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Fall 2019

Poet Natasha Trethewey Seeks Soul Restoration

Northwestern professor believes in the healing power of poetry. By Adrienne Samuels Gibbs

Image: Andrew Kornylak

Pulitzer Prize–winning author and Northwestern professor of English Natasha Trethewey’s beloved mother died decades ago, and yet her grave, down in Mississippi, remains unmarked by a headstone.

The reasons for this are varied and complicated, and they speak to the essence of Trethewey, one of the most acclaimed poets of our time. Or perhaps the reasons are also singular and simple — alluded to in Trethewey’s latest collection, Monument: Poems New and Selected (2018). Line by brilliant line, she details uncomfortable truths about growing up biracial and black in Mississippi, the insidious nature of racism, the forgotten history of black laborers and the murder of her mother. The epigraph, a line from Walt Whitman’s “The Great City,” provides context for the entire tome: “Where no monuments exist to heroes but in the common words and deeds … .”

Trethewey’s monument to her mother — and to other forgotten Americans — is this book, a work that illustrates how leaning into memories, and memorializing the marginalized, delivers the soul. The two-term U.S. poet laureate, who laughs just as much as she cries when discussing how sorrow led to a Pulitzer, is sharing that restorative path with her students at Northwestern.

“When I am in the process of making, of being generative, that is when I am happiest,” says Trethewey, the Board of Trustees Professor of English in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Natasha Trethewey illustration by John Mavroudis

ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN MAVROUDIS

Though the story she is researching might be about a biracial woman forced into prostitution in 1800s New Orleans or about how Hurricane Katrina impacted thousands, Trethewey finds inspiration in sorting through the pain. “I am happy when I am in that zone, giving a kind of order to chaos, making a pattern.”

These patterns swirl about Trethewey, whose very life seems set up as if it were a book. The child of a marital union considered illegal in 1960s Mississippi, she experienced great personal tragedy, wrote poetry, taught at several universities and became a Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundation fellow. In 2007 she won a Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard: Poems, her collection about a regiment of black, Louisiana-based Union soldiers whose history was largely unsung. She has written six books and was appointed U.S. poet laureate in 2012 and 2013. And then, in fall 2017, a few decades after her own mother lived in Chicago, she came to Northwestern, where she is a Litowitz Creative Writing Graduate Program faculty member who also teaches undergraduates.

Upon arrival, she knew she belonged.

The realization came on Halloween, when a little boy rang the bell and said, “Trick or treat.” The sight of a dimly lit child in a Civil War uniform was troubling; in her native Mississippi, the Lost Cause is still very much a cause and a Confederate costume is still a holiday dress-up option. She opened the door to find a 10-year-old wearing a Union uniform.

“I was born on Confederate Memorial Day and now? I feel like this is a place I was supposed to be,” she says. “It seems like I have chosen the geography in which I want to place myself.”

She pauses.

“This just feels like destiny."

“Poetry’s a thing that belongs to everyone.”

If Trethewey were a different person, a person with less grit and resilience, her mother’s death might have ended her. But it didn’t. She is matter-of-fact when discussing the tragedy that occurred when she was 19, and though she tears up, she pushes through. “Domestic violence is a not-explored-enough problem,” she says in an interview with this reporter, on the day that her mother’s second ex-husband was released from an Atlanta-area prison after serving 34 years for the murder of her mother. Trethewey is angry but nowhere near defeated.

That’s because she comes from sturdy, hurricane-stock people who know how to build and blossom after a storm. Her family is from Gulfport, Miss., which was nearly wiped off the map during Hurricane Katrina. But her family land, and mother’s grave, stayed put. And then, having left Emory University to head to Northwestern, her beautiful new home caught fire and nearly burned to the ground — with all her boxes of memories and notes for a new book inside it — within months of moving in.

But all was not lost.

No one was hurt. And the books — her books, her husband’s books, her father’s books — emerged unscathed. The volumes were packed so tightly on the shelves that no oxygen could get to them, and they did not burn.

The couple’s individual working documents had already been uploaded to the cloud. And the fire somehow skipped over the family photos and her father’s beloved Alpha Phi Alpha wooden pledge paddle.

Trethewey and her husband, Northwestern history professor Brett Gadsden ’99 MA, ’07 PhD, gutted the entire house and moved into an apartment for two years. They are finally, just now, moving back into their refurbished home.

“The house reminded me of my mother,” says Trethewey, dabbing her eyes while mentioning the fleur-de-lis etched into a stained-glass window and the daffodils and narcissus that line her garden in the spring and also make appearances in her poetry of Mississippi. “The fire was just terrible. But there’s growth in how it didn’t break me. It felt like the house did a cleansing, you know? The fire got rid of everything that needed to go. And now we get to start over.”

In “Pastoral,” a poem reprinted in Monument, Trethewey speaks about her beloved father. It’s a piece that on the surface is about a dream: taking a group photo with the famous “Fugitive poets” of the South. In the end, though, the poetry sears.

monument bookIn part, she writes:

We’re lining up now — Robert Penn Warren,
his voice just audible above the drone
of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.
Say “race,” the photographer croons. I’m in
blackface again when the flash freezes us.
My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?

People often ask questions when they really make statements, says Trethewey, who underscores this communication style within the words of “Pastoral.”

