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Southern Crossings: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey

                                    Daniel Cross Turner


Natasha Trethewey is the author of three volumes of poetry, Domestic Work (2000), Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), and Native Guard (2006), as well as a work of creative nonfiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010). The array of honors for her poetry includes the initial Cave Canem poetry prize (selected by Rita Dove), the Lillian Smith Award for Poetry, and the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize. She has been a finalist for the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin Prize and the Lenore Marshall Prize, and has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bunting Fellowship Program at Harvard University, and the James Weldon Johnson Fellowship in African American Studies at Yale University. Native Guard earned the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Trethewey has taught at Auburn University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University, where she was the Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies. She is currently Professor of English and holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University.

This interview was conducted on April 23, 2010 in Loudonville, New York, where Trethewey served as the featured writer for Siena College’s Greyfriar Living Literature Series.

Daniel Cross Turner: Looking back, do you see a sense of progression—or perhaps “direction” might be a better term—in your career as a poet, from Domestic Work to Bellocq’s Ophelia to Native Guard?

Natasha Trethewey: Yes I do. I see in my volumes a deepening of my main concerns. In Domestic Work, I began with the historical impulse and the impetus to recover from the margins the stories of those people who often get left out of public histories. In that volume, I explored the life of my maternal grandmother, placing the narratives that she told me, the stories of her life, within larger historical contexts: American history, the history of the American South, the history of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. Her own history is firmly set in those broader cultural moments. Transitioning from there to Bellocq’s Ophelia, we hear again a woman’s story that is infused with a particular time and space. The character Ophelia represents that kind of person who would have been ignored in official public histories, who may not have left records for us to know her individual narrative. I continue to be attentive to matters of historical memory and historical erasure, questions that are central to Native Guard. I can see now that this interest began in simply trying to relate a story about my grandmother’s life. 

DCT: Your poems often have strong narrative lines, like a series of vignettes that accumulate value and momentum as we move through them all together. Why not fiction? What does poetry add to the ideas or responses to your work?

NT: What interests me most about poetry is the elegant envelope of form and the kind of density and compression that a poem demands. Because of those demands, I think I get to work more with silences than if I were writing prose. The silences are as big a part in my poems as what is being said. I believe my poems do a lot of work with what is implicit, rather than what is explicit. I just finished writing a work of creative nonfiction, Beyond Katrina, and I noticed that even in prose I have a strong tendency to circle back; repetition is a thing that I make use of constantly. It seems to me to be more natural in poetry and yet it also appears in my other writing.

DCT: Yes, your poems often contain overlapping levels of repetition, in terms of individual words, but also structural repetitions: the re-use of similar poetic forms as well as rhythmic and metrical reiterations. Do these layers of repetitions connect to your concern with memory and history?

NT: Absolutely. The types of forms I use in Native Guard have everything to do with the idea of historical memory and reinscription. I decided that it was necessary to invoke forms that had repetition or refrain in order to reinscribe those things that had been erased or forgotten. The necessity of repeating them, saying it not once, but twice, to make such things become memorable.

DCT: Between your poetry volumes there is marked repetition of motifs as well as within the individual volumes. How does recurrence on the level of language play into your thematic concerns?

NT: I think that I am obsessed, and I trust my obsessions, meaning I allow them to guide me through poems. Those words that keep getting repeated, those motifs—cotton, ghost, cross, for example, in Native Guard—are also intertwined with that desire to constantly circle back. There is a kind of momentum that’s gained because the repeated words are used in different contexts: they mean, then mean differently again when they reappear in other places. I see myself as trying to build, layer upon layer, this larger sense of fanatic reinvestigation and reinscription of the past. This is why it is often difficult for me to simply pluck out certain poems for public readings. I am so focused on the layering of images and ideas in my poems and volumes that it seems as if you almost need every single time that layering happens in order to construct the full sense of obsessive retelling. My friend and fellow poet Dan Albergotti was at a panel at AWP [The Association of Writers and Writing Programs] about Robert Frost’s idea of the twenty-fifth poem, which is the whole collection itself. I’m always interested in the twenty-fifth poem in a collection. In order for me to make the whole collection seem as if it were one long poem, it seems absolutely important for those kinds of repetitions and echoes to work their way through the entire volume.

