“Lianas” (2008). Cumberland Island, Georgia. By Jack Spencer
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: LANGUAGE AND RUTHLESSNESS
By Claire Schwartz
When her stepfather killed her mother, Natasha Trethewey, who was in her freshman year at the University of Georgia, turned to poetry. Or rather, she returned to poetry. She had reveled in it as a child. The sensory pleasures of Mississippi’s rich language-scapes, the moral convictions conveyed through verse by her poet father, and the dedication of an elementary school librarian who was first to bind a book of Trethewey’s poems shaped poetry into a space of joy and possibility early in her life.
In poems, she found a private voice cast outward to whomever might take it in. “I could think of no other place but a poem that the pain of my loss might find its just articulation,” Trethewey wrote in the Virginia Quarterly Review in 2014. A sense of justice made urgent by loss continues to underpin her work, which entwines historical narrative and lived experience, refusing to diminish either. Her poetry speaks plain truth rendered in forms strong enough to hold contradictions and sometimes devastating complexities.
The former poet laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey has published four collections of poetry: Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard (which won the Pulitzer Prize), and Thrall. She is also the author of Beyond Katrina, a narrative meditation about Hurricane Katrina’s impact on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She is currently the poet laureate of the State of Mississippi, she serves as poetry editor of the New York Times Magazine, and is at work on a memoir, which tells her mother’s story. But as Trethewey explained to me, “the point, in some ways, is also to tell a story about myself coming into being as a writer through the lens of her influence on my life, and her death’s influence on my life.”
Although English teachers often and rightfully insist that readers not assume the “I” of a poem is the “I” of the poet, Trethewey regularly collapses this space when she speaks about her poems. “I was on a fishing trip with my father . . . ” she told me, talking about the subject of her poem “Elegy.” “Be taken with yourself,” the speaker of “Genus Narcissus” hears from the daffodil’s upturned face. When I met the poet in Decatur, Georgia, those were the words that rushed forward in my mind: Be taken with yourself. The phrase is underpinned not by the “childish vanity” for which the poem’s speaker chides herself, but by the immaculate intention of artistry, a gravity of purpose.
Can you tell me about the world you were born into?
I like that question. I was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi. Sometimes people think of Gulfport as rural Mississippi. It was much more rural when my mother was growing up there. Gulfport is a coastal town. There’s a military base. So, in those ways, it was always different from the rest of Mississippi—not as Southern as the Delta, what James Cobb called “The most southern place on earth.” But Gulfport is certainly part of Mississippi nonetheless.
It was a place that—even after the Brown decision in ’54—was still segregated in a lot of ways. The beaches weren’t desegregated until a couple of years after I was born. Loving v. Virginia, the case that ruled that state anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional, didn’t happen until 1967. So when I was born, interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi and in as many as twenty other states.
What were some of your early, formative models in language?
Well, I take it back to that time and place. My family lived next door to my great-aunt Sugar, who had helped to found the Mount Olive Baptist Church right across the street. It had begun as an arbor, but by the time I came along, the church was a large structure. For a long time Sugar worked with kids in the Sunday school, so I remember practicing recitations with her. She really loved language such that by the time she was near dying—she lived with Alzheimer’s for about ten years—she didn’t just speak; everything she said had a musical lilt to it. You heard the music of her sentences. At that time, the women from the church would come over to my grandmother’s house to read scripture. So I would listen to them reading things from the Bible, reading psalms, but also talking and singing, telling stories.
And my father was a poet. At that time, he worked part-time on the docks, and the rest of the time, he was in graduate school getting a Ph.D. at Tulane. But he was writing poems, and he would recite poems to me. I’d hear the poems that he was working on.
My mother had been an English and theater major in college, where my parents met. So, even as we were from Mississippi, there was such a precision to the way that my mother spoke. I think that when I read poems, I read like that. All of the words are very crisp. Language came to me in all of those places.
Did any of your mother’s family leave Mississippi during the Great Migration?
Three of my great-aunts and -uncles went to Chicago. My grandmother was the one who stayed back in Mississippi.
And your parents had their own journey away from and back to Mississippi.
