Published: June 08, 2012
Portions of this interview were originally broadcast on July 16, 2007, Jan. 20, 2009 and Aug. 18, 2010.
This week, the Library of Congress announced that Natasha Trethewey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Native Guard, will be the next poet laureate of the United States.
Trethewey is the first poet laureate to hail from the South since Robert Penn Warren was appointed in 1986. The 46-year-old Mississippi native grew up the child of a racially mixed marriage in Gulfport, Miss. Her mother was later murdered by her estranged second husband, Trethewey's stepfather; these, along with the South and its singular ways, are recurring themes in her poetry.
Her first collection, Domestic Work, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 1999. In 2007, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard. The title refers to a regiment of African-American soldiers who fought for the Union during the Civil War. Trethewey is also the author of a 2010 memoir, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The book meditates on the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina that affected both the region and her own family.
At the time, she told Fresh Air's Terry Gross that she always found comfort in her poems.
"I think poetry's always a kind of faith. It is the kind that I have," Trethewey says. "It is what can offer solace and meaning but also ... allows me to understand these events." [Copyright 2013 NPR]
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross. This week, the Library of Congress announced that Natasha Trethewey will be the next poet laureate of the United States, one of the youngest poets ever selected for that honor. So we're going to listen to an interview she recorded with Terry in 2007 after winning the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book "Native Guard."
Many of the poems in that collection are personal, relating to growing up biracial in Mississippi and Georgia. Her white father and African-American mother married when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi. Trethewey's parents divorced when she was a child.
Life took a dark turn when her mother remarried and was murdered by her second husband in 1985, about a year after they divorced. Trethewey writes about that, too, in her collection of poems.
One section of the book is devoted to the Native Guards, regiments of black soldiers who had been slaves before fighting on the Union side in the Civil War. Natasha Trethewey is a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. When she spoke to Terry in 2007, they started with the poems Trethewey wrote about her mother's murder. She told Terry it took a long time before she could write poems about it that were any good.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: For many years, I would try occasionally to write a poem about it, and none of the poems that I wrote over the 20-year period since her death were successful to me. They weren't able to express the tremendous grief artfully in a way that I thought that a poem should.
And so I didn't start writing ones that make it into this book until I moved back to Atlanta about six years ago, and I think returning to the physical landscape of my past and of that great tragedy is what finally made me start writing the poems that I have here now in this book.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
How was your mother killed?
TRETHEWEY: My stepfather came to her apartment on the morning of June 5, 1985, and forced himself into the apartment. He found my brother outside waiting at the school bus and demanded his key and opened the door and found my mother there. And she struggled a bit to get away and ran out into the parking lot, where he caught up to her and shot her twice at close range in the face and neck.
GROSS: I want you to read a poem called "What is Evidence," and please introduce it to us before you read it.
TRETHEWEY: "What is Evidence" is a poem that tries to get at what remains both in terms of the physical and the memory of something. And I started thinking about writing this poem when I had visited my mother's grave again and felt overwhelmed by how there seemed to be nothing left of her or nothing left to remind me of her.
(Reading) What is Evidence? Not the fleeting bruises she'd cover with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint of a scope she pressed her eye too close to, looking for a way out, nor the quiver in the voice she'd steady, leaning into a pot of bones on the stove. Not the teeth she wore in place of her own or the official document, its seal and smeared signature fading already, the edges wearing. Not the tiny marker with its dates, her name, abstract as history.
(Reading) Only the landscape of her body, splintered clavicle, pierced temporal, her thin bones settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
GROSS: That's a great poem. You know, you titled it "What is Evidence," and when you introduced it, you talked about evidence of her life that remains, but it also seems to me that it's about evidence that could be used in her murder trial or in previous trials, if she brought him to trial about abuse.
TRETHEWEY: That's right. Those things that are in the first lines are the kind of things that were reported by emergency workers or the lawyers that she talked to in order to secure her divorce and also things that came up in the first trial, a year before, when he tried to kill her the first time.
GROSS: How aware were you when they were married, your stepfather and your mother, of the way that he abused her? Did she tell you about it? Did you see evidence of it?
TRETHEWEY: The first time that I was aware of it, I was in the fifth grade, and it happened in the late evening, perhaps 11 o'clock or so, but it was past my bedtime. And my brother had a room that was right next to their bedroom; my bedroom was down the hall. And so I think that's why I didn't know sooner what was going on.
And sometimes my brother, if he was afraid to sleep by himself, he was a toddler then, I would sleep in one of the bunk beds in his room, and on that particular night, I woke up to hear the sound coming from their bedroom of him hitting her and her pleading for him not to.
