The Ms. Q&A: Feminist Poet Natasha Trethewey Writes the Stories We Need to Remember

Natasha Trethewey has published four books of poetry, won the Pulitzer Prize and served two terms as the national Poet Laureate, but her forthcoming collection Monument proves that she still has much left to say.

Monument connects the poems from Trethewey’s previous books, all of which examine race and gender, and weaves them together into one cohesive and, in many ways, new narrative—repackaging conversations and reminding the reader throughout just how resonant they remain. New poems serve as transitions and reflections, weaving each section together and providing punctuation on the ruminating thoughts and textures of each section.

At the center of the book are questions about memory—about what women inherit from their mothers and grandmothers, about monuments and what we collectively decide to remember, about the stories we tell and how familiar the past remains even at a great distance from our current moment. Monument, which is released the day after this week’s midterm elections, is a call to action for us to record and remember our histories—even, and especially, the parts that make us uncomfortable and uneasy—and find strength in them as the resistance marches on.

Trethewey opened up to Ms. about what led her to organizing Monument, the power of poetry in the age of Trump and the activism inherent in telling women’s stories.

Natasha Trethewey during a book signing in 2011. (Wikimedia Commons)

The book is incredible, and so powerful. You’ve had such a storied career, and this collection is honoring and re-inventing your work at the same time. What led you to put this all together? What made you want to take on this revisitation and reconstruction process with your work?

It wasn’t intentional at first. It came about because I was, and still am, in the process of writing a memoir about my mother—her life and death, and the role that my relationship with her and losing her played in making me a writer. So working on the prose, which is not natural for me in some ways, would always lead me to these moments where I had to stop and write something instead in a poem. And the poems that were coming out of this new process, the poems that are in Monument, were poems that I couldn’t see going into the manuscript I was also supposed to be working on, and they seemed to be different. They were telling me something. I was learning something in the process.

That was what gave me a way to frame a new and selected—that I had been writing this entire time from two existential wounds. One, the wounds of history; of racism and oppression in my native state, Mississippi; of being born at a time and place when my parents interracial marriage was illegal in the eyes of the law both in the state of Mississippi and nationally, which is a thing that sort of rendered me persona non grata, illegitimate in the eyes of the law. The second wound, of course, was losing my mother when I was 19—and thats the thing that really made me sit down and try to write a poem for the first time in my adult life that would allow me to contend with that grief.

Working on a memoir allowed me to see that thats what I’d been doing this whole time, that everything for me is concentrated in those two wounds that have hurt me into poetry. The other thing that I realized in working on the prose was that for the longest time, I had been telling myself that my fascination with historical memory and historical erasure, our kind of cultural amnesia around the civil war and monuments to the civil war, had everything to do with being from Mississippi, had everything to do with growing up near Ship Island, where that regiment of black Union soldiers was stationed but in many ways forgotten.

But indeed, I had to make this realization that it was not only Mississippi, but that because my mother had been murdered on Memorial Drive. Memorial Drive, which is to remember the confederacy in Georgia, a street that runs from downtown Atlanta all the way down to Stone Mountain, the world’s largest monument to the confederacy. She died on Memorial Drive in the shadow of that confederate monument.

These two things have always been side-by-side for me.

I was struck that your poems bring to life so many stories of women at the intersections, and that so many of those women you’re letting us live alongside in your work are the women who raised you—your mother, your grandmother—and this idea of intergenerational trauma. I was struck, too, by this opening poem in the book, this line: “you carry her corpse on your back.”

Did putting this collection together, did finding or revealing the throughline of all of these booksdid it lift some of that weight for you?

In a sense that I could finally fully acknowledge it, that made the burden of it a little lighter. It’s a burden that you don’t wanna put down, I have to say that—that sense of grief and that burden of loss that I carry is part of who I am. I don’t know who I’d be without it, actually.

But to your question of did that weight get a little lighter: I think in many ways, yes, and that poem sort of gets to that, in a spot, for me, when I came to consider the idea of the heart as a reliquary in the poem, because I came to understand that there really are two images, two versions of my mother I hold onto. One is that corpse—which I will not put down, which reminds me of the ongoing difficulties that women face with domes violence and other kinds of abuse and the way that it is perceived. But also, the living mother—who was planted a long time ago in my heart, who continues to grow there, a living seed and flowered plant that’s still there.

Having recognized that I had both of those provides some lightness and some joy. The poet Rumi said: “the wound is a place where light enters you.” So there’s also that place of light—my heart, my wounded heart, that is filled with light and makes the burden of that corpse lighter.

And I think so many women share these throughlines in the book—so many can, I think, viscerally relate to these themes of poverty, of violence, of having to claim an identity, of being denied the breadth of dignity that we deserve. We’re finally starting to see more attention paid to these issues in the age of #MeToo, and now there’s this idea of the power of our stories. Why do you tell these stories? Do you feel this writing is a form of activism for you?

