An Interview with Natasha Trethewey
Poet Natasha Trethewey spoke about her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Native Guard, on Martin Luther King Day -- perhaps fitting for someone who chronicles growing up biracial in the South with a black mom and white dad who were not allowed to get married in their own state. A portion of the book is in the voice of one of the Native Guards of the Civil War, part of a black Union regiment sent to watch Confederate prisoners at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island off Gulfport, Mississippi. Trethewey often visited the island with her grandmother without ever knowing this history, untold in official park narratives. Yet another portion is Trethewey’s poignant homage to her mother, a social worker who was abused by her second husband, Trethewey’s stepfather, and finally killed by him after they divorced, when he shot her in the head at close range. Trethewey was 19 and away at college; her half-brother was waiting outside their home for the school bus. Each of these sections by itself is solid and haunting; together, the parts connect and complement to form a mighty collection of tremendous loss, tinged with continuation and hope.
Did you write the poems about your mom’s death all at once, or was that a dam that burst over time?
I think it became more like a dam that burst. I tried to write the first one when I wasn’t even thinking of myself as on the path toward becoming a poet. I wrote them not long after she died, in the summer of my freshmen year at college and my sophomore year. They were horrible -- trite and abstract. I didn’t write any more of them for a while. Then I wrote one in James Tate’s workshop my freshman year of graduate school... I tried to write about these plants of hers that I inherited after her death and had been carrying around. With each move that I made over the years, they got beaten up more and more, to where I could no longer keep them alive. It felt like a moment where part of whatever else I had held on to of her had finally died.
That poem had a memory of her 26th birthday. I could remember this birthday because my grandmother and I baked a cake for her in the shape of a watermelon cut open. We decorated the cake with 26 black seeds, and that’s the first awareness I had of my mother’s age. There were always these anniversaries. In graduate school during that MFA program, I reached 26. It was stunning to me to reach that age where I was first conscious of my mother’s age.
For a time, Trethewey believed she could not make art of her mother’s death. Someone in her workshop remarked that the story was almost too sensational, like something from a newspaper, which indeed it was. The writing began to flow a bit more when Trethewey was on a fellowship at Radcliffe when she was 33. When discussing the various things recipients did with their fellowships, the program director said that one woman spent her time grieving for her dead father. Trethewey was struck by that and began writing poems she put in drawers, considering them private and of little interest to readers.
And then I got a job at Emory University -- the actual geography of my childhood, my mother, her murder. [Her mother had moved to Atlanta after she and Trethewey’s dad divorced, when Trethewey was six.] I never planned to come back here, but a job’s a job. I literally moved down the street from the courthouse [where her stepfather’s sentencing was held]. I think it was impossible for me not to return. I not only was approaching the anniversary of her death, but also my own 40th birthday. She died just shy of her 41st birthday. And I reached the midpoint where I’d crossed over, where I had lived more of my years without her than with her. All of that converged, and I started writing.
This book is in three parts: your mom, the Native Guards, the South and your biracialness. Did you see these three things as connected when you wrote them?
It was very much later. For a long time I thought the main thing was the Native Guard. When I took my grandmother to a restaurant on the beach on Ship Island, someone heard our conversation and told me this history that I hadn’t learned my whole life. It occurred to me that there was all kinds of historical erasure like that -- things that get left out of the record and are equally important in the history of us as Americans. I started doing research about the guards, and that was what I wanted to write about.
My more personal poems, about me and my place in the South, started to enter into this book. I saw that connection. I started thinking abut my place as a southerner, and as biracial, and as a black southerner and what gets left out of history and who’s responsible for remembering, recording, those things that are left out -- the native duty of many of us.
I was jogging in the graveyard near my house one day, and there’s an old part where a lot of Confederate soldiers are buried. I’m one of those people who can’t not read every tombstone -- they scream at me for their names to be heard. I was thinking about that when I came home and planned to write about that. When I sat down to write “Graveyard Blues,” what I recalled was burying my mother. That was when I came to understand what was going on in my subconscious. I wrote the poem “Graveyard Blues,” and the final couplet has an image of me laying my head down on her stone. When I finished the poem, I thought the couplet made sense for what the poem was trying to get at.
from “Graveyard Blues”:
It rained the whole time we were laying her down;
Rained from church to grave when we put her down.
The suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound.
. . . .
The road going home was pocked with holes,
That home-going road is always full of holes;
Though we slow down, time’s wheel still rolls.
I wander now among names of the dead:
My mother’s name, stone pillow for my head.
