Poet Natasha Trethewey’s Pulitzer-winning 2007 collection Native Guard, which partly memorialized an African-American Civil War soldier protecting a Union-captured fort on Ship Island, Miss., was first turned into a stage work in 2014 at the Alliance Theatre. It returns Jan. 13-Feb. 4. Trethewey was U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: I’ve heard that you don’t like to call this a play. So what would you call it?
NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Well, it’s not that I don’t like to call it that. I call it what it [Alliance artistic director] Susan Booth tells me to call it. And she decided that what it is, and this makes sense, is a theatrical installation—that is the term that I’ve been I’ve been given to use. I think she’s right about that.
Your poetry is complete in itself. So what can theatre add to that?
When I was first approached, they told me that they weren’t going to write a script; it was going to be exactly what I wrote, the book of poems, in order. And they were going to get an actress to do it. And I said, “Well, I’m a pretty good reader of my own poems. Why would you do such a thing?” I really didn’t know. I have learned so much in the process of working with those four cast members, and Susan and everyone else at the Alliance. When I give a reading, I don’t read from the whole book, first of all. I’m trying to create a different kind of narrative arc, which means I’ll change the order. And there’s also the different experience of having it performed rather than sitting down in the quiet of your own living room or whatever and reading it.
There are also places that I use epigraphs, for example. If you see the line, “Everybody knows about Mississippi,” which is from Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”—if you know the song, maybe you hum it, you think it to yourself, or maybe you just read the words, and don’t think of the song. But when you hear Nicole Banks Long sing it, it gives so much more depth and feelingl; it creates a world that’s sort of wrapped around you, with not only the words but also the music and the depth of feeling in her voice. There’s also something remarkable about seeing the actor who plays the Native Guard, bringing to life the character of this soldier from two centuries ago.
Another great benefit is that there are audiences that are coming to Native Guard who might not ever have gone and read one of my books, or seen me give a reading, because the theatre brings another audience. So it’s another layer of how people can experience the poetry.
The soldier in the poems is a character. Do you think of that as a kind of dramatic writing?
I do. A persona poem is the dramatic form, a dramatic monologue in poetry. And I have inhabited several other different characters in other persona poems I’ve written. There’s a lot of research that goes into that, from reading soldiers’ letters, writing back from places during the Civil War, and reading newspaper accounts of people who saw the Native Guard on parade. And the diary of the colonel that was stationed on the island with them—all of those things helped create a believable character. And then of course you give them a bit of your own interior life.
You know, Tennessee Williams and August Wilson wrote poetry, and I’ve heard the quote that “playwrights are poets who got lonely.” Have you ever felt drawn to the dramatic form?
It’s so funny that you mention those two, because they’re two of my favorites. When I was a kid I had an empty period and I had to just go hang out in the library, that’s when I found the plays of Tennessee Williams. I started reading him when I was in eighth grade. I saw it as as poetry. And August Wilson is so poetic—he’s lyrical, he does language so beautifully. I never found myself drawn to write plays, but I guess I must have seen the poetry in them. And when I think about how I try to work with images and objects and the juxtaposition of objects in a poem, I am also thinking about gesture, and thinking about it in the way Brecht talked about gesture being something that you can’t fake, that must be genuine. I think I am borrowing from those playwrights.
August and a lot of other playwrights have said they hear his characters talking and he’d write down what they were saying. Do you hear the poems, or do they appear as words on the page?
I hear them and I feel them as music when I’m working on them. I am standing up and I’m tapping my foot and I’m saying them out loud—I have to work on them like that.
The poem “Myth” seems particularly song-like—there’s a refrain, there’s repetition in it. And structurally, the whole piece has a sort of backwards-and-forwards feeling; it starts with the death of your mother, goes back to the Civil War, and eventually returns to you. I wonder if you could talk about the shape of the piece.