I do. My father was also a poet, and one of the hardest books I had to write was Thrall, my last book, because it’s dedicated to my father—and in that book I was trying to have a very intimate conversation, in a very public forum, in the only language that I felt my father would listen to: the language of poetry. I was trying to talk to him about deeply engrained notions of white supremacy across time and space, beginning with the enlightenment, the bedrock of contemporary forms of white supremacy that we are beginning to see rear their ugly head again.

That is also what I see this work and the need to tell stories in poetry as doing. Poetry has this way of being this kind of language that touches on not just intellects, but also the heart, and it connects us more than it divides us.

I grew up listening to stories like this—one of my favorites is in the book, my grandmother’s story about working in a drapery factory among white women in the 1950’s, and having an employer who would make the black women, of course, leave by the back door, and a second indignity is that he would check their purses as they went out the back door. So my grandmother, who was an activist herself and taking part in various civil rights marches and protests, this was something she and the other women came up with together: that they would save a week’s worth of Kotex, and put them into bags inside of their purses, so that when this man reached down inside their purses to check their bags, he would come up with a handful of something he had not expected.

It changed how he did things. He never did that again. It was a small victory. I used to say as she told it, you know, at what cost. You still had to take this private thing and put it out for display at the same time that you’re doing a thing to help overcome an injustice. You have to suffer some indignity in order to grasp your own dignity.

And I think being able to tell that story—she told it to me. I think it was important that she told it to me, because it was kind of one of these early lessons about how I was going to have to push back, I was going to have to speak up, what the costs might be but also what the rewards might be.

How do we start creating new lineages that aren’t shaped by violence, destruction and hate? How do we change course?

That’s a big one. Would that I had the answer!

You know, it probably sounds naive to say that poetry can help us, or that our stories can help us—but there is a part of me that believes that our shared experiences, and that finding across time and space what connects us rather than what separates us, is something that can help save us. And I think thats one of the things poetry does.

I say that with the example in my head of when my first book came out, years and years ago, Domestic Work. The blurbs on the back of it—Rita Dove gave me a blurb, Toi Derricotte gave me a blurb—they all focused in some ways about black women’s experiences around work in the deep south, and I was asked to give a reading at a deep south university. I remember visiting a classroom where students had read the book, and one young white woman, during this conversation, said to me that when she first was assigned to read the book she read the jacket—and because it said these things about black women’s experiences, she immediately thought: well, there’ll be nothing in here for me, nothing in here of interest to me and to my experiences. That was the assumption she made, but then she opened it, and she read it and found her own white grandmother in those pages, found her own experiences and the experiences of women in her family in those pages, and that connected us.

In that moment, there was something that we shared, and I think in sharing this connection we are able to do things together that are good for all of us. I believe that. I think it sounds naive, as I hear myself say it, but it meant something in that classroom when we connected across those stories and shared experiences.

We live in this increasingly visual media landscape—a lot is oriented around photography, video—and I loved that there were so many poems in Monument inspired by photographs or visual objects. What do you think remains the power of poetry, of written word, in this moment?

I think we live in a time, also, of a lot of sound bites and cliches and increasingly partisan ideological language that divides us at the same time that it sort of fuels our own sense of outrage and difference—but poetry is different, because its goal is to avoid sound bites and cliches, and to find a way through the intimacy of a single voice, of a single voice that can, in many ways, drown out the noise of our contemporary moment. You feel when you read a poem something so intimate, as thought a voice is whispering in your ear speaking just to you, and that’s the way I think you can hear what would be hard to hear me say if I stood up and gave a speech about it.

I think there’s a way that people hear the language of poetry, because of the intimacy of the voice, that allows us to push back from the cacophony of day-to-day life.

I think that’s still the value of poetry.

Your book comes out the day after the election, and it touches on so many conversations that are exploding now, especially in the age of Trump—including this ongoing debate we’ve been having about monuments, about what we choose to remember. What were you hoping to add to the conversation? What were you hoping Monument‘s impact would be?

The conversations we’re having, in a sense, are new—because now there’s much more openness around it, much more of a reckoning with the actual facts of these monuments being erected in a particular time and place—but the issues are underlying and have been there a long time. The issues are part of our national wounds that have not been given the kind of light that they need to heal, but instead have been buried over in a way that allows them to fester and to harm us.

Unless we have that genuine reckoning, that acknowledging the truth of why they’re there, we’re not going to be able to heal the nation’s existential wounds.

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms., co-host of TRIGGER HAPPY on Binge Networks and Contributing Editor and Co-Founder of Argot Magazine. Her work has also appeared at outlets BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle, where she was previously Community Director and Feminism Editor. Like everyone else in Los Angeles, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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