Natasha Trethewey, two-term 19th U.S. Poet Laureate and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, gave a poetry reading focused on her identity and inspiration as a poet Wednesday night for the Notre Dame community.
“I think of myself as an elegiac poet as well as a poet concerned with remembrance and memorialization with the intersections between and often the contentions between public history and our personal history,” she said during the reading.
The event, sponsored by the departments of Africana Studies, English, gender studies, American Studies, highlighted Trethewey’s main messages across her many literary works, with poetry serving as the central medium.
She started the night by thanking the Notre Dame community and noting the shared intellectual curiosity.
“It’s just so exciting how many things are going on, [on] campus and you’re still willing to come and spend a little bit of time with me,” she said. “In the short time that I’ve been on campus, I’ve witnessed the commitment to intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of knowledge. It’s palpable here.”
She shared some of her most famous poems, “Mississippi” and “the pursuit of knowledge,” both of which focus on her complex upbringing, “Here, a passage underlined there / a single star on the page / as in a night sky, cloud-swept and hazy / where only the brightest appears / a tiny spark…,” she read.
Trethewey went on to eplain how many interpretations of history are projected, and how poetry has the power to unveil the stories that have seemingly vanished.
“For me, writing is also about recovering those lost, buried, forgotten [and] erased histories,” she said.
When asked about her intricacies in researching for her intersectional works, Trethewey explained that, “we want to imagine that the muse will visit us. And part of that preparation has everything to do with research… I often have very specific historical things that I am researching. But research even extends to the way I use the OED [Oxford English Dictionary].”
When the conversation shifted to an open Q&A for the audience, the topic of Trethewey’s poetry desensitizing violence arose. She explained that poetry can send an overlooked message in a distinct voice.
“I think it [poetry] can evoke in us a kind of empathy, that we may not get to each other in ordinary conversation,” Trethewey said.
Additionally, a question arose about how to convey knowledge and combat false knowledge. Trethewey said that poetry can open the reader to a larger perspective, often a missing one. She then noted her parents’ — at the time illegal — miscegenation in Mississippi and its legal implications and how “facts can just roll over us.”
Throughout the whole night, Trethewey repeatedly mentioned her formative childhood and it being a central muse in some of her most famous works. Particularly, her mother’s death and her father’s background had significant impacts on her.
With such complications in her life, poetry expresses not only Trethewey’s background but also her view on the world, she says. To Trethewey, poetry has a way of, “touching not only the intellect but also the heart.”
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