United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith discuss poetry, race, and the search of self
The Center for African American Studies and the Lewis Center for the Arts hosted a public conversation between esteemed poets, Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith in the Rotunda of Chancellor Green on Princeton University’s campus on February 28, 2013.
Natasha Trethewey is currently the United States’ Poet Laureate, the 19th in history and the 3rd African American woman to serve in this position. Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for Native Guard and the 2003 Notable Book Award by the American Library Association for Belloc’s Ophelia. In addition to Native Guard and Belloc’s Ophelia, Trethewey has authored: Domestic Work; Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast; and her latest book, Thrall. Trethewey is also Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing, and the director of the creative writing program at Emory University.
Tracy K. Smith, professor of creative writing in the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University also won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her 2012 book, Life on Mars. The Harvard graduate also authored the award-winning books Duende and The Body’s Question. Smith’s awards include the 2004 Rona Jaffe Writers Award, the 2005 Whiting Award, the 2006 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and an Essence Literary Award. Smith’s teaching credits span not only Princeton, but Columbia University, City University of New York and the University of Pittsburgh. The New York Times praised her work as “send[ing] us out into the magnificent chill of the imagination and then returns us to ourselves, both changed and consoled.”
Smith started the conversation with a series of questions, that she posed to Trethewey, while praising Trethewey’s ability to “write poems that will stand as monuments to an overlooked past.” Smith then delved into asking about the search for the balance between the public history and private dimension in her poetry. Trethewey explained her interest in “erasure,” the idea of editing and deleting important parts of history from national memory. Her goal is to “examine the self and make sense of it” all set in a historical context. Trethewey quoted the Heraclides axiom “geography is fate.” She explained that her background as a Georgia born author determined her fate as a poet, and she is therefore a historical being in search of self.
Smith, interested in the quest of finding self, asked Trethewey to read “Elegy”, a poem from Thrall. Smith complimented the courageous nature of the poem due to what it shared with its readers, an intimate look at the relationship between Trethewey and her father. Trethewey spoke of her complex relationship with her father, also a poet, who “has been writing about me since I was born.” She joked that she finally has the chance to write back. Smith described “Elegy” as a poem that depicts a side of America we are afraid to express and Trethewey agreed, describing its necessity in Thrall. “There are some poems you know you need to write,” Trethewey stated.
The discussion of Trethewey’s father also arose in regards to her poem “Enlightenment”. While Smith spoke of its “beauty”, Trethewey mentioned the “pain” of the poem. She remembered the difficulty in writing a poem about her father that contended with painful issues, like their racial difference. The poem’s inspiration is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate where Trethewey’s Caucasian father took her when she was younger. The estate’s official acknowledgment of Jefferson as the father of two of Sally Hemming’s (Jefferson’s slave) children was at the heart of the poem.
Trethewey also noted “learned pain” that arises in writing poetry. She remembered not knowing the “survivor’s guilt” she felt about her mother’s death until she returned to Georgia, the place where her mother died, and began to write about it. But for Trethewey, poetry is a method of processing that pain, which she also mentioned in relation to her poem on a Velasquez painting of Juan de Pareja.
Trethewey spoke of her kinship to Juan de Pareja, a 17th century painter and child of a mulata woman, who was given up to the apprenticeship of Diego Velazquez, a Spanish baroque painter who was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV. She finds parallels between their mutual biracial backgrounds and their assuming the jobs of their fathers; Trethewey’s literal father and de Pareja’s assumed one in Velazquez. She saw the Velazquez’s painting of de Pareja and was immediately struck by the difference in that depiction and de Pareja’s own self portrait. Trethewey explained her visual nature and how that poem helped to work through underlying issues in her relationship with her father.
Smith asked if Trethewey seeks to reverse “erasures” on a national level, like the Jefferson-Hemmings history, in her position as the United States Poet Laureate. Trethewey says she recognizes what she can do her in position and feels she was chosen for that reason.
In the Q&A session afterward a student asked about constantly being observant for the sake of poetry. Trethewey answered, “As poets we are always trying to memorize the moment for a poem later on, sometimes you have to just live in it.”
The conversation was followed by a book signing by both Trethewey and Smith, and a public reception in the Upper Hyphen of Chancellor Green. The center will continue delving into the field of poetry, when poet Elizabeth Alexander of Yale University delivers the annual Toni Morrison Lectures on April 24 and 25, 2013 at 5:30 p.m. in McCosh Hall, Room 50.