November 26, 2014 18:29 UTC

As It Is

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey Gets Second Term

Pulitzer Prize-winning Natasha Trethewey, the new U.S. poet laureate, a  signs a copy of her book Native Guard. (Photo Credit: Jalissa Gray)
Pulitzer Prize-winning Natasha Trethewey, the new U.S. poet laureate, a signs a copy of her book Native Guard. (Photo Credit: Jalissa Gray)

Multimedia

Play or download an MP3 of this story
Originally posted 06/22/13


Hello again, and welcome back for more As It Is.
 
I’m June Simms with VOA Learning English.
 
Today, we hear about Natasha Tretheway’s appointment to a second term as Poet Laureate of the United States. The person who holds this position is charged with raising the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of poetry.
 
The Library of Congress announced that it was appointing Natasha Trethewey to a second term as Poet Laureate of the United States. The Librarian of Congress praised the Mississippi’s native’s poems. He said they “dig beneath the surface of history … to explore the human struggles that we all face.”
 
VOA's Adam Phillips spoke with the Pulitzer Prize winning poet about her writing, her past, and her position as “the face of American poetry.”
 
Whenever the U.S. Poet Laureate is asked for a simple definition of a poet, she quotes the early 19th century British poet Percy Shelley. He said that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Natasha Trethewey agrees.
 
“I think that poems legislate the world for us because they not only reckon with the past, with our history as human beings, but they also help us to envision and imagine the better worlds that we are every day working to build. Poetry can do that for us.”
 
The nation's 19th Poet Laureate was born to a white father and a black mother in Mississippi in 1966. At that time, inter-racial marriage was still against the law. Her poetry often explores the way her personal history and that troubled period of American history reflect each other.   
 
She explores ideas about racial difference in her poem “Knowledge.” It was based on a Victorian drawing that shows several white male doctors performing an autopsy on a young woman who had drowned. But it also contains a line written by her father, who is also a poet.
 
…. In the drawing this is only the first cut,
 
a delicate wounding: and yet how easily
the anatomist’s blade opens a place in me,
 
like a curtain drawn upon a room in which
each learned man is my father
 
and I hear, again, his words - I study
my crossbreed child - misnomer
 
and taxonomy, the language of zoology. Here,
he is all of them: the preoccupied man -
 
an artist, collector of experience, the skeptic angling
his head, his thoughts tilting toward
what I cannot know;…
 
Trethewey says that when she hears her father read the line “I study my crossbreed child,” she feels like an object on display. This, she says, is partly because of the word ‘study.’
 
“I felt that I was sort of being examined under a microscope or looked at in a sort of scientific sort of way by a distant lens. But also because of the word ‘crossbreed.’ Because of course, in the (English) language, human beings can’t be ‘crossbreds.’ So the word itself implies something of animal husbandry.”
 
During her younger years, Natasha Trethewey wrote only fiction, not poetry. But that changed after her mother was murdered by an abusive second husband in 1985. Trethewey was 19 years old at the time.
 
“It seemed to me that poetry was the only way to reckon with that loss and what I was feeling.”
 
The poem “What is Evidence” is from “Native Guard,” the collection of Trethewey’s poems that earned her the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. It brings to mind images of the abuse her mother suffered before she was killed.  
 
Not the fleeting bruises she’d cover
with makeup, a dark patch as if imprint
of a scope she’d pressed her eye too close to,
looking for a way out, nor the quiver
in the voice she’d steady, leaning/ into a pot of bones on the stove …
 
… Only the landscape of her body - splintered
clavicle, pierced temporal - her thin bones
settling a bit each day, the way all things do.
 
The Poet Laureate understands that many Americans think of poetry as overly complex, unclear, and self-involved. Growing up, she says, she did too.
 
“I couldn't enter the world of the poem and find myself inside of it. But then there was a particular poem that spoke to me at some point in my life and I realized it was just about finding the right poems.”
 
For Trethewey, the “right poem” was W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts.”
 
Auden talks about the way grief is so overpowering for mourners, while the world moves on without thought to the tragedy.
 
But Trethewey says everyone must find their own “right poem.”
 
“What poem is going to move you may not be the same one that moves me, but I am convinced that there is something out there for all of us that can make us love poetry. Sometimes we can read a poem about something that is nothing like anything we’ve experienced. And yet in there, the emotional strength of the poem is what connects us…the place of empathy.” 
 
