Natasha Trethewey Reads Charles Wright
Natasha Trethewey joins Kevin Young to read and discuss Charles Wright’s poem “Toadstools,” and her own poem “Repentance.” Trethewey, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her most recent poetry collection is “Monument.”
Below is an automated transcript of this podcast episode.
Kevin Young [00:00:04] You're listening to The New Yorker poetry podcast. I'm Kevin Young, poetry editor of The New Yorker magazine. On this program we invite poets to pick a poem from the New Yorker archive to read and discuss along with a poem of their own that's appeared in the magazine. My guest today is Natasha Trethewey former U.S. Poet Laureate and current chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She's received a Hinds award at the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry among many many many other distinctions. Welcome, Natasha. Thanks for coming.
Natasha Trethewey [00:00:39] Thank you for having me.
Kevin Young [00:00:41] So the poem he brought with you today is "Toadstools," by Charles Wright. Can you say a bit about why this poem stuck out to you.
Natasha Trethewey [00:00:49] Well you know this is a poem that when I first read it and read the final lines that you'll hear it almost knocked me over because it spoke directly to my experience. It gave an articulation of something that I had felt for a long time but hadn't quite said myself.
Kevin Young [00:01:13] Let's hear this. This is Natasha Trethewey reading "Toadstools" by Charles Wright.
Natasha Trethewey [00:01:26] ToadstoolsKevin Young [00:02:20] That was "Toadstools," by Charles Wright, which was published in the May 10th 2010 issue, of the magazine. I love this poem too as you know and I actually picked it for the "Best American Poetry" 2011 I think I reprinted it in another book.
Natasha Trethewey [00:02:37] It deserves reprinting.
Kevin Young [00:02:39] Yeah yeah. It's sort of it's this interesting reversal to me and I think you put it so well the ending and I want to hear more about that but it's also this spring poem turn on its head. You know it's it's not about renew although it is but it's also about regret in some way. Tell me about that.
Natasha Trethewey [00:02:59] Well I mean of course that the toadstools are a kind of renewal because they come up out of decay. You know when you cut a tree down for example and you think it's gone they will emerge at some point living on what was there before. So in that way you know they are kind of real indicator of of spring and renewal but also their renewal is out of loss. They are they are thriving because of what is no longer there. And that that that's why the ending gets to me so much because I I'm the poem just sort of looking at toadstools and thinking about how you just see them popping up everywhere and then all of a sudden what seems like a leap a place that I had never expected to go. This idea that they are the kind of mornings of of loss of grief.
Kevin Young [00:04:01] Well there is so much there too. What a great word. Moore where it's going to moore you know. Mooring is both resting and a kind of preparing for further journeys I suppose. There's also to me this thing in the poem is not just decay that the poem evokes it's also danger and how that they are themselves harbingers of lose. Someone will try to stick his beak into their other worldly styrofoam. Someone may try to taste a taste of forever. I mean what a what a killer set of lines. I think it's to Charles Wright's great skill to get styrofoam into a bowl.
Natasha Trethewey [00:04:42] Yes I did think of the sponginess of the toadstool as styrofoam. It's a word you wouldn't expect to see it somehow but it's otherworldly.
Kevin Young [00:04:52] You know those multi syllabic words colliding feels like the toadstool is coming up. But then there's that danger. Someone may try. Someone will try. You know so these these these two kind of wills and and maybes these these possible futures are lurking.
Natasha Trethewey [00:05:14] Yeah you could almost read that as an act of despair who might try to taste that forever would it be someone despairing or the the accidents of you know thinking you're picking edible mushrooms it could happen either way. But I feel both of those possibilities at once in the poem.
Kevin Young [00:05:35] Yeah. It has that danger but also daring you as though little roundabouts from the bunched unburyable powers dominions as though orphans rode herd in the short grass. And then it keeps going. I like I would I would be like stop. After that I'd be like you know that's pretty good.
Natasha Trethewey [00:05:56] Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:05:57] And then he keeps taking us further because I think that's what the poem demands.