Right. When my parents got married interracial marriage was illegal in Kentucky—where they were living at the time—so they had to go to Ohio. They had a journey that was not unlike slaves running from a slave state into a free state by crossing the Ohio River and then making their way to Canada. That’s exactly the journey that my parents took. But then my parents came back. They came back to Mississippi from Canada probably about 1969.
You went to a couple of different schools. Did any of those feel especially meaningful?
The most significant school experience—in my memory—was when we moved to Atlanta, where my mother started graduate school after my parents divorced. Venetian Hills Elementary was the first place I went. I was there first through third grade.
I got there after all the schools in Atlanta had desegregated and yet, because of housing patterns and white flight, schools had begun to re-segregate. So it was pretty much a black school. I don’t remember but a handful of white kids in the whole school. And in my third-grade classroom, rather than have Black History Month in February, it was year-round. The classroom walls were covered with images and little bios of all sorts of black figures from writers to politicians to activists to historians, from the nineteenth century on up to the contemporary moment—and perhaps even a few before the nineteenth century. Not only did we learn African-American history every day, but we also spent a lot of time reading and reciting poems. In third grade, we had to recite Dunbar and Countee Cullen and Gwendolyn Brooks. That’s when I wrote my first poems.
I’ve told this story often because it still means a lot to me: my teacher and the school librarian bound a little chapbook of my poems and put them in our school library. I remember that, even back then, some of my poems were about history. They were odes to Dr. Martin Luther King and other historical figures.
What is it that poetry offered you—even in the third grade—for thinking with and through history?
I’ve tried to go back and think about this, but I don’t even know if I understand it myself. When I was writing those poems about King, he’d only been dead about six years. In your lifetime, he’s been dead forever, and in my lifetime, almost forever. Yet, I had such a sense of his presence. I think it has to do with what I was hearing not only from my grandmother and mother, but also from my father. He used to tell stories about my parents’ time together in Kentucky. My mother rode with the Freedom Riders a little bit. And of course, Canada wasn’t in the Vietnam War. While America was at war, Canada was celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of their freedom from England with a centennial cruise. My father boarded the ship as a naval officer in 1967 and was at a port of call somewhere when King was shot. He was at a bar with a bunch of American soldiers who were cheering. So, I think I was always hearing these stories about race and injustice.
I certainly could feel what it was like when I went downtown with my parents—the way that people looked at us. I think because of that early awareness, I was concerned about the history that had brought us to this particular moment. Even if I couldn’t have articulated it like this then, I think I always understood myself as somehow a part of history. My understanding had to do with my very existence, because it was counter to what was legal, at first, and then to what was acceptable.
This question of language as a bearer of history—and, in particular, the language of racial categorization—is something that comes into your work early, in poems like “Flounder,” but is really set out for renewed interrogation with in Thrall. How did you think about entering that particular archive of obsessive racial categorization, in language, for that collection?
Well, I guess I became pretty obsessed with it. Though when I say that, I also want to say: it was impossible not to. When you asked that question—what world was I born into?—I was born into a world where you were constantly confronted with the language of race and difference.
My grandmother bought the World Book Encyclopedia in 1966 to mark the year of my birth. I was fixated with trying to understand who I was in the world, and that’s where I started looking. There was a whole section in that encyclopedia just about race; “Races of Man,” it was called. Everybody was divided: Caucasoid, Negroid, Mongoloid. There were drawings of head shapes—both front ways and sideways—and geographic designations that would correspond with one of those three categories. Also: body measurements. There was a scientific suggestion that, if you were white you were longer from your hipbone to your knee bone and, if you were black, you were longer from your knee bone to your anklebone. Or vice versa. I never can remember which it is—perhaps deliberately. I went and got my grandmother’s tape measure out to measure my own body because I thought, “Well, this will tell me.”
So both the language of what I was reading and scientific knowledge of the time seem to suggest that, whether I knew it or not, I was going to write Thrall one day. It reflects my earliest experience of trying to understand my place in the world.
I wanted to ask you about the relationship between Thrall and Native Guard—the title of the former coming out of looking up “native” in the dictionary. You’re also playing with proximities in language: thrall and enthrall, captivity and captivation.
