‘A cheerleader for poetry’
U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey shares work, creative process at ECU
Natasha Trethewey, the United States’ 19th poet laureate, was dared to write poems.
As a college student, she initially focused on short fiction. Her first foray into poetry as an adult, she said, left her with a “trite, cliché” piece about her mother’s illness. So when a classmate dared her to write a poem, she didn’t intend to impress them.
“Oh, I’m going to show you,” she said she thought then. “I’m going to show you how bad it can be. So I wrote a poem. And it wasn’t that bad.”
Trethewey visited East Carolina University on Oct. 25 as part of the university’s Contemporary Writers Series. The first poet laureate from the South since 1986, she read from several of her published works but also provided a glimpse into her writing process and varied inspirations.
“The act of finding the right words and the best way to say it is when my mind is at its happiest,” Trethewey said.
Her evening reading in Fletcher Music Hall was preceded by a Q-and-A session led by English Department faculty member John Hoppenthaler at the Greenville Museum of Art. More than 25 students from Jacksonville’s Lejeune High School sat in on the discussion.
“They’ve all read ‘Native Guard,’” said Lejeune literature teacher Linda Taffi, referring to Trethewey’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work. “It’s great to have this real-life contact with somebody.”
Additionally, two students from Pitt Community College created poster-sized broadsides of two Trethewey poems for her visit. Sales of the broadsides benefited the ECU Contemporary Writers Series.
Winning the Pulitzer in 2007 was on of the many things discussed by Thretheway. Now the director of the creative writing program at Emory University in Atlanta, she said she was teaching a class when a co-worker pulled her away to share the news.
“I let out a scream that was probably blood-curdling,” she recalled. “My students probably didn’t know if it was joy or despair. (The co-worker) told them and they applauded. And then I said, ‘class dismissed,’ and they applauded some more.”
Now, as poet laureate, Tretheway said it’s her job to be “a cheerleader for poetry,” and she encourages others to do the same. The appointment was also rewarding on a personal level, she added.
“Being named poet laureate…was a sense of validation or license to be the poet that I am,” she said. “There are people taking notice who actually like what I’m doing. It’s liberating…I know my mission and can continue on with it.”
Tretheway’s visit was the second time this year that a sitting poet laureate shared their work with the ECU community. “Working man’s poet” Philip Levine gave a reading in April.