Downtown Las Vegas feels like its own border city, a meeting of local and tourist cultural attractions. Just east of the SlotZilla Zip Line, on Fremont Street, dozens of people squeezed into one of the best independent bookstores in town, the Writer’s Block. The first thing I noticed when entering the store was the empty shelves; the store was technically closed, as the owners were in the process of relocating to a new shop nearby. I reached the checkout desk, and there, in a modest corner guarded by Baron, the store’s in-house bunny rabbit, was a table laden with the following titles by Natasha Trethewey: Thrall, Native Guard, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Domestic Work, and her most recent publication, Monument: Poems New and Selected. My first collection of poetry, Vogue 3:16, sat right beside Natasha’s books, mimicking the way we’d sit later that evening.
When Natasha entered the Writer’s Block, I was giddy with excitement. Not only has this woman served two terms as the United States poet laureate, but she was poet laureate of Mississippi at the same time. We had only a moment to speak before the reading. I confessed that I had done a ton of research on her life, and had listened to every podcast episode and watched almost every YouTube video she’d been featured in. She smiled and replied, “I did some research on you too.”
It was an honor to have my collection sold alongside Natasha’s, and we were both excited to tell friends that our books were the only books sold in a bookstore. We were there to discuss Monument, which was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Poetry. Monument begins with a quote from “The Great City” by Walt Whitman: “Where no monuments exist to heroes but in the common words and deeds…” Monument is a compilation of Natasha’s previous books. It celebrates the lives of Southern working-class black people, and of one of the first black military regiments, the 1st Louisiana Native Guard. Natasha’s poetry is keen and descriptive, and she often uses photographs or paintings as inspiration. She observes and sometimes reimagines the lives of the people seen and unseen in each image. Indeed, Monument stands statuesque on the foundation of her past writing and is chiseled with the purpose of telling the story of her family, her Mississippi, and her late mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough.
In the days leading up to the interview, I listened multiple times to Natasha’s lecture “Why I Write: Poetry, History, and Social Justice.” I played it in the mornings, I savored it during lunches, and I fell asleep to Natasha saying, “Thus, I write to claim my native land even as it has forsaken me, rendered me an outsider. I write so as not to be a foreigner in my homeland. I write from a place of psychological exile. I take up the burden of history.” The words left me in tears, and I felt a new charge to fully claim my own history and to root myself in purpose, as she has done.
Natasha credits her father, Eric Trethewey, for introducing her to the poetry of Wordsworth, Yeats, and Robert Hayden. She has much of their work memorized, along with poems of Rumi and Levine, and she quotes Orwell’s essays. This knowledge and recall are part of what makes Natasha impressive. She is committed to the work that moves her, and it inspires her to understand her own. Natasha knows her work; she remembers the moment she wrote each poem, where it began—the song, the dream, the portrait, or the painting that served as catalyst. For Natas, memory functions as skeleton, magnifying glass, and kaleidoscope. She takes the time to look at her writing and her purpose from multiple angles before presenting it to the rest of the world. This is indeed her strength; her voice and purpose are clear.
I. “THE AFTERMATH”
THE BELIEVER: So we have this lovely, beautiful new book entitled Monument, and a lot of your work circles around historical memory. With this book, have you written Natasha’s monument?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: That would be horrible. [Audience laughter] I mean, what an act of hubris that would be. No. This is a monument to Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, my mother. I tried to create that monument knowingly with my third book, Native Guard, which was very much about, in many ways, the intersections between personal and public history, those black soldiers to whom no monuments had been erected. But it was also a lyrical monument to my mother, to my memory of her. And I dedicated the book that way to my mother, in memory. And after the book won the Pulitzer and got a lot of attention, I learned very quickly that what I’d actually done was created a monument to “Natasha Trethewey’s mother,” because I’d never said her name. When they reprinted it in paperback, I was able to correct that, and it now reads, if you have the right one, “to my mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough, in memory.” This was an even more direct attempt to do that. It’s made up of all of the books of poems I’ve written before—a few poems from each collection, reordered to try to create a different arc—and then eleven new poems. The first of those new poems is out there by itself as a kind of ars poetica, a kind of way to read the rest of the book. The whole thing is about carrying on in the aftermath, for me. Being a writer is about aftermath. It’s about those thirty-three years of bereavement that I’ve tried to carry, and it ends with “Articulation.” That’s why I’m a writer. Lots of things wound us into poetry, and certainly my Mississippi was one part of that. But that’s not the deep wound. That’s not the wound that really made it happen.
