Poetry News

Natasha Trethewey Discusses Monuments With Lauren LeBlanc

By Harriet Staff
Natasha Trethewey, Monument, cover

Visit the Paris Review to read Lauren LeBlanc's interview with Natasha Trethewey about her recently-published collection of new and selected poetry, Monument. Their conversation spans Trethewey's early life in Mississippi and poetry's intersections with memorials and monuments. In the introduction, LeBlanc writes, "[t]wo-term national Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize–winner Natasha Trethewey was born in her mother’s hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi, on April 26, 1966. The daughter of Eric Trethewey and Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, an interracial couple who traveled from Kentucky to Ohio in order to be legally married, Trethewey shares her birthday with Confederate Memorial Day." From there: 

I was previously unaware of the holiday, which is still celebrated across the South to commemorate the deaths of Confederate soldiers. Upon the inauguration of Barack Obama, pundits announced we had entered a postracial era. Roughly a decade later, it is easy to say that white supremacy is stronger than it’s been since the civil rights movement. 

Talking with Trethewey on the phone, we noted the different ways that signals and symbols of white supremacy—beyond the obvious statues and memorials—continue to stand in plain sight. We are both daughters of the Deep South, and we discussed the old department stores that once lined Canal Street in New Orleans, such as Maison Blanche. Remarking on a Washington Post review of a John Grisham novel, Trethewey said, “One thing he mentions is a dismissal that I hear, too. You write about race. Aren’t there larger or more important subjects to write about? But this reviewer said that Mississippi writers in different genres all write about race because not writing about race in Mississippi is like writers from Arizona not writing about the desert. How can I not?” 

Trethewey stands witness. It would be impossible for her not to. In 1984, her stepfather murdered her mother, and she traces her desire to become a poet to her grief. This dedication to survival and memory have informed her five poetry collections, as well as her nonfiction book, Beyond Katrina, a book that should be read in conversation with Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones and Men We Reaped. Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize–winning collection Native Guard confirmed her as the guardian of the histories that must be retold. This collection chronicled one of the first African American regiments during the Civil War. Her exquisite and brutal lyricism as well as her commitment to truth makes Trethewey one of the most important American poets of our time. 

Her new book, Monument, is a collection of both new and selected works. It’s a vibrant and timely book, deeply aware of our nation’s chaotic moment and its historical resonances. The most recent poems ripple with questions that have always informed her work: “Why is everything I see the past / I’ve tried to forget? … Do you know what it means / to have a wound that never heals?” and “How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with hers?/ And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling there?” She interrogates the black experience in America, the trauma of domestic violence and murder, and the destruction of the Gulf Coast. Trethewey is a tremendously empathic and enthusiastic force in our nation’s bleak period. Her words settle with profound gravity, yet her laughter is quick and comfortable. 

Read the complete interview at the Paris Review.


Originally Published: November 19th, 2018