November 6, 2018 started as a rainy day in Delaware. The crisp morning chill of fall clung to the air as I drove to the polls. The entire day, I was waiting for 5 p.m., but not in the way I usually am after a long day of work. I was waiting for the chance to speak to Natasha Trethewey—775 miles away in Chicago—on Monument: Poems New and Selected’s publication date.
Trethewey—two-time US Poet Laureate, former Mississippi Poet Laureate, and Pulitzer Prize winner—has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, among others. She taught at Emory University in Atlanta for quite some time, and is now the Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Her newest collection, Monument: Poems New and Selected, features work from four previous full-length collections—Domestic Work (2000), Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), Native Guard (2006), and Thrall (2012)—in addition to two chapbooks, Congregation (2014) and Articulation, which makes its debut in Monument. Nearly twenty years‘ worth of work is represented in this deftly woven volume, addressing race, identity, the American South, the working class, black Civil War soldiers, Hurricane Katrina, and American history, as well as personal and familial history. Monument is both expansive and intimate as it seamlessly navigates this breadth of topics.
In this moment, in which conversations about male violence and misconduct, Confederate monuments, and the horrors on which this country was founded have taken center stage in public consciousness, the twenty years’ worth of poetry presented in Monument feels incredibly timely. While the collection grapples with these larger cultural conversations, it is also a monument to the loss of Trethewey’s mother thirty-three years ago. Unflinchingly, the collection is framed by how her mother’s murder by the hands of Trethewey’s ex-stepfather has framed her life.
The collection opens with “Imperatives for Carrying on in the Aftermath,” which ends with a quote “learned from a Korean poet in Seoul: / that one does not bury the mother’s body / in the ground but in the chest, or—like you— / you carry her corpse on your back.” And it closes with “Articulation,” which is modeled after Miguel Cabrera’s Saint Gertrude (Santa Gertrudis). This poem looks at how the saint “is called to write / after seeing, in a vision, the sacred heart of Christ.” Likening her experience to such a vision, Trethewey writes:
Three weeks gone, my mother came to me
in a dream, her body whole again but for
one perfect wound, the singular articulation
of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead,
the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.
How, then, could I not answer her life
with mine, she who saved me with hers?
And how could I not—bathed in the light
of her wound—find my calling there?
In this way, Trethewey doesn’t stand on the other side of the glass, as the speaker does in the poem “Congregation”: “I got as far as the vestibule—neither in / nor out. The service went on. I did nothing / but watch, my face against the glass—until / someone turned, looked back: saw me.” Instead, in Monument, Trethewey flings opens the door, walks into the sanctuary, and invites us to commune with her through some of the hardest truths of both her life and this country’s history.
When 5 p.m. finally arrived on November 6th, Trethewey and I spoke by phone about resurrection, American amnesia, and being “wounded into poetry.”
—Chet’la Sebree for Guernica
Natasha Trethewey: Wow what a day. I’ve done a lot. I’ve voted. I got a flu shot and…my book came out today.
Guernica: I know. Congratulations!
Trethewey: I was forgetting that. I knew this was a big day for some reason.
Guernica: Today is your publication day. As I was preparing for this interview, it was not lost on me that it’s midterm election day. So how does it feel to have, in this particular political climate, your book enter the world today?
Trethewey: You know, I think I’ve been thinking about that, somehow, in the back of my brain all day long: trying to figure out the answer myself, what that means. I think that, on the one hand, there are a lot of subjects that I take up in Monument that relate directly to this political moment that we’re in.
For example, the book is sort of framed with, in the beginning, one poem very much about domestic violence [“Imperatives for Carrying on in the Aftermath”], and trying to contend with the loss of my mother and the aftermath of what happened to us in our lives and to her, ultimately, at a moment when the Violence Against Women Act is about to expire, and there are plenty of people in Congress that don’t want to see it renewed.
We just watched this very difficult Supreme Court hearing that highlighted, for many people, the ongoing issues about violence against women, domestic violence and sexual abuse; attitudes people across the country have toward the experiences of those women; and whether or not we understand the ongoing effects of trauma. I mean, that’s just one of them.
Of course, you know, I also deal with issues of monuments, like Civil War monuments, which is connected to the American amnesia and willed forgetting—not only around what the war meant, but also around what these memorials and monuments meant much later, when they were actually erected. In the South, they were monuments to the Lost Cause and white supremacy, and we’re still fighting about that even now.
