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An Interview With Natasha Trethewey -- Pearl Amelia McHaney

An Interview With Natasha Trethewey -- Pearl Amelia McHaney

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Published by: TylerMcGehee30 on May 11, 2010
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An interview with Natasha Trethewey
.11.3 (Sept. 2007): p96. From
 Literature Resource Center 
Document Type:
Bookmark this Document [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]
's subject is history: hers, her mother's- Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough; hermother's tragic death at the hands of a divorced second husband; the Louisiana Native Guardsfreed slaves serving the Union by guarding Confederate soldiers imprisoned at FortMassachusetts on Ship Island in the Gulf of Mexico; the Fugitive Poets and the canon of Southern poetry; and the South-its continuing struggle to accept its story. In poems both elegiacand elegant,
tells these stories and writes the forgotten into history. She is the authorof Domestic Work (Graywo f 2000), winner of the inaugural 1999 Cave Canem poetry prizeselected by Rita Dove, and Bellocq's Ophelia (Graywof 2002), which received the 2003Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and was a finalist for the AcademyofAmerican Poets'James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizesMoving from outside to inside, from tea to prosceso, from Indie Bookstore to Cafi Lily inDecatur, Georgia, we talked together on May 14, 2007, one month after the Pulitzer Prize awardfor
's third book, Native Guard, a quintessentially American book.McHaney: Congratulations on winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Native Guard(March 2006). It is a book so deserving that your readers are thrilled for the thousands morereaders who will be drawn to these poems. Several years ago, maybe in 2002 at the Society forthe Study of Southern Literature in Lafayette, Louisiana, after reading from your second book,Bellocq's Ophelia, you answered a question about your next project saying that you wanted todiscover your own voice, that having written from Ophelia's point of view, you wished to see theworld through your own lens. Then you read "Miscegenation," a poem about your white fatherand black mother, about your naming, essentially about who you are after telling us so muchabout Ophelia, who is partly you even though you directed us away from yourself, unlike inDomestic Work and unlike in Native Guard.
: Right, because a persona poem, like any poem, has a mask, but the mask seemssomehow thicker. I think you are allowed to investigate the self a little bit more comfortablybehind the thicker mask, the distant historical mask of a persona.McHaney: I like that idea of masking. Tell us about the genesis of Native Guard, about the firstpoems that became part of the book, and about its organization.
: When I first started thinking about writing Native Guard, it was my interest in thehistory of the Louisiana Native Guards that got me going. I had gone out to visit my grandmotherin Gulfport, right after I started my first job at Auburn University. I took her out to lunch at arestaurant on the beach and I was talking to her about a creative writing assignment that I wasgoing to give my students in which you get them to write about a time when a relative met
someone famous. I was telling her that I was going to do this assignment, too, about her story,about the time her brother, my great-uncle, met Al Capone. Uncle Hubert was a bellhop at ahotel on the beach, and he shook Al Capone's hand. Al Capone used to go down there when hewas running a gambling joint out of the fort at Ship Island. As I am telling my grandmother this,there's a woman who is listening the whole time to our conversation. And I think it is particularlyimportant to mention because of what she said that this is a white woman listening to ourconversation. And as she gets up to leave the restaurant, she leans over and she says, "I think there is something else you need to know about Ship Island." It was very much like she wassaying, "There's this other history about these black soldiers that you should know as part of yourhistory as well," and so she told me about them. I went right away to the Gulfport Public libraryto try to look up something about them. And the first thing I found was a small mention insomeone's M.A. thesis. And then later on of course I found the full length monograph by JamesG. Hollandsworth that I mention in the Notes in the book as well as the published diary of thecolonel who was stationed there that C. P. Weaver edited. But I was interested in this because Ihad been going out to that island my whole life and the park rangers don't mention anythingabout the black presence on the island. There isn't any marker mentioning the Native Guards ortheir presence the way there is for the Confederate soldiers who were imprisoned there. And thatsuggested to me a kind of historical erasure from the manmade monumental landscape. I wasinterested in telling that story, telling a fuller version of our story as Americans in this pivotalmoment in history.McHaney: You said that originally you thought you were working on poems that would lead totwo separate books, about the Louisiana Native Guards and then the ones that become the elegiesfor your mother Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough. When did you realize the confluence of the twoprojects? When did you realize that these personal poems could successfully frame the publicpoems about the Louisiana Native Guards?