In my Guggenheim proposal for Native Guard, I describe growing up in Mississippi, the language of law, my parents’ races on my birth certificate—all the ways that language seeks to name us and therefore shape our experience of the world. Once I saw the casta paintings and read about them, I understood that they were doing the same thing. That was one of the reasons I was going to write about them. And it very much did grow out of thinking about miscegenation, which is all about language as well.
Of course, the word “miscegenation” didn’t always exist. It came into the American lexicon around the time of the Civil War when a couple of journalists who were trying to prevent the reelection of Abraham Lincoln invented it in a pamphlet. It was kind of a hoax. They were trying to drum up fear by claiming that the reelection of Abraham Lincoln was going to mean amalgamation; it was going to mean just mayhem when it came to interracial mixing. So I was also interested in the invention of words—or how words come into the lexicon—and the casta paintings were all about the creation of these taxonomies to name the mixed-race people.
Native Guard is a collection that, in many ways, feels like an investigation of the elegy, and the poem “Elegy for the Native Guards” is a centerpiece of that collection. In Thrall, you open with “Elegy.” Is there a connection between those two collections, in your engagements with that form?
It took me a long time to figure out the order for Thrall. And by “order,” I mean “form of the whole.” What I didn’t want is for Thrall to have the sections that Native Guard had. Ultimately, choosing to put the elegies for my mother first in Native Guard was about finding a way to give an audience entrance. In Native Guard, you enter the personal and, through that, find your way to the historical. In Thrall, I wanted the more personal poems to be interwoven with the historical ones. But I couldn’t figure out where to begin. Formally, there are two reasons I settled on beginning with “Elegy”—one more important than the other.
The first reason, which I think is the less important, is that I did want to create a kind of continuity between the two collections—this sense that Native Guard’s elegiac mode would be carried over into Thrall, so someone opening Thrall would find that, in some ways, familiar.
The other reason, and the one that’s more important, has to do with something I learned in writing Native Guard. Yeats said, “We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” Native Guard certainly started with an argument that I had with my nation about memory and forgetting, about national amnesia over the facts of the Civil War—particularly African-American participation in the Civil War. But, of course, ultimately the quarrel I discovered while writing it is with myself for not having properly remembered, memorialized, my own mother.
So, thinking about that idea from Yeats, “Elegy” begins Thrall so that I can implicate myself immediately. Obviously, I have a big quarrel with my father. But it’s not just him. He sort of stands in for the whole—because I have a quarrel with my nation and, beyond the borders of my nation, places where ideas of difference flourish even now. I have an argument with the people for whom such ideas are deeply engrained and unexamined. Yes, I have an argument with those Enlightenment philosophers. But I also had to be willing to show my own ruthlessness in the pursuit of truth, in the pursuit of poetry, which becomes, in some ways, the rhetoric of my argument. I needed to say, as I do in that poem: “Your daughter, / I was that ruthless.”
That’s a stunning word: “ruthless.” I heard Edward Hirsch speak about his long poem Gabriel. He said that when he sat down to begin to write the death of his son into poetry that he had to ask himself, “Am I ruthless enough to make poetry of this?” And once he answered that question, he was able to move wholly into the project. Can you say more about what this ruthlessness is? Is it different, for example, than witness?
I’ll start with the context of that poem, “Elegy,” and then I’ll expand from there. My father and I are on a fishing trip together. At some point in the poem, I say, “I can tell you now // that I tried to take it all in, record it / for an elegy I’d write—one day— // when the time came. Your daughter / I was that ruthless.” Rather than being in the moment with my father, I am one step removed—an observer who can catalog this for later, when I want to write about it. So, instead of just being there with him, I’m thinking, “Oh yeah. This could make a good poem. Especially when you’re dead.” It’s awful.
But—and I think this goes to what you mention Ed Hirsch saying—in many ways, to be a poet, you have to live in the world like that. So it’s not such a horrible thing. Sometimes it means poets are more observant, that we really are paying attention. But other times it means we’re like the people you see on vacation who never look at the vista because they’re always behind a camera taking pictures of it. There’s this barrier between you and the immediate experience of what you’re doing.
