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Poetry and History: An Evening with U.S. Poet Laureate (2012-2014) Natasha Trethewey

[by Meredith Wiggins]

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey spoke and read poems about art, family, and race as part of the Hall Center for the Humanities 2014-2015 Humanities Lecture Series on Tuesday, March 3.

All her poetry begins with a question she wants to answer, Trethewey said. In the case of 2012’s Thrall, her most recent collection, the primary question was how Enlightenment thinking has shaped the current language of race, including the language that her father, a white poet, used to describe his biracial daughter.

Trethewey conceived of Thrall as a conversation with her father. They used to give readings together, she said, where her father would sometimes read a poem titled “Her Swing,” which described his biracial daughter as “a crossbreed”–something, she added, “that it is not possible for a person to be.”

Trethewey always felt unsettled by the poem, which she said made her feel like the Venus Hottentot, body on display for an audience’s eyes. Her father loved her and encouraged her to a be a poet, she said, but he also dreaded it “because he knew I would set the story straight.”

 

The poems that Trethewey read attempted to do just that. Drawing heavily from Thrall as well as from earlier works, Trethewey highlighted poetry that illuminates the complex interweavings of race, gender, science, and language.

One such poem is “Enlightenment,” which recounts a trip with her father to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation.  For many years, Trethewey said, her father had firmly believed that Jefferson could not have fathered any children by his enslaved mistress Sally Hemings.  In 18 stanzas of three lines each, Trethewey considers “the subtext / of our story”: “this history / that links us – white father, black daughter – / even as it renders us other to each other.”

After finishing her formal reading, Trethewey took audience questions.  She spoke about how she gets ideas for her poetry, the uses of various poetic forms to express meaning, the poetry she’s been recommending in her New Yorker column, and what it was like to hold open “office hours” as Poet Laureate.

“People are always saying poetry is dead, but poetry is everywhere,” Trethewey said, citing the popularity of the office hours as proof.

Maryemma Graham, KU professor of English, introduced Trethewey’s
talk, formally titled “Poetry and History: An Evening with U.S. Poet
Laureate (2012-2014) Natasha Trethewey.”  Graham called Trethewey “our
foremost scholar-poet” and “a literary archaeologist,” one who looks to
the past to help explain the present and the future.

Trethewey,
she added, wants to use her poetry “to create a shared history that
connects people across time and space to each other.”

Sally Utech, the Hall Center’s associate director, told Lawrence.com’s Joanna Hlavacek that Trethewey’s poetry goes to the heart of the American experience. “It’s not just about having a famous poet here,” Utech said. “It’s about having someone who can open up a dialogue that we should be having anyway as a society.”

Thanks to Alyse Bensel for providing additional notes on the talk.

ETA: An earlier version of this post mistakenly used the term “half-breed” instead of “crossbreed” in reference to Eric Trethewey’s poem “Her Swing.” HBW apologizes for the error.