Two-term national Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize–winner Natasha Trethewey was born in her mother’s hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi, on April 26, 1966. The daughter of Eric Trethewey and Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, an interracial couple who traveled from Kentucky to Ohio in order to be legally married, Trethewey shares her birthday with Confederate Memorial Day. I was previously unaware of the holiday, which is still celebrated across the South to commemorate the deaths of Confederate soldiers. Upon the inauguration of Barack Obama, pundits announced we had entered a postracial era. Roughly a decade later, it is easy to say that white supremacy is stronger than it’s been since the civil rights movement.
Talking with Trethewey on the phone, we noted the different ways that signals and symbols of white supremacy—beyond the obvious statues and memorials—continue to stand in plain sight. We are both daughters of the Deep South, and we discussed the old department stores that once lined Canal Street in New Orleans, such as Maison Blanche. Remarking on a Washington Post review of a John Grisham novel, Trethewey said, “One thing he mentions is a dismissal that I hear, too. You write about race. Aren’t there larger or more important subjects to write about? But this reviewer said that Mississippi writers in different genres all write about race because not writing about race in Mississippi is like writers from Arizona not writing about the desert. How can I not?”
Trethewey stands witness. It would be impossible for her not to. In 1985, her stepfather murdered her mother, and she traces her desire to become a poet to her grief. This dedication to survival and memory have informed her five poetry collections, as well as her nonfiction book, Beyond Katrina, a book that should be read in conversation with Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Men We Reaped. Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Native Guard confirmed her as the guardian of the histories that must be retold. This collection chronicled one of the first African American regiments during the Civil War. Her exquisite and brutal lyricism as well as her commitment to truth makes Trethewey one of the most important American poets of our time.
Her new book, Monument, is a collection of both new and selected works. It’s a vibrant and timely book, deeply aware of our nation’s chaotic moment and its historical resonances. The most recent poems ripple with questions that have always informed her work: “Why is everything I see the past / I’ve tried to forget? … Do you know what it means / to have a wound that never heals?” and “How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with hers?/ And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling there?” She interrogates the black experience in America, the trauma of domestic violence and murder, and the destruction of the Gulf Coast. Trethewey is a tremendously empathic and enthusiastic force in our nation’s bleak period. Her words settle with profound gravity, yet her laughter is quick and comfortable.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen Confederate statues and memorials removed and we’ve seen the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama. Could you talk about some memorials that loomed in your own past? Are any of them part of the reason you named the collection Monument?
These monuments and other forms of remembrances for the Confederacy—roads, buildings, bridges—were everywhere in my childhood. I often joke that if you weren’t from the South and you went down there and just looked around at the landscape, you might think that the South won the war. For me, driving on roads, entering buildings, passing monuments to Klansmen and staunch segregationists, gave me a sense of psychological exile. I don’t think I knew at the time, but I certainly know now, that those monuments were erected as a response to advancements in the civil rights movement.
And I was thinking partially about that when I named Monument, but more than that, I was thinking about a necessity for remembering—both on the larger scale of cultural memory, cultural amnesia, and the amnesia within families that goes hand in hand with it. For me it was an attempt, as in Native Guard, to create a living monument in words to my mother. But it took me a long time to see that the desire to create a monument for her was inextricably linked to the kinds of monuments I saw growing up in the Deep South.
What I mean by that—and I think this goes to the heart of your question—is that my mother was murdered in the shadow of Stone Mountain. The apartment complex where we lived after she’d gotten away from my stepfather was located right at the part of Memorial Drive where you crest the hill and Stone Mountain moves right over you. This, of course, is the largest monument to the Confederacy. Memorial Drive is a memorial for Confederate soldiers. To come face-to-face with what is not remembered is painful and nothing brings that home for me more than my mother’s death in the shadow of that monument.
Your work is so bound by the project of memory and history—culturally, socially, and also personally. In your nonfiction book, Beyond Katrina, you talk about the ways in which your grandmother’s memories of Hurricane Camille blur with those of Hurricane Katrina. Her confusion feels so emblematic of the difficulty of separating a current crisis from history. So many events and tragedies are mapped onto each other. You remind us through your poetry that American history is fraught with misremembered cycles of episodic violence, man-made disasters remembered as natural disasters. Could you talk about the ways in which your poetry works to uncover lost historical moments in order to reveal a truth about humanity?
Another monument, or monumental space, that I grew up visiting was off the coast of my hometown, the fort at Ship Island. This is the fort of the Louisiana Native Guards, who were among the first officially sanctioned regiments of African American Union soldiers mustered into service during the Civil War. But when I was a child visiting the island with my grandmother, there was no mention of these black soldiers. Only recently has that really been corrected. There’s now finally a plaque, before you get on the boat to go out there, that commemorates the native guards and their service.
Finding that out accidentally, as I did, made me see again how many of these lesser-known buried histories abound. I wanted to try to tell that story about them as a way of pointing to all of the lost and willfully forgotten and buried narratives. It seems reprehensible to me that I could go through all my years of high school and college history classes and never learn, for example, about Japanese internment during World War II because that wasn’t the narrative of the great country in our textbooks.
