The role of the United States Poet Laureate is to raise the country’s consciousness about poetry and to spark passion for the craft.
At the conclusion of her two-year tenure as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate, Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey has done that and more.
As her term comes to an end, she joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to reflect on her work, her unique past and the state of poetry today.
Interview Highlights: Natasha Trethewey
On when and why she started writing poetry
“Like a lot of people, if I go way back, I can say that I started writing poems in elementary school, which had a lot to do with my father being a poet, but also because my parents were divorced by that time. I was attending a school that had great instruction in poetry, and we started writing poems as early as the third grade, and some of my earliest poems were about American history. I had a teacher who bound them and put them in the school library, so I felt very much like a poet in the third grade. But I didn’t start writing poetry seriously until I was in graduate school. You know, if the troubled beauty and terrible, violent history of racism and injustice of my home state hurt me into poetry, so did losing my mother when I was 19 and a freshman in college. So I also started writing poems then to try to deal with that grief.”
On why poetry still matters
“You always had naysayers coming and saying that poetry doesn’t matter anymore. The very first consultant in poetry, David Auslander, in 1936, the year before he became the first consultant, wrote an article defending poetry yet again against one of those naysayers, and he talked about all of the technological changes that were happening in 1936, and if you read what he says, it doesn’t sound any different than our contemporary moment, with all of our gadgets and distractions. And yet, when I talk to people around the country, I still find there are so many people who feel the impulse not only to write poetry, but to read it.”
‘Limen’ by Natasha Trethewey
All day I’ve listened to the industry
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,
his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.
She is there, again, beyond the tree,
its slender pods and heart-shaped leaves,
hanging wet sheets on the line — each one
a thin white screen between us. So insistent
is this woodpecker, I’m sure he must be
looking for something else — not simply
the beetles and grubs inside, but some other gift
the tree might hold. All day he’s been at work,
tireless, making the green hearts flutter.
“Limen” from “Domestic Work: Poems” by Natasha Trethewey. Copyright © 2000 by Natasha Trethewey. All rights reserved.