Volume 26, Number 6: May 2008
Natasha Tretheway Reads at ECU
On April 2, Natasha Trethewey visited East Carolina University for a public reading and book signing organized by fellow poet and friend John Hoppenthaler. She won the Pulitizer Prize for her 2006 book of poetry, Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin), the third African American woman to win the award, following in the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove. Trethewey is also a professor of poetry at Emory University and holds the Phyllis Wheatley Distinguished Chair. She Has received 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. Her previous works include Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000) and Bellocq's Ophelia (Graywolf Press, 2002). Her most recent work deals with telling the untold stories of history, identity politics, racism, and miscegenation. She claims that she writes only what she is given, "a violent history and the terrible beauty of my South, my Mississippi." [Interview and photos by Lisa DeVries.]
DeVries: Your mother pervades several poems in Native Guard. Are you trying to keep her from becoming one of these "untold stories" of history?
Trethewey: Absolutely. I didn't know that when I started writing Native Guard; all I knew was that I wanted to write about the untold stories of those black soldiers. I think about Mark Doty saying, "Our metaphors go on ahead of us." And so there I was, chasing down this story from the past with all of the historical research it entailed, looking outward from myself, and that outward looking into the past and into history led me back inward to the thing that was really driving me -- a desire to create a monument to my mother, because like those black soldiers, there is no marker, no monument, that inscribes her former presence on the American landscape.
DeVries: If she were alive today, would she still be a subject of so many of your poems?
Tretheway: I can't even imagine that. I've written a couple of poems about my father, but I think that those poems are poems that are particularly rooted in what our lives have been – having separated as a family when I was young, and then both of us losing my mother. I think that a defining moment in my life was her death, and it has shaped everything I've done. If I think about the things that have defined who I am as a poet, and what I feel it is my duty to write, such as being born of mixed race in 1960s Mississippi, it was losing my mother.
DeVries: The poem "Pilgrimage" ends with the line "the ghost of history lies down beside me,/ rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm." Do you find that historical memory and historical erasure is a heavy burden to bear, or is it more like feeding your pen?
Tretheway: It's both. People do talk about the burden of history, and for me the sort of tongue-in-cheek thing about those lines is that I have come to believe that the burden of history is a burden that I willingly take on, and that willingness is an intimate thing. It means you might have to lie down with it. History is intimate; you sleep with it.
DeVries: In one of your new, unpublished poems from the reading, "The Book of Casta" also seems to deal with the historical amnesia that usually accompanies colonial societies. With your next work are you trying to explore more the similarities between the colonialism of America and the colonialism of Mexico?
Tretheway: I am. My obsessions stay the same -- historical memory and historical erasure. I particularly interested in the Americas and how a history that is rooted in colonialism, disenfranchisement, the enslavement of peoples, and the way that people were sectioned off because of blood.
DeVries: You mentioned Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner during your reading and in your poetry as well. Which authors have greatly influenced your work?
Tretheway: Certainly a lot of Southern writers. It's funny, a lot of writers I have been talking about have been fiction writers, and, of course, John knows that I worship Toni Morrison. In fact, he called her my psychic mentor; she is. My father as a poet was one of my earliest influences. The poets whose work meant so much to me while writing Native Guard were some Irish ones, particularly Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland. My final poem in the book, "South," owes a huge debt of gratitude to Seamus Heaney's "North." And so many of the poems came out of my conversation with Eavan Boland's writing In a Time of Violence. Her sense of exile, both psychological and physical from her homeland and her constant positioning herself within Irish history is a public and a personal history for her.
Copyright © 2008, ECU Department of English.