I name that orientation in the poem “Elegy.” In a larger sense I am talking about the ruthlessness of being willing to expose. I think that’s why there are so many poems about dissection and opening. As much as I have felt like the person on that examining table, on that dissecting table, I was willing to do the same thing to my father and to our relationship in order to get at some larger truth about the history of our ideas about race.
In Thrall, you make use of this language of racial classification and categorization that we’ve inherited, but you are also quite active in redirecting its course—turning language over to open up new meaning. I’m thinking, for example of “Miracle of the Black Leg.” In the first section of the poem, we get the “the dark appendage.” Then, in the fourth and final section, there is the resonant phrase “the dark amendment.” Does this transformation echo the arc of the collection?
I’m so glad you asked about that. It’s the kind of thing you want people to notice. It’s part of this argument that I’m making—that we see certain people as appendages. Maybe a politician wouldn’t use these words now, but there is still expression of the idea that blacks are an appendage to this nation, the way that parents think of children as their appendages, their dependents. But an amendment is not simply an addition. When we amend the constitution, we’re not just adding to it; we’re making it better. So that appendage is indeed what makes it better, what amends. The poem is a little tough because it kind of argues that whiteness is made better by its black amendments. And the poem is trying to say that, in so many ways, there is a symbiotic relationship between blackness and whiteness. These classifications are codependent.
Could you speak to the role of the visual in your work? From Domestic Work, you have dealt closely with the visual register—especially the role of photography and its documentary claims to truth.
I first got interested in writing poems about domestic work because I was looking at a kind of documentary photography. I was interested both in the images themselves, as well as in the language that would often accompany them in the form of captions. Together, those two things were working to frame a kind of reality; and, often, when the images were of African Americans, the reality that they were framing was one of diminishment. It limited the scope of the humanity of people inside of the frame. And so I was interested in the subtle ways that the subject of the photograph—or object of the photograph, depending on how the photographer sees it—can be subversive, can work against the framing that’s being imposed by the photographer, caption, editor. So I begin Domestic Work with a poem about that very thing: how this woman, in her refusal to hold still for that itinerant photographer, challenges the notion of her being fixed in this place that he found her.
And because photographs are elegiac—I love that about photographs; they bring us back to a moment in time—they also can contribute to the telling of a fuller version of things. But on their own—sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently—they erase parts of the story. So, I was always concerned with what it was that was being cropped, what they didn’t show us, what happened just before or just after the photograph was taken. The documentary image is like a historical marker: there are a few words that tell you some part of history, but not the whole of it. There’s a lot that’s missing.
Across your body of work, you have deep ekphrastic engagements. You’ve spoken about your affinity for the figurative in visual works. How does the figurative operate, for example, as you take paintings into the space of poetry?
I turn to paintings—like I turn to photographs—for a kind of documentary evidence about history. Paintings tell us a lot about the historical moment in which they were painted. Some of them actually are historical scenes; they’re explicitly doing that kind of work of history. But at the figurative level, there is the opportunity for reading them in a certain way, with a kind of interpretation.
Lots of people ask, “Why don’t you include reproductions of the paintings?” And the main reason is: in the poem, I’m giving the painting that I need you to see. Scientists tell us that everything we see is connected to things we’ve already seen. Your interpretation of a text has everything to do with what you’ve seen of the world already. I try to just describe what I see before I know what I think about what I see. And that’s a way of figuring out how I think and feel about it. Were I not to have given you my words, you might have looked at the paintings and seen something entirely different that was rooted in your own psyche, your own ways of interacting. I’m only going to show the paintings in the words that I make because I need you to see that painting.
When I started writing those poems about the casta paintings, I knew I was drawn to them because they were of mixed-race families. That’s obvious—I come from a mixed-race family; I’d be interested in this. What I didn’t know was how I would interpret the role of the father in each of those, or the father’s relation to the black mother in those. That comes from my own interior life. For example, in the second poem about the casta paintings in Thrall, “De Español y Negra Produce Mulato,” the father is rolling a cigarette. He’s really focused on the cigarette. The child is carrying something. And the mother is at the stove and twisted awkwardly to look back at them—so dark that she’s almost faded into the black wall behind them. Someone else might not think that the father looks like he was coming or going. They might just think he looks like he’s in there. Another person might not think of his attention on that cigarette as the child walks by as him being myopic. But because of my own history with my father, there’s no other way I can see it.