DCT: One might say that you work with “plain” language in your poems. There is also a sense that, as you describe difficult, even traumatic personal and historical matters, you use a plaintive tone—never maudlin or melodramatic, always restrained and plain-sighted. Could you say something about the tension between the symbolic and what we might call the “real” in your poems, your use of language that is plain, but takes on symbolic resonances?

NT: Thank you for saying that. I think sometimes it can be hard for certain kinds of readers to see how some of the most accessible things are also doing another kind of work. But of course we know that poetry is the one way we have of saying what we mean and meaning something else at the same time, and that ordinary words do that work for us. Ordinary words are poems in themselves. That’s one thing I love about poetry, that if I choose the right word, there are so many levels of meaning, especially for the person who hangs out with the OED [Oxford English Dictionary] as much as I do [laughs]. I want to find the best words that open many doors as you walk through the poem. There’s something even in my personality that has to do with frankness and plainspokenness. Maybe I must work on it because I’m the type of person—I’m embarrassed to say—who tears up at sappy commercials, and it’s so maudlin when I do it. And yet it is not at all what I do with my poetry; I don’t want to ever wrestle a scene for overplayed emotion in my work. A reviewer once described my poetic persona as a kind of sangfroid. And I do think of myself as a little cold-blooded as a poet. I’ve had to be that way in dealing with personal tragedy. I’ve had to look unflinchingly at my own past, and I try to bring that sensibility into my poems.

DCT: The blood metaphor just now put me in mind of the “confessional” poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, where the raw emotionalism of the verse makes it seem as if the poet is opening up a vein and bleeding out interior turmoil onto the page. But there is a conscious effort on your part not to give your poems over to unfettered emotion.

NT: Yes, I do not want to give myself over to melodrama. And I became this way because I did have such a sensational history, things that one might read about in the newspaper. I am much more interested in ordinary objects and the weight of meaning that they bring to bear, particularly in their juxtapositions. Like looking at that window over there, just describing the objects that are on the sill—their relationships to each other, the angles that they’re in, the shadows—that’s what I’m interested in. I am fascinated with the gestural. I remember studying Bertolt Brecht in graduate school and encountering his idea that gesture was the thing that really couldn’t be faked. So I’m very interested in the gestures of human beings, but also the gestures that objects make in their juxtapositions to each other, how they can tell a good part of the story.

DCT: That’s fascinating—exploring how objects and things “speak” to the cultural histories that inform them and that they inform. Would you connect that sense of gesturing things to your extensive integrations of photographic art in your poems?

NT: Yes, one of the first photographers whom I fell in love with for the narrative power of her images was Carrie Mae Weems. There is this domestic series that she did, The Kitchen Table Series (1990). It was a series of interiors, of Black people in the kitchen in a house, a man and a woman, but sometimes the woman by herself. These images told such a story, they conveyed so much meaning about the lives of the people in the scenes and their relationships to each other and to things that were outside the frame. I learned a lot about writing the image by looking at photographic images like that. The positioning of the people, their gestures, their proximity to each other, the things on the table between them—there was meaning embedded in all of it, and all you had to do was simply look at it and see it. And so I always want my poems to work like that. If you just see the scene, I won’t have to say much about it.

DCT: With regard to that kind of restraint—holding back both emotionally and in terms of the imagery you present—how does your use of form and formalism enter into these dynamics?

NT: A plaintive tone can arise through the notion of restraint because a poem that is restrained by form, where something is being held back, suggests the absolute struggle to say what is being said. In the struggle to be able to get out even the one thing that is being said, so much has been pared away. The silence is part of that tone and that sense of plain-sightedness: the struggle to find the one way to say a thing so that it need not be embellished.

