The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Natasha Trethewey about her most recent collection Monument: Poems New and Selected, Southern history, how craft can help a writer attack difficult material, and the food transplanted Southerners might miss most.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
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This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: How are you doing this evening? Where are you joining us from, if you don’t mind my asking?
Natasha Trethewey: I’m in Evanston, IL. It’s been a lovely crisp autumn day here—my favorite!
Brian S: Nice. I’m in Des Moines, and it’s also lovely here. I grew up not far from the places you’ve spent your life writing about, and I’m still trying to figure out seasons, but I do like fall.
Natasha Trethewey: Where are you from?
Brian S: I grew up in Slidell, lived for a while in and around Hammond, and my oldest daughter mostly grew up with her mom in Pass Christian/Gulfport. I feel like I can say that to you as opposed to “outside of New Orleans” because you’ll recognize the place names.
Natasha Trethewey: Wow! My father lived in Slidell for a bit, so I spent some time there as a child.
Yes—you don’t have to say “outside New Orleans!” And you know what I mean when I say “the Pass.”
Brian S: Exactly! So for so many of your poems, it’s like a visit home in a lot of ways. Like, I’ve never been to Ship Island, but I’ve seen the pier that goes out to the ferry that takes you there dozens of times. And that includes the poems about the history that we were taught in school. The Lost Cause and the weight of the Confederacy on everything down there.
Natasha Trethewey: Did you visit the Mississippi Gulf Coast much when you were growing up? And do you know Nicole Cooley and her work? She’s also from NOLA and spent a lot of time on Mississippi beaches.
Brian S: I visited it some, but in odd ways. I was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and we had yearly conventions in Gulfport when I was younger. And then my ex-wife’s grandparents lived in the Pass, so we visited there fairly often. I don’t know Nicole Cooley, but I will definitely be looking her up now.
Natasha Trethewey: Her poetry collection Breach is wonderful. It’s a book about Hurricane Katrina that gets at the experience of folks in New Orleans and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. She is one of the people who knows both places.
Brian S: I’ll definitely check it out.
Natasha Trethewey: I once asked a room full of college students—most of whom had grown up in Mississippi—if they’d been to Ship Island. Many hands went up. But when I asked if they knew about the Native Guards, the black Union soldiers stationed there, all the hands went down.
Brian S: I’d never heard about them until I read Native Guard. We’re close to the same age, I believe, and I had a very similar experience to the one you describe in “Southern History,” down to watching Gone With the Wind in class.
Natasha Trethewey: I’m glad to know someone else had that experience. When I moved to Georgia in 2001 to teach at Emory one of my colleagues told me that the state was still using textbooks that had that kind of stuff in them.
Brian S: It honestly wouldn’t surprise me if there was still some of it in there today. All the backlash against the removal of Confederate monuments throughout the South is evidence that white people are both ignorant of what the past was and what it means, and they’re willfully staying that way. And I have to be careful how I throw “they” around, because I’m white, too, and was pretty ignorant of it all until the last ten years at best.
Is that, in part, what the book’s title is referring to by any chance? It’s such a powerful title.
Natasha Trethewey: That was what the debates in Georgia about the Confederate flag were several years ago. Some folks were insisting that it was “heritage not hate”—but they either ignored or didn’t know that the flag they were championing was raised in 1956, in response to desegregation, The Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision.
Brian S: And for so much of my life, the idea that the statues of Confederate Generals and such were there to celebrate men who defended themselves against invasion, and that slavery was a secondary reason for the war was just everywhere.
Natasha Trethewey: Yes, the title is certainly about memory, about what we erect monuments to, what is inscribed on the monumental landscape and written into our cultural memory—and what is erased, buried, forgotten. And it also is meant to be a monument to my mother, to my parents, to my ancestors and the people and place that made me.
Brian S: Right, the poem “Monument” from Native Guard is just beautiful in the way it brings the book back down to this really intimate moment with your mother’s gravesite.
Natasha Trethewey: Those monuments—as well as the names given to roads, bridges, buildings, etc.—gave me a kind of psychological exile when I was growing up there.
Brian S: It’s had that effect on me as an adult. Being white and uneducated about the history outside the Lost Cause meant that I didn’t even notice a lot of what I was surrounded by in terms of monuments when I was younger. I just accepted so much of it as a given. It took distance for me to really see what I’d grown up around.
