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Poetry Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey discusses her inspiration for writing

Students, faculty and guests came together on Tuesday evening to listen to Walk the Walk Week keynote speaker, Natasha Trethewey as she answered the question “Why I Write.”

Trethewey is a former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning poet, best known for her books “Memorial Drive” and “Native Guard.” As the Initiative on Race and Resilience artist-in-residence for 2022-23, she was selected to give the keynote address for the eighth annual Walk the Walk Week at Notre Dame.

Fr. John Jenkins kicked off Walk the Walk Week, introducing the event and its significance.

“Walk the Walk Week is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what it means to be Notre Dame,” Jenkins said. “Let us listen to sieving, not only from the perspective of scholarly detachment, but let us open our minds and hearts to engage in ways that lead us to action for peace and justice on our campus, in our local communities, in our nation and in our world.”

Trethewey then took the stage and began by paying a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr..

“It could be said that part of my journey as a poet began with Dr. King when I was only in the third grade. I wrote my first poem for him and his message of social justice continues to guide me,” Trethewey said.

Titled The House of Being, Trethewey’s lecture was split into four distinct sections. The first section was titled “The World Book”, named after an Encyclopedia set Trethewey’s grandmother kept on her bookshelf.

“That the story of The World Book’s provenance was passed down to me from the beginning made it even more prized. I was enthralled with the title,” she said. “The idea that a set of books could contain even a single year of the world beyond our house.”

She then discussed her father’s role in introducing her to knowledge through books and stories.

“I heard Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”, Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”, Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey”, all in the cadence of my father’s resonant voice,” Trethewey shared. “When I think back on it now, I can see that all the stories my father told me, each with some form of the hero’s journey, must have taken root in my psyche, establishing early on the pattern to which my own journey would conform.”

Next, Trethewey moved on to the second section of her lecture which was titled “Crossroads.” In this section, Trethewey’s main focus was on her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi.

She discussed the cultural and familial significance of her homeland before going on to highlight the devastating changes which then took place.

“In the decades of the early 20th century, when my grandmother was growing up there, the land and the house on it had abutted a pasture. By the time I was born, the pasture was gone, paved over to make way for new highway 49 and the house now stood at a crossroads — the intersection of 49 and Jefferson Street,” Trethewey noted.

Trethewey then explained the significance of the changes to her homeland, emphasizing the unjust concealment of many people.

“On every corner, four foot tall concrete pillars sunk deep in the ground and painted white, bore their names like monuments to the founding of the nation, the complex ideals embedded therein,” she said.“It was one of the myriad ways the landscape of my geography was inscribed with one version of America while simultaneously subduing or erasing others,” Trethewey said.

She then continued her point by explaining that the geographical location one is born in, or grows up in, plays a significant role in determining their fate.

“Inevitably, individuals are shaped by the history and culture of inherited places,” Trethewey said. “Geography is fate.”

Returning to the purpose of her talk, Trethewey takes a moment to link her story thus far to the purpose and reason behind why she writes.

“That is one of the reasons I write, to create the narrative of my life so that my story would not be determined for me,” Trethewey shared.

Before moving on to the third section, Trethewey delves into the fact that she is biracial, as well as how that affected her writing.

“Despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act, my parents’ interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi, rendering me illegitimate in the eyes of the law,” Trethewey highlighted. “The act of writing is a way to create a world in language. It is an act of reclamation and resistance.”

Trethewey then moved on to the penultimate section of her speech which she titled “The House of Being.” Here, Trethewey shared details about her grandmother’s job as a seamstress and how she was impacted by it.

“She made precise measures in cuts so that no material was wasted, nothing was out of place, the patterns true, the results a thing of beauty. That translates to me now as a way to think about syntax. How one writes is inseparable from why one does,” Trethewey said.

Next, Trethewey shed light on the abusive relationship her mother was involved in after her parents’ divorce. At this point in her life, Trethewey was no longer living in Mississippi.

She emphasized her extreme dislike for living in Atlanta as well as how much she enjoyed the summer when she got to return to her grandmother’s house.

“At my grandmother’s house, I could relax and I’d spend a good deal of my time in solitary reverie, as the dreamy child does. I could sit down to read and lose myself all without fear of the chronic tensions I left behind in Atlanta,” Trethewey recounted.

Finally, Trethewey began her fourth section, “The Pasture.” In this section, Trethewey dove into her relationship with her mother, emphasizing how supportive her mother was.

“She will do whatever she wants,” Trethewey recalled her mother saying in response to doubtful comments made by her stepfather.

After discussing her close connection to her mother, Trethewey shared her reaction to hearing of her mother’s murder.

“Following her death, I turned to poetry, the only language that seemed capable of containing my immeasurable grief,” Trethewey said. “I placed my grief in the mouth of language, the only thing that would grieve with me.”

Before concluding, Trethewey returned to the big question one last time, giving a final insight on why she writes.

“I have turned to literature for the way it enables us to momentarily suspend time, to live in the moment of a story unfolding, wherein the intimate voice of a poem reanimates in the mind both for the writer and reader,” she said.

Prior to the conclusion of the event, there was an opportunity for a brief question and answer session. When asked about how she goes about unpacking something so traumatic, Trethewey shared that it is all about memory.

“The rhythm of my own thinking makes memories reemerge. I think that is one of the joys of writing poetry,” Trethewey said.

Another audience member asked a question about how Trethewey is able to overcome the fear of others’ perception of her work.

“First, I believe in the goodness of people. The second thing is precision in the telling of our own experience,” Trethewey responded.

Finally, Trethewey was asked about her upcoming work. She shared that she plans to expand this very lecture into a small book. She then plans to work on a memoir about her father in which she will really explore how she came to be an author.

Contact Jenna Abu-Lughod at jabulugh@nd.edu.