SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Former two-time poet laureate of the United States has a retrospective collection with poems about U.S. history, personal history and the lives of people who are often overlooked by history and unsung in poetry. Her collection is called "Monument."
Natasha Trethewey has been the poet laureate of Mississippi, a Guggenheim Fellow and is now the Board of Trustees professor of English at Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. She joined us from WBEZ in Chicago, and I asked her to read part of her poem, "Southern Gothic." A warning, she uses some strong, sometimes hurtful language, including the N-word, in her reading.
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: (Reading) The lines in my young father's face deepen toward an expression of grief. I have come home from the schoolyard with the words that shadow us in this small Southern town - peckerwood and nigger lover, half-breed and zebra - words that take shape outside us. We're huddled on the tiny island of bed, quiet in the language of blood. The house, unsteady on its cinder block haunches, sinking deeper into the muck of ancestry. Oil lamps flicker around us - our shadows, dark glyphs on the wall, bigger and stranger than we are.
SIMON: Was that a specific day, and do you remember what happened? Or could this have been any day?
TRETHEWEY: It seems like it could've been any day.
SIMON: And your parents - your mother and father were married when, I guess, a love like theirs was against the law in Mississippi, wasn't it?
TRETHEWEY: That's right, and probably as many as 20 other states in the nation. My parents met at Kentucky State College, which is an HBCU, one of the historically black colleges and universities. My father, white boy, young like my mother - they both went to college at about 17. He was from rural Nova Scotia and got out a guide to American colleges and universities to find one that he could afford. He found Kentucky State. He didn't exactly realize at first that they were a black college. But he went anyway. And there, he met my mother.
SIMON: I gather, from having read the poems and some interviews, there was love in your parents' marriage. But it's hard for us to appreciate in this day and age the strain there must have been by the outside world, too.
TRETHEWEY: I think there was quite a lot of strain. My parents were constantly met with both subtle and not-so-subtle forms of intimidation. And when I was a very small child, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in my grandmother's yard.
SIMON: Do you remember any of that?
TRETHEWEY: I remember it, it seems to me, only because it was a story that we told every year, I think, in order not to forget it. At the time, my grandmother's house was across from the Mount Olive Baptist Church, which was holding a voter registration drive to get disenfranchised African-Americans registered to vote. The church didn't have its own driveway, so my grandmother let them park the church bus in her driveway.
We never knew if what happened - that act of terrorism - was directed at us, the interracial family living inside the house, or at the church for hosting this voter registration drive, or perhaps both.
SIMON: And your parents couldn't stay together - didn't stay together, did they?
TRETHEWEY: No. They divorced when I was 6. My mother and I moved to Atlanta. She wanted to go to graduate school at the Atlanta University Center to get her master's degree in social work. And she met and married my stepfather. He was - I don't think we knew it then, of course, but very troubled. He was a Vietnam veteran with a history of mental illness. And they were married for about 10 years, during which time he grew increasingly paranoid and violent toward her. She did all the right things. She was what you might call a perfect victim.
SIMON: Your mother died. Your mother was murdered. And yet, I've read in interviews that you've said this made you a poet.
TRETHEWEY: Yes. It feels very much to me that out of the ruin of her life, I was able to fashion a life for myself in which I not only survived but also thrived. And I think it's because those years with her, she instilled in me a sense of resilience, a kind of strength.
Not long after she died, I had a dream about her. In the dream, she said to me, do you know what it means to have a wound that never heals? And I was a freshman in college. And I'm pretty sure I'd never read Lorca, didn't know anything about the concept of duende. And in Lorca's notion of art, the demon that drives an artist - that sort of awareness of the possibility of death. He wrote, in trying to heal the wound that never heals lies the strangeness in an artist's work.
And I think, at that moment, one of us was giving me permission, telling me that I had that wound. And that's the wound that could make me a writer.
SIMON: Is there a special need and role for poetry now in these times of overheated language and conspicuous public hatred and, well, we could list?
TRETHEWEY: Absolutely. I mean, I think poetry asks - it demands of us, in many ways, that we slow down, that we engage with language that isn't soundbites and uncivil, language that allows us to see ourselves in the intimate experience of others, to hear the rhythms of our own heartbeats in the rhythms of someone else's intimate voice speaking across the distances, speaking across the lines that would divide us, reminding us not what makes us different but what makes us alike - what we share.
SIMON: Natasha Trethewey. Her collection is "Monument." Thank you so much for being with us.
TRETHEWEY: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF YANN TIERSEN'S "LOK GWELTZ")
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