Guernica: When you say that, I am thinking about poems like “Southern History” and “Incident.” I’ve read them before, but reading them now, there’s such an intensity. And I guess I wonder what it was like, building this selection. I’m not sure when you were actually doing the work of choosing the poems, but…
Trethewey: You know, just as an aside, since you mentioned those two poems: the back story of “Incident” that I often tell when I introduce the poem is also really connected to this historical moment, because we keep hearing a lot of talk about voter fraud when there should be talk about voter suppression—much more talk about voter suppression, in the form of intimidation, gerrymandering, all the kinds of false information that people are being given about voting [and] voter ID laws.
I often say all of that when I introduce that poem, because the incident itself—the cross-burning—happened the week after the church across the street from my grandmother’s house in Mississippi had been holding a voter registration drive to get disenfranchised African Americans registered to vote. And my mother and father and I were all living together in the same house at the time. The church didn’t have its own driveway, so my grandmother used to let the church park their church bus in her driveway. So that’s where they [KKK members] burned the cross, and we never knew then if the cross burning was about the voter registration drive or if it was about us, the interracial family in the house. But you asked about when I was putting the collection together…
Guernica: Yeah, I wasn’t sure when you were actually putting the pieces together, and [wondered] what it was like structuring it during this current time.
Trethewey: I sort of began doing it at the end of last year. And it carried over a little to the beginning of this year. I think that I was thinking about all of the context over historical memory and monuments, even as that’s not why the book is called Monument. But I was thinking about that.
And I really enjoyed, I should say, choosing the poems and ordering them. Because I had the opportunity, I felt, to make an entirely new thing: a new book out of selections, that would have its own arc. And it would represent not only the arc of my own development as a writer, my own concerns, but that it would actually speak—I think, I hope—more clearly to why I’m a writer, why I ever even became one. And I think I figured this out because I have been working on this memoir, at the same time, about my mother.
It has been easy for me to talk about with Native Guard, pushing back against this sort of historical amnesia and erasure, and to push back against racism and white supremacy. Those are things that are part of my DNA, having been born in Mississippi when my parents’ interracial marriage was still illegal there and in many other states in the nation. So, to use Auden’s phrase, “Mad Irelands hurt you into poetry,” what he says about Yeats [“In Memory of W.B. Yeats”]. I was wounded into poetry by that.
But the deep wound, the one that really actually made me finally sit down and start to try to write poems, was losing my mother when I was nineteen. And I don’t think I quite understood how that wound, and the wounds of history and American racism and amnesia, were connected. I figured that out writing this memoir that I’m working on, because it just hit me. I’ve looked at Mississippi as sort of the root, the place that is the root of my quarrel with my nation. But in fact, my mother was murdered on Memorial Drive, right at the base of Stone Mountain, which of course is the largest monument to the Confederacy. So those two things have always been connected for me, even when I didn’t quite understand it myself.
Guernica: It’s interesting that you say that, because in reading what you’re talking about—this arc that kind of leads to a conclusion—the two poems that bookend the collection, “Imperatives for Carrying on in the Aftermath” and “Articulation,” I think do this work of this arc that you’re talking about. Presenting, in a way, this understanding of oneself, but really coming to a point in which you can, as the poem’s title says, articulate, “This is why I’m here.”
I also love the ways in which the saving, in that poem, of the mother speaks to the saving—or the not-really-saving—of the father in “Duty.” It’s interesting, like you said, to be able to build this new narrative arc by reading them altogether.
Trethewey: That is such a small detail, and you know how it is.
Guernica: You hope someone is going to get it.
Trethewey: You hope someone does! [Laughs.] And you literally just said a thing that I’d been hoping people get, and that you did.
Guernica: Today, I was going back through it, and it was sort of haunting me: where is this saving happening that’s not really happening before? And it was in “Duty,” and it actually made me think more of these sorts of these interwoven ideas. This idea of duty that imbues “Articulation,” like, the writing is not only a calling, but also a duty to illuminate or unearth.
Trethewey: Right, absolutely.
Guernica: And I wonder, perhaps for my own personal sanity: do you get exhausted by this duty sometimes?
Trethewey: Well, I mean, it’s the kind of exhaustion that you still don’t want to get rid of. You wouldn’t trade it. You wouldn’t put it down, any more than I would put down my mother’s corpse, you know? It’s a burden that I carry, but I carry it because I can’t imagine putting it down, nor would I want to.
I think about writing Thrall. Thrall was dedicated “to my father,” which is different from Domestic Work which was “for my father.” Because “to my father” is a conversation I need to have with him in this public forum, in what I think of as the only language he would really listen to. Because I had to talk to him about notions of deeply ingrained and unexamined racial difference and racial hierarchy and the bedrocks of contemporary white supremacy, that even my beloved white father—who adores me—could also still harbor some vestiges of.
