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Natasha Trethewey: By the Book

Category: Art & Culture,Books

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Carol Anderson’s “White Rage” takes what many of us have known, perhaps existentially or intuitively, and puts it in a new framework, adding a synthesis of thoroughly researched archival evidence that documents the deeply entrenched and ubiquitous nature of white rage — white backlash, across time and space — as response to black advancement. She rigorously outlines the opposition to the exercise, by black Americans, of the rights granted to all American citizens in our Constitution. It’s a sobering lesson for understanding where we are in this country right now.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

Something I find in both Banville and Morrison: the ability of the best works to challenge me with difficult knowledge, to show me something about myself through the intimate interaction with a voice and characters different from myself; the ability to show us, across time and space, not that we are different but how we are alike; the ability to historicize the complexities of human nature, as Robert Penn Warren put it, and to evoke the noblest of our human capabilities: the power to empathize — even with characters we might find reprehensible, whose actions I cannot condone. What moves me most is how great literature enables me to comprehend something of the people I encounter there, how they might have come to be who they are, to do the things they do. In spite of everything, the best literature reaffirms my love for and abiding faith in humanity, in the human potential for goodness and justice.

Did you read poetry as a child? What books made you fall in love with poetry?

My father, Eric Trethewey, was a poet, and very early in my life he began reciting all kinds of poetry to me, especially the poems of Wordsworth, W. B. Yeats and Robert Hayden. But my father’s poems were some of the earliest I read, even before I could understand them, because I wanted to share that language — the language of poetry — with him.

Over the years I came to see that poetry was the best way we had of communicating, of really hearing each other. Beyond that, I think that what made me fall in love with poetic language (if not exactly poetry at first) — the lyricism and rhythm of syntax, the power of the figurative to make the mind leap to a new apprehension of things — was Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Before I ever committed any poems to memory I had memorized his speech and would recite it to myself over and over.

Was there a book of poems or a poet in particular that inspired you to write?

I loved stories when I was growing up, and for a while I thought I wanted to tell stories in prose, to be a fiction writer. Then my father gave me a copy of Rita Dove’s “Thomas and Beulah.” The narrative lyric mode of those poems, as well as their subject matter, opened a new pathway for me — a new way of thinking of how I might, as Phil Levine put it, “write what’s given me to write.” And it was also Levine’s “What Work Is,” Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Magic City” and Seamus Heaney’s “North” that first inspired me to write poems that could tell the stories I needed to tell. Though she is a prose writer, I would include Toni Morrison in this list.

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