DCT: Although your work contains a strong sense of realism, even down to the reality of things and objects, your images carry a rich range of figurative connotations. A number of your prominent motifs seem to serve as self-reflexive images for your own poetic processes. For instance, “crosshatching” appears as an important image throughout the sonnet sequence of the poem “Native Guard.” In one of the sections, a former slave, now a Black Union solider, exposes the whip scars “crosshatched” into his back. In another sonnet, the Black soldier who narrates the poem recognizes that his writing between the lines of a journal discovered in an abandoned White Southerner’s home is an act of “crosshatching,” as is his soldier’s duty of composing letters home for illiterate Confederate prisoners-of-war. These acts potentially create some connection with White Southerners, his former and would-be masters—even if this impulse toward understanding others is not reciprocated by them—by relating their stories to others. Can “crosshatching” be read as metaphor for what your verse does?

NT: I believe so. It’s the integration of my personal story, my history, crosshatched, written over and within the public histories and more dominant narratives I have received. I like the idea of how these strands are interwoven, because our stories are never simply two trains running on separate tracks. They are much more like the basketweave of that crosshatching. And the great thing about the idea of the crosshatching is that, depending on how you turn it, you can read one or the other narratives. It doesn’t actually obliterate one in order to replace it with another; they both exist, and we only need shift our vision to see both stories. And so I’ve wanted my own story to be inextricably linked and crosshatched with larger American stories.

DCT: The poet and critic Susan Stewart has written about poetic intersubjectivity, that poetry offers a way for the poet to take on the Orphic task of drawing along the other out of the darkness, or sometimes just to share the darkness. Do you see that as operating in your own work, that sense of connectedness?

NT: I want the largest possible audience of people to be welcomed into my poems and to use the most important muscle human beings have, which is the muscle of empathy. I want a reader who might not have considered some of the issues my poems raise to feel themselves drawn in and to see the world themselves through a slightly different lens that allows for shared histories, instead of separate ones. This happens with the narrator of “Native Guard.” He’s the one with the documentary power. He’s the one who has the pen and is doing the writing and, because of that, he’s the one who has the power to shape the narrative, what gets recorded. And so he takes on that task, attempting to find a way to articulate what it is the White soldiers are trying to say. So there is a bit of empathetic revision on his part. He’s not simply taking dictation. I wanted to show that he is in this role of writing history, of reinscribing cultural memory, which is of course a role reversal. And so he has to grapple with what this means, with what kinds of ethical obligations we have when we are purporting to speak for others.

DCT: Even on the level of form in “Native Guard” and other poems, your texts reflect a kind of chiasmatic structure, a crosshatched repetition with variation that crosses over between lines and stanzas. For instance, in “Native Guard,” the last line of one sonnet is taken up as the basis for the first line of the next section.

NT: Yes, I wanted to show the interwovenness, the inextricability of their voices, and this happens also in the back-and-forth crossings of some of the lines themselves. This also has something to do with the feeling that in some ways these kinds of crossings and crosshatchings exist within my own blood. I think about Langston Hughes’ poem “Cross” concerning mixed race experience. And here I have lived and grown up in a place and a time where I could feel as if whatever story I had to tell could link what seemed to some people very disparate stories. That I myself embodied that sense of crossing.

DCT: In all your volumes, there is a recurrent pattern of graves and grave-tending, on both personal and historical levels. Does this motif also serve as an image of what your verse does? Is poetry a form of grave-tending?

NT: I do feel that poets should take on the responsibility of recording or re-recording the cultural memory of a people, and tending the graves is a way of doing this. It means tending to the past, to those things that are not gone or erased or invisible, but are indeed enacting themselves in our daily lives. Countless writers have found a way to say this. William Faulkner says that the past is never dead, it’s not even past. James Baldwin talks about how the past is literally present in everything that we do. Tending the graves to me is really a way of tending the present too, a way of being attentive to our everyday lives and interactions with each other. I use that epigraph from Charles Wright, which is so wonderful, to begin the first sequence of poems in Native Guard:
          Memory is a cemetery
          I’ve visited once or twice, white
                                              ubiquitous and the set-aside
          Everywhere under foot…
I walk through the world thinking always of what has come before, that it’s still present, and I think it’s my job as a poet to tend to that.