GROSS: And how old were you, in fifth grade?
TRETHEWEY: I was in fifth grade, and the next morning, I went to school, and I was very close to my fifth-grade teacher, and I asked her to come outside the classroom so I could talk to her, and we went down to the girls' bathroom, and I told her what happened. And she said, well, sometimes adults are upset with each other.
And I was crestfallen because I knew that that wasn't the right response. It was just a response that said this is how it is, and there's nothing that really can be done. And so that night, I went home, and I went to my mother's room. She was sitting on the bed folding clothes, and I got up my courage, and I said to her in kind of abstract terms: Do you know how when you have someone you love, and you know they're hurting?
And she looked at me, and she nodded her head, and she had this very large bruise and a bump over the - over her eyebrow. And later on that night, I heard her telling him, telling my stepfather Tasha knows, as if he might stop if he knew that I knew.
GROSS: Did he ever threaten you?
TRETHEWEY: Not physically. He would often devise devious punishments for me when I was a child that mainly involved telling me that I was retarded or that I was like one of the patients at the mental institution where my mother was an administrator at the time and that I should be committed. And so he'd make me pack my suitcase.
And this is, you know, probably when I was in the fourth grade or something. He'd make me pack a suitcase, and then we'd drive around Atlanta for about an hour with me thinking that I was being taken there.
GROSS: That's tormenting a child.
TRETHEWEY: Yeah, I think it definitely was.
TRETHEWEY: And it probably seems strange that I would laugh at it now, but at some point, I realized that he - that it was a bluff, and that gave me a kind of power.
GROSS: Did you ever ask yourself how your mother fell in love with him and stayed for him so long, considering how he abused her and tormented you?
TRETHEWEY: Well, she didn't know that he tormented me. I never told her that. I had some idea that it was my responsibility to suffer in silence, to go along with my mother's life, assuming that she was the parent, and she knew best. And I also think that for a lot of battered women, it - you don't know at first that he's that kind of guy. I think it takes a while to figure that out.
And depending on the man, it might take a little bit longer. At first it probably came out as some bit of jealousy that was cute or flattering, and I don't think he actually began to hit her until about four years or so into their marriage. And by then, they had my brother, they'd bought a house. There was a kind of a trap.
And so she started with what she thought I think were the best options, and that was therapy and marriage counseling, and so I know that they did that for years.
DAVIES: Natasha Trethewey, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007 after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard." Trethewey will be the next poet laureate of the United States. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Natasha Trethewey, the next poet laureate. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard." Several poems in the book are about her mother, who was murdered in 1985 by Trethewey's stepfather.
GROSS: You know, we've been talking about how your stepfather, who was your mother's second husband, murdered her after their divorce. Her first husband, your father, is white, and your mother was black. They divorced when you were young, and then you lived with your mother.
Before we talk about what it was like to grow up mixed-race, I'd like you to read a poem called "Miscegenation," and this again is Natasha Trethewey from her latest collection of poems called "Native Guard."
TRETHEWEY: (Reading) Miscegenation. In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi; they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi. They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong - mis in Mississippi. A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.
(Reading) Faulkner's Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi. My father was reading "War and Peace" when he gave me my name. I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.
(Reading) When I turned 33 my father said, It's your Jesus year - you're the same age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi. I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name - though I'm not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.
GROSS: You know, in that poem "Miscegenation," you mention that when your parents got married, they broke two laws. One was the law of miscegenation, black people and white people were not allowed to marry, and that law was still on the books in Mississippi, which is why they got married out of state. What was the second law of Mississippi that they broke?
TRETHEWEY: Going out of state to get married and returning to Mississippi.
GROSS: Oh, a catch-22.
TRETHEWEY: Right, they get you either way.
GROSS: When you were growing up, did you get different reactions when you were out with your white father as opposed to when you were out with your black mother?
TRETHEWEY: I did. At an early age, I could detect subtle differences in how we were treated if I was with my father or with my mother and together, what it meant when we were out together. And that's the way that I learned a little bit about how it was possible for me to pass for white when I was with my father and be treated better than if I was downtown with my mother in a store.
GROSS: Was there ever a part of your life in which you wanted to pass for white or even tried to?
TRETHEWEY: Oh yes, as an adolescent. I think that it's hard enough being an adolescent and wanting so much to fit in with your peers, your schoolmates, and to erase any sign of difference, to be part of the group. And being biracial but also being black in a predominately white school marked me as different. And so upon arriving at a new school, it was quite possible for me to pass by not saying anything at all.
