Natasha Trethewey Q+A: “My theme tune? ‘Mississippi Goddam’”

The American poet talks Nina Simone, making art of grief, and the joy of writing.

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Natasha Trethewey was born in Mississippi in 1966. A two-time US poet laureate, she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and is the author of seven books.

What’s your earliest memory?

When I was three, I nearly drowned in a hotel pool in Mexico. I’ve replayed this scene in my head countless times.

Who are your heroes?

My earliest poems, when I was in the third grade, were tributes to my hero Martin Luther King, Jr. I was only two years old when he was killed, but every year since I have listened to the speech he gave at the Lincoln Memorial during the march on Washington. It still fills me with hope.

What book last changed your thinking?

Gregory Orr’s Poetry as Survival taught me things about my own grief and motivation for writing that I had not known.

Which political figure do you look up to?

United States Representative John Lewis. He was beaten by police during a peaceful voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Until his death in July this year, he was a moral centre for the nation.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

How to be resilient, to live with grief, to make art of it.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

A place where social justice is the law of the land. Wherever, whenever, that is.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’d want Carrie Mae Weems to photograph me. I have been deeply influenced by her sense of narrative tension, of drama and meaning in the domestic interiors in her early work, the “Kitchen Table Series”.

What’s your theme tune?

Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

In graduate school a professor told me: “You have to write about what you have to write about.” I’ve accepted my subject matter.

What’s currently bugging you?

“Bugging” is not the right word. What is worrying me now, troubling me – wounding me – is the pandemic that is taking so many lives around the world; the social and economic disparities exposed by the pandemic; climate change and environmental degradation; ongoing injustice; police brutality; the rise of increasingly vocal and mainstream forms of white supremacy and nationalism; the lack of effective leadership at the highest level in the US. The list goes on…

What single thing would make your life better?

To have written a new poem.

When were you happiest?

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote: “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” I am happiest each time I write a new poem.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I would like to have been a documentary photographer or historian – other ways of getting at truth.

Are we all doomed?

No. I still believe in the adage, as King reminded us, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. I think we are seeing that bend just a bit in the outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement around the world. There is hope for us yet.

“Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir” by Natasha Trethewey is published by Bloomsbury Circus

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

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