DCT: Charles Wright’s poems are always so brilliantly abstract—they rarely fill in the set-aside—but your poems flesh out the set-aside and the lost in remarkable ways. Sometimes this happens physically in images of decaying bodies on battlefields in “Native Guard” or of ants making a mound of dirt on your mother’s grave in “Monument.” That seems important in your work, this concern with a weightier realism, with the reality of objects in our worlds, and with bodying forth the set-aside and their histories.

NT: Yes, I think so. I’m so glad you mentioned that about the ants in “Monument.” This is another example of how such plain-spoken words can be so laden with symbolism. When I was working on that poem, I discovered, while hanging out with my OED, that an ant mound is quite literally a monument. And so I titled the poem “Monument” in hopes of directing the reader towards that other definition, which is how the poem tries to do its deeper levels of work beyond the very accessible surface of just watching ants building an ant mound. In seeing the ants going about their business I am reminded about how I have not gone about mine. That they are building the monument to my mother’s memory that I have not yet built.

DCT: That might take us into another question: the status of “nature” or environment in your work. At times nature shows up in somewhat grim ways, as in “Monument” and in other images of human bodies breaking down into their thingness, the bare bones of their material structure. One might not immediately think of you as a nature poet per se, but there are repetitive instances of nature coming into the human world, sometimes clashing, sometimes converging. How would you describe the role of nature in your poems?

NT: That’s such a good question. The poet Camille Dungy just edited an anthology called Black Nature. She and I were talking about the anthology not too long ago and she said to me, “I realize that I could have included so many of your poems” beyond the ones that she did include. And I talked to her how my father used to say to me over and over again when I was first starting out trying to be a poet that I should write a poem about nature. And every time he’d say it, I’d roll my eyes and think that I don’t have the same relationship with the natural world that my father has. I grew up partially in Mississippi, a place where nature to me was always my grandmother’s yard, the ditch that ran right beside it, and then right beside the ditch a big highway, new Highway 49, and looming above my grandmother’s house, in all its irony, a billboard that read “Marine Life on the Beach at Gulfport,” a billboard about some dolphin show there. So for me nature was always cut through by a highway. Unlike my father, nature wasn’t the rural experience. So I was wondering how I had anything to say about nature. And this is one of the things that Camille gets at in this anthology: often when Black people have written about nature, somehow a tree seems to become a lynching tree. African Americans’ relation to nature is often a dark one or at least a different one, a relationship rooted in hardship or toil or labor. That’s what my relationship to nature often is. Which is not to say that I don’t walk around and enjoy beautiful nature and the flowers blooming and the birds singing, but nature always is a gateway that leads to some other thinking about things. For instance, in Domestic Work, I have a poem called “Signs” in which I write about my grandmother leaving home to go to the home of her new husband, who has a family farm farther north in Mississippi. Being from the Gulf Coast, she had never seen cotton before. As she’s riding in the car to her husband’s farm, she sees cotton on the roadside for the first time—of course, again, there’s that image of a road cutting through nature. The nature she sees is cotton fields, which represent so much toil for people both Black and White at this time in Mississippi. She thinks that it’s a field of gladiolas, that these rows of cotton are fields of flowers. I always thought that this was such a crazy story and yet it suggested to me something about the way we can be blinded by our own past and environment. Because she was on her way to this family farm with this new husband, my mother’s father, a man whom she would later discover was a bigamist. There is a failure to see the signs for what they are. Instead, she sees what looks to be loveliness and flowers and it’s really something completely different. The way that nature commingles the lovely with the grim also plays a part in my poem “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971” from Native Guard. I remember how beautiful the landscape was the morning we walked out into the yard and saw all of the trees encased in this shining layer of ice. It was sunny and the ice hadn’t quite begun to melt yet, so everything looked like crystal, sparkling. And yet I couldn’t help juxtaposing that lovely image of the natural world and the vision of things being so perfectly enwrapped in the gleaming ice with the other dark side of things, the violence against my mother happening within the house.

DCT: The Gulf often becomes the physical embodiment of nature in your poems. “The Gulf” seems to bolster a good deal of symbolic force, on personal, historical, even existential levels.