But more than that, the piece illustrates Trethewey’s connection to her father, Eric Trethewey, a young white poet who met his future wife, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, while both were students at Kentucky State College. He stood out from the crowd and, despite being in the Deep South, was invited to join the historically black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha in 1963. 

Her parents divorced when she was 6, but a young Natasha often visited her father at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he was in graduate school, and years later would write of her visceral memories of being a child able to “pass for white” even while her mother and grandmother were unmistakably black.

Trethewey has always been interested in historical memory and historical erasure. She says that her poetry comes from two existential wounds, the wound of history and the immeasurable loss of her mother.

“W.H. Auden, in his memorial to William Butler Yeats (In Memory of W.B. Yeats), wrote, ‘Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,’ ” she says. “Mad Mississippi, with its history of racial violence and oppression, inflicted my first wound. My mother’s death was the second. This is what hurt me into poetry.”

Board of Trustees Professor of English Natasha Trethewey discusses poetry, teaching at Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and the way her poems grapple with history and provide emotional reckonings with truth.

In the 2006 collection Native Guard, Trethewey dug deep to find materials about the Union regiment that was housed at Ship Island, near her native Gulfport. These soldiers were named the Louisiana Native Guards and were one of the Union’s first black divisions, mustered in late 1862 and charged with guarding Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. One of a handful of “colored” regiments, the Native Guards fought for their own freedom, and the freedom of the country, but many suffered the indignities of dying without acknowledgment or even a grave. That is, until Trethewey and others from her area began to celebrate the contributions of those soldiers.

After Native Guard’s release, Mississippi honored the regiment’s memory with an actual monument near the dock where people board the boat to Ship Island. Trethewey’s words helped manifest a miracle: She wrote those dead soldiers back into their rightful place in American history.

Trethewey has published six books that blend historical research with poetry. One, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), is about the life of a biracial, antebellum-era New Orleans prostitute who lived in one of the “octoroon” brothels. Another, Domestic Work (2000), is the result of creating poems inspired by historic images of African Americans at work in the pre–civil rights era of the 20th century.

When Trethewey was named poet laureate, James Billington, then the librarian of Congress, said this about her work: “Her poems dig beneath the surface of history — personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago — to explore the human struggles that we all face.”

“Even the most traumatic events in our lives can be changed — be transformed — in the language of a poem.”

At Northwestern, in her class Poetry and the Historical Imagination, Trethewey asks students to investigate the intersections between public history and their personal history in the places they come from.

She says that when they consider family stories and place, they begin to see deeper truths. After such an assignment, the process often leads students to expose their own hidden layers.

“I tell them also that unless they’re willing to write about things that are frightening to them, unless they are really trying to tell a truth — an emotional truth — then they’re not really writing,” says Trethewey. “I try to make a space in my classroom where students feel like they can reveal parts of themselves — where they can reveal that emotional landscape without judgment. Even the most traumatic events in our lives can be changed — be transformed — in the language of a poem.”

As poet laureate, Trethewey was tasked with bringing more poetry to the masses. She traveled the country and gave more readings than she can remember. She also wanted to make poetry more accessible and to show how people are already making use of poetry in their daily lives, which is why she taped Where Poetry Lives, a PBS NewsHour series with senior correspondent Jeffrey Brown.

“I think there’s a poem out there for everyone,” she says. “It starts with enthusiasm, and I try to find poems that will be meaningful to people, that will get them interested, get them hooked.”

National Book Award finalist Jericho Brown, who was in graduate school when Trethewey won the Pulitzer, has seen this teaching in action as a student of poetry. The two first met when she taught a class at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop at Texas A&M. He knew years ago that Trethewey’s talent was something special.

“She’s a brilliant teacher — not just about poetry, but about life. She’s proof that when you are true to who you are and what you do, you have a kind of confidence about yourself that you can get beyond yourself,” says Brown, who is now director of the creative writing program at Emory University.

“We try to write the poems that we need to write for ourselves,” Brown explains, “and it turns out that other people need those poems too.”

“The act of making poetry is an act of hope.”

The state of Mississippi is soon to honor Natasha Trethewey with her own monument on the Mississippi Writers Trail, a series of cultural markers similar to Boston’s well-known Freedom Trail. For Mississippi this has resulted in a series of markers commemorating the lives of writers such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Margaret Walker ’35, ’74 H.

Trethewey’s plaque will lead visitors down a path of historical discovery as they read her catalog. And that’s exactly the point, says Kevin Young, director of New York City’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and a primary reader for Trethewey’s first book of poetry, Domestic Work.

“Natasha has always had grace and power in her writing,” says Young. “She’s always had a vision for what she wanted out of a poem. She writes out of a passionate place. She writes about memory, loss and land. You will be moved when you encounter her monument.”

But Trethewey has not yet settled on a location. Should it be next to the newly erected monument to the Native Guards? Should it be in Gulfport on family land that sits fallow and has for years?

The poet ponders the question. “I could have it on my mother’s grave,” she says. “I can have it on my grandmother’s property. It needs to be somewhere where the act of remembrance leads people to more remembrances — not just of me but of the larger web of history that we’re all a part of.”

Adrienne Samuels Gibbs ’99 is features editor at Zora, Medium’s new publication centered on the experiences of women of color. She is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

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