Natasha Trethewey [00:06:01] Well and it's it's it's the taking it further for us. That really is what gets me because those two last lines what he articulated for me was this feeling of living in a state of bereavement. My entire adult life. And it's not always that I'm sad. It's not always that I'm in the throes of the most difficult part of my grief but it's always there ready to come back. And I don't know when it's going to come back. I don't know what will make it emerge. And so to think that you know grief like toadstools just emerge whenever unexpectedly is what it feels like to live with a kind of grief that comes back again and again.
Kevin Young [00:06:59] Sure. I feel you and I see you there. You know because I think it's very powerful and there's two things I would say one has you know. You know very well how powerfully you have written about loss I think and how I think you've evoked it in poetry and here is a poem thats seemingly impersonal that I think strikes us as very personal. And I know it strikes you. One question I have I think is a question about nature. Because for me nature when I say I lost my father in nature not at first not always but eventually was some slight balm. You know though it was almost hard I think of the poem I talk about you know the grief would be easy if there wasn't such beauty here you know and sometimes you're like why hasn't the world stopped. Because mine has. And that keeping turning is so tough. But how do you take nature here and how do you maybe in general think of nature in your poems or in poems of grief.
Natasha Trethewey [00:08:08] Yeah I mean I think you know we asked that question about why isn't nature grieving with me.
Kevin Young [00:08:17] Right.
Natasha Trethewey [00:08:17] Why is everything so beautiful as you as you mentioned. And so I think sometimes people often think that grieving is always completely about sadness and not that it is complex and varied and that you could move from a place of feeling the indifference of nature as Leiselle Mueller put it in her wonderful poem. To feeling like Oh nature does see. This is the way nature is presented in this poem says to me Oh nature does see and it's showing me it's mirroring exactly the way my grief feels. So I feel seen by nature and by this poem.
Kevin Young [00:09:10] Right. Well I think that line grief is a floating barge boat that's a complicated floating. You know it's not sinking it's not drowning it's this floating barge boat and it might carry us somewhere and might carry us here. It has that quality and I think the other thing he's achieved in this poem at least for me and tell me what you think is that he's made it so that grief is natural. And I think we so often think of grief as somehow outside of what should be happening. I mean that's one of the tricks I think that we play in loss, like why I shouldn't be feeling this way or why do I you know I wasn't that close to that person or I was so close to that person that I should feel fine. I knew they were going to, you know they were older but I've never seen anyone be able to escape that feeling that it was too soon. It was never the right time.
Natasha Trethewey [00:10:04] Well I mean it is natural and you're right that the poem shows us that. Grief is the transender of the world. You know in another place Charles Wright in his introduction to Best American that he edited, he writes that cleverness doesn't endure only pain endures and the rhythms of pain.
Kevin Young [00:10:28] Wow.
Natasha Trethewey [00:10:28] And that is natural.
Kevin Young [00:10:30] That's intense. I love his work too because he's able to out of these lyric intense moments able to assemble a larger floating barge boat. You know he's able you know sometimes it's been referred to the trilogy of trilogies. You know the Appalachian book of the dead, his kind of larger project. What do you make of that and how do you think of those things. Like that that gathering together.
Natasha Trethewey [00:11:01] Well I just had a wonderful conversation with Charles. And I think you're right to sort of see that project of his as a as a gathering. In in our conversation he told me that he did not sort of come to grief in the same way that I have with the same kind of loss. It was something accumulated something learned over a long time. And to finally decide that that is the thing that is the transender of the world really does say something about his wide ranging intellect and the places that he looks to find what is necessary to say.
Kevin Young [00:11:51] Is this a southern poem.
Natasha Trethewey [00:11:53] Well. Well I would say all poems are Southern poems.
Kevin Young [00:11:59] All good poems.
Natasha Trethewey [00:12:01] That's right. Every man has self. Kevin Young, I see.
Kevin Young [00:12:06] Oh no. Well there's a quality it that some of that we're talking aboutf eels like there is a southern aesthetic there. And you know maybe it's that connection to nature.
Natasha Trethewey [00:12:16] But what about in the in the language I keep thinking about this I got thinking about this compound word he's got here barge-boat. Why is it a barge-boat. I tried to look it up because I thought I'll I'll just see if that's the word I can find. I didn't find it like that in the dictionary you just find barge, because a barge is a boat that.
