Natasha Trethewey is the current U.S. Poet Laureate. Born in Gulfport, Mississippi, Trethewey is the author of five books of poetry (Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and Thrall.) Trethewey visited the University of Pittsburgh to do a Q&A session and to read for the Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series on September 24th, 2012. The next morning, as fellow-MFA Tyler McAndrew drove Trethewey back to the airport, John Calvasina and I sprung an in-car interview on her. We discussed what it means for a poem to have a message, the difficulty of returning to the South, and the “edge” in her reading style. And made it to the airport with time to spare.
JC: So first I want to ask you a follow-up question from your Q&A yesterday…
JC:…someone asked you a question about poems with messages, poems with something to say and you mentioned that you used form as a way of sort of dealing with that impulse, keeping it at bay. And I was wondering if you could say a little bit more about that. How do you know when to keep it at bay?
NT: Well, you know, I want to ask a question back first.
NT: I think it is about this idea of message, because, how it’s used, the word itself is such a pejorative when you’re talking about poems, but don’t all poems have something to say?
JC: I think they do, which is why I’m so interested in this question because I actually deal with the same thing.
NT: Because, otherwise, what’s the point? What’s the point in using words at all when you could just use notes and music, unless, of course, you’re trying to use words as the equivalent of music or notes, and I don’t think that’s why it’s necessary to use words.
JC: I agree.
NT: Sometimes I think it’s not necessarily about holding the message at bay or holding meaning at bay. I begin with the idea that words have meaning. They have history and they bring with that, when you use them, all of that meaning and history. And it’s up to you to see what you can make of it. This is why I spend so much time with the OED, because I want to know how the words have been used and the various secondary and tertiary and on and on meanings that help to deepen the figurative level of a poem, the way that the poem can say one thing and mean that and mean something else at the same time. I know that there are things that I am interested in, I am compelled by to write, and so that’s always in the back of my head somewhere, or it’s in my very blood in some ways. And so, writing the poem, using form as a way to allow myself certain kinds of constraints, that will direct the poem and make me have to follow it. This is the idea that a poem, when we say the poem knows more than we do, form for me is a way of following what the poem knows rather than what I know. So that may be your idea of holding it at bay, is to let the poem lead me to its own ideas about language and image and experience rather than me trying to force it to say something I might want to convey to you at any moment.
JC: I really love that idea of form as a constraint but that constraint as almost a guide, in a way.
NT: That’s why I actually said “allow and constrain,” because they almost don’t go together. It’s both a constraint but it’s also something that frees you up to follow it. It frees your mind from being so focused on personality and what it is you’d like to convey to the world and allows the poem instead to be smarter.
JC: Going along with this idea of constraint and freedom, though, I remember you talked about how the end of Native Guard kind of changed as you worked with the form a little bit more. But has there ever been a time when you felt, you were talking about the ethics of writing too, was there ever a time you felt ethically compromised between something you wanted to say and something you felt the poem wanted to say?
NT: I think in writing about my father I have felt some part of what you’re asking because there were some things that I really wanted to be able to say because I imagined the poems in a conversation with my father as well as with his poems. And those were the poems that I think did not work and didn’t make it into the book.
NT: Because they were too driven by something that I needed to say to him and not by the formal integrity of the poem itself.
JC: That’s so interesting to me, because in a way it’s something I deal with in my own work.
NT: Is that right? How so?
JC: I’m gay, and I came out towards the end of high school, and I was raised Catholic in the South, you know, so that’s like a double-whammy right there. I mean, everything sort of worked out, but for a really long time it didn’t seem like it was going to, because of things that my parents had said to me about gay people and about being gay and that stuff, you know? And I’m actually trying to write through that now and being so far removed from it in time I thought it would be helpful but in some ways it’s not, because I can’t tell, you know, am I still being true to what happened even though I’m sort of adopting it to this art form? That’s, I guess, why I’m so interested in what you’re saying.
NT: Are you afraid that you’re misrepresenting people?