: That took a long time for me to recognize. When I went to Radcliffe on a BuntingFellowship in 2000, I was still thinking about the soldiers. And I was doing a lot of the researchabout historical memory, the Civil War, and the idea of what gets memorialized in the form of monuments. It seems to me should have alerted me to something that was on my mind, but itdidn't. I was writing, at the same time as these poems, about my mother. Sometimes they wouldbe just a portion of a poem that I wouldn't finish until years later. But I started writing some of them and putting them away in a drawer because I thought, well that's for another thing, anothertime. I couldn't see how, at the time, they would have anything to do with this larger project thatwas only about something historical. And maybe because I was coming off the heels of Bellocq'sOphelia, still thinking only about a kind of public history, I didn't see the connections, eventhough what I do in Bellocq's Ophelia is to find a way to weave a personal history into what ismy imagined history for her.McHaney: Ophelia moves from in front of the camera, being objectified, to behind the camera,choosing what she takes a picture of, what she sees. It is a similar kind of movement.
: Right, the same kind of journey I was taking, but I didn't know that. I did startpublishing a lot of those elegies, but I was still thinking they didn't belong. I think I remember atone point feeling that I was coming close to having a new book, and there I was writing all of those things, and I started to think, well, could they go together? But I still didn't know.
McHaney: Didn't know that you would be able to have a first section that were the elegies toyour mother and that at the same time they were leading to the Native Guards poems and thenthat they would be so interwoven by the third section?
: Well, I started thinking that a poem like "Miscegenation" and some poems that Iwas writing about my own personal history as a biracial person growing up in the deep Southhad a connection to the history of the Native Guards because I saw that the umbrella over themwas something about the South. I still hadn't connected those elegies for my mother. In themeantime, I was living here in Atlanta. Returning to the landscape that was haunted by thetragedy of my mother's death made me write these elegies. I wrote a poem for the book early oncalled "Graveyard Blues" after jogging through the little Decatur cemetery and beingoverwhelmed by all the names of the dead. I am one of those people who can't just walk througha graveyard. I feel like I have to read every single name that presents itself to me, and it seemedlike a good metaphor for the insistence of history, or for the insistence of people to be heard ortheir stories to be told, or even their names to be registered or spoken. And so even seeing thosenames, I was still thinking: this is about history. But the poem I wrote was about the memory of the day we buried my mother. The final image in the poem, the final two lines, reads:I wander now among names of the dead:My mother's name, stone pillow for my head.That's an image of hard, or cold comfort. I might want to lie my head down on my mother's stoneand that would be a kind of comfort, but one that was stone and cold. A few months later, I couldnot, I could not simply deal with the fact that I written those two lines in that poem because I feltthat whatever obligation I have to truth was being sacrificed by the poem. So I started writinganother poem to undo the lie that I told in "Graveyard Blues." My mother does not have a stoneor any marker at all. There's no marker, no memorial at her grave, and so I started writing thepoem "Monument" because I wanted to tell the reader that I had lied about this. It was stunningto me when I realized that I had, for the sake of one poem, told a lie and needed to fix it inanother one. But it was the realization that I needed to fix the lie that made me realize exactlywhy those elegies to my mother should be in the same book with the Native Guards. Like them,she had no marker.McHaney: You arrived at it through a kind of journeying; it evolved in a very natural way.Maybe that is one aspect of your genius, the weavings and stitchings and cross-hatchings alltogether. That was the work that you had to do.
: Well, perhaps it is the genius of poetry. Robert Frost said, "No surprise for thewriter, no surprise for the reader." It is absolutely true that I didn't set off knowing exactly what Iwanted to say, and when I figured it out, it was because the writing of the poems led me to it. Itwas stunning for me, too, and painfully so.McHaney: You dedicate Native Guard to your mother, in memory, and the book is the elegies foryour mother, the weaving together the personal and the public histories, the erasures and themonuments and the memorial. And then, moving backward, you dedicated your second book Bellocq's Ophelia to your husband, Brett Gadsden, historian, professor of African AmericanStudies at Emory University. And your first book Domestic Work, going back further, youdedicated to your father, Eric
, a poet, who teaches at Hollins University. In Domestic

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