Kevin Young [00:12:43] Right. Right.
Natasha Trethewey [00:12:44] But he's got both of the words there.
Kevin Young [00:12:48] Barge boats more of a boat than a barge.
Natasha Trethewey [00:12:50] Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:12:51] And a boat on its own is not a barge you know.
Natasha Trethewey [00:12:54] No, and so it's but there's something in that compound word that sounds very Southern to me. That's right. Like cook-stoves.
Kevin Young [00:13:03] Yeah. Chair-sit. You know these are great.
Natasha Trethewey [00:13:07] friend-girl.
Kevin Young [00:13:09] These these great compound words. I mean it appears to when he says as the orphans rode herd. I mean I think other people say that but there's a way to that it's about a kind of orphan aesthtic in this poem that interests me.
Natasha Trethewey [00:13:25] Yeah. I think when I when I first read it so focused was I on the way that the end of the poem hit me that it took me a while to go back and see the other ways that it was already working on me. The idea of dominion and those orphans I mean certainly that's also my experience.
Kevin Young [00:13:49] Sure. Sure. And Dominion is a powerful word there because he's describing this Dominion this domain if you will of these toadstools which as you've pointed out as his grief is is transcendent. It's of the world but it's also beyond. The poem reminds me a teeny bit of use Yusef Komunyakaa's "Ode to the Maggot." Where he says "ittle master of the earth no one gets to heaven without going through you first." You know and he manages to to capture that that transcendent in the smallest things. You know in some way this is an ode but it isn't just an ode to toadstools or a meditation. It's also an ode to grief and this question which I think is important that's the question and not a declaration.
Natasha Trethewey [00:14:38] Right.
Kevin Young [00:14:40] He could say no one knows where but instead who knows because there's a there's a kind of there's a 1 percent chance that someone knows and maybe it's it's the transcendent or the Dominion or or some future poet.
Natasha Trethewey [00:14:55] Yeah I think you you read it like that and you can also read it like the shrug of your shoulders like who knows where it's going to moore because I know that I don't I don't know when it's going to anchor and pull me down with it for a moment and I don't know when it's going to be a refuge. Because. You know even as I'm sort of tearing up trying to talk about it, the poem becomes the refuge so that even as I must look like I am grieving I'm very happy.
Kevin Young [00:15:41] Yeah well I think you've you've picked a powerful one.
Natasha Trethewey [00:15:47] You know this one. What I saw it in The New Yorker I cut it out and it is the one poem that I have pinned above my desk and it made it through the fire.
Kevin Young [00:16:00] Oh right.
Natasha Trethewey [00:16:01] So it's a little smoky. I still have it.
Kevin Young [00:16:04] Wow it's a survivor.
Natasha Trethewey [00:16:06] Yeah I'm sure he's still going through it because we're not back at our home yet but very soon I think. We were building a library to house my father's library. My father was a poet. Eric Trethewey. He died a few years ago. And so I got all his wonderful books and so that's where the fire started in the place where we were building a library. None of his books were in there they were still in boxes and so they were in the basement. So there's a little bit of water damage from the firefighters putting out the fire but they were all saved. And the firefighters put out the fire at the top of the third floor landing which is where my study is. And so they saved everything. I didn't lose any of my.
Kevin Young [00:16:57] Computer and everything?
Natasha Trethewey [00:16:58] Well the computers melted. But the books you know they're packed so tightly in the shelves that no air gets them so paper is what survives. So there's things that are a little yellowed a little smoky but I get to keep all those things I have. All those things.
Kevin Young [00:17:15] Yeah.
Natasha Trethewey [00:17:16] Or I'll get them back.
Kevin Young [00:17:18] They're a different kind of survivor.
Natasha Trethewey [00:17:20] Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:17:22] Wow. Can we talk about your poem?
Natasha Trethewey [00:17:24] Sure.
Kevin Young [00:17:25] In the November 20th, 2017 issue, of the magazine The New Yorker printed your poem "Repentance," which you'll read for us momentarily. But first Is there anything you'd like to say about it. Anything that might be helpful for listeners to have in mind?
