Books by Natasha Trethewey
Native Guards: Poems /
Beyond Katrina /
Domestic Work /
Bellocq's Ophelia: Poems /
Best New Poets 2007
* * * *
Interviews Natasha Trethewey
Prize-winning poet on Katrina’s Aftermath
As we approach the
fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Pulitzer
Natasha Trethewey has been thinking of the
hurricane's aftermath on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,
where she spent much of her childhood, and where her -
part of her family still lives.
And she's been
thinking of the hurricane's aftermath on her family. Her
brother spent a year in prison. Her grandmother
sheltered from the storm in a public school and was
never able to return home. Her house was unlivable after
Katrina, and she was too frail, disoriented, and
undernourished after the storm to continue living alone.
Natasha Trethewey moved her grandmother to a nursing
home near her when she was teaching at Duke University,
and then to Atlanta, where Trethewey is a professor at
Trethewey won the
Pulitzer Prize for her book Native Guard. Many of
the poems were about growing up biracial in Mississippi
and Georgia. Her mother was African-American, her father
is white. When they divorced,
lived with her
mother and, eventually, a stepfather and her younger
brother Joe. After her mother and stepfather divorced,
her stepfather murdered her mother.
Trethewey's new book is called
Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf
* * *
Terry Interviews Natasha
Natasha Trethewey, welcome back to
FRESH AIR. After your grandmother died in her 90s, you
brought her back to her hometown, Gulfport, Mississippi,
and had her buried at her church. How long after Katrina
Natasha Trethewey: This was
in 2008, three years after Katrina.
What state was the
Trethewey: The church was still in the process of
rebuilding. They weren't using the sanctuary at the
time. And so her service had to take place in a small
auxiliary building where they often served food, a very
low-ceilinged room that was filled up with whatever they
were able to salvage from the main sanctuary, so a few
pews, some folding chairs. I think they even had a kind
of small pulpit to use for the minister.
But the windows all
around the sanctuary, the high windows, were still blown
out and some boarded up. And so if you were to have
driven by it, you would not have though that anything—any services were ever taking place in this building.
How did it feel to bring your grandmother back to a
place that was still in such a place of—such a state
of chaos and disrepair?
Trethewey: It made me feel like Katrina wasn't over,
that for the people there and the people connected to
those people, it was still going on, that recovery was
taking such a long time. And there was something sort of
sad and homely about having to have her final home-going
service in that little room rather than in the beautiful
sanctuary for which she had sewn the draperies of the
baptismal font, the same place that my mother was
And to bring her body to a place that had been partially
You know, it's death and destruction in one ceremony.
Trethewey: Mm-hmm. And even the stranger feeling of
not getting to get her back there even whole. I know it
sounds odd, but my grandmother had an amputation right
before her death. And so she went back without her leg.
Did she have diabetes?
Trethewey: She didn't, which is the strange thing.
She didn't have diabetes at all. She just got—she had
really poor circulation, perhaps from having sat as a
drapery seamstress all that time. And she got a wound on
her ankle that wouldn't heal, which is kind of like what
it feels like on the coast right now.
So when you brought your grandma back to Gulfport,
Mississippi, her hometown, where you had lived, as well,
it was— it just seems like the intersection of so many
things that had gone wrong in your family's life since
the storm—you know, your grandmother had to die away
from her home. The church that she was buried in, in her
hometown, was still partially destroyed. And your
brother had recently been in prison, and he was allowed
out to come view his grandmother, but that was it. He
wasn't really allowed to speak with you or your husband
or his child or his girlfriend.
So I'd like to talk
a little bit about what happened to your brother and how
Katrina changed his life.
In the year leading
up to Katrina, he'd started to repair rental properties
that your great uncle used to own. What were these
Trethewey: They were several little lots that held
shotgun houses, really small shacks that were so tiny
that, often, the bathtub was in the kitchen. But they
were the kinds of homes that low-income people on the
coast could afford.
