Earlier this week, the Library of Congress announced it was reappointing Natasha Trethewey as the nation’s poet laureate. That mostly means one thing: more work.
But that work — discussing poetry and, soon, traveling around the country with PBS Newshour — is the whole point. We spoke with Trethewey about her recent reappointment, her upcoming national project with PBS (expect more details by the end of the summer), and more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Congratulations on being reappointed. Did you know that it was coming?
The way it works now, the Library sort of imagines that if a poet is going to accept the honor of the laureateship but not do a project, they’ll do one term. But if you’re interested in doing a national project, you can be reappointed for a second term.
I’m curious why you decided to be one of the laureates that launches a national project — and why partner with PBS and NewsHour specifically?
Because I’m a younger laureate, it seemed important to me to do something, not to just accept the honor of the position but actually to make it useful. It’s hard though, I think, to come up with a good, meaningful project, because my predecessors have done amazing projects: Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem” project is one of my favorite projects. [Joseph] Brodsky put poetry in the subway and in grocery stores. Deciding to put a personal slant on it seemed to be what I might be good at. NewsHour is very interested in poetry, but they’re also interested in not just that something’s cute to add on at the end of their programming, but something that actually is integrated into the news. So for example, I’m from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the area that was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. And so I’m interested in visiting places that have suffered either natural or man-made disaster. Another one might be a nursing home or hospice care. Last year, when I was a visiting professor at my alma mater, at Hollins University, when my father was still on the faculty, I had three young men in their late 20s who were all war veterans. They’d come back and were writing poems about their experience.
You’ve been doing the office hours over the last year, which not all laureates do, and you’re launching a new project to go around the country. But when people come to you, what are you hearing — how are people using poetry, in your experience?
One of my last office hour appointments was a group of about three or four people, and one of the people in the group was a former student of mine, from Emory. She was in a very small class of mine that was sort of a directed study, and the students were writing a long sequence of poems around a particular subject. And her project at the time, I remember it very well, was about Alzheimer’s. Her mother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And when she came to see me the other day, she just talked about how writing those poems at that time, when they’d just gotten a diagnosis — this was happening to her mother, she was going away because of this illness. And so my student told me being able to write poems about it helped her to begin grappling with it, and even to interact with her mother in a different way than she might have been able to do without poetry.
I can’t imagine what the balance is like on a daily or weekly basis, with your teaching and your laureate duties and even writing.
Well, I haven’t written a new poem since last summer. I haven’t been able to write at all. I wrote my closing lecture that I gave in May. I wrote an introduction to the Fellowship of Southern Writers, for a reading that I was hosting here. That’s really the only kind of writing, but none of my own poems or nonfiction since I’ve been here. I don’t feel horrible about that because former Poet Laureate Rita Dove and I were talking about it and she said, “It’s OK. This is a period in your life where you’re not going to do much writing, but you will again when it’s over, and that’s just fine.”
Do you ever find yourself just going about your day and you’ll think of a phrase or hear some language and want to sit down and write?
I still carry my little notebook with me. I also have an iPhone — the record function on the iPhone is great. One day, I was on a plane and so I thought, “Let me just look through my notebook and see what’s there.” So there were things in it that I know will lead to poems one day. Another time, I decided to look into some of those little recordings of lines here and there and transcribe them into my notebook. And it happens all the time that I won’t allow myself to really begin to get serious about writing a poem unless I know I can devote a significant amount of time to it.
Since you’ve stepped away from writing but are in an almost poetry advocateship, is there anything that’s really been sticking out that you’ve gotten to champion or talk about?
I’ve been most happy to be an advocate for the kinds of grassroots things that people are doing who care about poetry. Another woman came to my office and said that she has a big fence, a wooden fence, around her house and her house is on a corner and so she prints out in really big letters a poem to go along her fence, a different poem, every week.
Last year, when you were first appointed, I read so much about you being a Southern poet and being a black woman and how those two things inform your work. After a year in the position, how has your background affected or informed you as a laureate?
One good thing, I was able to host this reading at the Library of Congress featuring Southern writers, poets and fiction writers, and I don’t think there’s been an event hosting writers from the South at the Library ever, or perhaps not in a long time. There were people who said they’d never heard of some of the writers that we featured who fell in love with their work: Jill McCorkle, who was wonderful, or Ron Rash. I think often people don’t realize the great diversity of Southern writing because in their minds, if you’re not from the South, it can seem regional and small and of course that’s not the case at all when you start to read the work.