It is difficult to imagine a contemporary American poet whose work addresses this moment of racial reckoning in our nation’s history more directly than Natasha Trethewey. Born in Mississippi, she is the daughter of a white father and black mother who were forced to travel to Ohio to get married because anti-misgenerational laws were still in place in the south. For the past two decades, Trethewey has explored the country’s racial inequalities in lyric poems, often combining the historical with the autobiographical, drawing on her own experiences growing up as a biracial woman in the south.
The author of five poetry collections – including the 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard – Trethewey, a former two-time American poet, will read from her work on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at this semester’s virtual Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading . Megan Fernandes (GRS’12), the author of two collections of poetry, The Kingdom and After (Tightrope Books, 2015) and Good Boys (Tin House, 2018), whose work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, will also read , Guernica and Plowshares.
Tretheway’s newest book, the critically-acclaimed Memorial Drive, is a reminder of the events that led to the 1985 murder of her mother Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough by her ex-husband (the poet’s stepfather) when Tretheway was only 19 years old one of the “two existential wounds” that led her to become a poet.
“In the weeks after her death, the first thing I tried to do was write a poem about it. From all of the things, it seemed to me that only the language of poetry would help me articulate this deep, deep wound and grief that I had begun to bear, ”she says. “I think a lot of people turn to poetry for the same reason: to say what is unspeakable.”
But it grew up in the south, “with its brutal history of racist violence and oppression,” says Tretheway, who caused the first wound. “My parents’ interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi and up to 20 other states when I was born [in 1966]what makes me illegitimate, persona non grata in the eyes of the law. I know stories from my mother, my grandmother, who grew up south of Jim Crow, and all the oppression that went with it that made me think about our national wound and original sin as a nation related to slavery and then the consequences of the effects of slavery. ”
These two wounds, she says, are inextricably linked. “I was born on the 100th anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day and had the idea that in a joyful moment my mother would like to give birth to a child on the way to the segregated ward in a hospital with rebel flags – symbols of white supremacy and a lost cause everywhere around them – that’s some kind of psychological wound that this place would have on us. “Trethewey’s mother had lived on Memorial Drive in Atlanta at the foot of Stone Mountain, the largest monument in the Confederation in the south – and died. “It was looming over her, that great reminder of the attempt to maintain slavery and destroy the union, and the ongoing attempt to maintain white supremacy,” says Trethewey.
The poet, who once described her poems as “uncovering buried stories”, says she has always been interested in absences, in what has been left out, “what has been cut out of a photo, what we see and what we don’t see, what happened the moments before the photo, what happened after. I am also interested in the absences in the historical record. “Much of their work seeks to tell a fuller version of our nation’s history, whether or not it brings to life the story of the Louisiana Native Guards, a battalion of black Union soldiers made up mostly of ex-slaves and charged with delivering Confederate Native POWs guard Guard or explore the lives of mixed race families in their 2012 Thrall collection.
Trethewey says that poetry is a way to bring people together “so we can feel less alone … No matter how difficult or difficult the things a poem might describe, it still tells us,“ I’m still here. The poem marks a record of it. In this way we can empathize with other people’s experience … bridge distances and, when we are in the poem, help us to be in someone else’s experience for a moment. ”
She says she is encouraged by the solidarity she has seen from so many Americans “from all walks of life ready to go there in the midst of a pandemic and yet peacefully protest what they know is unfair.”
Like Trethewey, Fernandes’ poems often explore race and identity. As a self-described “child of a complicated diaspora”, her family lived in East Africa before traveling to India, England and Canada and finally settling in Philadelphia. “When I was in school there was black history and then history, which was of course white history,” says Fernandes. “So I put this understanding of ‘White Supremacy’, which was not yet formulated in this sentence at the time, together by understanding that as a brown person I failed to live up to an ideal. I couldn’t quite articulate it, but I knew I felt wrong in certain rooms. I slowly came to understand the construct of race over a long period of time. ”
It wasn’t until she was in her mid-twenties and studying in Paris that Fernandes began to believe that she might want to become a poet. She saw an ad in a newspaper for a small writing workshop and gathered the courage to “try,” she says. Her poems often come from conversations with strangers or from exploring a new city. And they are often laced with humor.
Megan Fernandes (GRS’12) says her best poems are “written under a spell. They have a river, almost a stream, that feels like it’s coming out of me. “Photo by Rivkah Gevinson
“A good mood, clever humor, is the highest kind of social criticism,” says Fernandes. “If you are someone who has been undermined, humiliated, or degraded for reasons of gender, race, or sexuality, you know the power of humor and wit. You know the advantages of quick banter and quick shadow. Some people call it armor. I prefer to see it as a way to joyfully handle violence and have freedom of choice in the face of what wants to humiliate you. ”
Her work, in her words, often defies chronology and prefers to “jump over time and space, physically, cognitively and emotionally”.
Fernandes says her time on BU’s Creative Writing Program made her the poet she is today. “Probably the most important thing that happened to me at the BU is when Rosanna Warren, who was in faculty at the time, read my thesis manuscript and said, ‘You know how to write a poem, but I know still not what you’re scared of. ‘“The words hit a chord. At the time, Fernandes says, she was so caught up in the technical details of writing, so preoccupied with not being sentimental, that she had created a distance in her poetry. From this experience she learned to close this distance. “My poems are now full of both declared and unconscious fears,” she says, “in another sense it is really about love, as we fear that is what we will lose the most.”
“I learned something about vulnerability and the unconscious in BU,” says Fernandes.
“This is another good combination of distinguished visitor and BU alum in the Lowell range,” says Robert Pinsky, a distinguished professor of William Fairfield Warren, professor of English at the College of Arts & Sciences and three-time American poet. “Natasha Trethewey’s poems combine eloquence and clarity, personal insight and social vision in a way that is a role model not only for young poets but, in my opinion, for American culture. Her approach to the powerful, deadly racial delusions is large, pervasive, informed, and clichéd. Megan Fernandes’ books also deserve the phrases I just used about Natasha’s work: ‘social vision’ and ‘personal insight’. ”
Trethewey, the trustee professor of English at Northwestern University, and Fernandes, assistant professor of English at Lafayette College, offer similar advice to aspiring poets.
“You have to find the poets whose work speaks to you and somehow shows you a way into your own,” says Trethewey. “I don’t sit down to write without first sitting down to read. I hear the voice of another poet, I hear the rhythm of their thinking and it enables me to enter into a conversation by writing back. ”
It’s a feeling echoed by Fernandes who urges her students to read voraciously. Read Gwendolyn Brooks and Rainer Maria Rilke and Etheridge Knight and Anne Carson. Read and listen to hip-hop and not just the early New York stuff but New Orleans and Atlanta rappers too. You have a philosophy of line and a philosophy of pause and you are ready to change both. Write with your lungs. Read read read.”
Listen as Natasha Trethewey reads here from her poem “Imperatives to Carry On In The Episodes”, which examines the murder of her mother and its aftermath. The video was recorded on November 8, 2018 at Y 92nd Street in New York City.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Poetry Reading, practically via Zoom, will take place this evening, Thursday October 15, at 7:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. More information can be found here. The readings are followed by questions and answers.
The Robert Lowell Memorial Reading series was initiated by Nancy Livingston (COM’69) and her husband Fred M. Levin through the Shenson Foundation in memory of Ben and A. Jess Shenson.
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