Natasha Trethewey is the first Poet Laureate in almost 30 years to spend part of her term working out of the Poets Room. This is a richly decorated office within the Library of Congress’ Poetry and Literature Center in Washington, D.C. Trethewey says she has been stirred by the beauty of the Library as a people’s house of knowledge. And she enjoys having a chance to persuade others to discover the magic and the mystery of poetry.
 
That’s all for As It Is, I’m June Simms in Washington. Thanks for spending time with us today. For questions or comments about our show, email us at learningenglish@voanews.com or visit our website at learningenglish.voanews.com and click on “Contact Us.”
 
VOA World News is coming up at the top of the hour, Universal Time.
 
Kelly Jean Kelly returns tomorrow with more As It Is. And I’ll meet you back here same time next week.
 
Enjoy the rest of your day!
This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Learn with The News

  • Audio Group Claims Gender Equality Will End Hunger, Poverty

    A Christian aid group calls for governments and employees to end discrimination against women and girls. Bread for the World says increasing educational levels, giving women more economic power and helping with child care will help them earn more. This will, in turn, help men and their families. More

  • People hide from gunfire near church during firefight between African peacekeepers, fighters from the Christian "anti-balaka" militia, Bangui, Feb. 18, 2014.

    Audio Central African Republic Losing the Next Generation

    Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting in the Central African Republic, and many have been forced from their homes. Among the victims are children whose parents died or have gone missing. For these boys and girls, joining an armed group is one of the only ways to find protection. More

  • A protester stands with his hands on his head as a cloud of tear gas approaches after a grand jury returned no indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Nov. 24, 2014.

    Audio New Violence Hits Ferguson, Missouri

    An American grand jury ruling has resulted in new violence in the city of Ferguson, Missouri. The jurors decided not to charge a white police officer who shot and killed an unarmed African American teenager last August. The decision was announced Monday -- more than three months after the shooting. More

  • U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden (R) applaud Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel after the president announced Hagel's resignaton at the White House in Washington, Nov. 24, 2014.

    Audio US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Resigns

    Also, Iranian and Western diplomats shave extended talks about Iran's nuclear program; Russia's finance minister says the country is losing billions of dollars a year from sanctions and falling oil prices; and a Swiss museum says it will accept a priceless collection of long-hidden artwork. More

  • In this picture taken July 18, 2012, Zali Idy, 12, poses in her bedroom in the remote village of Hawkantaki, Niger. Zali was married in 2011.

    Audio African Union Promises to End Child Marriage

    Strong social and cultural traditions support the practice in much of Africa, although it is illegal. Early marriage compromises the right of girls to an education. It can also have a shocking effect on their health. The African Union believes it can end the practice within a generation. More

Featured Stories

  • Alzheimer brain

    Audio East Meets West to Treat Alzheimer's Patients

    But researchers in California say a new way of treating Alzheimer’s disease is showing promise for reversing some of that memory loss. The new treatment combines western medicine with eastern philosophy – ideas rooted in Asian religions. More

  • Mr. Van Rijsselberghe worked on the project with scientists from the Free University of Amsterdam.

    Video Dutch Experiment Grows Vegetables in Sea Water

    Due to rising sea level, farmers are increasingly unable to use fields close to the sea. A farmer in the Netherlands is growing small, but healthy and tasty crops in a mixture of fresh and salt water. Farmers in Pakistan may soon be growing Dutch potatoes in areas affected by rising sea waters. More

  • Jonathan Evans Performs with Bonerama

    Video With Bonerama, Three Trombones Lead the Big Parade

    The New Orleans-based group brings together funk, rock, blues and jazz, creating a gumbo for the ears. Bonerama has horns like many bands. But, unlike most groups, the trombone players lead this band. Reporter Jonathan Evans performed with the band and wrote about it for American Mosaic. More

  • A line from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is displayed at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

    Audio Lincoln's Words at Gettysburg Still Have Meaning

    On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln said no one would remember his speech at a battlefield cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address remains one of the most important speeches in U.S. history. More

  • PLASTIC DREAMS

    Audio Surgery Safaris: Looking for the Perfect Body

    Many people these days are going as far as South Africa to get their version of perfection. People from across Africa and the world come for so-called “surgery safaris.” There are no animals to see on these safaris. The visitors instead look for smaller stomachs, firmer bottoms or perhaps new eye. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner BlogConfessions of an English Learner Blog

Tell us About Our Programs