Often people would mistake me for white when I was younger, and I didn't correct them, there would be a period of time that they just thought I was.
GROSS: Were there consequences your parents faced living in Mississippi and being an interracial couple? And were there consequences that you faced as a child of mixed race?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that the difficulties really weighed on my parents and their marriage, but I think that beyond the kind of problems that people who are in that kind of relationship, any kind of marriage would have - my parents also these external forces that were quite scary.
And for example when I was a baby, the Klan burned a cross in the driveway of my grandmother's house, where we were all living briefly. And I think that there was always that threat somewhere looming behind us.
GROSS: How scary was that for you when you saw a cross burning on your lawn? And did you even understand, were you old enough to understand yet what the Klan was and what the intention was of burning the cross?
TRETHEWEY: No, I really was too young to understand any of that, and my parents, of course, were keeping me from seeing what was going on. And so a lot of it has returned to me as stories that they told in recollecting what happened. And even now, we wonder what the intention of the cross burning was because my grandmother lived across the street, in Gulfport, Mississippi, from the Mount Olive Baptist Church, which in the late '60s was doing voter registration drives for black voters.
And so my grandmother had a driveway, the church did not have a driveway, and so on Sunday, she let the church park its bus in her driveway. And so it's quite possible that people thought that the driveway belonged to the church and that the cross was burned as a threat to the people who were doing voter registration.
It might have also been a threat to this interracial couple who was living inside the house, or it might have been a way to threaten both.
GROSS: How old were you when your parents divorced?
TRETHEWEY: I was six.
GROSS: And then you went to live with your mother.
TRETHEWEY: That's right. My mother and my father divorced during the time that my father was getting his Ph.D. at Tulane. And we had been commuting back and forth from Gulfport to New Orleans, which was about an hour's drive. We had an apartment in Gulfport, and my father had a roommate in New Orleans that he would go and stay with during the week for class, and sometimes we'd go and visit him on the weekends, or he'd come to Gulfport.
And so it seemed like a very gentle transition, strangely, for me when they actually divorced, and my mother and I moved to Atlanta for my mother to start graduate school.
GROSS: Did it change your racial identity when there was no longer, like, a white father in your home?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I can't say that it changed my racial identity because though I was a biracial child, and my parents talked to me about what they thought that meant, I also understood that I was a black child. And that didn't change.
GROSS: Now, your father is a poet and a professor of literature at Hollins University in Virginia, which is where you got your master's degree, and I believe he was teaching there at the time.
TRETHEWEY: That's right.
GROSS: At the risk of sounding obvious, he must be awfully proud you won the Pulitzer Prize this year.
TRETHEWEY: Indeed he is. He is a proud papa right now.
GROSS: Were there poems you remember him reading to you as a kid?
TRETHEWEY: Oh yes. From the time that I knew, I understood that he was a poet, which was probably about the time that I was in the seventh grade, that's when I really got it and knew what it meant, his first book had come out. And I had read all those poems myself, but he also read them to me, talked about them because a lot of them were - well, they're very autobiographical about his own family and growing up in Canada.
And so it was great to hear those poems because they were the first poems that I really felt that I could enter into not as simply a kind of distant reader, the way you might read a poem in class at school, but as an intimate reader who knew the stories and found my own place in the language.
GROSS: Natasha Trethewey, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007 after winning the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard." Trethewey will be the next poet laureate of the United States. We'll hear more of their conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to an interview with Natasha Tretheway, who has been named the next poet laureate of the United States. Terry spoke with her in 2007, when she'd won the Pulitzer Prize for her book "Native Guard."
GROSS: There's three main subjects that you're right about in "Native Guard." There's the murder of her mother, who was murdered by her stepfather from whom she was divorced. There's poems about growing up biracial and about the marriage between, you know, your mother's first marriage to your father who was white. Then the middle section of the book is a series of 10 poems. I believe they're sonnets...
GROSS: ...about the Native Guard. Tell us the story about the Louisiana Native Guard
TRETHEWEY: Well, the Louisiana Native Guards were the first officially sanctioned regiment of African-American soldiers for the Union Army in the Civil War and they were mustered into service in September, October and November of 1862. And the Second Regiment was stationed just off the coast of my hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi, on Ship Island where there was a fort called Fort Massachusetts. And they were there to guard Confederate prisoners.
GROSS: And were these mostly ex-slaves?