NT: When I think of the Gulf, I think first of the physical space itself, the very coastline. Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast is what is known as the world’s longest man-made beach, twenty-six miles of sand. To make this beach in the middle of the twentieth century, they had to dreg and bulldoze the mangrove swamps and then import all this sand and dump it on top of this indigenous shoreline. That is a perfect metaphor for a kind of erasure and re-writing. This is a coastline that has been revised; we’ve taken what was natural, bulldozed it and replaced it with another layer. And yet I always think that there are ways that nature—especially the nature of the Gulf Coast and along that shoreline—both conceals and reveals something about that buried past, about what has been overwritten.

DCT: There is so much crossing or attempted crossing, actual and symbolic, in your poems. And yet there is also the Gulf, which holds a sense of potential separation and barrier. Could you say something about how these tensions coalesce, or not, in your work?

NT: Well, yes, the Gulf is also interesting because it’s hemmed in by a series of barrier islands and it’s very shallow, and deceptively so. It looks like this calm surface, but you’d have to walk out really far before you’d even be waist-deep and the water is cloudy. Once you get to the other side of the barrier islands, the water is much clearer. I remember as a child standing on the beach. I would look out and see some of the trees of the closest barrier island. Before anyone told me better, I used to think I was seeing Mexico because I knew this was the Gulf of Mexico. The idea that there was this foreign place in such close proximity struck me. I had been to Mexico as a child and so I was looking across the Gulf and imagining that I could see the other country. With a child’s imagination of borders and barriers and crossings, I believed that I could cross over and get to this other place.

DCT: Another strong motif in your work is the matter of attempting to “fix” memory in writing, to capture the past on paper, or in some cases, engraved in stone, to make lasting memories.

NT: For me, the act of writing is always public. I never think of writing as a private act and there are a couple of reasons that I must feel this way. When I was twelve years old, I was given a diary for the first time, the kind of diary with a little lock and a key. I was given this thing that was going to be the repository of my thoughts and I started writing in it. Not long after, I realized that my stepfather was reading it. He would pick the lock and read whatever I wrote. I knew that I did not have the privacy in what I was writing and I began to think of him in some ways as an audience, as my first audience. I actually carried on a very difficult conversation with him. I would write things to him and almost dare him to say anything back to me. Because I knew he wouldn’t. I would write in the diary, “For you to say anything about this would be to acknowledge what you’re doing.” And he never did. A little before then, I had read the Diary of Anne Frank. Here is this young woman in some ways writing a personal account of her experience but also seeming to have a knowledge that it would be public. That became the way for me to think about writing, that it was for the public and that it should do important work. Even if this work were based in personal reflection, it should speak to and for more than the person writing it.

DCT: Drawing on that sense of public responsibility, of writing as both personal and public, do you feel that the pattern of writing memories in your poems is related to the African American cultural archetype of literacy? This is so prevalent, for instance, in slave narratives, like Frederick Douglass writing between the lines of a White child’s lesson book and realizing that learning to read and write would provide the actual passage to his freedom.

Yes, literacy, the idea of freedom, selfhood—all of that comes from the ability to write, to be literate and to write. That undergirded how I thought of Ophelia in Bellocq’s Ophelia. I really did think a lot about slave narratives and neo-slave narratives when I was working on that book, and the kind of quests that we see in those stories. Literacy is certainly one part of the hero’s quest. That is why I make Ophelia so concerned with education, with learning to write and being well read.

DCT: How about the nature of “Southernness” in your work? You often refer to models of traditional Southernism: the Vanderbilt Fugitives make an appearance in “Pastoral” and there are allusions to Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead” at the conclusion of “Native Guard” and as the epigraph for “Elegy for the Native Guard.” Faulkner’s Joe Christmas from Light in August is mentioned by name in “Miscegenation.” Why the concern with this traditional vision of the Southern past—”Southern” stereotypically meaning White, male writers of privilege? Do you consider yourself a Southern writer?