BLVR: In the poems “Meditation at Decatur Square” and “Articulation,” you play with language, and you have all the w words. You have wound. You have womb. And then there’s a bowl hewn. I feel like poetry is the thing you filled your bowl with. Is there anything else you put in that space?
NT: That’s such a great read; you caught that line. I didn’t read that poem this evening, but I was thinking about that the other day. As a writer you hope that readers find those things in your poems. I just said, “the space she left / a wound a womb a bowl hewn.” And, you know, the “wound” makes sense. But of course the “womb” is there, too, because, as you know, as many of you know, as Rumi said, “the wound is the place where the light enters you.” So it becomes a space of creativity. The way that a wound is a place, a womb is where we create, that hollowed-out space that we fill. I think I’m constantly trying to fill that space, that space that can’t be filled, actually.
BLVR: I have learned more about grief this year, and this book was something that gave voice and clarity to what my family has been feeling. I know we have changed as a result of it; even our relationships to one another have changed. You have a piece about you and your father that showcases his grief and remorse over the loss of your mother. How did it change your relationship to show him your poems? I can’t imagine how it shifted your relationship, because you’re father and daughter, but you’re also two different people grieving someone in your own ways.
NT: I think you might be referring to a poem called “Reach,” in which I refer to a poem of my father’s. My father has a very long poem called “Dreaming Eurydice.” And so that kind of mythology around Orpheus and Eurydice underlies our entire relationship. And when I was a little girl, my father—my bedtime stories were stories from mythology or Beowulf. I mean, he would recite the poem and then he’d turn out the light. And I had to try to get to sleep. [Audience laughter]
BLVR: That’s terrible! Wait, did he perform it in Old English? [Laughter]
NT: I know, it was terrible. Yeah, he would recite it and then translate it, and it would be scary, because he always did the scene of Beowulf trying to get into the mead hall. And then I’d go to sleep—or I’d try. But thinking about mythology, the stories he told me undergird our relationship and our shared relationship to my mother. You know, I have a dream in which I go to a space not unlike the underworld, and I try to bring my mother back to the light of day. He tried to do that again and again in his own poems. I think the older he got, the more nostalgic he got. And, of course, you know the problem with nostalgia is that it is a longing for something that never really existed. And that’s the case with this relationship that I think he imagined going back to, when he would say things like “Oh, if Gwen were alive we’d get back together” or “If I’d been a better husband, Gwen would still be alive.” I used to get mad at him because what that did was not allow her the agency to have changed. I was pretty certain my mother would not want to get back together with him. And he was lovely, but I don’t think they would have gotten back together. But we both have that longing. I try to imagine that I’m more clear-eyed about it. But… I don’t know. Is there something I wish for, too, that’s not simply her but the me I was before, the me that was traumatized by losing her? I’m nostalgic for that girl.
BLVR: Yes. In “Letter to Inmate #271847, Convicted of Murder, 1985,” there is a line where you say, “For a moment I was who I had been before, the joyful daughter of my young mother,” and what I loved was that you resurrected your mother with song, the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” playing on the radio. Would you say music pushes you back into that joy, into becoming that girl again?