They rented right
up until the storm for about $230 to $250 a month, and
we'd had tenants there who'd been there for perhaps 30
And then your brother ended up working on them,
repairing them. What was his relationship to these
Trethewey: Well, in the months leading up to the
storm, my brother finally began to take over this family
business. We'd been hoping for years that he would. My
grandmother was getting too old to be able to handle the
business of managing these properties and hiring out
people to do repairs and collecting rent. So my brother
began to do this.
And when he started
doing it, he began to really fix them up, you know, fix
the roof and add new appliances and carpet and windows.
So he was doing that kind of work, and the tenants were
really happy that he was fixing up these places that had
fallen into disrepair over the last few years.
So this is what he
was doing, right up until the hurricane, and he invested
a great deal of his savings into being able to fix them
And he was in the position of soon being able to see
some profits from that.
Trethewey: That's right. He had all but one of them,
I think, rented.
So what happened after Katrina? Were the homes
Trethewey: They were damaged so badly that the
tenants couldn't stay in them. The buildings were really
sort of falling down around them. And so they had to
And the buildings,
at that point, were torn down by the city because they
were blighted. And if you can't afford at the moment to
fix them up, then the city will just tear them down and
bill you for it.
How much do they bill you for tearing down a house?
Trethewey: A few thousand dollars.
So instead of making him money, now your brother was
really in debt, because he was billed for all the homes
that had to be torn down as a result of Katrina.
Trethewey: That's right. And then, of course, having
to pay the taxes, then, on the vacant land, just to try
to hold on, at least, to the land.
Okay. So tell us the story of how he was imprisoned.
Trethewey: Well, I think that it was in a moment of
profound despair that my brother, when contacted by
someone he'd known a long time and asked to deliver a
large amount of cocaine, agreed.
He did it. He made,
he told me, about $4,000. And so when the person asked
him to do it, he did it again. So he must have done it a
couple of times before someone set him up. I think
someone who was perhaps trying to make a deal for
himself told the police about Joe, and they were waiting
Trethewey: And he was caught with four ounces of
cocaine on him.
And when was this?
Trethewey: Well, it happened in the spring of 2007,
though he didn't tell me about it then. He didn't tell
me about it because that was the moment that happy
things were going on in my life, and he didn't want to
By happy things, I'm guessing you mean that's when you
won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Trethewey: That's right. So at the same time that I
was winning the prize, he was being arrested.
So how did you find out?
Trethewey: He didn't tell me until a year later,
when he was about to go to trial, and his lawyer told
him that if he didn't call me and ask me to come down
there and to speak on his behalf, that he might be in
jail a very long time.
Did you speak at his trial?
Trethewey: I did.
What did you say? (Soundbite of
Trethewey: Well, I tried to explain to the judge
something about his history. One of the main things I
wanted her to know was how good a kid he is, but how
tragic his life had been and how different his life was
You know, I was
older when we lost our mother, and I still had my own
father. But it was father, my stepfather, who killed our
mother. So, at once he lost both of his parents, and he
was an 11-year-old boy when it happened.
And the morning
that our mother was killed—my brothers had to live
with this. But he was waiting at the bus stop, and his
father came and got him and took his key and let himself
into our apartment. And my brother recalls the last
thing my mother said to him, which was: Why did you let
And Joe tried to
tell her that wasn't the case, but because of that, I
think he's carried that burden of guilt. And then when
he went to live with my grandmother, a woman who loved
him dearly but could not look at him without seeing the
face of the man who killed her daughter, and so it made
their relationship very strained. But that's the house
he had to grow up in when he lost his parents.
We talked about this on your previous visit to FRESH AIR
because you'd written a book of poems about your
mother's murder, and your stepfather had abused your
mother, and then I think it was right after you got out
of high school that he murdered her. He shot her twice,
in the head and in the neck.
So I guess you . . .
Trethewey: My brother was there to see that.
He actually witnessed it.
And then felt guilty because your father—your
stepfather had taken your brother's key to get into the
house because his— your stepfather tried to kill your
mother once before. So she didn't [let] him anywhere near her.
They were divorced.
Trethewey: That's right.
