It’s hard to think of a contemporary American poet whose work speaks more directly to this time of racial reckoning in our nation’s history than Natasha Trethewey. Born in Mississippi, she is the daughter of a white father and a black mother who were forced to travel to Ohio to marry because anti-miscegenation laws were still in effect in the South. Trethewey has spent the past two decades probing the country’s racial inequalities in lyrical poems that often combine historical with autobiographical, drawing on her own experience as a biracial woman in the South.
Author of five books of poetry, including the 2007 Pulitzer Prize Native GuardâTwo-time former American poet Trethewey will read from her work Thursday at 7:30 p.m. during this semester’s Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Virtual Reading. Also read Megan Fernandes (GRS’12), author of two collections of poetry, The Kingdom and after (Tightrope Books, 2015) and Good boys (Tin House, 2018), whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Guernica, and Plow shares.
Tretheway’s last book, the Memorial route, is a memoir that traces the events that led to the 1985 murder of her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, by her ex-husband (the poet’s stepfather) when Tretheway was only 19, an event she described as one of the âtwo existential woundsâ that made her decide to become a poet.
âIn the weeks following his death, the first thing I did was try to write a poem about it. Of all the things, it seemed to me that only the language of poetry would help me express this deep and deep hurt and grief that I had started to bear, âshe says. âI think a lot of people turn to poetry for the same reason: to say what is unspeakable. ”
But it was growing up in the South “with its brutal history of racial violence and oppression,” says Tretheway, that he inflicted the first injury. âMy parents’ interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi and 20 other states across the country when I was born. [in 1966], making me illegitimate, persona non grata in the eyes of the law. I know stories of my mother, my grandmother, who grew up in Jim Crow South and all the oppression that resulted from it, which made me think about our national wound and our original sin. as a nation linked to slavery. then the after-effects of the effects of slavery.
These two wounds, she says, are inexorably linked. âI was born on the 100th anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day, and the idea of ââmy mother, in a happy moment, about to give birth to a child as she made her way to the isolation room in a hospital with rebel flags â symbols of white supremacy and a lost cause all around it, it’s kind of a psychological hurt this place would have on us. Trethewey’s mother had lived – and died – on Memorial Drive in Atlanta, at the foot of Stone Mountain, the South’s largest monument to Confederation. “It weighed on her, that great memory of an attempt to maintain slavery and destroy the union and the ongoing attempt to maintain white supremacy, âTrethewey said.
The poet, who once described her poems as “the discovery of buried stories,” says she has always been interested in absences, what is left out, the moments leading up to photography, what happened after. Likewise, I am interested in the absences in the historical file. Much of his work seeks to tell a fuller version of our nation’s history, whether it is bringing the story of the Louisiana Native Guards, a battalion of Black Union soldiers including in large part of former slaves, who were responsible for keeping Confederate prisoners of war in Native guard or explore the life of MÃ©tis families in its 2012 collection, Servitude.
Trethewey says poetry provides a way to bring people together, “so that we feel less alone … No matter how difficult or unpleasant the things a poem may describe, what he always tells us is,” I’m still there. The poem marks a record. And in this way, it allows us to sympathize with the experience of other human beings … to bridge the distances and to help us, when we are in the poem, to be, for a moment, in someone’s experience. one else.
She says she was encouraged by the outpouring of solidarity she has seen from so many Americans “from all walks of life who are ready to go out there in the midst of a pandemic and are still trying to. protest peacefully against what they know to be unjust. ”
Like Trethewey, Fernandes’ poems often explore race and identity. Describing themselves as âthe child of a complicated diasporaâ, his family lived in East Africa before moving to India, England and Canada, eventually settling in Philadelphia. âWhen I was in school, there was black history, then history, which was, of course, white history,â Fernandes says. âSo I reconstituted this understanding of ‘white supremacy’ – which was not spelled out in that sentence at the time – by understanding that I was failing as a brown-bodied person to live up to a ideal. I couldn’t quite articulate it, but what I did know was that I felt bad in certain spaces. I came to understand the construction of the race slowly, over a long period of time.
It wasn’t until her mid-twenties and studying in Paris that Fernandes began to think she might want to become a poet. She saw an ad in the newspaper for a small writing workshop and found the courage to âgive it a go,â she says. His poems are often the result of conversations with strangers or exploring a new city. And they are often imbued with spirit.
âGood humor, intelligent humor, is the highest mode of social criticism,â says Fernandes. âIf you are someone who, for reasons of gender, race or sexuality, has been undermined, humiliated or belittled, you know the power of humor and the wit. You know the benefits of quick banter, quick shadow. Some people might call it armor. I prefer to think of it as a way to navigate violence with joy, to own the agency in the face of what wants to demean you.
His work, in his own words, “often resists chronology”, preferring instead to “jump through time and space, physical, cognitive and emotional.”
Fernandes says the time she spent studying in the BU’s Creative Writing program was instrumental in making her the poet she is today. âThe most important thing that probably happened to me at BU was when Rosanna Warren, who was a professor at BU at the time, read my thesis manuscript and said, ‘You know how to write a poem, but I don’t still don’t know what you’re afraid of. ‘ The words struck a chord. Back then, Fernandes says, she was so engrossed in the technical details of writing, so concerned with not being sentimental, that she had created distance in her poems. From this experience, she learned to close this distance. “My poems are now full of overt, unconscious fears,” she says, “which in another sense is really about love, because we fear losing it the most.”
âI learned something about vulnerability and the subconscious at the BU,â says Fernandes.
“This is another great pairing of distinguished visitor and UB alumnus in the Lowell series,” said Robert Pinsky, distinguished professor William Fairfield Warren, professor of English at the College of Arts & Sciences and three-time poet. American winner. âNatasha Trethewey’s poems combine eloquence and simplicity, personal insight and social vision, in a way that is a model not only for young poets, but, in my opinion, for American culture. His approach to potent and deadly racial illusions is broad, penetrating, informed, and above the clichÃ©. Megan Fernandes’ books also deserve the phrases I just used about Natasha’s work: “social vision” and “personal persecution”.
Trethewey, professor of English on the board of trustees at Northwestern University, and Fernandes, assistant professor of English at Lafayette College, offer similar advice to aspiring poets.
âYou have to find the poets whose work speaks to you and somehow shows you a path to your own,â says Trethewey. âI don’t sit down to write without first sitting down to read. I hear another poet’s voice, I hear the rhythm of his thought, and it allows me to enter into a conversation while writing.
This is a sentiment shared by Fernandes, who urges his students to read voraciously. âRead Gwendolyn Brooks and Rainer Maria Rilke and Etheridge Knight and Anne Carson. Read and listen to hip-hop, and not just early New York tracks, but these rappers from New Orleans and Atlantaâ¦ have a line philosophy and a break philosophy and be prepared to change both. Write with your lungs. Read, read, read.
Listen to Natasha Trethewey read her poem âImperatives to keep going,â which explores her mother’s murder and its aftermath, here. Video recorded on November 8, 2018 at 92nd Street Y in New York.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, to be held virtually on Zoom, will take place tonight, Thursday, October 15, at 7:30 pm The event is free and open to the public. Find more information here. The readings will be followed by a Q&A.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Reading series was created by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband, Fred M. Levin, through the Shenson Foundation, in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
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