JC: A little bit, yeah. I’m also afraid that my efforts not to do that will in some way compromise the beauty of it. You were talking about the poems that didn’t make it into the book and now I’m thinking well, maybe I should be taking some things out.
NT: Ultimately the poems for me that didn’t make it into the book, the problem with them was that I don’t think that they came together well as poems. And I do fear that what held them back from being fully realized as poems has something to do with how I was representing my father or what it is I was trying to say about everything. So it seems to me that they’re just not ready yet, that they may be the kind that have to go in a drawer for a little while and I’ll be able to figure out what was missing, what wrong direction the poems took that led me away from what it was I was trying to do.
JC: Well, my next question has a little bit to do with that but is more involved with the South in general rather than people. And I was really interested to read, I can’t remember which interview it was, but you said before you got the job at Emory you thought you would never go back to the South and that’s actually where I am right now. I just got out of Louisiana a couple of years ago to come here and being here I think, “I am never going back to that place”. There are parts of it I miss dearly but being gay, it’s just that there are places that I don’t feel safe. And I’m sure you understand that.
JC: I guess my question is, how has your relationship with the south changed since you’ve been writing through it, since your writing has evolved, and what has it been like being back there even after you sort of swore it off?
NT: Well, I can answer that but I just have to clarify: my first job was at Auburn University so I was in the South before I went to Emory. Going to Emory meant moving back to Atlanta which meant moving back to the particular place, the actual landscape that held for me all the weight of the tragedy of losing my mother because that’s where it happened. So I never thought I’d go back to that place where it happened. Now, going back to Atlanta made me start writing about it, though. It wasn’t until I was there, really, that I began to write the elegies for my mother. So I think inhabiting that landscape again made me write the poems that I needed to write and to deal with the South in the way that I did. I think it was good for me to be away from the South for such a long time, to have a perspective on it from a distance, from living in the Northeast. But there are places that I would not go back to. Someone asked me just the other day if I would ever return to Mississippi and maybe that’s like your Louisiana. I could not go there to live.
NT: It’s about a different kind of safety. I don’t know that I would feel the same physical threats that you might feel but I certainly feel a great psychological threat from that place. Maybe it’s just because of my own history in the place. And that’s why I have that kind of love/hate relationship with it and it sounds like you have that, too.
JC: I do. I miss parts of Louisiana so much, but it’s just not a place I really feel like is home anymore which is just really awful, in a way, because it was for so long.
NT: It is awful. And I think I will return to it in writing again and again and of course that sometimes means going there to see things, to look at things again in order to be able to write about them.
JC: Well, I’m a little bit of a politics nerd so I want to shift gears a little bit. I have a couple of questions about this but I thought I would start out a little bit general and ask what’s it like being Poet Laureate? My understanding is that each Laureate does things a little bit differently. It sounds like the Library of Congress doesn’t make you do too much…
NT: That’s right.
JC: I also hear you’re going to be staying in DC for a while and I was wondering if you have any particular projects in mind, but also, you know, how will this affect your writing? I can’t imagine it leaves you with a whole lot of time to yourself.
NT: Well, it doesn’t feel like I have a whole lot of time to write right now, although I am hoping that being at the Library will change that a little bit in the spring. So, one of the first things, of course, you mentioned that I’m doing differently is that I will take up residence for the spring semester in Washington and I will go to the poetry office. I imagine that I might hold some regular office hours in the poetry office so that I might meet with people who are interested in coming up there. As for another national project, I’ve been thinking about some things but I haven’t decided yet so I’m not ready to roll them out and to talk about what I’m imagining but I am considering something that I’d like to do on a national level to bring poetry to a wider audience.
JC: That’s great! I think I read that in an interview you did with “The Hill”. In that interview you said something that caught my eye a little bit. You said that they asked you if you were going to do anything political and you said, “Poetry is certainly not partisan. Poetry is something that belongs to all of us.”
NT: Right, I can’t say it’s not political…
JC: Yeah, that was my question!