TRETHEWEY: Well, the Second Regiment actually was made up primarily of former slaves. The First Regiment was made up of a lot of free man of color from Louisiana, many of whom might have been slave owners themselves. In the Second Regiment, there was a Major Dumas who was the son of a white Creole father and a mulatto octoroon mother. When his father died, he inherited a plantation in all its slaves and though he was someone who did not agree with slavery or want to hold slaves, it was illegal in Louisiana at the time for him to manumit those slaves. But when the Union Army started recruiting black soldiers and mustering these troops he joined and he freed his slaves and encouraged the men of age to join as well.
GROSS: Now the first sonnet I'm going to ask you to read from this cycle of sonnets about the "Native Guard" is called "April 1863" and it relates to an incident during the Civil War, a battle in Pascagoula. Tell us the story of Pascagoula before you read it.
TRETHEWEY: Pascagoula is another town near Gulfport. And there was a skirmish in April of 1863 between the Second Regiment of the Native Guards and some Confederate troops. Toward the end of the battle, the black soldiers, the Native Guards were retreating back toward the beach so that they could board the ship and go back to the fort on the island. And at that point it was time for the Union sailors who were on board the ship to fire at the enemy to give them a little bit of protection so that they could get back, they could retreat safely and get back on the ship. Instead of doing that, the sailors fired directly at the Native Guards, their own Union soldiers.
GROSS: And why did they do that?
TRETHEWEY: Well, some historians who've written about the island have talked about that there have been a little bit of tension on the island between some white troops from the Northeast, Union troops who were there and the Native Guards - these white troops not wanting to interact, take orders from or whatever, the black troops.
GROSS: These poems that you've written about the Native Guard, whose voice are you writing them in?
TRETHEWEY: I'm writing in the voice of the imagined voice of one of the men who might have been a former slave of Major Dumas and who then would have been free and enlisted in the Second Regiment.
GROSS: And the Second Regiment, is that the regiment that was fired on by white soldiers from the North West?
TRETHEWEY: Yes it is. The Second Regiment is the one that was stationed at Ship Island guarding Confederate prisoners and was fired upon.
GROSS: Would you read "April 1863" and then "June 1863" for us?
TRETHEWEY: Yes I'd be happy to. (Reading) April 1863. When men die, we eat their share of hardtack trying not to recall their hollow sockets, the worm-stitch of their cheeks. Today we buried the last of our dead from Pascagoula, and those who died retreating to our ship - white sailors in blue firing upon us as if we were the enemy. I'd thought the fighting over, then watched a man fall beside me, knees-first as in prayer, then another, his arms outstretched as if borne upon the cross. Smoke that rose from each gun seemed a soul departing. The Colonel said: an unfortunate incident; said: their names shall deck the page of history.
June 1863. (Reading) Some names shall deck the page of history as it is written on stone. Some will not. Yesterday, word came of colored troops, dead on the battlefield at Port Hudson; how General Banks was heard to say I have no dead there, and left them, unclaimed. Last night, I dreamt their eyes still open - dim, clouded as the eyes of fish washed ashore, yet fixed - staring back at me. Still, more come today eager to enlist. Their bodies - haggard faces, gaunt limbs - bring news of the mainland. Starved, they suffer like our prisoners. Dying, they plead for what we do not have to give. Death makes equals of us all: a fair master.
GROSS: My guest is Natasha Tretheway. You won the Pulitzer Prize this year. It's certainly, you know, one of the absolute highest honors an American writer can, you know, an American poet can get. Do you feel like it's changed your life in any way?
TRETHEWEY: I don't know how - I'll think about this a year from now or whatever, even a few months from now in terms of it changing my life - but I think that what I'm most delighted with his that I received the honor at this time in my life for a book that tries to honor the memory of my mother. I was 40 the day that they called to tell me that I had won - the same age my mother was when she died and I was also just shy of my 41st birthday. And I knew years ago that I was writing this book and I wanted it to in terms of the timing, to appear at the same at this moment for me because reaching that age was very symbolic for me. What I couldn't have imagined is that it would have been honored in this way.
GROSS: Natasha Tretheway, congratulations on your Pulitzer. Thank you so much for speaking to us and to reading some of your poems for us. Thank you.
TRETHEWEY: Thank you, Terry. This has been delightful.
DAVIES: Natasha Tretheway, speaking with Terry Gross in 2007. Tretheway's been named the next poet laureate of the United States. You can hear two other interviews Terry did with Tretheway and an excerpt from her memoir "Beyond Katrina," on our website FRESHAIR.npr.org.
Coming up, we remember science fiction writer Ray Bradbury.
This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.