- A Conversation with Natasha Trethewey
Natasha Trethewey is the author of three collections of poetry, Domestic Work (2000), Bellocq's Ophelia (2002) and Native Guard (2006). Her forthcoming book of prose, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, will appear in the fall. In Native Guard, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize, Trethewey elegantly and powerfully moves between the personal and public spheres of history, creating in her poems monuments that resist the historical erasure of people and events. The recipient of a number of prestigious awards and fellowships, Trethewey is currently the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. [End Page 145]
This interview was conducted in March 2010 at the University of Missouri, where the poet participated in writing residencies with the graduate students of the creative writing program. The conversation took place, it should be noted, after a very pleasant lunch.
Natasha, I'd like to start by asking you where a poem begins. Often when I'm reading a poem I find fascinating or galvanizing, I wonder what kernel of energy allowed for the poem's genesis. Could you talk a little bit about that?
I do that too. I always try to read other poets' poems to find that moment in the poem where things seem to have begun. For me poems begin in a lot of different places. I can't say that there's any one place that I can always count on to be the germ of a poem, though. Often it is a phrase or a line or a few words that will come to me that I then memorize and repeat over and over until they become some kind of talisman that suggests a direction to go in. But because I do a lot of research, often ideas for poems or the germ of a poem come from finding the luminous details: you know, Pound's phrase, in some history text I'm reading, some image or detail that strikes me as so strange it's worth asking questions of. 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 [End Page 146] 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...