So, yeah, it's so interesting to think about how your
family history and your brother's family history
compare. I mean, your parents, when you were born, it
was an interracial marriage: your mother
African-American, your father white. Your father was—is a poet and professor. Your mother, at the time, was a
And I don't know what your stepfather did for a living.
Trethewey: He was a Vietnam veteran, and he went to
technical college, and so had a business as a repairman,
air conditioning and cooling systems. And he also worked
as a maintenance man for a facility for kids who were in
Oh. So, you know, your brother grew up in
a home where his mother was abused. By the time she was
abused, you were a little older, and you'd already had
some stability in your life. I guess he really never
knew what that kind of stability was like and what a
safe home was like.
Trethewey: Well, actually, the funny thing about it
is—and he tries to address some of this in the letters
that he wrote to me. Up until the moment that my mother
had to run away with him to get out of the house, he
thought he had a perfect life. He thought he had two
parents who loved him and, you know, a house in the
suburbs, and he didn't want for anything.
He'd only had a
glimpse of the way that his father could be angry or
volatile, just a very small glimpse. And he didn't
really know that the abuse was taking place.
Trethewey: I did. You know, being older, I guess I
was more aware, and I could see what was going on. And
I'd wake up in the middle of the night when he would
stay asleep and hear what was going on.
And you protected your brother from that knowledge.
How much older are you?
Trethewey: I'm seven years older.
That's a lot . . . When your brother was in prison, he
wrote a poem.
Trethewey: Yes, he did . . .
. . . which you
reprint in the book. And I'd like you to read that poem.
Trethewey: I'd be happy to. The poem is called
(Reading) I am
named after my father. He's named after his. No
disrespect to my grandfather resting. I pronounce my
name Joel(ph) instead of Joel. I am nothing like him.
Although I am in prison, I'm not him.
I like that poem. I like that, you know, I am not him.
And I think you must have been surprised that he wrote a
poem. I was surprised. I don't know him, but I mean,
you're the professional poet. Were you surprised that he
wrote a poem in prison?
Trethewey: I was very surprised. He actually wrote a
couple. That's the only one that I print in the book,
but he was writing letters and meditations and poems
when he was in prison. That one was particularly moving
to me because it had never occurred to me, and when I
was thinking about my own grief and the burden of this
history that we share, that he was carrying the added
burden of being named the same name as the man who
murdered our mother.
You wrote a poem about your brother leaving prison. It's
called "Benediction." I'd like you to read that for us.
Trethewey: Yes, I'd be happy to.
"Benediction." I thought that when I saw my brother
walking through the gates of the prison, he would look
like a man entering his life, and he did. He carried a
small bag, holding it away from his body, as if he would
not touch it, or that it weighed almost nothing.
The clothes he wore
seemed to belong to someone else, like hand-me-downs
given a child who will one day grow into them. Behind
him at the fence, the inmates were waving, someone
saying all right now. And then my brother was walking
toward us, a few awkward steps at first, until he got
it, how to hold up the too-big pants with one hand, and
in the other, carry everything else he had.
Was there anything that helped your brother get through
his time in prison?
Trethewey: Well, the thing that really helped him
get through was that he had a kind of faith in justice.
I mean, my brother's not a religious person, really,
either, but he could have faith in human beings to do
the just thing.
He also told me
that he got through by writing, knowing that he was
contributing to this project, that his words would
matter, and his story.
To what project, your book?
Trethewey: That's right.
Is that why he wrote?
Trethewey: I told him that I was working on the
book, and that I needed to know as much about his
experience as I could. And so he started writing some
things that he thought would be useful for me, but then,
because he was doing that, he started writing these
other things, as well, like poetry, that he did not
think would have anything to do with what I was writing.
And he didn't know
that nor did I, at the time, that I would use anything
directly written by him. So once he got into the habit
of trying to write things to me about his past or what
he remembered of our family from when he was growing up,
he also, on the other hand, started writing poems and
doing things for himself that helped to get him through.
And, of course, they became things that I do use in the
So it's nice that this book was kind of a collaborative
project with your brother, even though you were
Trethewey: Yeah. That's right.