I see it as very circular. You’re right, there are certain motifs that keep coming back and are meant to sort of take you back to another point within the book, another point in time. The form in a lot of the poems is meant to echo that. “Myth” is a palindrome. And there are a lot of other poems that make use of repetition; like the Native Guard poem is a crown of sonnets, so that that last line of one poem is repeated with some variation as the first line of the next poem, and in the very last line of the poem is the same as the first line that great first. There’s a villanelle, there’s a pantoum, “Incident.” There’s the refrain in “Miscegenation,” which is a ghazal. And then there’s the blues sonnet “Graveyard Blues.” So I was working with repetition and refrain because of what I’m trying to do with history—that in order to record these histories which have been erased or lost or forgotten, to reinscribe them, you have to not only say a thing but to say it again. So I’m aiming for repetition in that way, and also the way that repetition transforms the meaning a little bit the second time you hear a thing.
Initially I had thought of a more linear structure: Well, I’ll just start in the past and I’ll come up to the present. But I didn’t think that worked. I think that one needs a connection with the reader initially, a way to sort of guide the reader through what’s going to happen. And so the deeply personal poems about my mother are the beginning of that. And “Myth”—I mean, perhaps you’ve thought about it, but I often talk about how it echoes Orpheus’s journey into the underworld to try to bring Eurydice back, and that moment when he can’t resist turning around to look and see if she’s still behind him. Which is not unlike the moment when I open my eyes and I turn over and wake up and realize that my mother is actually dead, that she can’t journey out of that liminal place in my dream where she is alive and still out of reach. Sometimes, because it’s a mirror, people think of Narcissus; the poem does mirror itself. But the journey itself is the descent into the underworld, which is like the descent into dream—that dream space where you actually sit, which I think of this kind of liminal Erebus. And so Orpheus’s journey is like the journey into dream, and then the waking up is his journey back out and turning around and banishing Eurydice back to the underworld.
You don’t quite inhabit your mother in first person, as you do the soldier.
Not as first person. In “My Mother Dreams Another Country,” I imagine what she must be thinking.
There’s that line where you say, “I have lain down into 1970,” like you’re literally showing yourself going back in time.
Yes, and I actually mean, when I dream of my parents together, it’s that moment of me sitting on the bed between them—there are countless moments, but one in particular: I had heard something in school about what it means to be black or mixed race, and I actually sat on the bed between my parents one day and held their hands up and put mine in between. I wanted to know why I looked like neither of them exactly. So that’s sort of going back into that place of childhood, when they were still together, the three of us were still together, and I was learning about race from the world outside of our house.
When you wrote this play, the issue of Confederate history was still alive, but not like it is right now. It’s not very hard to figure out which statues should come down, but I wanted to ask you, what statues would you like to see go up in your community?
Well, it would be hard to begin to list the monuments that we need to have. But I could say that, for those monuments that we don’t move to a museum, the ones that get to stay, what I’d like to see is an additional marker that helps to contextualize and get a fuller version of the history, so that we know exactly what the monuments are supposed to have told us and supposed to commemorate and what our response to that is. All the Confederate monuments that were erected as a response to major advancements in the Civil Rights Movement, or, like in the state of Georgia, where they adopted a flag that has part of the Confederate battle flag as a response to Brown v. Board of Education in 1955—all of these things that are indeed meant to glorify white supremacy and maintain the old order of things. We just need to make sure people understand that that’s what they were commemorating—and that they’re commemorating treason. We should know exactly what these monuments are saying and what it means to try to tell one story versus another.
When I was reading about you going to the memorial on Ship Island and seeing the plaques commemorating the Confederacy, I was reminded of Ta Nehisi-Coates, who’s written about Civil War remembrance, and how you don’t see a lot of black folks at Civil War memorials.
