Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey Reveals the Meanings Behind her Pieces

By Leo Traub, For The Bloc

U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey writes about other people’s stories.

The one thing Trethewey doesn’t write about is her own life, she told University of Maryland students and faculty Tuesday.

Speaking on campus at the College of Arts and Humanities’ Dean’s Lecture Series, Trethewey said writing poetry about others allowed her to grapple with her own experiences.

“I don’t like writing about myself, which I think is why I turn to writing about history as a way to indirectly write about myself,” she told a crowd of 250 in the Ulrich Recital Theatre at Tawes Hall.

One of Trethewey’s poetry books, “Native Guard,” follows the untold stories of black soldiers in the South during the Civil War.

She said some critics believed the book is about her mother, whose second ex-husband killed her.

The traumatic death served as inspiration for the book, Trethewey said. But despite what some claimed, she said she had never directly written about her mother’s murder.

“The poems are elegies, and the murder is the backstory,” she said, “but the backstory was taking center stage.”

Though Trethewey dislikes writing about herself, she plans to write a memoir to tell her mother’s story herself, she said. “The way that my mother kept being presented was just this victim of murder and not the woman that she was,” Trethewey said.

Trethewey said she experienced poetry’s ability to create a community during her two terms as U.S. poet laureate as people visited her office hours in the Library of Congress.

“Getting to see that there were people who cared enough to come and have a conversation in the library because they love poetry… that was thrilling to me,” she said.

She will conclude her term with a final lecture on May 14.

Local restaurant chain Busboys and Poets and the university’s English Department co-sponsored the event.

“As [a] poet laureate, she’s really been out looking at how communities live the arts and what it means to them,” said Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and professor of women’s studies.

Information Systems sophomore Pooja Mathur said Trethewey’s reluctance to write directly about her mother’s death was compelling. “She took something so hard and dug it underneath her work instead of showing all of that emotion right up front,” she said.

Mary Foster, a poetry graduate student, said Trethewey inspired her with “unbelievable love and belief in the power of poetry to influence people’s lives.”

“With her, it’s incredibly authentic and very genuine,” Foster said. “Even if I wasn’t a poet, I would want to go out and buy a notebook right now.”

Trethewey was the fourth Dean’s Lecture speaker for the 2013-2014 academic year, following actor John Lithgow, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon-Reed and Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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