We at TMR are thrilled that Natasha Trethewey has been appointed the new Poet Laureate of the United States. In three innovative books of poems, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard, Trethewey has been a forerunner in what we might call the new-historicist formalism of the 2000s. Grounded in archival research, her poems exhibit a historian’s care for fact, balanced by a personal, living warmth. And in some of her most exciting poems, like Robert Lowell forty years before her (only this go-round inverting the hierarchy), she renders the life study out of and through her own life and family. Her work, like that of a good historian, is recovery, restoration. Lost or “erased” lives and voices are given lasting form by her manipulation of traditional form: a conventionalism that feels effortless and adept, but also edifying, and troubling.
A few years back, in our Summer 2010 issue, poetry editor Marc McKee interviewed Trethewey. In the selection below, they discuss Trethewey’s evolving treatment of history, voice, linearity, and the construction of books of poems.
…All my poems tend to begin in inquiry. There’s always some question I’m asking myself. I want to know why this is a thing in history or what this has meant across time and space.
Is that something that’s remained constant over the arc of the three books that you’ve written–or has it undergone slight change from book to book?
It must change. When I think about a lot of the poems I was writing in Domestic Work, mainly the sequence of poems in the “Domestic Work” section, those poems seemed to arise out of a memory of a particular instance, an image of something that was just stuck in my head-seeing a room a certain way and the people in it, and all of the other images of smell or touch that go along with it. And I wanted to describe that moment and expand it, go out from there to figure out what it means or why it has remained so long in my memory. I don’t think I have proceeded exactly the same way throughout my other two collections, though that does continue to happen. The more I’ve gotten interested in writing about history and making sense of myself within the continuum of history, the more I’ve turned to paintings, to art. I look to the imagery of art to help me understand something about my own place in the world. By just beginning to contemplate a work of art, I find myself led toward some other understanding.
All your books share a very scrupulous, fastidious attention to the way they’re made. I’m thinking about what can sometimes be the chaos of the process of making the poem: How do you feel about going from a draft? What is a draft for you, and what does it take for you to get from a draft to a poem? What to go from a poem or a sequence of poems to a book?
Now, that certainly feels different every time. Writing Native Guard, I didn’t know I was working on a single book. I began writing that book because I was interested in the lesser-known history of these black soldiers stationed off the coast of my hometown. It was stunning to me that I hadn’t known about this growing up, so I started doing research about black soldiers in the Civil War, trying to imagine the voice of this one soldier who might have things to say about then as well as now. But at the same time, I had begun writing elegies for my mother, and I was approaching the twentieth anniversary of her death. Those poems didn’t seem to have anything to do with my interest in the buried history of these Civil War soldiers to whom no monuments had been erected. It was later on that I wrote a poem which hit me and made me realize these things belonged together. Once I knew they belonged together, I could begin fashioning an entire book from these sets of poems.
With Bellocq’s Ophelia it was different because it was even more of a project than Native Guard. Native Guard-part of it-was a project. That was the Civil War part, but the rest of it wasn’t. The entirety of Bellocq’s Ophelia was a project, and I was interested in doing research and looking at photographs and writing about them, imagining this woman Ophelia and what her life was like and the kinds of things she thought about. I began just by writing about the individual photographs to see how they gave way to a story of her life or emotional geography. There was a point where I could look at what I had and decide where there were gaps. And so I would begin to try to think of how I might write a poem that helped fill in some gap in her experience or her evolution as a self. At first, because I was at once writing the letters and writing her diary, I didn’t know that they were going to be separate. I thought they were going to be interspersed because I was very interested in the difference between the public self we present to an audience, like the person to whom you’re writing letters, and the private self who exists in a diary and the way the same information can be skewed so differently. I thought going back and forth would be an interesting way to see that. Then I realized that in terms of the shape the book would take, it might be interesting to show-to tell-the same story or at least the same time period for her year and a half in the brothel, side by side: the diary intact and the letters intact, so you could see the contradictions between the two stories.
I know that my tendency is to be linear, and I’m trying to find ways to subvert that. And so in Bellocq’s Ophelia my device for subverting it was to tell the story and then to tell it again; it always circles back to this one moment, and it’s not linear, but it’s round in that way, and much of Native Guard is like that. So many of the formal decisions I made are about circling back, so the narrative circles back in on itself and can’t simply proceed in a linear fashion.
Since you do so often play with the voices, with inhabiting the voices of the other speakers, how do you feel about a reader’s tendency to either see you in those other voices or to not see, perhaps to miss you in those other voices?
You know, I think I would be completely happy if readers did not find me in those voices, if they found instead this probable or possible character, this human being who might have existed in a certain time and place, who might have thought and felt the things the poems reveal. At the same time, I’m not annoyed if a reader or someone in an audience I’ve just read to asks me questions about the links between the persona in my poems and my own experience. I’ve learned that my poems give way to those kinds of questions, so if it’s a burden, I’ll take it on. But I also think it’s important to talk about how we make poems, how we create a persona from tidbits of our own experience, our own interior life. I don’t think I could create them if I did not give to them aspects of my own interior life. I remember reading Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There’s a part where I think he talks about how all his characters are sort of unrealized parts of himself-they get to be acted out in the language of his fiction. And so I give to my characters-I gave to Ophelia parts of my own interior life, the feelings I had about certain things-things I thought about-but I also gave her certain physical details of my life…