NT: Yeah, it’s funny to think, ’cause music can probably take us back to sad moments too. But why is it that the ones we tend to talk about are the ones that make us happiest? Well, who wouldn’t want to go back to those? But then they’re both, right? They’re kind of bittersweet. Because if I go back to “Just My Imagination” and I see her for a moment, ironing, doing whatever she was doing when that song was playing, what comes not far behind it is her being gone. But I wouldn’t trade it. I’d take those moments of seeing her again for all the sorrow that follows.
BLVR: We have a whole amazing, beautiful book, and a lot of people who can relate and have found healing in your words.
NT: I’ve been crying a lot.
BLVR: Breathe through it. Just cry. I cried earlier today.
NT: I think it’s what this book makes me go back into.
II. “THE HISTORY OF KNOWLEDGE”
BLVR: What is something you think people often misunderstand about your work, or your writing perspective specifically?
NT: From the very first moment that I [wrote] a book of poems—my first book was Domestic Work—I was writing about my family. I didn’t read any of those poems tonight. I was writing about my grandmother, my maternal grandmother. I was writing about Mississippi; I was writing about the people I knew and loved in this community that was disappearing as these older people died off, as the property was being sold off to commercial pursuits. And from the moment I published that book, people dismissed my work as being about race. The idea that any of us who are writing could not be writing about race, or at least through a racialized perspective, suggests that [those critics] have no idea what it means to live in this country, to be an American. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s in the water. I only write about it to the extent that it is part of everything.
BLVR: Yes! [Audience laughter]
NT: I wish I had this quote right, but I just read this review in The New York Times where a writer was talking about particular writers from Mississippi, and they made this comparison. Did you see this? Was it Las Vegas that they made the comparison to? I can’t remember exactly.
BLVR: It was somewhere where there’s desert.
NT: Yeah, it was desert. This person said if you’re a Mississippi writer and not writing about race, that’d be like being from, you know—
NT: —and not writing about the desert. But anyway, when people say that about a black writer, it’s often a way to diminish their work by saying, Oh, well, you only write about that. As if that isn’t one of the biggest American themes there is. And, you know, these are poems that oftentimes I think if you didn’t know I was a black poet, you might not know that the people in them are black. But the other thing is that just because something reminds somebody that there is race, that means it’s about race. It’s just about the people I know—it isn’t about race. It is about my grandmother who happens to be black—oh, and I reminded you of that and somehow you think I’m writing about race. Well, I lived with that for years, and then I decided, No, let me show you what it looks like when I write about race. And then I wrote Thrall, and before I introduced that book, I would say, “This is about deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of racial difference and racial hierarchy, the bedrock of contemporary white supremacy.” But you know what I was really writing about? The history of knowledge. The history of ideas and knowledge production around ideas of race. Knowledge from the eighteenth century, knowledge going back to the twelfth century, and how we’ve been trained to look at difference and others since then. So I wasn’t even writing about race. That’s one thing. The other thing I think is I always want to be very clear. I think clarity is revolutionary. And so my poems are designed to be accessible, but that doesn’t mean they’re easy. And I think a lot of people forget that words have more than one definition. And if you stop at the primary definition and you don’t look at the secondary, tertiary, and on and on, you are really missing what my poems are trying to do.
III. “JOGGING THROUGH A GRAVEYARD”
BLVR: Can you read “Repentance”?
