Natasha Trethewey Interview

April 07, 2010

Regina Bennett: Last night I looked at some of your interviews and your prose stuff that you’ve been writing and you constantly refer to the historical erasure and the historical amnesia that accounts for what happened to the true history of Ship Island and the belief in [?] and why they’ve been covered up with these new narratives, I guess, that dominate the scene. And then of course you do that in Bellocq’s Ophelia where you imagine stories out of stories. And one of my prompts was, tell us about your relationship to the discipline of history, but then I have some kind of follow-up questions too.

Natasha Trethewey: Well one of the stories I like to tell about my relationship to history is from an event that happened to me when I was a freshman in college at the University of Georgia. I showed up in the spring of that year in a history class, an American history class, and the professor is a man named Charlie Wine, and he’s a wonderful professor. He came in the first day of class and he had all of us write down our names and hometowns on a note card. And so of course I wrote Gulfport Mississippi on that note card. And this was of course back in the days before the internet and the kind of research that someone can easily do about different places. The next day when we came back to class he introduced us to each other by talking about some aspect of history from our hometown. And I was stunned that he introduced me that way because he connected me to a place and to its history. And this is of course what I would later on do in Native Guard. I’ll be talking so much about the idea of geography’s fate, of Henry James’s words: “Be tethered to native pastures even if it reduces you to a backyard in New York.” And I felt tethered to my native pastures, sitting that spring in Dr. Wine’s class, and I couldn’t have known it then, but I think that he planted a seed for where I was headed in that engagement with history and place.

RB: What also I think about with that is the fact that he took the time to get to know everyone’s hometown and knew something about them then. I mean that really showed an interest. But now my question is have you thought about a term to describe poetry that’s triggered by historical artifacts. So we have poetry and creative nonfiction, and so are you doing something like practicing historical poetry, or poetic history, or creative history, or have you even thought that there might be sort of a genre there?

NT: You know there must be a genre because one of the poets that I deeply admire is Robert Penn Warren, and he has been referred to as a poet-historian. And I’ve often fantasized about being seen that way myself. Last night I was talking about the poet as detective after having found that the title of that book, The Historian, as detective. And I do think that if there is a genre…. Well, you’ve put out a lot of good things to call it, so I feel like I ought to steel one of those, but I’m not really sure which it should be.

RB: Well I not really very imaginative. You could come up with something better.

NT: Well I think of two things, you know either the poetry as a muse of history or poetry in the historical imagination. So I do think it is about a poetry that’s rooted in the historical imagination.

RB: I think that’s a good way to describe it, too. And then one last follow-up I want to talk about is that you’re married to a historian, right?

NT: [laughs] I have one living inside the house.

RB: Any observations about that connection?

NT: Well it’s wonderful because we are interested in similar aspects of history and he knows a lot more about the historiography, the methodology, that is useful to me when I’m searching for something. And so often, I’m either asking his advice about hunting down something I’m interested in, or I’m just pulling books off of his shelves. So it’s like having a double library at home.

RB: [laughter] really convenient.

Harbour Winn: Lovejoy, a historiography person, he may be dated now, [can’t understand phrase]. He has a book called The Idea of History. It’s always been very helpful to me. He talks about the true historian is someone who tries to find – really, some of what you were saying last night, as I understood – all the facts that are…that we don’t have amnesia about, you know, all the facts that aren’t unknown. And we…immerse yourself. And out of that immersion of knowing all that we think we can know, then we have to use the creative measures.

NT: Yeah, yeah. I had a graduate course when I was at the University of Massachusetts and the title was History of Fiction, Fiction of History. And though we didn’t read Lovejoy in that class, it was very much about that kind of immersion in the facts and then the kinds of borrowing across the lines of the conventions of both disciplines, and so of course the historians borrowing a little bit of the creative imagination, the speculative, to fill in those gaps that are in historical record.

HW: I was also thinking back to Bellocq’s Ophelia. Have you seen Louis Malle’s film Pretty Baby and how did that work at all in your process of creating the book?

NT: Well I felt like I needed to see it to see as many things that were out there about Storyville and the women living there, and about Bellocq. So I read Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter. I think…is it Louise Battle…there’s a book called Storyville…I could be getting the author or the title wrong, but there’s several books about Storyville and the sporting life. There’s a poet named Brooke Burgan who has a collection of poems called A Hidden Mirror, and I searched for as many things as I could find to give me a sense of what writers and filmmakers had already done with Storyville as I tried to imagine my Ophelia in that place. I felt pretty connected to New Orleans because my mother was born there and my father had done his Ph.D. at Tulane and lived in New Orleans for nearly twenty years. And so when I was growing up I spent a good deal of time over there. I would visit my grandmothers in the summer and then go over to New Orleans and spend time with my father. And I was interested in the landscape, the place, the weather, the feel that I could get from the city beyond some of the more easy or conventional recognitions of what New Orleans is. Mainly, this is going to sound strange I think, but you know Bellocq’s Ophelia is not so much about the music of New Orleans. Certainly that’s a backdrop to the story, but I didn’t want it to – music in New Orleans is so important and so significant, it could easily become the character, you know if you let it, and I really wanted to focus on the interior life of a woman who happened to end up in this geography with all these things going on around her. So the weather was just as important to me as what a musician might be playing on the piano in [?].

