Natasha Trethewey served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014. The following excerpts are from an interview conducted at the Library of Congress during her term.
Natasha Trethewey: I think I start with the deepest truths which are for me often historical truths. I am of course, as you say, interested in investigating the self, and making sense of my place in the world. And it seems to me the only way to do it is to make sense of my place in the continuum of history. What are those things that happened in the past that have everything to do with this moment, and me in it.
Grace Cavalieri: And I feel that partly the choice, in addition to your poetry, the reason you’re our laureate is because of your scholarship. Because it is really such a contribution to have the poem reflected in great works of art; in historical moments. And that is what you are known for.
Trethewey: Well poetry is exciting to me because it is about discovery; and of course so is doing research. And they naturally go together for me.
Cavalieri: Why was the word “ruthless” in your poem “Elegy”? Why? The word ruthless was such a pristine choice of words, and it has a light all around it in that poem. Why ruthless?
Trethewey: Well, you know that’s the first poem in the book, and I wanted to set up immediately the sense that I am making poems, not only about public history, but also about personal history. And in that way, telling the details of aspects of my relationship with my father; with my mother; and I think it does take a kind of ruthlessness to be willing to make of those things art.
Cavalieri: …. I have to mention your prose, because I really believe that it’s important for a poet to be able to write prose.
Cavalieri: And Beyond Katrina was such a different book from any other book about that disaster, because of your approach.
Trethewey: Thank you.
Cavalieri: Can you tell us, first of all, why Beyond Katrina, not After Katrina? That word is such a poet’s word.
Trethewey: Well, because the book wasn’t simply about the aftermath of Katrina. It was beyond both into the past, and into the future. What the, sort of, making of my hometown was that led up to that moment of the storm and its aftermath. And then a projection; a kind of meditation into the future about what Katrina is going to mean in the rebuilding and recovery efforts in people’s lives for many years to come.
Cavalieri: … Your poetry does not try to convert anyone. Your poetry does not try to persuade us, or give us a polemical idea of how things should be; even though the poet stands between us and society, which is a pretty big bridge. But yet, it does persuade us. Can you explain that awareness, and how that happens?
Trethewey: I’ve thought about that a lot; and I want to make use of imagery in poems to show a vision of the world. And of course it is as I see it. But I want to present it in the poems in such a way that you might see it also; that might persuade you. And so, the image is the thing that does the work of argument for me.
Grateful acknowledgment to Grace Cavalieri and Forest Woods Media Productions’ “The Poet and the Poem” for permission to print this interview.
Grace Cavalieri's newest publication is What the Psychic Said (Goss Publications, 2020). She has twenty books and chapbooks of poetry in print, and has had 26 plays produced on American stages. She founded and still produces "The Poet and the Poem," a series for public radio celebrating 40 years on-air, now from the Library of Congress.. She received the 2013 George Garrett Award from The Associate Writing Programs. To read more by this author: Grace Cavalieri: Winter 2001; Introduction to "The Bunny and the Crocodile" Issue: Spring 2004; Grace Cavalieri on Roland Flint: Memorial Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Whitman Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Wartime Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Evolving City Issue; Grace Cavalieri: Split This Rock Issue; Grace Cavalieri on Ann Darr: Forebears Issue; Grace Cavalieri on "The Poet & The Poem": Literary Organizations Issue.