April 01, 2015 14:27 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 Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan Admits Defeat

    Also, Iranian and U.S. negotiators agree to take more time to try to reach an agreement on Iran's nuclear program; new U.S. Treasury sanctions target Syrian official and companies; and the government of Myanmar and representatives from 16 major ethnic rebel groups sign a draft cease-fire accord. More

  • Starbucks' April Fools' Day prank: New giant and very tiny coffee cups

    Video A Day for Fools

    April Fools’ Day is celebrated in many countries around the world. In France, it’s called Poisson d’Avril or “Fish of April.” In Scotland, the holiday is often called “Gowkie Day.” In Iraq, it is called Kithbet Neesan or “April Lie.” In the U.S., it is a day of joking and playing tricks on friends. More

  • Audio Tensions Rise Again over Falkland Islands

    Britain and Argentina went to war for the territory in 1982. The British win helped the country's government win re-election. Argentina says Britain's move to increase security on the islands now is political and provocative. Argentina has officially protested to several international organizations. More

  • Audio UN Agency Questions Thailand’s Air Safety

    The UN International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) reported “significant safety concerns” with Thailand’s air safety practices last week. The negative report may prevent some flights from coming out of the kingdom and forced Thailand’s government to deal quickly with the results on Monday. More

  • medieval

    Video US Restaurant Serves Medieval Art of Fighting

    European martial arts, unlike popular Asian martial arts, are not widely practiced and are unknown to most people. But, a restaurant near Washington is the center of an effort to make the Medieval fighting skill more popular. More

Featured Stories

  • Health workers take a blood sample from a child in Gusau, northern Nigeria.

    Audio Study: Women Prefer to Go to Female Health Workers

    A study in mainly Islamic communities in northern Nigeria found that women were more likely to see female health care workers. Male health workers do travel from town to town, but many women patients do not want to talk with a man about their own health care needs. More

  • A woman wakes up on downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row, March 7, 2013.

    Video Community Center Helps Women on Skid Row

    Many homeless people live in the “Skid Row” area of Los Angeles, California. These men and women have no permanent place to live. Skid Row is a place where many social service groups can be found. They work to help the homeless find work and a place to live. One such organization works with women. More

  • Audio New Treatment for AIDS Called a ‘Big Deal’

    Read on to learn words like mutate, neutralize and antiretroviral as you learn how researchers have found a way to trick HIV, the virus causing AIDS, into killing itself. The difficulty level might be high as this article describes what happens when a genetically modified cell becomes an HIV killer. More

  • Video Angelina Jolie Has Second Surgery to Prevent Cancer

    The 39-year-old actress published a piece in The New York Times about her decision to have her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to protect herself from cancer. She had a double mastectomy two years ago for the same reason. The latest surgery leaves the mother of six unable to have more children. More

  • Space Rocket to Launch Weather Satellite Into Deep Space

    Video Satellite Will Watch Sun Storms, Send Warnings to Earth

    Strong storms on the sun can cause problems for satellites, radio communications and even airplane travel. A satellite is now traveling 1.5 million kilometers to enter the sun’s orbit, just in time to observe the extreme weather on the sun at its most violent time the sun’s 11-year cycle. More

Practice Your Writing

Confessions of an English Learner blog
Confessions of an English Learner blog

 

 

 

Tell us About Our Programs