I’m struck by the optimism you project in a poem such as “Gathering,” when you write,
I begin to see
our lives are like this—we take
what we need of light.
We glisten, preserve
Handpicked days in memory
Our minds’ dark pantry.
At a time like the present, we need these reserves more than ever. Could you talk about the idea of light preserved in the darkness, how drawing from that historical moment, we find a way to move towards hope?
I’m so glad that you chose that poem and those lines to ask about because it was really I important to me to think about how the things I had to say would be perceived. Particularly after I read the first bit of jacket copy sent to me from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which didn’t really highlight resilience or light or joy. And I get it. I know my subject matter and the trauma of my own personal history can look very dark, and yet I don’t feel that way about it at all. I feel that having known so much despair teaches me so much about hope. That’s one of the weird gifts of suffering. If you can make it through, it’s redemptive.
I gave a reading years ago to a group of trustees. I was reading from Native Guard, from the poems in the third section that are about my own history growing up black and biracial, with my parents in an interracial marriage. Afterward, this woman looked at me with a morose expression on her face and she said, “Do you have any hope?” I wanted to say, “You just sat here and listened to me for thirty minutes reading poems I’ve written, based on this history—do you not understand that the making of a poem is one of the most hopeful acts?” People hear the trauma or they hear the despair and grief that lives still fully in me and yet they don’t see that it actually becomes a pathway to light. Rumi wrote, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” That’s why I feel filled with it.
You open the collection with the poem “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath,” in which you recall the words of a famous former professor who asked you to “unburden yourself of the death of your mother and just pour your heart out in the poems.” This somewhat anodyne statement speaks to a certain privilege that assumes one can contain their grief or loss.
Do you know, I’ve actually written about that famous professor and his full quote was, “Unburden yourself of being black. Unburden yourself of the death of your mother and write about the situation in Northern Ireland. Just pour your heart out in the poems.” The two things that had so shaped my experience of the world, I was being told to unburden. Yeah, okay.
And being a woman as well? You close the poem with the words “you carry her corpse on your back.” That tactile burden speaks to the impossibility of containing grief and also the responsibility of holding onto the past. That even if you could let go of it, you shouldn’t.
Exactly! You know there’s that wonderful Jack Gilbert poem, “Michiko Dead.” He’s describing what that’s like. You carry this box and you keep shifting it from shoulder to shoulder then you hold it out in front of you. It’s about a grief you don’t want to put down.
How does the burden of loss inform your work? While the truth of trauma is that you’re never fully free of it, is the act of writing poetry also a prism through which you are able to confront that truth?
Absolutely it is. From the poet Seamus Heaney, I learned that in saying what happens we can actually can move toward social justice. We don’t have to be ideologically aiming for it when we sit down to write, but how can the intimate engagement with a voice in a poem, a history, not engender at least a sense of empathy from a reader?
Because a poem can create a sort of opening in time, it feels like there are moments of resurrection that I can live fully inside of, like a memory of my mother that brings her back. There are two versions of my mother. Yes, there’s the corpse I carry on my back—that is my dead mother there with me—but my living mother is with me, too. That’s the seed planted in the heart which grows and grows.
The dead stay with us. Our memory and history keep them alive. I was wondering, too, how that experience is different when you’re writing nonfiction.
Somewhat ironically, as a poet whose project is so much about uncovering these buried histories, I have spent a good deal of my adult life in a project of forgetting those years that we lived with my stepfather. All those years are very painful for me to recall. When I look back on them, I remember every moment as a march to the inevitability of my mother’s death. I wanted simply to forget and be made of only what I chose consciously to remember, but of course that’s not how it works. But writing prose is different. I feel the weight of those suppressed memories flooding back. It’s different from what I’m doing in a poem.
What did you enjoy most returning to while pulling together this book?
It was really an enlightening and wonderful process for me going through and choosing poems from the previous collections. I really was thinking of this as a totally different book with an entirely new arc and trying to frame my entire oeuvre thus far through a new lens.
That’s why you have me beginning with “Imperatives for Carrying On in the Aftermath” and ending with a poem about finding a calling much like a saint. I had a dream about my mother three weeks after her death that felt like how the saint in my poem “Articulation” gets her calling after having a vision of the sacred heart of Christ. It sent me on a path of faith and devotion. A devotion to my mother, to her memory, to finding a way to live. Out of the ruin of her life, I made my own. I am not a religious person, but I know this is the gift that Christians believe Christ was supposed to have given to us. I see my mother as having made a kind of sacrifice to save me. I ask that question, How could I not find my calling in that? And that became the lens through which I could see everything I’ve been doing. Everything has been aftermath for me. I was nineteen and had just become an adult.
I don’t know how anyone could not see joy in my work. I often think about the sheer remarkable resilience of black people in the United States. It’s a thing to own and be proud of and buoyed by every day.
Lauren LeBlanc is an independent book editor and writer. She has been published in Guernica, Bomb, Nylon, Lenny Letter, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune among others. A native New Orleanian, she lives in Brooklyn with her family.