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Poet Natasha Trethewey Explores Public and Personal Histories of Race in America

On a recent winter night, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey addressed an Aspen Words audience on the intersection between art and activism.

“[I am] a poet interested not only in the sounds of language and in its beauty, but in its ability to help us deal with our most difficult knowledge and help us move towards justice.”

Trethewey is the author of four collections of poetry: “Domestic Work,” “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” “Native Guard,” and “Thrall,” as well as a work of nonfiction, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” She served two terms as the 19th US poet laureate from 2012 to 2014, and is currently poet laureate of the state of Mississippi. Trethewey also directs the creative writing program at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is Robert W. Woodruff professor of English and creative writing.

Upon receiving the call that she had been selected as US Poet Laureate, Trethewey moved to Washington, DC, so she could hold office hours in the Library of Congress and discuss poetry with everyday Americans. Despite many suggestions to the contrary, she reconfirmed that poetry continues to play an important role in American life — an observation that was also apparent from the captivated Winter Words audience in Aspen. In addition to regular Aspen Words participants and members, Winter Words attendees included a large group of local poets, as well as teachers and students.

Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, the daughter of parents whose mixed-race marriage was illegal in the state at the time. Her writing includes many references to her father, a poet, professor, and Canadian immigrant, as well as her mother, who was a social worker. Trethewey’s poems weave together the story of her own interracial roots with the history of race in America, while also balancing this narrative with lyricism.

“It is where the poems shade toward the lyrical that I’m able to get closer to the emotional truth of a poem,” said Trethewey in her talk. As an example, she referenced the poem “Incident” from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection “Native Guard.” In it she tells the story of the Ku Klux Klan burning a cross on her family’s yard after her grandmother hosted a voter registration drive for disenfranchised African Americans in the 1960s. Reworking an initial draft of the poem, Trethewey restructured it to capture the entire story of the incident in the first four lines. This freed her to use the rest of the poem to highlight other emotional truths, such as the need to remember, which are at least as important as the particular facts of what happened.

Trethewey read a number of poems that use art as a reference point, including a series from her most recent book “Thrall.” Titled “Taxonomy”, this series of poems is based on a group of Casta paintings from 18th century colonial Mexico, which portrayed mixed blood unions in the colony.

She went on to read another poem from “Thrall” called “The Help, 1968,” which Trethewey playfully called her response to Kathryn Stockett’s 2009 bestselling book. In the poem, a photograph from “The Americans” by Robert Frank triggers memories of Trethewey’s mother, who was often mistaken for being her maid. These “betrayals of the flesh,” as Trethewey calls them, are apparent in much of her work as she weaves together both personal and public stories.

As a poet, Trethewey finds meaning in the details of these often-forgotten pieces of history and connects them to the issues we continue to face in a nation still struggling for racial equality.

Winter Words continues with three more events in Aspen, CO: George Packer (February 10), Michael Lewis (March 12), and Ruth Ozeki (April 14). 

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