Natasha Trethewey, the newly appointed 19th poet laureate to the Library of Congress, is scheduled to give her inaugural reading Thursday.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning English professor at Emory University spoke to The Hill about her upcoming duties during her one-year tenure as laureate and just what inspires her to create written works of art.
My father is a poet, my stepmother is a poet, and so I always had encouragement as a child to write. On long trips my father would say, “If you’re bored, why don’t you write a poem about it?” … I enjoyed writing when I was growing up and I tended to gravitate toward telling stories, and so I wrote fiction. And when I went to graduate school, first I thought I was going to be a fiction writer, but it turned out that I was quite wrong about that.
Q: What changed your mind?
It was actually a dare. A friend of mine in the program who was a poet dared me to try to write a poem. And I took the dare only to prove how bad I would be at it because I was convinced that I had no idea how to write a poem. And so I wrote a poem and it actually wasn’t that bad, and I showed it to my fiction professor, who said to me, “Oh, Tasha, you’re a poet.” And that may be because I was not much of a fiction writer, so she was trying to encourage me to do something else [laughs]. But I started writing poems at that point and never really looked back.
Q: Were you surprised to learn you had been chosen as poet laureate?
It was a wonderful, wonderful surprise. The call came one afternoon in May, and it was [Librarian of Congress James] Billington … I thought maybe someone was playing a trick on me. It’s just been so amazing and also so unbelievable.
Q: So what do your new duties include?
I give a reading to open the literary season … at the library. I’ll also give a closing lecture in May, and I will select the Witter Bynner [Foundation] poet, and introduce them at their reading. Those are the three main things that I have to do. Generally, different poets will come up with other kinds of projects to help bring poetry to a wider audience. And so during the time I’m there, I will be thinking about how best to do that.
: Any ideas so far?
One of the things I’m doing that’s different than what has happened in many years is that I will be in residence in Washington for half of the year. And so, in that way, I can perhaps bring more attention to the Library as a wonderful American resource, which is, of course, public. I can have some office hours, host people in the poetry center in the Library, and that’s one of the things I want to be able to do — to meet various people from the public in the Library.
Q: Where do you think poetry currently fits in in such a technology-driven world?
I think people turn to poetry more often than they think they do, or encounter it in more ways than they think that they do. I think we forget the places that we encounter it, say, in songs or in other little bits and pieces of things that we may have remembered from childhood. I think the biggest thing that I have to do is to remind people that poetry is there for us to turn to not only to remind us that we’re not alone — for example, if we are grieving the loss of someone — but also to help us celebrate our joys. That’s why so many people I know who’ve gotten married will have a poem read at the wedding.
Q: Are there any topics that inspire you or remain a consistent theme in your work?
I keep returning to the intersection between public history and personal history. The past and how we remember the past, which is, of course, memory. It’s cultural memory and it’s personal memory. It’s historical memory and personal memory. I do that because I’m interested in making sense of my place in the world … No nostalgia here, at all. I’m about remembering the past and seeing it for all its difficulties, its traumas, in the way that it affects our lives and shapes our thinking.
Q: Do you have any plans to integrate politics into your work as poet laureate?
I wouldn’t say the position is necessarily affiliated with politics. Certainly it’s a position that was created by Congress, but poetry is certainly not partisan. Poetry’s a thing that belongs to everyone. And my job, inasmuch as this is political, is to remind people that poetry belongs to us all and that it can be a place of refuge for all of us. Now, I don’t know how being [in Washington] will affect what I decide to write about, but I’m always open to the possibility of finding new ideas and inspiration wherever I am.
: Is being named poet laureate the top accolade a poet can receive?
I think it is. I have to tell you that when I won the Pulitzer Prize years ago, at the ceremony they said to us, “Now you know the first line of your obituary.” And when I went to the Library of Congress after the call from Dr. Billington, they said to me, “Now you know the line that will replace that line.”