Natasha Trethewey [00:17:39] Yeah. This is a poem that took me a very long time to write. I tried writing it for years because I thought that it would have come out in my book "Thrall," which came out in 2012. It was a poem that I was working on in particular for that book and I wasn't able to finish it actually until my father was gone. And I understand now that I couldn't finish it because as I worked on it I kept thinking that the repentance, the person who needed to repent was my father. And it wasn't until he was gone that I realized I needed to repent and then I couldn't. When I took the poem out years later to look at it as you do, you take things out of a drawer that you haven't worked out. And while I read it and it was almost exactly as you have it here as it appeared except for the very last line.
Kevin Young [00:18:49] Well let's let's hear it let's hear it so we can hear that last line.
Natasha Trethewey [00:18:54] So it. It's an accrastic poem after Vermeer's "Maid Asleep." "Repentance"
Kevin Young [00:21:48] That was "Repentance," by Natasha Trethewey. So um reading it again. Hearing it aloud. It's so beautiful. It's so deliberate, too. And the form. I think there's a tension in a way between the form which has this great scattered and I mean that in the best way energy, it has no punctuation it has gaps in the line something I love personally and you know learn from James Dickey. But here it feels like speech. It feels like spoken but also a bit of painterly quality. I wonder about that form and I know from your work that at the end of "Thrall" you sort of started into this form. Is that something you think you would continue beyond these poems.
Natasha Trethewey [00:22:40] In in this poem. It came about because I. Needed to feel uncomfortable. And even when I read it I still feel very uncomfortable because I have deliberately made line breaks and spaces in places that otherwise feel unnatural to me to the kind of poet I think of myself as being. So it forces me to read it as I have made it on the page. Which forces me I think to to feel what a difficult and choked repentance it is that I'm making hard to to swallow, hard to accept my own culpability my own complicity in this moment of estrangement that the poem is trying to enact. But the reason I even came to attempting to write a poem that had no punctuation and used the line in this way goes back to a time when you and I read together from your anthology about grief.
Kevin Young [00:24:07] Right.
Natasha Trethewey [00:24:08] And I was reading the W.S. Merwin poem about passing the anniversary of.
Kevin Young [00:24:16] "For The Anniversary of My Death."
Natasha Trethewey [00:24:17] Exactly. And I read it and I remember later on you said to me Well you sure did punctuate that poem. And I was like What is he talking about. And there is this particular poem. I mean I hate to even confess this of his that I've been teaching to my students all for years. This poem I loved. And never once talking about the lack of punctuation because there's such clarity.
Kevin Young [00:24:44] Sure.
Natasha Trethewey [00:24:44] In the line in the syntax and its rhetorical structure of the poem.
Kevin Young [00:24:49] Right.
Natasha Trethewey [00:24:49] So one day my editor Michael Collier who's also wonderful poet was looking at some poems in the manuscript that became "Thrall," and he said You know I think maybe you ought to to try to let go of of punctuation sometimes said you know Merwin talked about how he felt like it just pinned the poem down to the page and I think you should think about that. You should go back and read Merwin again and think about it and I hung up the phone thinking What is he talking about. And then of course I go open Merwin and I saw that I've been punctuating his poems with I've been imprinting it mentally it is so present for me in terms of the clarity of the syntax. So getting rid of it for the first time for me was an attempt to do that.
Kevin Young [00:25:45] Yeah.
Natasha Trethewey [00:25:45] Without the actual punctuation.
Kevin Young [00:25:49] It feels like in this poem it's very much what I think of with Merwin gets rid of punctuation at that point in "The Lice." You know sort of halfway through literally halfway through that book. And so there's this quality of of not just letting go but embracing something else. And I think this poem just topically is about that. You know the inner workings of it or about that and you see that in what I would call sort of the inner weaved two parts. The first being the Vermeer part and the second this bruise on the table which is just a beautiful haunting image. I wondered about that. Like did Vermeer come first as you always know you want to write about Vermeer or is this painting…
Natasha Trethewey [00:26:32] It's so much about you know both imprint and erasure. Because that the idea of of pentimento of getting rid of something that was you know there before by painting over it.
Kevin Young [00:26:44] And then sometimes it shows through it.