HW: Regina’s talking about history and literature, and really what I think you’re doing also in this collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia – arts integration. You’re using photography thinking Domestic Work fiction [?] poems in relation to the painting.

NT: I’ve got photography in there, and then there’s photography in Native Guard, there’s painting….. Bellocq’s Ophelia begins with what is both a photograph and a painting, and of course also a play in the backdrop of that as well.

HW: I guess I was wondering your sense of the value of arts integration. We could all say yes, it’s valuable, but how do you understand arts integration as a professor, as a poet. How do you use it? And it isn’t that history isn’t an art form, but I’m really thinking of photography.

NT: I don’t think I’ve ever used the phrase arts integration, but I like it. I’m really interested in [Écrasez?] because I’m a very visual person and so I like the engagement of a given image. With photograph, it was about, for me, looking at what was there and then imagining what was cropped out of the frame. Because of course when you’re making a photograph there’s what’s inside that frame and then there’s all the things that have been cut out as you make a choice about how to situate the subject of the photograph. So I was always interested in what’s not inside the frame, which of course was leading me to that idea of historical erasure, because of things that get cropped out. I was interested in what might be behind an image, and Storyville was a great metaphor for that because there was a glittering façade of glamour, and excess, and music, and champagne, all those things – at the same time that there were silverfish crawling behind the walls and all the other bits that really – rough edge of this very gilded-looking place. And so it’s always what’s sort of just beneath the surface of things, beneath the flocked velvet wallpaper on their walls, behind the hedges that separated the backyards from the alleyways, beyond the districts of barriers that were supposed to keep women notoriously abandoned to lewdness inside a certain blocked-off segment, and they are not supposed to go beyond that. I was always interested in those barriers and what had been pushed aside and left out of my view. And that’s why I push photographs; that’s what they do for me. Paintings for me are another way to access history. I’m particularly interested right now in religious paintings of the Renaissance, I’m interested in the Mexican casta paintings that are, in many ways, ethnographic. So it’s as if these are paintings that have a kind of documentary edge, like a photograph might have, because of what they can show us about the particular moment: the way the people believed things about their circumstances and the people in them. You know, using them as material culture, I guess which I guess comes from my background in American studies, but to look at them as material culture, as an object that allows me to investigate the past through the given image. And I also love the conversation that arts integration is, because writing a poem, you’re always in conversation with the poems that come before you. I think we’re also in conversation with all these other art forms, and that relationship gets pushed right up against each other when you’re actually writing an ekphrastic poem and acknowledging the imagery from a painting, or a sculpture, or a piece of music. I like acknowledging the participation in that, that a lot of what I’m trying to develop is something that has been received, you know in a way that we receive traditional forms, for example. And we receive them and then we signify. We try to respond to them in such a way that makes a thing signify anew. I think it’s not enough simply to look at what has been done before in this painting and simply describe an artist’s work, but to signify on it, how to give it new interpretations, that are only in the vision of the particular viewer.

Zoe Miles: You talked a lot in your sessions to be about how racial discrimination is still running rampant, especially towards the south. Do you ever write political essays, do you ever enter into that form of politics, or do you allow your work to just kind of express its own [?].

NT: Mostly my poems do that, but I have recently given a lecture [for which] I borrowed the title of … George Orwell has an essay called “Why I Write,” and my father suggested that I read this essay so long ago long ago when I was applying to graduate school and needed to formulate a statement of purpose. So this lecture that I gave borrows that title, “Why I Write: Poetry, History, and Social Justice.” I think it’s the first time that I decided to say how I believe that poetry can further the cause of social justice. And it is the thing that I am committed to. I think I am comfortable finally saying that I am probably more interested in social justice in human beings than I am in poems. But poems, for me, are the medium through which to work toward this beautiful, needful thing.

RB: That kind of reminds me, I don’t know if you’ve seen this news yet, but as I was preparing for this interview I was surfing the web yesterday and the Washington Post was reporting that Virginia’s governor has reinstated April as Confederate History Month. You write and state a lot about historical markers of the confederacy. Any comments about this governor’s actions?