NT: Yeah, I was working on this poem when I was working on my book Thrall. I expected it to go into Thrall, but it was a poem I couldn’t finish, and it never made it in there. And, you know, sometimes it takes a long time and you have to put something away and come back to it. When I started writing that book and that poem, I was angry with my father. And I remember having a conversation with him in which I said, “You just wait. I’m going to write a book about you.” [Audience laughter] My father said to me, quoting Yeats, “We make of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” And I was really mad then. [Audience laughter] Because I knew that if my argument was with him, it was only going to be rhetoric, and how was it going to be an argument with myself? And then I reminded myself that actually I’d done that before, because Native Guard began in me thinking about an argument I have with my nation about forgetting about black participation in the Civil War, and really erasing that on the landscape with the naming of roads and buildings and bridges and the erection of monuments, and that buries or erases a larger shared American history. But in doing that, I discovered that my real argument was with not properly remembering or memorializing my own mother. I’d never put a stone on her grave after all those years, and so she had in common what those forgotten black soldiers had in common. And I was guilty as a native daughter in the same way we are guilty as a nation when we forget. So I thought, OK, I can do this. And when I started writing the book, there were two epigraphs, one from Robert Penn Warren, the other from T. S. Eliot, that together read, “What is love? One name for it is knowledge.” “After such knowledge, what forgiveness?” And when I chose the epigraphs, I thought that the person I was going to forgive, who needed forgiving, was my father. By the time I wrote the book, I realized that I needed to forgive myself. This poem still didn’t make it in there, though, because I wasn’t really able or willing at that time to follow Yeats’s dictum to make the quarrel with myself. I mean, Thrall came out in 2012. I pulled this poem out last year, so, you know, six years after I had tried to write it. And all of a sudden I could see what it needed. I could see why I couldn’t finish it. And I’ll tell you before I read it: it’s the very last line. And the last line is only two words. This is “Repentance,” after Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep.
To make it right Vermeer painted then painted over
this scene a woman alone at a table the cloth pushed back
rough folds at the edge as if someone had risen
in haste abandoning the chair beside her a wineglass
nearly empty just in her reach Though she’s been called
idle and drunken a woman drowsing you might see
in her gesture melancholia Eyelids drawn
she rests her head in her hand Beyond her a still-life
white jug bowl of fruit a goblet overturned Before this
a man stood in the doorway a dog lay on the floor
Perhaps to exchange loyalty for betrayal
Vermeer erased the dog and made of the man
a mirror framed by the open door Pentimento
the word for a painter’s change of heart revision
on canvas means the same as remorse after sin
Were she to rise a mirror behind her the woman
might see herself as I did turning to rise
from my table then back as if into Vermeer’s scene
It was after the quarrel after you’d had again
too much to drink after the bottle did not shatter though
I’d brought it down hard on the table and the dog
had crept from the room to hide Later I found
a trace of what I’d done bruise on the table the size
of my thumb Worrying it I must have looked as she does
eyes downcast my head on the heel of my palm In paint
a story can change mistakes be undone Imagine
Still-Life with Father and Daughter a moment so
far back there’s still time to take the glass from your hand
BLVR: You mentioned something about your mother’s gravestone, that you hadn’t put it up.
BLVR: And the poem “Graveyard Blues” says her gravestone is a pillow for your head. But the stone is not there yet. So how often do you write a piece about something you haven’t done yet or something that sort of surprises you? And also—is her gravestone really still unmarked?
NT: It’s still unmarked. The story I tell about that is [about when I was] jogging through a graveyard when I was working on Native Guard. There was a Confederate portion of the graveyard and I couldn’t get through there without reading all the names on the stones. It was as if they were demanding to be recognized by name. And so I went home thinking, Well, you know, I’m writing about these black Civil War soldiers; maybe I’ll write about these Confederate soldiers too. But the poem that came out was a memory of the day we buried my mother. And it’s a blues sonnet, so it has a final rhyming couplet, and that couplet reads, “I wander now among names of the dead: / My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head.” And, you know, it was an emotional truth. The idea that if you were missing someone you could go to the graveyard and lay your head on their tombstone and it might be a kind of cold comfort. But it was [in] that moment that I also knew it was a lie, because I had never put a stone on her grave. Back then it seemed like a failure of the imagination, because it never occurred to me that I could put her maiden name on it. I mean, even though she was divorced from her second husband, she kept that last name, as many women did. Their child, my brother, was still in school, so she had his last name. And I didn’t want to put that name, her killer’s name, on the stone. I didn’t want to put my father’s name, her first husband’s, because that wouldn’t acknowledge my brother. But it never occurred to me just to put the name she had when she came into the world. I don’t know why I haven’t done it yet. And I feel like… I set myself up to be asked that question, right? This is not an excuse, but I’m just going to say it: when Native Guard came out, this reviewer in Poetry magazine, her critique of the book was that monuments are dead, they’re cold, they’re not anything that we pay attention to. And I disagree because I’m a reader of monuments. I’m one of the people who, if there’s a placard, I’m going to go read the whole thing, and I think these things live every time one of us interacts with them. And this is before we were having all these issues about the Confederate monuments. We wouldn’t be having these big debates about Confederate monuments if they were just stone things that no one cared about anymore. They still do say big things to us. But the reviewer was making the argument that stone is not what is lasting, that’s not what matters. But the word, the word is a living thing. And so I’m like, Well, fine, I’ll make this living monument and now I’ll make sure that everybody knows it. I’ll do it again and again and I will write “Articulation” and “Imperatives for Carrying on in the Aftermath.” And I will say, “This is the reason that I am a writer. That is the monument I’m erecting now.” But my mother still deserves a stone with her name on it.
