An Interview with Natasha Trethewey
By Jocelyn Heath
February 16, 2012
Interview conducted in August 2011
Beyond Katrina blends personal and collective memories of an event that is not too long gone from the public eye, and is still current for those living on the Gulf Coast. What are the challenges of writing about something topical, even if it has personal resonance for you the writer?
Natasha Trethewey: I think the biggest challenge that I faced with writing Beyond Katrina and that particular topic was that, as you said, it is in many ways ongoing for the people who are there, and it is also a thing of contested memory. Contested memory is the hardest part of it, because I found that I was dealing with people who wanted not only to be remembered, but people on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who felt like their story was being forgotten or being subjugated beneath the other story of New Orleans and the levee break. But I was also dealing with narratives from folks who wanted to remember the aftermath in different ways, I think, for political purposes. And so there was often a narrative of Mississippi as being the place where everything worked out and the government very quickly handled its problems unlike—they would say—in Louisiana, which was still very troubled. Except that wasn’t exactly true, because just last year the New York Times reported on how many poorer people in Mississippi still had not benefitted from the money for recovery that should have gone to them, but was instead directed toward wealthier citizens, businesses, and projects that were already in the works before the hurricane.
What you said about contested memory—memory for different purposes and subjugation of memory—made me think of the fact that we’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, which is quite publically memorialized. How does it compare with Katrina—how could Katrina be memorialized fairly? It seems that, although Katrina didn’t start an international armed conflict, there are still conflicts to be resolved.
NT: One of the things that people have talked about, that Katrina revealed, was the depth of ongoing injustice in the United States. We witnessed it again and again on TV as we anticipated aid going to the residents of those places who were stranded on the tops of their homes, who were without water, who were without other kinds of resources. And it was broadcast around the world. I think there were many people in the United States who were embarrassed that, all of a sudden, the world was seeing one of the ways in which the U.S. is still struggling with equality and justice. That’s one of those difficult things that you can imagine some people would rather sweep under a rug, just like some of the atrocious civil rights violations, murders that went unprosecuted for so many years for which they’ve just now gotten some convictions. There are many people who will write to the newspaper or call in to radio shows or find other platforms in which to say that we’re dredging up old stuff, opening up old wounds that should’ve just been forgotten and allowed to heal. Except that they weren’t wounds that could heal, because they were festering. It’s only with a true reckoning—a true and honest recognition of what happened—that we can begin to have healing. So to me, that seems like the only way that the memory and memorializing of Katrina can be fair: to acknowledge all of those stories, all of the difficult parts of the story that show us ourselves in the mirror in ways we might not like seeing.
In paying tribute to these stories, in Beyond Katrina, you write both poetry and prose. Did you find it more difficult to articulate your concerns in one genre, or was it a challenge all around?
NT: It was a challenge all around, and I think that’s why, in many ways, I end up having a little bit of both in the book. There were things that needed the space of prose to consider. But then there were things that I felt could not be rendered most effectively without the language and imagery, the density and compression and music of poetry.
You describe yourself in “Why I Write” as “tethered” to your native soil, yet in your upcoming collection, Thrall, you’re traveling beyond these borders—through Mexican casta paintings, among other elements. What moved you to explore this new geography?
NT: I think of it less as a physical geography that I’m exploring and more of an intellectual geography that allows for a widening of the lens, a broadening of the field of vision. And so for me, leaving the physical boundaries of Mississippi to consider history elsewhere was about expanding that vision to think of the Americas—to think of the project of empire, of which Mississippi is deeply part and entwined. And yet, I needed to take those concerns that had always been my focus in my home state and expand them to the project of empire, to the histories of race across time and space.
As you were widening the lens, did you find that changed the experience of writing, whether for individual poems or sequences?
NT: I still rely heavily on the same kinds of things that I always rely on: photographs, or in this case, paintings, visual imagery that I can research and discover, and also histories that I read. And so I find that I really enjoy researching material for the poems; I enjoy looking at paintings from particular historical moments that help illustrate the history of that moment.
When you step into these historic moments, you sometimes do so by way of a persona—Ophelia, for instance. At other times the painting or the photograph comes into the poem, giving an added remove. What governs your choice to inhabit a point in time rather than study from a distance?
NT: Two things must be going on at once for me when I am trying to write about history using one of those objects, using a painting or a photograph. What happens is that I’m at once looking at it as a piece of material culture to see how it reveals something about the moment in which it was created; at the same time, I’m certainly responding to it out of my own contemporary moment. And I think if all goes well, in that space between the two perspectives, there’s a kind of frisson as I try to understand the thing of the past as material culture, and bridge the distance between that and my own response, based on my own experience of the world. In between those two things, something interesting can happen.
When trying to bridge that space between, what are the considerations for the reader? Or do you tend to focus on what you, the poet, need to accomplish in this poem?