NT: They’ve been threatening to do that to us in Georgia, too. They threaten to do it, I think, when some state senators were asking for an apology for slavery. I think several institutions at different universities and other places have decided recently to just apologize for having taken part in certain things from history. So it wasn’t a conversation about reparations or anything like that. It was just an apology, and I think that somebody in the state house threatened that if they kept pushing that then we’d get Confederate History Month back. You know right now we just have a day, my birthday. So Confederate Memorial Day, in the Deep South, is the same as Patriot’s Day in the northeast. I think that the problem with it is that it is a kind of exclusive history. And let me say why that’s a problem because I can imagine someone saying, ‘But we have Black History Month!’ Except it’s a foolish argument because, you know the late John Hope Franklin, when he was asked if he liked having a Black History Month, you know his answer was no, as is mine. We think that Black History Month – he thought, I think this – that black history should be fully interwoven and incorporated into the fiber of American history because it is all of ours. And because it is not yet, because that has not happened on the full scale across the country, we have to have this month designated to remind people that this is part of our larger story. The Confederate history is often linked to, especially in places like Georgia and Mississippi, feelings about the Confederate flag and its meaning. And there are people who of course want to say, ‘Heritage not Hate,’ that’s a phrase that’s often used, and it’s just celebrating a kind of culture. Usually the kind of culture that people think its celebrating is that kind of moonlight magnolias culture that forgets just how many white people were poor. Many white people ended up going into the Civil War because they were being paid off by the sons of wealthy plantation owners to go. I don’t think that that’s necessarily included in this notion of Confederate history. Nor is it included in the notion of Confederate history, the other citizen of the United States. Many of them of course, and specifically in that case, the slaves, Confederate culture was built around, at that moment, keeping those slaves. And so, I think it’s a willful forgetting or a kind of willed blindness, as you said, to want to ignore that part and to say that it’s not about those things and that we can celebrate this without also recognizing what was terrible about it.

RB: I love what you say about – with all those Confederate markers and stuff and historical things around the south, you’d think they won the war.

NT: Yeah, and you know when we were having the flag debate in Georgia a few years ago, someone pointed out in the newspaper that the original Georgia flag that we had, that we got rid of, was the flag that was adopted not long after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and it was adopted to send a message against Brown. And when they adopted it and put the crossed stars, that was not the original Georgia Confederate flag that the daughters of the Confederacy had adopted in the late nineteenth century. And they were opposed to changing it in the 50’s because we already had it.

RB: Right, their flag was being dismissed!

NT: Right, and so when we adopted that flag in the 50’s, that really was a flag to sort of protest or make a statement against desegregation, and people are very ahistorical in conversations about that. They block out that part of it and say it’s not about that, it’s just about culture, when really the flag was adopted as a protest, as a reaction against desegregation. And you know growing up in the Deep South was, for me, the root of this sense of psychological exile that I have. And it’s not simply because of all of those markers and monuments and the history that we learned in textbooks in my classes. It was also about the flag, and people are in denial when they say that that flag isn’t part of it. But during this whole debate people were writing in to the editorial page of the Atlanta Journal Constitution saying things like, ‘all true southerners love that flag,’ and it immediately dismisses a segment of the population who doesn’t love it as not really southerners. So I’m constantly told that I’m not a true southerner, that this is not mine. So to me when a governor decides to honor Confederate History Month, it is a way of saying ‘this is not yours.’

HW: This is moving the conversation more personally…you’ve used the phrase “mixed race” to describe yourself. I wonder…I think this is more than semantics. Why not ‘mixed ethnicity’? Aren’t we just one race?

NT: I’ve also used “mixed-blood.” I think what you’re asking about, ideas about race and biology and racial formation, is the thing that I’m actually interested in. Yes, I’m aware of all of the recent science, and even the not so recent science.

HW: I mean the person that might match my DNA mostly could be in Cambodia.

NT: Right. I mean certainly we need to change the language that we use at some point, but until our perceptions and out policies and our treatment of people catches up to the science, we still live in a very racialized society and it’s not going to change just because we stop saying that someone is mixed race or that people are of a different race. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to that. I live in a racialized world. I’m constantly being reminded of that by the world I live in.

ZM: Moving on to family, your father’s a poet. Do you feel that…I know that in some of my circumstances I find that it wasn’t necessarily that I caught on to some of my family behavior, but [?]. Do you see your wordsmith abilities as innate or as something that you caught on to as you grew up [?].

NT: My father would probably at this point want to claim responsibility for all of my wordsmithing abilities, [laughter] and I certainly would like to give him some credit for that because he was one of my earliest teachers. But I think that it comes from a couple of different places. Yes my father is a poet, but the other people that I spent a good deal of my life with were amazing at idiom and metaphor and the cadences of language and the richness of sound and figurative imagery that can make the mind lead to a new apprehension of things. I had that right at my grandmother’s house. I had it when I listened to the women who came over from her church talking about the Bible, chanting hymns and psalms. I had it every year when my great aunt taught the children their Easter Sunday recitations. So I feel like I was constantly surrounded by the very different and lovely cadences of different human voices. And so as much as might come from a natural talent that passed down to me from my father, a great deal of it passed down to me from my mother as well. And then, you read a lot. I mean I think that that’s the best way you start to absorb any kind of ability with language, from all the things that we read.