NT:…because it always is. As the sort of advocate-in-chief for poetry, I want to remind people that all of us have a kind of access to it, and it doesn’t exclude people based on one’s politics or something. A poem can invite all of us in to experience the world of a poem, to consider the cadences of the particular poet’s thinking, to experience the emotions made by the language.
JC: That’s great, thanks so much. I know politics questions aren’t for everyone, but I just, I had to.
NT: Well, you know, those are some of the things that I think the Library is most concerned about how a Laureate will answer. I think Phil Levine got a lot of more political questions just because of the nature of who Phil is, you know? It was Ted Kooser who wrote a letter to me. I’ve gotten a few messages from different former Laureates giving me their advice
JC: Oh really?
NT: So Ted Kooser immediately wrote me a letter after the announcement and he was basically one who wanted to remind me about how poetry is for all of us. I think he’s very good at that, at wanting it to be as open and accessible to as many people as possible. Billy Collins wrote to me and said “Try not to get interviewed.”
(everyone in the car laughs)
NT: That was good advice.
JC: Oh, I like that.
NT: And you can imagine coming from him that’s really important because I think he’s probably constantly being interviewed.
JC: Well, let’s maybe steer away from the political then. Laura, actually, had a really interesting question that I’m probably going to mangle. It was about your reading last night but, more generally, how you sort of approach performing your poems. I feel like they do a certain thing in the book. How do you find that that changes once you’re in front of a room full of people reading them?
NT: What do you mean? That poems are different when we read them quietly to ourselves than when we hear them out loud? I’m not sure what you mean.
JC: What do I mean, Laura?
LB: I don’t know if that was it, actually, my question. I think it was more of just my noticing in the reading last night that you have this really lovely tone to your voice but also undercurrent in the loveliness is a kind of, I don’t want to say anger, because anger sounds too strong, but there’s something, some kind of frustration or something underneath the lovely tone, that I noticed happening, that I found really interesting.
NT: You know, Terrance Hayes afterward said to me, “there’s a real edge to those poems,” and so, Laura…
NT: …what I want to know is, the tone of my voice or the way that I sound, is the undertone that you’re talking about of anger or whatever, is it in my voice, or is it in the language?
LB: I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t parse it out. At some points I was like, “okay, it’s just in the poem. It’s just in the language, and I can’t imagine anyone reading it without that feeling,” but at the same time I wasn’t sure if it was performed, or if it was something that just naturally comes out when you read the things that you’re reading.
NT: In my mind right now it seems to me that it’s actually in the language. An example of that to me would be the poem, the first section of the poem called “The Americans” which is Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on dissecting the white negro. Now this is a persona poem, and so you’re to imagine this physician standing there before a room of medical students with this body laid out in front and he’s talking about dissecting and what the importance of doing this dissection is about. So he begins “to strip from the flesh/the specious skin; to weigh/in the brainpan/seeds of white/pepper; to find in the body/its own diminishment—/blood-deep/and definite; to make of the work of science the work of faith” or I said that wrong, but anyway, “to find that, to measure the heft of lack.” I mean, I think I could say that in the voice of a child and you would still hear how ridiculous it is in some ways. His language that is very scientific and medical-sounding is also very, very troubling. But then, as the poem goes on, the cadence, the rhythm changes a little bit later on after he says, “thus/to know the truth/of this: (this derelict/corpus, a dark compendium, this/atavistic assemblage—flatter/feet, bowed legs, a shorter neck) so/deep the tincture” and then, by itself set off by dashes and in italics, “—see it?—/we still know white from not.” I mean, he’s getting almost hysterical as he’s, you know, performing this dissection. So I think it’s built into the language…I wish that there was another, that I had time for another example of that. Also, in the poem “Knowledge,” you know, “We will not see his step-by-step parsing,/a translation: Mary or Catherine or Elizabeth/to corpus, areola, vulva. In his hands,/instruments of the empirical—scalpel, pincers—/cold as the room must be cold.” I think all of that’s, I think it’s all in the words themselves—it was fun to choose words that have such a knife’s edge.