Natasha Trethewey [00:26:46] Well right. So even in the erasure there's still the imprint of the thing. You know I think probably for me as often happens when I write acrastic poems there's something that I've been feeling or thinking that hasn't found it's just articulation. And then I'll see a painting that seems to encapsulate exactly that thing. I had not. And you know I had not seen that painting before the incident with my father that needed my repentance. And then I saw it. And you know it is just so the way you find yourself drawn to something before you know why. And I didn't find out why I was drawn to it until I started describing it. It was just something about that gesture of her with her head in her hand and also the way that the tablecloth was pushed and the chair and you knew it even before I knew about the Pinta mento that was in it, the story that the painting seemed to tell was about some interactions someone getting up hastily enough to push that back which of course made me think about this argument I had with my father which then made me interested more interested in the painting. And that's when I read about the pintamento what had been there before.
Kevin Young [00:28:17] How fascinating.
Natasha Trethewey [00:28:18] That Vermeer got rid of. And why he changed it. And why I wanted to change the story of what had happened.
Kevin Young [00:28:26] Right. Yeah it's very powerful. That idea of wanting to change what I done. The size of my thumb. Those little subtle here internal rhymes and I think in others of your poems they might be end rhymes in here. Really. It's so impactful and the piece itself has impacted. I was thinking about that word you use quarrel. The quarrel, which I think is such a powerful word and I feel like the poem too has this and your work in general has this kind of quarrel with art you know with representation of self and of others and of the big O other. And I think very much "Thrall" is a book about representations of art and race and here it's sort of it's almost good. Perhaps I'm speaking for just myself that it isn't in there because I feel like that book does have those great poems that reckon with the father and that great poem elegy which as I recall you had buried in some part of that book and I was like This is the most incredible poem and it needs to be number one. The first poem. You know but you've also then since you know these poems done a Selected Poems. How does this poem "Repentance" fit into that and how do you think of you know that's a strange thing to have done having done it. How do you look back on those.
Natasha Trethewey [00:29:54] Well you know I think you hit it when you when you picked out the word quarrel because it that this is what it goes back to. I mean when I talk about it with you I called it an argument but there's a reason that it's you know and not an argument in the poem but a quarrel. My father used to say to me all the time quoting Yates of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric but of the quarrel with ourselves poetry. And so here's a poem in which I'm having the quarrel with my father but I can't finish it until the quarrel is with myself. That's why this poem didn't get finished. And so when I started you know when I was working on "Thrall," the book that I thought it was going to go and that's when I still believed that it was my father. My quarrel was still with him and it wasn't yet enough with myself putting that poem as you mentioned, first your impulse was right. Because that's a poem in which I I try to introduce the quarrel with myself. Even if I don't fully get there until you know this poem that doesn't make it in. And you know that that book began with two epigraphs, one from Robert Penn Warren and the other from T.S. Eliot that read What is love one name for it is knowledge after such knowledge, what forgiveness. And I always knew those would be the epigraph. But I always thought it was about my father needing my forgiveness and not the other way around. So it took. You know too many years for sure. To finish "Repentance," and it, so it, in my new and selected it is the first poem in the final section of New Poems.
Kevin Young [00:31:50] Yeah.
Natasha Trethewey [00:31:50] And it actually follows elegy elegy ends.
Kevin Young [00:31:54] Yeah.
Natasha Trethewey [00:31:55] The "Thrall" section now.
Kevin Young [00:31:55] Casue you rearranged.
Natasha Trethewey [00:31:57] Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:31:58] And I have a sense of why. But why did you do that?
Natasha Trethewey [00:32:02] So that so that the book would be more than the sum of its parts. That you know that it would have an entirely different arc. And I think I was hoping that it would answer people who might not have understood why I write as a big…
Kevin Young [00:32:24] Still worried about them peoples?
Natasha Trethewey [00:32:25] Well be in the way that to the extent to which it diminishes my mother. Yes. Because too often you know there's this easy line that people draw between my father and me because my father's a poet. Therefore I'm a poet. It's a problem because it's it's not only the legacy of the father of course it's also the legacy of the white father. So it's race too. You know when I was growing up people white people constantly said to me if I did anything well. Oh that's your white side. As if nothing good. None of my talents could come from my mother.