Natasha Trethewey: Thank you. That is what is really at the heart of the collection for me. I write because of two existential wounds: I was “hurt into poetry” (to use W. H. Auden’s words) by my native land, its brutal and violent history of racism and oppression and historical amnesia. But my deeper wound was the loss of my mother, her tragic death, when I was nineteen.
Brian S: Can I ask about how you think about craft? I know that’s a big question, but so much of your work is formally precise, plus you do so much ekphrastic work and poems in voice. For instance, is form a major consideration when you start to draft a poem or do you sort of fall into it along the way? Or do you see a set of paintings and feel a need to respond to them? I know this is a lot. I’m just trying to give you some entryways into an impossible question.
Natasha Trethewey: I think that usually I begin to see formal possibilities in a poem after I have begun drafting it. Only occasionally do I turn to form first, as a way to enter difficult emotional material. With paintings I tend to be drawn to them before I understand why. Only in the act of writing the poem, of describing what I see, do I begin to make the kind of figurative gestures that provide insight into why I felt compelled to write about the paintings.
Brian S: Does focusing on the form help with control when dealing difficult emotional material? Like, does having to put such effort into rhyme or meter or repetition give some distance? I know it does for me in my own work. It keeps me from spiraling off into a rant about a subject, I mean. I can’t just vent onto the page if I’m thinking about five beats to a line.
Natasha Trethewey: Yes—you said it! That’s precisely how I experience it. Even focusing on something like form keeps me from trying so hard to say one thing that I miss the possibility of saying some else that might be much more true and interesting. I like working with that kind of constraint.
Brian S: Is it similar when you’re writing in the voice of a character? By which I mean, does the responsibility to get the character’s voice right and do it justice acts as a formal constraint the same way a rhyme scheme might?
Natasha Trethewey: I think so. Working within the voice of a character from another time and place offers a different linguistic geography; there are words, objects, images, that aren’t part of my experience and getting to imagine the world through a different lens—as with Ophelia in Storyville, New Orleans in the early part of the twentieth century—allows me to delve into the interior life of the character as reflected also in the external landscape.
Brian S: This is kind of an insider question, but how much control did you have over the poems that went into this collection?
Natasha Trethewey: I actually had complete control over that. And my wonderful editor Jenny Xu and I agreed on my selections. There was never a moment that she questioned my choices. And Jeff Shotts at Graywolf was wonderful when it came to granting permissions to use poems from those two earlier books.
Brian S: Ah, Graywolf is a great press to work with in a lot of ways. We do multiple books with them for the two book clubs every year.
Natasha Trethewey: Yes, they have been very good to me!
Brian S: So being a Southerner now living in the Midwest, what food from home do you miss most? Like, I make my own muffalettas and gumbo and red beans here because I can’t trust anybody in Iowa to get either one right.
Natasha Trethewey: Hmm… That’s a tough question. I don’t think I’ve had a good seafood gumbo like they make in NOLA—or a Po’ boy.
Brian S: Po’ Boys too. Nobody does the bread right.
Natasha Trethewey: Oh yeah! I can’t imagine a muffaletta made up here! Some things you have to enjoy in the place they came from. I know people who say Guinness doesn’t travel.
Brian S: I saw a muffaletta up here that was so bad that I wrote a poem about it for the Southern Foodways Anthology, Vinegar & Char.
Natasha Trethewey: Oh! I need to read that poem!
Brian S: Who are you reading these days? Who should we be on the lookout for?
Natasha Trethewey: Right now I’ve got some memoirs and nonfiction on my nightstand: Ron Chernow’s Grant, Greg Pardlo’s Air Traffic. David Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. I fell in love with Ulysses S. Grant when I was in the sixth grade. I read a biography of him that I found in my school library—so now I’m thrilled to be reading one as an adult so many years later!
Brian S: I read Grant’s memoirs about ten to twelve years ago, right about the time I was starting to learn about the history I didn’t learn in school. I need to check out the Chernow.
Natasha Trethewey: I wish I had a Po’ boy right now! I’m starving and headed to dinner now. Thank you for this lovely chat! I hope to meet you in person one day.
Brian S: Thank you so much for joining us. The poem I mentioned is titled “Eating a Muffuletta in Des Moines.” Hope you like it, and I hope to meet you in person someday, too. Have a great rest of your night!
Natasha Trethewey: You too! Thank you again for having me!
Photograph of Natasha Trethewey © Nancy Crampton.