Former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey at Winter Words in Aspen
The Aspen Times
When Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey writes about America’s tumultuous racial history, she often illuminates its thorny racial present.
For instance, she hasn’t yet responded in her work to the recent unrest across the U.S. sparked by the failure to indict police for killing unarmed black men, including Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York.
“I think I’m always writing about race and inequality by writing about history the way that I do,” she said in a recent phone interview.
She’s currently working on a book that follows Mississippi’s traveling electric chair, which was in use from 1940 to 1955. Looking at capital punishment in the Jim Crow south, she said, has a clear thematic link to the apparent inequality in today’s criminal justice system.
“I became interested in this traveling electric chair and also the disparities in sentencing – particularly the death penalty – meted out in a state like Mississippi, which of course give me a way of looking at the nation as a whole,” she said. “It connects in that way. Those issues, even as they are historic, they are contemporary.”
Trethewey will give a reading Tuesday at Paepcke Auditorium, as part of the ongoing Winter Words series, presented by Aspen Words.
At the event, she’ll be reading mostly from her latest collection, “Thrall.” The 2012 book of collected poems is largely about historic paintings and their representations of race. In them, Trethewey explores works from the U.S. and Europe, some dating back to the 1400s, with contemporary implications that often intersect with Threthewey’s personal life.
A native of Gulfport, Mississippi, and the child of an illegal interracial marriage, Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2007 collection, “Native Guard,” and served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate, from 2012 to 2014.
Along with her poetry, Trethewey – a professor at Emory University in Atlanta – is also currently working on a memoir, she said.
She has previously published one book of nonfiction, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.” Published in 2010, the book is a penetrating, personal look at the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina in Gulfport and its affect on her childhood memories and her family – her brother was incarcerated for selling cocaine after the storm. A new edition of “Beyond Katrina” is due out later this year, including an update on her brother, who Trethewey said is free and has married and moved to Atlanta.
As laureate, she used her time in the country’s most prominent poetic position to underscore poetry’s relevance to American life.
During her first term, Trethewey held “office hours” at the Library of Congress, during which she discussed poetry with everyday Americans.
“It was wonderful for me to hear the role that poetry plays in the lives of Americans across the country,” she said.
During her second term, she collaborated with correspondent Jeffrey Brown of “PBS News Hour” on a series titled “Where Poetry Lives.”
She and Brown traveled the U.S. highlighting the diverse ways poetry is put to use across the country. The project brought Trethewey and Brown to the New York Memory Center, where poetry is used to assist Alzheimer’s patients. They visited an inner city Detroit school program that is utilizing poetry to teach self-expression. They went to Harvard Medical School, where interns are taught poetry to help them empathize with patients.
“My main goal was just to show that people do care about poetry,” she said. “Every couple years, an article comes out heralding the death of poetry. And yet I know that not to be true. … I didn’t want to argue with that. I just wanted to show that it’s not true.”