Vivid imagery and the sounds of poetry filled the Theater as Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and 2014, read selections from her work to Upper School students for this year’s Courtney Steel ’87 Visiting Author lecture.
Trethewey offered readings that spanned her five collections of poetry, Monument (2018), Thrall (2012), Native Guard (2006), Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002) and Domestic Work (2000). In introducing Trethewey, Jaya S. ’20 mentioned having read her poem “Incident” in English class prior to the lecture and shared that the poet provides, “a new perspective and reality with every read, reflecting the complexity of the lives of black and biracial people. Ms. Trethewey’s poetry has been able to intersect U.S. history with her own autobiography in a way that makes these experiences more personal and even almost more universal.”
Trethewey often led with explanations of her work and personal journey as she recited her poems. “Whole subjects are getting written out of our textbooks and we are forgetting significant parts of our history,” Trethewey remarked before reading her poem “Southern History,” which takes readers inside a history classroom of Trethewey’s childhood.
During the question-and-answer session portion of the assembly, a student asked Trethewey about her creative process for composing a poem.
“I keep a notebook with me, and if I don’t have that … I always have my phone so I can record lines or images or things that come to me,” Trethewey responded, noting that her poems “always begin with an image or a line or some word that I am fascinated with, and also questions I am asking myself about history, about my place in it.” Trethewey further explained that “I don’t start writing without reading … it’s a way of unlocking my own rhythms, to hear the cadence of another person’s thought allows me to open the door into my own experience and my own story.”
Another student was curious about how Trethewey feels about sharing such personal content with the world, and if there is any poetry she prefers to keep private. Trethewey explained that by deciding to make something into a poem rather than a private journal entry, she is automatically deciding that it isn’t too personal to share. “A poem is a house that the writer builds that ultimately the reader will have to inhabit, so in working on a poem, I’m thinking also about how I will give it away,” Trethewey emphasized.
Trethewey spoke about her experience of being a child of a mixed-race marriage at a time that such marriage was illegal, and the impact of her identity and experience on her work. She also spoke about her father’s role in her development as a poet after a student asked about his influence on her. Trethewey shared that her father, who is also a poet and a professor, “deeply moved” her with both his subject matter and style of poetry.
“We both believe that clarity is revolutionary, that a poem can be clear and plain spoken and communicate across the distances,” Trethewey said.
The Courtney Steel ’87 Visiting Author Program was established to honor and remember Courtney Steel ’87 by her parents, family and friends. Through lectures, which bring a writer of national stature to the school each year, Courtney's passion for literature, gift for writing and respect for the nuances of language continue to inspire Spence students.