NT: My exploration of history and these historical objects—these documents or photographs or paintings—is always about an exploration of the self, and the self in this contemporary moment. That’s why I always choose to investigate things that allow for that kind of integration, that intersection of public and personal history. These histories that I look at help to illuminate, for me, something of my own contemporary experience and place it in context along the web of history, such that I don’t have to see my experience with my father, with American ideas of racial difference, as unique to me, but instead as part of the thread that holds our nation together and helps to shape it. So these things are never just about history, nor are they ever just about me.
When you’re writing about your childhood and family, it reads to many as autobiography: intimate in tone and dealing with difficult subject matter. How do you determine what’s the moment to be shared and placed in the web of history, and how do you decide what to keep back for yourself?
NT: That’s an interesting question. I think you’re right that people always do read my poems as very intimate and autobiographical. And I think I am very interested in having a tone that suggests that intimacy, because for me it is a way to invite the reader in as closely as I can to share in that experience with me, as opposed to immediately putting up a kind of barrier to what’s being revealed. Of course, any time we sit down to write a poem, whether it’s a poem that’s ostensibly in the first person and from the actual experience of the poet or if it’s a persona poem, there is still a mask that we wear. And because of that, I think that I am allowed to take a few risks that I might not otherwise take in terms of what is revealed, but also to edit what seems less important for the overall emotional truth of the poem. I don’t want to sound cagey, or that I am deliberately guarding or hiding certain things, but instead creating a thing that is just as true as anything I might not reveal.
Would it be fair to say that what you’re trying to present is not the “sincerity,” to use Louise Glück’s term for the actual lived moment, but the truth of the moment?
NT: I’m always interested in an emotional truth, and staying very true to that. In personal poems, I think that there is a way to stick to an emotional truth even if facts are manipulated, molded, or shaped. And I don’t mean huge things; I mean if I’ve got to change the color of the dress my mother was wearing, because the color I can change it to gets closer to the emotional truth that I’m trying to convey than the actual dress she was wearing, I might do that. I’m not willing to make up events that didn’t happen, because then that to me feels like I’m playing with history. And so in writing about history, I do try to use the facts of history in order to shed light on the emotional truth of the personal experience.
Relating to the ideas of history and personal experience, much is made of the racialized experiences present in your poetry. There is far less discussion of the fact that your first two books were populated largely by women, their lives, and their experiences. What impact do concerns of gender have on your writing?
NT: I think they have a tremendous impact. I feel as a writer that I can never cast aside all the things that, historically, have shaped me, and made me the thinker and the writer that I am. And gender is a huge part of that, and the experience of race in America is a huge part of that. What I think is odd, and it’s what you just pointed out, is that in the past, there has been much more made of the role of race in my books than the role of gender—particularly because I never thought that I was writing about race. The experience of race is my everyday experience, and if it’s there, it’s because it is there, again, in the fabric of our nation. This is a little off of your question, but it leads me to say that because I heard that again and again, I decided, when I began writing Thrall, to actually look at the question of race head on: to actually make it my subject, whereas it never had been. It was just there, just as my gender is there, just as the fact that I was born in Mississippi is there. It just is. And it was a different thing for me to actually decide to look at it as a subject.
It seems that, by virtue of the experiences you were writing about, women’s history became the subject of Domestic Work. Have you considered, then, investigating it as a subject, as you have done with race?
NT: I was very specifically writing about these women: in Domestic Work, thinking about the work that my maternal grandmother had done, and in Bellocq’s Ophelia, thinking about the work and the life of Ophelia. But maybe this is something about what it is to be a black woman, and a biracial woman. I can’t separate, either in Domestic Work or in Bellocq’s Ophelia, the experiences of those women into their experience of gender and their experience of race. I can’t disaggregate them.
In her essay “Playing in the Dark,” Toni Morrison talks about “the habit of ignoring race [as] a graceful, even generous liberal gesture”; “Southern History” and “White Lies” present a different kind of complicity with injustice through silence. How much responsibility for breaking through silence lies on the poets who speak out and how much on the readers who hear the story?
NT: It seems that the responsibility is pretty hefty on both sides, although I’m completely happy for people to write about whatever it is they have to write about—and so those people who don’t feel compelled to address the subjects head on in their work are completely justified in doing that. I’d like to think that they’re aware they’re making that decision, though, because I’m always conscious of the ways that other writers’ experience can be looked at through a lens of race, which usually means that anyone is an “other” of some sort. But I’m troubled by the idea that some peoples’ work is “normal” and can look be looked at through a neutral lens. The lens is never neutral for any of us. The experience of being a particular race happens to us all, whether we acknowledge it or not. Blackness is not the only racialized experience. Whiteness is also a racialized experience, whether people choose to write directly about it or not. And I think that readers should be conscious of that when they read something, as opposed to simply making normative or neutral the experience of whiteness, and making “other” the experience of blackness. This goes as well for how we read the work of people with various, often “othered” racial designations, gender, and sexual orientation.
So in a way, we can’t ignore the label, and we shouldn’t—the label can be used derogatorily, but it can also be used to represent a different view of life, and a different richness brought to the poetry.