Switching gears a bit, could you speak to your involvement in the Dark Room Collective?
I think it had to be about 1994. I was a graduate student at UMass-Amherst, and another writer in the program lived in Boston. He was older. He had a full-time job as a postman or something, but he would come to campus one or two days a week. I remember he brought me a copy of The Boston Globe, and they had done a big feature on the Dark Room Collective. It was probably one of their earliest really big newspaper coverages. They’d been together since Baldwin’s death in the late eighties, but this was around ’93 or ’94. At some point during that year or the next, my father sent me a call for poems from the AGNI review. They were doing a special issue on emerging poets, and I sent in a couple of poems. One of the editors for this special issue was Thomas Sayers Ellis, and he chose two of my poems that were later in Domestic Work.
After that, Tom [Ellis] called me, and he said, “I’m in the Dark Room Collective. You should come over to one of our readings.” He made it seem like it was a kind of interview process. And I thought, Okay, I’ll go down and meet them, and if they like me maybe they’ll invite me to join the Dark Room Collective.
I was hoping they would let me in. I was so nervous. They’ve talked about this before: they look so serious, especially in their pictures. They look kind of revolutionary—all afros and braids. And there I was: I’m from the Deep South; I’m mixed-race and light-skinned. I thought: “Oh god. They’re not going to want me. I need to do a blow-out, get my Angela Davis afro or something.” But they did invite me and welcome me. They were great. That was the cusp of when they were really starting to get invitations to give readings a lot of places. So I immediately started traveling with them.
Were you part of the Dark Room reading at Furious Flower in 1994?
The very first one. Yeah, I was! I remember seeing Rita [Dove] there, and being star-struck, because I just adored her then, as I do now. I don’t know if I got to read more than one poem, but I know that I read a poem from Domestic Work called “His Hands.” I remember going out to dinner with all the members of the Dark Room Collective and then a few other people at the conference, who weren’t Dark Room members, and listening for hours, mostly to John Keene—because he’s just brilliant—talking about Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey. They were really debating. It was exciting and heady. UMass–Amherst was a really white program; I wasn’t in a community of black intellectuals like that. But I could go to Boston or go down to Furious Flower, and there they were. It was just heavenly to be among them.
I remember Elizabeth [Alexander] from Furious Flower because she introduced the Dark Room. She was a couple of years older, so she was never really part of the collective; but she was a nurturer for us. We called her our den mother.
I should go say, too, that I was really excited to meet her. I did my M.A. in Creative Writing at Hollins, where my father was on the faculty, and the year I was there Joanne Braxton came to give a lecture. In this twenty-four-hour period that Braxton was there, she just took me under her wing. I think somehow my father talked me into showing her a couple of my poems. I’d gone to Hollins thinking I was going to be a fiction writer, so this is when I had just started writing poems. She was like, “These poems are great. You need to keep doing this. And the first thing you need to do is to go get this book by Elizabeth Alexander, The Venus Hottentot.” This was 1990. The Venus Hottentot had just come out. I immediately went out and got that book. And I sort of started learning how to write poems by reading The Venus Hottentot. I often talk about the influence of Thomas and Beulah, which my father gave me when I went away to grad school at UMass—and that’s what I carried around with me forever. But before that, it was The Venus Hottentot.
What did you take from The Venus Hottentot?
I loved the way that this book was interacting with African-American history and culture. Loved it. That book was the first book by a black woman poet that I was reading when I decided to be a poet. I taught the title poem, “The Venus Hottentot,” for years, because I learned something in it about writing a persona poem where you inhabit “the other.” Elizabeth not only inhabits Baartman; she also inhabits Cuvier. In that poem, the voices exist side-by-side in this kind of contention with each other, both seeing the same situation in completely different ways.
When I wrote Bellocq’s Ophelia, I went back to “The Venus Hottentot.” There’s a part in Bellocq’s Ophelia where Ophelia is being examined—sort of the way Cuvier is examining Baartman—and she sees her own reflection in Bellocq’s lens. There’s something in The Venus Hottentot that taught me how to do that, how to see how he was seeing her without giving him a voice. That reflection in the lens is supposed to stand in for how he sees her.
