Catching up with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

Books & Literature

Virginia Festival of the Book: Remembering Laureates

by Kevin McFadden

Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey at the Festival of the Book in 2000. Photo courtesy of Natasha Trethewey.

After more than a dozen years of attending Virginia Festival of the Book, some programs still stand out. I remember one vividly for two reasons: because it was my birthday—March 25, 2000—and because I was going to see a poetry reading featuring my teacher, Rita Dove.

That Saturday evening, the University of Virginia Bookstore was packed and buzzing. I would suspect most of us were there to listen to the work of a person who, among other national and international honors, had been named U.S. Poet Laureate. Little did we know—and, indeed, time had not yet told—that we were hearing from two poets who would have that distinction.

Dove was introducing a younger poet whose manuscript she had selected for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Natasha Trethewey. You could tell Trethewey was enjoying what many aspiring writers enjoy at the Festival—a chance to be welcomed among writers they themselves have read and admire. No one would have blamed her for being starstruck, but her work had a poise and polish  that immediately announced she was on the right stage.

Since that day, the Festival has enjoyed a number of return visits from Trethewey, including one to read from her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Native Guard. I recommend joining her again on March 23, 2013, when the nineteenth U.S. Poet Laureate will participate in the nineteenth annual Virginia Festival of the Book.

How does Trethewey remember that first Festival? That and more in the interview below.

KEVIN MCFADDEN: When you were named the nineteenth U.S. Poet Laureate in June, 2012, I was immediately reminded of a reading of yours at the Virginia Festival of the Book in 2000. The event turns out to have been prescient, as you were introduced by former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, who chose your first book, Domestic Work, for publication. What do you remember about that day and honor?

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: I have pictures of that day—thus the memory is quite vivid to me. It was the first time I’d met Rita and it was a tremendous honor to read with her and sit beside her during her book signing. My book wasn’t out yet so I chatted with her the whole time, and she was gracious. It was the first time I’d gotten to spend any time with a poet whose work was deeply important to me. My father, who is also a poet, was in the audience, beaming.

KM: At the Festival, you read “Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956,” a poem that describes women’s purses being checked as they left work, with an arresting final detail that came from your grandmother: “the soiled Kotex / she saved, stuffed into a bag / in her purse, and Adam’s look / on one white man’s face, his hand / deep in knowledge.” When do you know a family story is right to describe a wider American narrative?

NT: That’s a story, of course, about the Jim Crow South and the kinds of things that American citizens were subjected to by either law or custom. I am always aware of the intersection between our personal experiences and the historical moments in which we live. Larger American narratives—as in History with a capital H—provide a context for family stories, and family stories can illustrate public history more intimately and with a kind of immediacy. I never simply say, “This is what happened.” I ask how what happened is related to the history of the time.

KM: The legacy of slavery haunts your more recent poem “Enlightenment,” where its shadow complicates even the closest of human relationships: a father and daughter. Did a trip to Monticello inspire that poem, or quicken something you’d grappled with for a while?

NT: Yes. My father took me to Monticello for the first time over twenty years ago when conversations about Sally Hemings were very different. I knew that if we could go back there I could finish the book, Thrall. The story of that place, the people who lived there, is indicative of our complex history of race in America. It’s a story of family, of intimacy and distance, and notions of difference that haunt us even now.

KM: Horace wrote that poems were “monuments more lasting than bronze.” Some of your poems begin where the traditional monuments are inadequate, or where things that might have been remembered have gone missing. Could you respond to that?

NT: I agree: a poem is very much a living monument. Whenever the words are read or spoken they inhabit the body, the breath. I do still believe that bronze is effective in that each time someone looks at the monument there is a new, living interaction. But poems can also exist in memory, and can be passed down through generations, which is why they can last perhaps much longer than other materials of which some monuments are made.

KM: U.S. Poets Laureate often pursue a project of importance to them, with the support of the Library of Congress. Do you have any preliminary thoughts on the monument of your laureateship?

NT: One thing that I am doing is taking residency in Washington, D.C. for the spring semester. I hope to be able to meet with the people during some scheduled office hours in the library. I’ve only begun to think about what else I will do during my term and have no preliminary thoughts to share yet.

Natasha Trethewey will read from her latest book, Thrall, on Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 2 p.m. at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Downtown Charlottesville. The Virginia Arts of the Book Center recently collaborated with Virginia Quarterly Review on a commemorative limited-edition broadside of Trethewey’s “Enlightenment.” Broadsides are available in exchange for a donation to VQR.