From the moment Natasha Trethewey took the stage in Murchison Lane Auditorium last night, she had everyone’s attention — including that of a tiny, resolute stinkbug perched stubbornly on the podium.
“I hope that’s not a comment on my poetry,” joked the 2012-2014 U.S. Poet Laureate after opening with the title poem from her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 collection “Native Guard,” which is told from the point of view of a black soldier during the Civil War.
Halfway into her reading, the intruder had crawled onto one of her books.
“It must be getting better,” Trethewey said with a smile, before gently discarding the bug into a nearby plant, prompting chuckles from an audience otherwise absorbed in her lyrical treatment of identity and racism.
“Poetry,” she had told listeners during an intimate Q&A in Pannell Gallery earlier that day, “can help us have some of the most difficult conversations,” referring to the sometimes invisible racism still present today.
Born in Mississippi in 1966, on the 100th Confederate Memorial Day, to a black mother and a white father, Trethewey has first-hand experience with its various forms, some more explicit than others.
“I didn’t have to search for identity,” she said. “It was given to me.”
Since her debut “Domestic Work” in 2000, Trethewey has tried to make sense of the “American idea of difference,” leading her back to 18th-century notions of racial distinction. Many of these ideas, first promoted by Enlightenment philosophers and scientists, still inform modern versions of racism, she said, even if it’s not always intentional.
When Trethewey was growing up, people attributed anything she did well to her “white side,” she recalled, “as if being half white improved me.”
“Native Guard,” in which the poet traces her own history back to the Civil War, serves as an elegy to her mother, who was murdered when Trethewey was 19. “Thrall” explores the nature of inheritance mostly through poems about her father.
In “Enlightenment,” the last poem in “Thrall,” Trethewey points out what connects and divides the white father and his black daughter by describing their visit to Monticello, and a question asked by a tourist about Sally Hemings:
“How white was she?—parsing the fractions / as if to name what made her worthy / of Jefferson’s attention: a near-white, / quadroon mistress, not a plain black slave.”
“[‘Enlightenment’ is] a poem I knew I had to write in order to finish the book,” Trethewey said.
Working through her own family history has helped her come to terms with some uncomfortable truths about her biracial identity, but Trethewey believes the personal is always also a reflection of the bigger picture: if art can be used to confront one’s own demons, it can also serve to reveal problems in society.
“A poem can help us cross divides,” she said, adding that because it made us slow down, its language had the ability to reach not just our intellect, but also our hearts, allowing us to hear difficult things about ourselves and others.
Being rewarded with the post of poet laureate for asking some of those difficult questions was a pleasant surprise for Trethewey, and she takes the honor very seriously.
In January 2013, upon being called to a second term, the Emory University professor moved to Washington, D.C., where her office in the Library of Congress allowed her to hold regular office hours for anyone who wanted to talk to her — about anything.
Determined to make it a position of service, she hoped connecting with people might help her come up with a project to devote her time to.
As it turned out, the conversations themselves became the project she was looking for: talking to strangers about her poetry led to discussions about larger issues that concerned them.
Hearing from others that she’s making a difference has been one of the most gratifying parts of her job, Trethewey said.
She recalls one incident in particular, when an old man stopped her on a D.C. street last year.
“You’re the poet laureate,” he said. “You’re doing a heck of a job!”