Ophelia says, “I looked away from my reflection— / small and distorted—in his lens.”
That’s the restraint for me, too. Those lines are literal. The lenses are thick. In the lens, you are small; there are distortions. But, of course, those lines are also meant to say what we know they mean figuratively—that Bellocq thinks of Ophelia as less than and other.
I am always looking for forms of restraint. It’s been my whole project, I think, going back to Domestic Work, because I do have difficult things, difficult knowledge, that I want to convey in such a way that the readers will be compelled to see and hear it. The restraint of the image, the restraints of form, serve as elegant vise-grips around something like a cross burning, so attention goes first to what the language is doing. Then the horror of the experience seeps in through the restraint and the formality of the language. I think it’s a better way to do it than the other way around.
You’ve been thinking about the difficult questions of American-ness for a long time in your work. What does it mean going from this very private encounter with the page to the very public position of poet laureate?
Well, as you can imagine, when I was named poet laureate of the State of Mississippi, it was a big deal to me because it was “the state that made a crime // of me.” To go from the world that I was born into, to ostensibly being the most publicly present advocate for the arts and letters in that state almost defies belief. It meant a great deal to me. It meant for me a kind of recognition as a native—which is, of course, what Native Guard is trying to do: to claim my native-ness, my American-ness, my right to full citizenship of this place. And there it was.
And Mississippi, even now, has a difficult reputation nationally. Still, I think of Mississippi as a kind of crucible for great art, which is why I feel that it both made a crime of me and made an artist of me. It is the terrible beauty of that place that makes it produce so many artists.
If I believed that Native Guard was the kind of book that could open the door to the Laureateship for me, I thought Thrall was the opposite. And by that I mean that I feel like the poet who wrote those two books is a little different. You know this idea that if you like the messenger, it’s easier to accept the message? Native Guard feels like a book where you might like the messenger. But in Thrall I’m trying very hard to say some difficult things. You might not like me.
We’ve talked about those lines at the end of Native Guard: “the state that made a crime // of me.” The rest of that poem is: “ . . . mulatto, half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.” I surprised myself when I wrote that. It didn’t sound like the kind of thing I would have said before—particularly not in Domestic Work, where I always tried to let imagery do the work. I thought I was supposed to stay away from making statements. But at the end of Native Guard, I make that statement. And I think that allowed me to approach Thrall willing to make a few difficult statements that I wouldn’t have allowed myself before. I assert certain difficult things—particularly in a poem like “Miracle of the Black Leg”—even as I am still trying to do a lot of work through images.
While writing Thrall, I thought about Toni Morrison all the time. I just kept saying to myself, “If she really cared if we liked her or not, she would never write what she writes. She would never say what she says.” I had to think about that again and again because I was driven by the need to grapple with something and to search for a kind of truth. That was more important than whether or not people liked me.
I know I’ve gone a long way to come back to the poet laureateship. All to say: I thought, “I’ll never be poet laureate now, not with Thrall.” So when the Librarian of Congress got to see the book in galleys, and he chose me, I really did feel that it was a great validation of the kind of poet I am, with what it is that I have to say and contend with. It felt like I was being told: “Yes. Be exactly the poet that you are.”
Do you think we’re at a national moment where we’re ready to have these conversations about American history, present, and racial difference?
All the history I write is about the present, but the poems in Thrall were present in another way to me. Because my two terms as Poet Laureate coincided with Thrall coming out, I would read from it often, and the response from the audience was always overwhelmingly open. Often, the kinds of questions I would get at a Q & A, or what people would reveal about themselves after having listened to those poems, made it feel like people were ready to talk.
I kept thinking: there is something about the intimacy of the language of poetry—the intimacy of a single voice speaking out against silence to whomever might listen. In a culture with so much partisan language, so much uncivil discourse, so many sound bites, clichés—language that is really not doing anything except distancing us from each other, putting up barriers—the voice of poetry allows us to listen, to really listen. And we listen not only with intellect. We listen with body. We listen with breath. And once you take something into your breath, you’re also going to listen with your heart. I think that’s what makes us hear poetry in a different way.