That image is real because my mother does not have any kind of stone on her grave. That sort of hit me, the history that had not been properly memorialized, remembered, tended by someone native to her -- it was my mother’s history. She was just like those black soldiers. No monument existed, and in that way she was erased from the landscape.
Have you put a headstone on there?
My brother and I have talked about it and plan to do it. All those years I didn’t think I could put a gravestone on my mother’s grave because I thought I’d have to name her with the name she had when she died, my stepfather’s name. I didn’t want to see that. And I didn’t want my father’s name because of my brother. It never occurred to me I could put her [maiden] name: Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough.
When Trethewey researched the Native Guards, she learned that many times the African-Americans soldiers were abused, and even killed, by their fellow white soldiers. She was struck that their achievements, indeed their existence, were buried with their bones.
What intrigued you enough to write the Native Guard series?
That it was buried history, historical erasure. When I began to read about the Native Guards, what really got me was that their colonel had confiscated a diary from a Confederate in Louisiana and took it for his own and began to cross-write over what was there. That hit me as a perfect metaphor for what I was trying to say about our history of the South and of Americans; this cross-hatching a perfect intersection of north and south, black and white, that you can’t separate.
They also were about me, being a southerner, wanting to write myself into history, wanting to be a recorder of another period.
Down here I drive around all the time with this sense of exile because everything is named for Confederate heroes; you’d think the South won the war. During the flag controversy [a movement in Georgia and elsewhere to ban the Confederate flag from government buildings], there was a letter to the editor saying all true Southerners love that flag. It was his way of saying all true Southerners are white Southerners. It was important for me to say: This is my South; I love it and I hate it, too, but it’s mine.
Trethewey employs forms in many of her poems, from sonnets to pantoums. The poem “Incident,” for example, repeats lines from verse to verse, to different effect, as it describes a cross-burning on her grandmother’s lawn when Trethewey was a baby with her family, inside the house: “We peered from the windows, shades drawn, / at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, ... At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, / a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns... It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns...”
You use a lot of forms in your poems. Many writers find them constricting, but they can help you pare what you say. Why do you use them?
As a tool of restraint. I’m writing about experiences that are pretty difficult for me.
I tried writing “Incident” that for a long time with a straight narrative lyric, but it kept getting bogged down by the incident, reduced to a little incident about the cross burning. It wasn’t until I turned to that other envelope of form and repetition that I even understood what the poem was about -- [not centered on the incident but] how we remember the incident.
When did you first discover the power of words? Did you write as a child?
I did. I did a collection of poems around Martin Luther King, Jr. I went to an all-black elementary school from first through third grade. Black history was important. My third grade librarian bound them and put them in the school library.
Do you think a lot of people today live lives bereft of poetry?
I try to inculcate in my students a love for poetry, so that when they leave the class they think they like it.One of the most wonderful things happened to me. I had a reading in Charleston, North Carolina [after she won the Pulitzer], and my husband went with me -- it was my birthday. We needed maintenance on the air conditioner of our hotel. A man came and fixed it, and waited with us for 10 to 15 minutes to see if it would kick in. We had a bottle of champagne a friend had sent, and this man asked about it. My husband told him, and he was very impressed. He opened my book to my poem “Incident.” He looked at it and read it out loud. Then he put it down and folded his hands in front of him, and recited Countee Cullen’s "Incident" [a short, powerful poem from 1925 that still resonates, about an African-American boy remembering only of his visit to Baltimore that a white boy he smiled at called him a derogatory name]. I found that stunning. This guy carried around in his memory that poem. I like to think lots of people carry around poetry.
Trethewey clearly carries around poetry. She uses words from various sources to mark sections of her book. Thepassage that begins the book and sets the tone for what is to follow is by poet Charles Wright: Memory is a cemetery/I’ve visited one or twice, white/ubiquitous and the set-aside/Everywhere under foot
How did you choose the Wright quote?
I must have come upon that and thought it was perfect for the way I was thinking about the buried history we overlook. Really so much of it is literally beneath us -- the real bones of the people who are beneath us.
I think I’m someone who has a constant awareness of things that are invisible... I think it in some ways comes from growing up in New Orleans. My father was for so many years a graduate student there. [Her father obtained his doctorate at Tulane. He is a poet and teacher at Hollins University in Virginia; her stepmother, too, is a poet and teacher.] Of New Orleans, people either love it or they hate it. People who hate it think it’s seedy. I always think that seediness is just the presence of this history.
There are ghosts everywhere around you.