I also wanted to ask you about form. When writing a longer sequence—such as “The Storyville Letters” or the title poem of Native Guard—how does the narrative help or hinder what you seek to do lyrically? For instance, a novelist may make a discovery about a character partway through a book or add in an unexpected plot development that changes the tenor of the narrative and the whole work must be revisited; have you, as a poet, encountered parallel concerns?
NT: I think that in Bellocq’s Ophelia, for example, I was still making discoveries that you suggest as a novelist might make about a character halfway through the book, or three-quarters in, because I never was quite sure where she was going. And I think that form, particularly, is actually the thing that allowed for me to make discoveries about Ophelia and about the character of the Native Guard as
well. In that sequence, because I was driven by the form of the crown, there were lyrical things that had to happen that often made surprising narrative things happen. I do find that my own narrative impulse can be a hindrance, which is why, in Native Guard, and to an extent, in Bellocq’s Ophelia, I followed a nonlinear way of telling the story by using forms that required repetition, that made me circle back to a line that had been uttered before and needed to be said again in a different way. In a pantoum, for example, the form subverted the narrative impulse and led to a much more interesting direction for the poem to take. Likewise, in Bellocq’s Ophelia, this kind of circling back occurs when I explore, in a series of unrhymed sonnets—Ophelia’s diary—the same period of time and narrative ground covered in the form of her letters.
Similarly, a number of your poems have rhyme schemes, and others employ poetic forms—“Miscegenation” is a ghazal, the title poem in Native Guard is a crown of sonnets—often so subtle that a reader may not pick up on them until after many readings. Does the choice of formal elements originate in the impulse toward a “pleasing pattern of sounds stretched along a line,” as you described in your lecture “Why I Write,” or does a different instinct inform it? I think of Rita Dove’s remark: “If you can get the edges into the form, then that form becomes transformed—it hurts much more, it's much more disturbing.”
NT: Well I think a good example of that in my own writing is a poem in Native Guard called “Myth,” which is a palindrome. It’s a poem that I wrote the first half of unrhymed and in free verse, and then I began to see the edges of possibility that Rita described. When I could see that with some wrenching and other painful things, these lines might also rhyme and mean differently, I began looking harder at the half that I had written, reading the lines separately, divorcing them from their rhetorical position in the stanza, divorcing them from their syntactical position within the sentence. And that’s the moment that I realized there was yet another formal option available to me and that was that the poem could read backwards line by line, and thus enact in an even more painful way for me what it is like to have a dream in which I don’t know that my mother is dead, and wake up to realize that she is—and that I am like Orpheus trying to lead Eurydice out of the underworld, then turning around and seeing her vanish.
I keep coming back to the geographies you say you’re exploring, the sort of emotional terrains, the intellectual terrains, and wondered how do you bring in the natural world, how do the physical geographies and emotional and intellectual geographies work together—if they do?
NT: I was just reading some essays by Mark Doty that reminded me that precision is beauty. And I think that trying to get that precise observation of something in nature is what can render even difficult things beautiful. And of course that goes back to something Shelley said: “poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.” I keep that in mind because it helps me to think about writing those very difficult things that one would not necessarily think were beautiful, but that, if done with precision, are made beautiful.
That brings me back to Beyond Katrina because the poems and the prose are rich with historical detail and descriptions that are so precise. And it is something of a hybrid of genre. As a poet, when you have the opportunity to use more words, how do you maintain that precision?
NT: I think it’s so much harder. I think I certainly could’ve labored over it much longer, and had much more precision than is actually there—a deeper, even lengthier meditation that the subject seems to demand.
Likewise, poetry is beginning to metamorphose, being integrated with prose, transforming from print into electronic media. Do you see the blurring of such boundaries as a fruitful development for poetry? Could it harm the precision and beauty?
NT: I like thinking of the possibilities of creating literary hybrids. When I was working on Beyond Katrina, I kept returning to Robert Penn Warren’s Segregation, which doesn’t have any poems in it, but I think of it as a literary hybrid nonetheless because it involves a blend of investigative reporting with
interviews, blended with a kind of travel narrative, blended also with personal narrative—not a memoir, but somehow clearly an investigation of the self as well. That was my model for writing Beyond Katrina. And it seemed to me I needed all of those pieces in order to tell that particular story. So I don’t think that the creation of literary hybrids is going to weaken either genre. And I can barely say this to you with a straight face because I just heard myself talking about literary hybrids in the same way that, across time and space, hybrids—or mixed-race people—have been talked about: all those 18th and 19th century arguments about how amalgamation or mixing would diminish both the white race and the black race. But then there came later this idea of “hybrid vigor,” which asserts instead that the hybrid is much better and stronger than either of the parents. It’s crazy to think about that in light of your question! But you can see clearly what my obsessions are.
Maybe the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter what our parts are, what a text’s parts are, as long as the emotional truth is there?
NT: Right. I think that’s true.
Jocelyn Heath earned her MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland, College Park in 2011. She writes poetry, which has appeared most recently in Poet Lore and Sinister Wisdom, and contributes book reviews to Lambda Literary. She became a member of Smartish Pace in 2011.