It’s tiresome. It’s exhausting to have to continue having those conversations. It’s exhausting that we’re having them now, again. It’s exhausting that we’ve been telling people, we’ve been telling white people, that this is still there for us. And it’s taken until now for them to actually see it as we do, because of this virulent new mainstream form of white supremacy. That’s exhausting, but it’s also one’s duty as a citizen to keep writing about it, to keep talking about it, to keep bearing the burdens of history.
Guernica: And I wonder—as we’re both talking about being interested in history and poetry—why both history and poetry feel like appropriate vehicles through which to have this contemporary conversation about white supremacy and male violence.
Trethewey: This makes me feel like there’s something appropriate in [Robert Penn] Warren. I’m going to try not to butcher it, but he says, “Poetry is the little myth that we make, and history is the big myth that we make and, in our living, constantly remake.” So I don’t even know, in my mind anymore, if I can separate the work of a poem from the work of history.
Warren also talked about—particularly in that collection I was mentioning to you earlier [Brother to Dragons]—that one of his goals was not to necessarily write history in it, because he diverges. The moment that you start having a historical character have conversations with someone contemporary, as you know, you’re no longer writing “history.” And yet, at the same time, you are, though.
So, if I can say this in a way that makes sense, he set out to historicize human nature. And I think looking at these historical moments, historical figures, through the lens of a poem is a way of both getting at history and human nature—something about the nature of the past and us living through it in the present. I wonder what you would say about that.
Guernica: I think…for me, in terms of Sally Hemings and writing through her history, part of it had to do with trying to sort through my present contemporary situation as a black woman. Even though we lived distinctly different lives, writing through her was a way in which I thought I could try and understand what it meant to be a woman. I think I started writing the collection, or started thinking about writing the collection, when I was twenty-two or twenty-three. And not knowing who to be in the world, how to be in the world, it felt like if I could, in some way, rescue her from the limited history we have about her, I could forge a way forward for myself. As they say, history repeats itself. History seems like almost a way through the present moment—even if it doesn’t necessarily end up in a better place, I’m not alone, because this present moment isn’t alone and we’ll collectively, potentially, find a way through.
Trethewey: I think you just articulated exactly my impulse, my thinking, for writing Bellocq’s Ophelia.
Guernica: Was it the actual painting [John Everett Millais’s Ophelia] that drew you in?
Trethewey: No. I first encountered [E. J.] Bellocq’s photograph in a graduate class on materials for the study for American culture, and the focus was on photography. The professor showed this photograph, mentioned Bellocq and his work in the brothels, and I was just taken by the photograph, because it reminded me of my ninth grade Hamlet text, the cover of which was Millais’s Ophelia.
But I think, at that point in my life, I had been trying to find a way to grapple with my own experience of growing up Black and biracial in the Deep South, and constantly being stared at as an object of fascination. You know, the staring followed by the, “What are you?” All those kinds of questions. I’d been looking for a way to examine that without writing about myself. I wanted to write about it through history. So discovering that Bellocq was taking photographs in an octoroon house—you know, women who were understood to be black but in white skin, and were understood as curiosities, who would constantly be subject to the male gaze, to questions about race and difference—it seemed to me a perfect way to examine my own place in the world with that kind of experience. So it was, indeed, that these women, who supposedly looked white to our contemporary gaze, were not, and were not understood as white in their particular moment. Though some of them on the streets might have been able to pass, as I have in moments in my life, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes intentionally—when safety was an issue, for example.
Guernica: What you said about trying not to write about yourself, I find really fascinating, because when I first started writing my collection, it was all about Sally. And then there was a contemporary speaker, and then all of the sudden she had my name, and then I was like, “Oh, no, I’ve outed myself!”
Trethewey: Well, you know, the poet Mark Doty says, “Our metaphors go on ahead of us.” And I think that’s always true. And I always like it when I catch up and go, “Oh, that’s what I’ve been really writing about.”
Guernica: It sounds like that’s kind of a constant process, even with ordering this collection and writing the new poems.
Trethewey: Yeah, as aware as you think you could be, as aware as I feel I am, I still can learn something in the process of doing that, which I think makes it worthwhile—that I’m still reaching some new level of understanding. Some new revelation is there to be had.
Guernica: Across all of these collections in Monument, water comes up: in rain, floods, rivers, the Gulf, a baptismal font. What is your relationship with water?
Trethewey: Yes, that’s one of the things I had been talking about constantly since moving to Chicago. It’s one of the reasons, I tell people, that I moved here. I felt so landlocked in Atlanta. What I love about being here—we live three blocks from the lake. If you’ve seen Lake Michigan, you know it looks more like an ocean than a lake. So I can feel that I am coastal again, being by the water.