Kevin Young [00:33:05] Who was a fascinating person and I who I know you're writing about in other contexts not just the poetry which of course is tremendous but prose too and what I've learned about her from you and from your archive is so powerful. I don't see how anyone could think that but you know racism is a powerful.
Natasha Trethewey [00:33:25] It's a powerful thing.
Kevin Young [00:33:26] It's a drug.
Natasha Trethewey [00:33:27] And you know it and it leads to erasure. You know after I won the Pulitzer it almost seemed like I had been made only by my father as if I was like Athena right.
Kevin Young [00:33:40] You won the Pulitzer for Native Guard one of the great books of the past 20, 30 years if not more. I teach teach it often and one of the things I find when I have taught it in the past is how just rigorous how formal formerly rigorous it is but also how emotionally rigorous. It isn't. And it's very much about your mother's legacy. And I hope you see that now if not always.
Natasha Trethewey [00:34:10] Well I do. But I think people don't. I think people people read "Thrall," also as being so much about being mixed race. And for me it was much more about trying to make sense of across time and space the deeply ingrained and often unexamined notions of racial difference and racial hierarchy which are the bedrocks of white supremacy that you know were codified during the Enlightenment and still people believe in this idea of the taint of blackness. So it was more about this idea of blackness.
Kevin Young [00:34:53] The curse of ham.
Natasha Trethewey [00:34:55] Than mixed race-ness you know well.
Kevin Young [00:34:56] And also about whiteness.
Natasha Trethewey [00:34:58] Well yeah.
Kevin Young [00:34:58] I find maybe this is a way to think about this maybe is that I find when I write a personal book it's really about history. And then when I write a history book its really personal. And so I feel like people are mistaking what makes to me is a history book. "Thrall".
Natasha Trethewey [00:35:16] Exactly.
Kevin Young [00:35:17] And what I think is so beautiful about "Native Guard," is it's both so obviously knit together and so beautifully in the poetry I admire. Whether that's Rita Dove or Gwendolyn Brooks or Charles Wright you know these are people who are writing through history but in really inventive interesting personal ways. You know how you have to you have to get there.
Natasha Trethewey [00:35:43] Well I mean and so in order to sort of say you know definitively you know here are what my existential wounds are I've got two of them. You know I quote Auden all the time! You know Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry Mad Mississippi inflicted my first wound my deeper wound came when I was 19 and my mother's death and living with that these 34 years so and even and dealing with you know people's misapprehensions and perceptions about domestic violence. So the book begins with a poem called "Imperatives for Carrying on in The Aftermath.".
Kevin Young [00:36:22] This is the selected poems.
Natasha Trethewey [00:36:24] Yeah.
Kevin Young [00:36:24] "Monument."
Natasha Trethewey [00:36:25] That's really trying to say this is.
Kevin Young [00:36:28] Here are the dumb questions I get.
Natasha Trethewey [00:36:29] Here are the dumb questions I get. So here's an answer to all the dumb questions that you can get from friends that I got from my father.
Kevin Young [00:36:36] Sure.
Natasha Trethewey [00:36:37] And it ends with an articulation. A poem called "Articulation," about which is acrastic, too.
Kevin Young [00:36:43] Yeah.
Natasha Trethewey [00:36:43] About why I have to do this.
Kevin Young [00:36:46] This is a wonderful conversation and so powerful to get to talk with you. Thank you so much Natasha for talking with us today.
[00:36:55] Thank you Kevin.
[00:36:56] "Repentance," by Natasha Trethewey as well as Charles Wrights "Toadstools," can be found on newyorker.com Charles Wright's latest book is "Oblivion Banjo." Natasha Trethewey his most recent collection is "Monument."
Tag: You may subscribe to this podcast, the fiction podcast, the Writer’s Voice podcast, and the Politics and More podcast by searching for “The New Yorker” in your podcast app. You can hear more poetry read by the authors on newyorker.com and on the New Yorker app, available from the App Store or from Google Play. The theme music is “The Corner” by Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah, courtesy of Stretch Music and Ropeadope. The New Yorker Poetry Podcast is produced by Jill Du Boff of newyorker.com, with help from Hannah Aizenman.
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