Poetry News

Chet'la Sebree and Natasha Trethewey in Conversation at Guernica

By Harriet Staff
Natasha Trethewey Portrait

At Guernica, Natasha Trethewey explores, with poet Chet’la Sebree, "resurrection, American amnesia, and being 'wounded into poetry'" in relation to her new book,  Monument: Poems New and Selected (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018). Sebree gives some context in the introduction:

In this moment, in which conversations about male violence and misconduct, Confederate monuments, and the horrors on which this country was founded have taken center stage in public consciousness, the twenty years’ worth of poetry presented in Monument feels incredibly timely. While the collection grapples with these larger cultural conversations, it is also a monument to the loss of Trethewey’s mother thirty-three years ago. Unflinchingly, the collection is framed by how her mother’s murder by the hands of Trethewey’s ex-stepfather has framed her life.

An excerpt from their conversation:

Guernica: And I wonder—as we’re both talking about being interested in history and poetry—why both history and poetry feel like appropriate vehicles through which to have this contemporary conversation about white supremacy and male violence.

Trethewey: This makes me feel like there’s something appropriate in [Robert Penn] Warren. I’m going to try not to butcher it, but he says, “Poetry is the little myth that we make, and history is the big myth that we make and, in our living, constantly remake.” So I don’t even know, in my mind anymore, if I can separate the work of a poem from the work of history.

Warren also talked about—particularly in that collection I was mentioning to you earlier [Brother to Dragons]—that one of his goals was not to necessarily write history in it, because he diverges. The moment that you start having a historical character have conversations with someone contemporary, as you know, you’re no longer writing “history.” And yet, at the same time, you are, though.

So, if I can say this in a way that makes sense, he set out to historicize human nature. And I think looking at these historical moments, historical figures, through the lens of a poem is a way of both getting at history and human nature—something about the nature of the past and us living through it in the present. I wonder what you would say about that.

Find out, and read the rest, at Guernica.

Originally Published: January 11th, 2019