BLVR: You’ve won awards and you’ve served as poet laureate of the state of Mississippi and the nation at the same time… but you had a professor tell you to unburden yourself of your mother’s death. And for me, when I think about pursuing an MFA and taking that next step, I wonder where I will go and where my work will not be cast aside because I decide to talk about being a woman or being black, or whatever aspects of my experience. I mean, you turned out great. [Audience laughter] Where do writers who want to speak about those things go and have the space where we’re nurtured as opposed to sidelined?
NT: I think we go to the words of Phil Levine: “I write what’s given me to write.” Or we go to any of those places where… It’s not a place. That’s what I mean. [Audience laughter]
BLVR: I want a program, Natasha!
NT: I know.
BLVR: Where can I apply? I want to go to a program! [Audience laughter]
NT: You go to Phil Levine. You go to James Baldwin: “This is the only real concern of the artist, to re-create out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” You just go to those places, because the sad thing is, I can’t guarantee that there is a place where that won’t happen to you. But I think, knowing that it’s been said and that better things have been said by people like Levine and Baldwin—that’s what we carry with us. We carry those words, and those words are like armor to me. You know? You’ll have that armor too. You already have it.
The following questions came from the audience at the Writer’s Block in Las Vegas and have been edited for clarity
Q: How does your use of received forms—ghazal, villanelle, ground sonnet, blues sonnet—fit into your practice?
NT: I deal with difficult material—it may be difficult emotionally; it may be difficult in terms of what I’m trying to say to a listener. When I write poems like that, I want the kind of elegant envelope of form that feels more like a vise grip. I want it to put the kind of pressure on the language that can push me beyond being maudlin—because I cry a lot—push me beyond sentimentality, or even being didactic. I think form places that kind of pressure on the language. And I also apply something that Audre Lorde said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” And I know that when she said that she was talking about the tools of oppression, but I’m not exactly thinking about those tools, even though perhaps form might have been a tool of oppression too. I am thinking about taking these received forms, these master’s tools, and polishing them and honing them such that they say something different from what they might have been designed to do before. That is a way to explode the canon, to explode what might oppress us, by being able to master those forms. So I can’t imagine not wanting to write in them.
Q: After the two great poetry movements—the Lost generation and the Beat generation—has there been a third movement?
NT: You know, I don’t know if we have a name for it yet, but it seems to me that we’re in it. If you just look at the number of young poets out there right now, and particularly poets of color writing our American story for the next hundred years, I mean, we’ve not seen that ever. Those are the poets whose work is being eaten up by the whole country. I read some statistics recently that more people are reading poetry in America now than in many, many years. And that can only be because of young people who are telling a bigger story about ourselves as Americans and as a nation of immigrants. They’re the ones. We’re in it right now. We’ll look back fifty years from now and this will have a name. I don’t know what [that name] will be, but we’re in it.