segregation and The Legacy of the Civil War. The way in which you can see the mark of a true artist quarrelling with himself across many years of his career," Trethewey said.

Trethewey will talk more about Warren when she delivers the Governor’s Lecture in Lincoln. She explained the title of her lecture, "The Quarrel With Ourselves," comes from, "Yeats’s idea that we make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.”

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