I mean, growing up in the in the Deep South, in Mississippi and Georgia, I think we sort of are still fighting the Civil War. We think about it in ways that maybe the rest of the country is not always thinking about it. I grew up fascinated by it, knowing a great deal about it, in the shadow of various monuments, including the world’s largest monument to the Confederacy, Stone Mountain, with the statues of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. It’s gigantic, it’s like Mt. Rushmore. So I really felt a sense of psychological exile, because that is the story that’s being told constantly, not the story of the participation of African-Americans or about slavery. I look forward to reading the newspaper on Memorial Day every year, because David Blight, the historian, always has a piece in syndication about the first Memorial Day, telling people that it was created as Decoration Day by former slaves in South Carolina, who started it to remember the Union dead there. This is a part of the story we forget—that African-Americans have their fingerprint on the celebration of Memorial Day itself.
You were poet laureate for two terms. What does that job entail?
The point is to be an advocate for poetry, an ambassador of poetry in a way—someone who’s supposed to find ways to bring poetry to a wider American audience. I found ways to not only do that but to celebrate what ordinary people were already doing, and to counter the idea that poetry doesn’t matter in people’s lives, that poetry is dead—which is something that we hear a critic say every couple of years. They’ve been saying it since the 19th century; they’re always heralding the death of poetry. Yet when you go to places and meet people and find out the way that they’re making use of it in their everyday lives, it’s heartening. Getting to do that and see that regularly was one of the greatest parts of the job to me.
People have been saying theatre is dead for centuries too. So did you have to write occasional poetry, official poetry for events?
No. Robert Penn Warren, when he was a consultant first and then became the first poet laureate, one of the things that he said in a lecture at some point was that he would absolutely not write poems for the president’s dog or any other kind of occasional verse he might be asked to make. So from the very beginning he established that as a post that’s meant to be an honor, but not a job you have to do. Lots of poets laureate in recent years have been activist laureates who are taking seriously the mission of giving an injection of poetry back into the American bloodstream, but it’s not anything you have to do.
What is the role of the poet in the public square?
I sort of take my cues from my Southern predecessor, Robert Penn Warren. He was very much a public intellectual, and I think he used his position to draw awareness to all sorts of things. For me, serving at the time that I did, it was serendipitous that I was the laureate as we were at the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, the 50th anniversary of major advancements in the Civil Rights Movement—the things that sort of animate my own project as a poet that are that are very much a part of who I am. And I thought it was a a way to get to talk about things like that. Even now, I get to talk about being at the 50th anniversary of Loving versus Virginia, and seeing a moment—my mother might have dreamed another country, but she never would have dreamed this one, where we are seeing regressive ideas about race and difference. So poetry and theatre do the work of telling not only about our history but about the lived moment, the particular moment that we’re in, in a way that rises above all the noise of increasingly uncivil discourse and division. It’s what brings us together: sitting in the theatre, watching something with other people, that communal experience that brings us together, and the intimate voice of a poem in which you feel, across time and space, that you might just be the only person the poem is speaking to—it feels like a deeply intimate connection.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve recently been reading Wendell Berry’s A Hidden Wound. A couple of memoirs also—actually several memoirs, one by Kim Barnes, she is one of my favorites. I’m actually working on a memoir myself.
Is it true you were named for Natasha from War and Peace?
Has it been a burden or a blessing to have that literary name?
I think it’s been a blessing. I don’t know that I would have written Native Guard without it. Natasha means what “native” means, they share that prefix. I hated it growing up, because I wanted to be named something common like everyone else. But I think that it is part of my destiny, just as being born on Confederate Memorial Day was part of my destiny—exactly 100 years to the day that they celebrated the holiday, born a child of miscegenation in the state of Mississippi. And with a name that means “Christmas child.” What else could I do?
And then you were named poet laureate during the presidency of a biracial president.
That’s right. It’s something my mother could not have imagined. Also, I was named poet laureate by a Russianist, a Russian historian, James Billington, who won a National Book Award.
Are you superstitious? Do you see all this as synchronicity, or see some other hand behind it?
I’m not superstitious. I accuse myself of magical thinking, though. Obviously the rational part of my mind knows that all these connections I just told you are a way of giving meaning to one’s life, being able to tell a story about it, and those are the details I choose to tell in order to tell a story that sounds like destiny. It gives meaning to all the trauma and tragedy of the past, to be able to tell that story about it.
You tell it really well.
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