HW: I think what Zoe is asking you and what you’ve been talking about, you know you have to be very conscious of this, but the emphasis often in gender criticism that the dutiful daughter must defy the father, the patriarchal controller of language. I wonder about gender criticism, how it…I mean someone could easily think of you, perhaps, you know like Louisa May Alcott or…

NT: As defying the patriarch..?

HW: Well my sense is that, and Regina you can help me too, is that the dutiful daughter is the one that receives language from the father, the patriarchal structure, and is obedient in how language is used. And my sense of using gender criticism is that the dutiful daughter has to deny that mold to become a self-defined [?]

NT: Yeah. That sounds very interesting, and it makes me think about the notes for a poem that I was writing.

HW: You know it’s interesting ‘cause you mention you were going to be writing poems about your father.

NT: Well you know I came to being an English major as a young person because I loved grammar. [Laughter.] I mean that’s really…in the fifth grade the most exciting thing to me was diagramming sentences. [More laughter.] I mean maybe I should have gone into linguistics, I don’t know, but I just loved it. I loved the precision of it. And my father is very, very precise about grammar and I love that about him, and I’ve loved learning the language from him. But at the same time, I have to remember moments when my father would try… if I spoke something in a very colloquial way that was rooted not just in southernness but also in a knowledge of some of the syntax of Black English, he would correct me, constantly correcting me. And I think he wanted to just push it out of me. And even as a child, I knew I didn’t want to get rid of it. I wanted to be able to co-switch. I wanted to be able to have access to that other language. And you know, people here may think it’s just wrong, as opposed to that it has its own grammar rules and syntax – there is a difference. There is wrong or bad English, but there also are other syntactical Englishes that are rich and really useful for poetry! And so I was really resistant to that, when he was trying to get me to do that. And even now there are moments that I’ll still co-switch. And I remember this happening to me when I first went to graduate school: I would say something like, ‘I’m-unna run in here right quick and check my mail box.’ And all the other graduate students would correct me and say, ‘Why, don’t you mean quickly?’ [Laughter.] And I said, ‘No, I mean right quick!…and I might could check yours too if you want me to!’ And I kept thinking to myself, you know, why are these people correcting me? Do they not think I know as much as they do? It was the idea that a person could speak a certain way, and would go to write it down and would make those same kinds of syntactical things in the written word. They didn’t seem to understand that there was a difference between how I might write and what I might say when I’m feeling comfortable and in a space of colloquial speech. You asked this a few minutes ago, Harbour, and I’m sort of wandering, and it’s made me think of a poem I’d like to read to you right quick, ‘cause I think it can answer a couple of these questions that we’re talking about. My father has a poem, a really lovely poem, called “Her Swing” that he must have written when I was probably three years old. And the story with this poem is that he read it at Bread Loaf, and Hilda Raz was in the audience, the editor of Prairie Schooner. She heard him read it and asked to publish it. And when my father and I give readings, even now, and we stand up beside each other, this poem of his, “Her Swing,” is one of the poems that he will read. And every time he would read it and I’d be standing there, I started to feel really strange and I didn’t know why. And it wasn’t until recently, when I wrote this poem, which is an ekphrastic poem about a chalk drawing, that I figured out exactly what the problem had been for me. And it’s a problem of language – and it’s about knowledge, too – ways of knowing and how we use language to suggest that knowing. So it’s after a chalk drawing by J. H. Hasselhorst, 1864. It’s called “Knowledge”. [Reads poem.] So you asked me about saying ‘mixed race’. In this poem, I point out a line from my father’s poem in which he uses the word ‘cross-breed’. Now, even if you want to forgive him and say that forty years ago that’s the only language he had access to – which I still wouldn’t agree with because we call animals ‘cross-breed’, you know because they are different species – he had, you know, a long time to change that. For me, there is this sort of master language, and then there’s a way that I have to constantly re-write or revise some of that master language. But I actually like doing it with the precision of itself. That’s what I really like about it; that’s why I like using his own words to sort of dissect, you know, as the poem does what is happening both with the body and with the language. That woman there on the table, who’s being looked at for science in order to discover the source of beauty, is very much the woman for inspection, the child that I was, being studied. And it’s even used that language I’ve studied – ‘my cross-breed child’. I mean you have to ask the question, ‘If I’m a cross-breed, what’s my mother in that equation, what species is she?’ you know? It’s a really painful thing for me. It’s one thing to sort of be ‘othered’ in your own country, in your own state. But when it happens in home. I mean…