NT: [Laughs.] I am the quintessential Southern writer! Quintessentially American too! Geography is fate. Of all the kinds of fate swirling around my very being, this place in which I was born and this particular historical moment matter deeply. The story of America has always been a story of miscegenation, of border crossings, of integration of cultures, and again, I embody this in my person. To me, I fit in as the quintessential Southerner. Perhaps even now my role is to establish what has always been Southern, though at other points in history it has been excluded from “Southernness.” We just hadn’t found the right metaphor yet. Which is to me one of the reasons why Native Guard has been successful. People finally saw the American story. I think Mississippians see our story in that American story. I boldly think of myself as that native guardian. Not to mention that my name, Natasha, actually shares the prefix of words like “native” and “national” and “nativity.” It’s there in my very naming.

DCT: Would you say a few words about the new book of poems on which you are currently at work?

NT: Certainly. The new book I’m working on is called Thrall. I see this as an expansion and perhaps fine-tuning of my concerns in my previous works. When I was finishing Native Guard, I was looking up all these words in the OED, and I looked up the word “native.” I was surprised to find that the definition was not what I expected. I would have expected the first definition of “native” to be in the sense that I am a native Mississippian or that a plant is native to the Southeastern United States. Instead what came up was “someone born into the condition of servitude, a born thrall.” The word then carries with it a history of imperialism, of colonialism, the idea that when we go there to colonize some place, those people are the “natives.” And so I became enthralled, to use the pun, with that idea. The notion of what we are in thrall to. I have felt in thrall to language my whole life because language has been used to render me illegal or illegitimate, to name me as other, and in that way to shape my identity and place in the world. The new book begins with a series of poems about Mexican casta paintings, which illustrated the mixed blood unions in the colony and also defined their taxonomies, the ways in which the people had been labeled as a form of social control: to name them and thus to know them in the naming. In his fifteenth-century grammar book of the Castilian language [Castilian Grammar (1492)], Antonio de Nebrija [Bishop of Avila] says that language has always been the perfect instrument of empire. So I begin by considering the ways in which we have been enthralled to language. Again, this idea has been especially close to my own experience. “Miscegenation,” for example, is a word that entered the American lexicon during the Civil War. These terms are invented to identify and categorize human subjects. I’ve very interested in the eighteenth century for the way that natural philosophers then were classifying everything, the way that, with the emergence of Enlightenment thinking, we also have the classification and emergence of codified racial difference. I’m interested in the way that these kinds of taxonomies were a form of knowledge production that subjugated some peoples. In Thrall, I’m examining everything from the casta paintings to botany to anatomy in the eighteenth century. But I’m expanding these poems beyond this historical period because I’m also looking at ideas of otherness, racial difference, blood purity and impurity across time and space. So of course one can find these things in religious paintings, for instance, going back across many centuries and nations. I’m fascinated with how these ideas assert themselves, these notions of blood and purity, through varied histories, how these concepts are still affecting how we think about and treat other human beings around the world. I guess you could say that, in many ways, Thrall is the book that is actually most about race that I’ve ever written. Race always appears in my work because I have a racialized experience of America. But in this new book I’m fully examining race as such, as a category itself, and its relation to that vexed issue of blood.

DCT: Finally, what is the future, or futures, of poetry?

NT: The ways that we encounter poetry are changing. I suppose they had to change. I’m always going to be a fan of the book and hope that the world will continue to be a fan of the book. But I’m also interested in poetry as new media: online journals, the kind of video work that we do at Southern Spaces where we film poets on location in their spaces reading poems. These are different ways to bring poetry to audiences. These new media probably create a much wider net for an audience than even a book that someone might go into a bookstore or library and pick up. We can measure how many hits the website has gotten and we can see where those hits are coming from. A poet who might have simply been “regional” can become national or even international because of these other media. I like to think that this is a good thing. Any time we discover new ways of getting poetry out to the public, this helps complement and expand the more traditional ways of getting poems to audiences. Those people seeing a poet in a “rock star” documentary video type thing might well go seek out the text, the book itself, and therefore know the poet on the page as well as on the computer screen. So I very much envision new yet strong futures for poetry.

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