I never wanted to go back to Atlanta after my mother was killed, but you go where you get a job, and that’s why I was there. But I felt completely landlocked the whole time, and one of the greatest things here is that I can see [water] every day.
Guernica: I have one other question about something I noticed across the whole collection, which is that you use a number of different forms: sonnets, sonnet crowns, pantoums, villanelles, and ghazals. I’ve read in a previous interview that you use form to work through poems whose content feels difficult for you. So I’m just wondering, what about the constraints of form help you grapple with difficult subject matter?
Trethewey: Well, I think it keeps me from being overwhelmed by any kind of emotion that could be an extreme. By that I mean, I remember reading in [Richard Hugo’s] The Triggering Town, “If you’re not risking sentimentality,” you’re not really writing. And, so, I think I’m willing to risk being sentimental, but I don’t want to fall over into that pit. So the constraints of form prevent that. The constraints of form put a kind of lid on, a vice grip. I don’t even know which is the best way to say it, because a lid could suggest what is barely contained before the pot boils over. I’ve had certainly plenty of reasons to be angry in my life, and a good measure of anger. But seething beneath the surface, I think, can be powerful. I’m not so sure about the more explosive anger that could just become didacticism.
I also think that, in a poem like “Incident,” the constraints of form do two things for me. On the one hand, they make the horror of what’s happening much more palpable, and I think much more horrible that I’m not spilling over with emotion—that there is a kind of distance, and the lens is as if a child is seeing the cross burning and likening it to seeing angels. I think that’s one of the things the form does there.
But also, in that poem, the original drafts of it were just kind of a standard, free-verse, narrative lyric with a little uninteresting epiphany at the end. And I knew that. It was mainly about the cross-burning itself, and I looked at it and was like, “So what? You know, they burned a cross, get over it, whatever. That’s not the most important thing anymore.” I mean, that’s a horrible thing, granted. And I’m not trying to downplay how bad that was. But I think what was more important, that I only could get at in using the pantoum form, was the necessity for remembering: for keeping record, an accounting of this history. Not forgetting it, not letting it go away, as if, because it happened in the past it doesn’t matter anymore for our contemporary moment. The necessity to remember the past is what the poem is much more about than the actual incident of the cross burning.
Guernica: That’s interesting. I like that, as a framework for ways in which to use form.
I think my last question really has to do with what we’ve been talking about already, with some things that people are able to pull out of the collection. With this being a span of several collections and some new work, is there something you want readers to walk away from Monument thinking, believing, or feeling?
Trethewey: I think that I would like to be understood as someone whose calling has everything to do with that deep wound, that loss of my mother—that everything that I’ve done is like the faithful being called to devotion, receiving one’s calling like [Saint Gertrude]. Her vision of the sacred heart of Christ made her, was her calling, so she wrote religious texts. She received a calling to write those religious texts. I received a similar calling, but it is to, not only remember, but also to honor my mother’s life and legacy.
Guernica: That’s really powerful, and quite beautiful, and it makes me think of Carol Hanish’s “The Personal is Political”—the power of making personal history public. So thank you for sharing that tremendous pain with us. Reading the last poem [“Articulation”], the first time was devastating and chilling [and] at the same time—celebratory is not the right word. But at the same time, it’s powerful in the way that goes beyond the words of “powerful.” I feel like words are kind of failing me at this moment, but thank you for the generosity of presenting a full self and a complicated history, an incredibly painful one, with us. It’s deeply, deeply moving.
Trethewey: Thank you for saying that, I appreciate it.
You know, this is the thirty-third year since my mother’s death. I have a poem in Native Guard called “Miscegenation,” in which I talk about when my father told me it was my “Jesus year,” my thirty-third year. And I feel like I’m at it again.
If my previous life ended when I was nineteen, when my mother was no longer in the world, and I began a second life as a motherless child, it started at age nineteen, and I had been in a state of bereavement my entire adult life. And I feel now that I’ve reached another “Jesus year,” another anniversary that is meaningful.
I spent my whole actual thirty-third year foolishly thinking literally, thinking only about the year that Jesus died, as opposed to thinking about resurrection. And I remember the first time that I met this Greek poet who told me that, in the Orthodox Greek, “Natasha” means “resurrection,” so not “Christmas Child” like I have it, but “the resurrection.” And I feel like, in this moment especially, if I get to have Monument come out in this moment, [there’s] this connection of resurrection: to trying to bring back my mother and even to bring back that moment when she says to me, “Do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals?” I mean, no, I understand what I didn’t understand when she said that to me in my dream at nineteen. But I know now that she was also telling me, “You have what it is that will make you a writer.”