Is he still writing?
Trethewey: He is still writing. He was given a
lovely journal from a good friend of mine as a
get-out-of-prison gift, and so since then, he's been
writing his thoughts in it. And I'm trying to encourage
him to, you know, maybe let some of us see what he's
writing. But he hasn't done that yet. (Soundbite of
Okay. What is he doing now?
Trethewey: He is looking for work, seeing his parole
officer, taking classes at the community college toward
his GED. It's been hard for him to find work. You know,
he's got to check the box that says he was a convicted
. . . During the first
year that you were a Pulitzer Prize winner and you were
getting, you know, more attention than you were used to,
once you found out about your brother's incarceration
did you try to like, keep that quiet while being
interviewed? Did you try not to call attention to it?
Trethewey: Well, I did. I worried very much about
whether or not people would judge my brother for that.
And even when I started writing this book, or writing at
least the finishing, the second half when everything
changed, when I found out that he was going to prison, I
had a hard time writing it because I felt that I needed
to explain to someone, to this imaginary reader, the
entire story—from the moment he was born—so that
people would empathize with him. And so that really kept
me from being able to write for a long time.
I don't worry about
that as much now. I think that there are so many people
who have difficult stories like this in families, and
that people are not simply waiting to sit in judgment,
but instead are open to trying—understand how people
feel despair and pushed to make difficult decisions that
may not be the best ones.
So what convinced you to tell his story in your book?
Trethewey: Well, it took so long for me to be able
to see that telling his story would be useful, not only
to give voice to his own experience, but actually, as a
way of allowing his story to speak for the countless
people whose stories aren't being told. My fear was that
he would be judged and that people would simply think
well, you know, this is a drug dealer, this is just who
this guy is. And I even said, I said this to my agent
and I said this to my editor, and finally, one of them
said to me, you're trying to convince people who can't
be convinced. And then the people who are going to think
he's just a drug dealer aren't going to be changed by
anything you have to say, nor are they going to read the
book. (Soundbite of
That's what they told me. And once I felt
a little freer, that I didn't have to explain over and
over again what a good guy he is and that he hadn't had
this happen and this happen and this happen he never
would've done this. But it was really difficult. I even
think he worried about it. And I think he's so happy and
so relieved now that it's not a secret, that the story
is out, that people already know before they ever meet
him, so that he doesn't have to try to, you know, skirt
around any details of his life or what he—when people
ask him what do you do or, you know, that kind of thing.
. . . I'm just thinking
that at the same time you won the Pulitzer Prize for
poetry in 2007, your brother was arrested for carrying
cocaine—carrying it for somebody else, but carrying
it. And it's a kind of thing where like it's so parallel
that you wouldn't write that in a story because it would
I just wonder what you make of the simultaneity or near
simultaneity of that, and what it has to say about your
Trethewey: Well, oddly enough, before I knew about
that, I kept thinking about another bit of simultaneity,
and that was that ten days shy of my mother's 41st
birthday she was murdered. And ten days shy of my 41st
birthday I won the Pulitzer. So I was very mindful of
that strange coincidence that, you know, in this point
in both of our lives this is I what we've come to. So a
year later, when I found out that my brother had gotten
arrested, it was in many ways, another ripple or echo of
this family story.
I mean, you know,
people think of prison as social death. So whereas my
mother was literally dead, my brother was about to enter
into a kind of social death at the exact moment that I
was having a resurrection of sorts. And I am the kind of
person that's always sort of putting these things
together and attaching meaning and extracting things
from them, so this was so huge in my mind because, you
know, my name is Natasha, which means, you know, it's
the diminutive in Russian of Natalia, which mean
Christmas child but it's also the diminutive of
Anastasia, from the Greek, which means resurrection. And
so there I was seeing myself as the resurrection child
and, you know, my mother and my brother, quite the
opposite of that.
You're right when
you say, you know, if you were to write it, it would
seem too contrived and yet, indeed, it seems to have
been a pattern already in my life.
So does it make you guilty that you got the Pulitzer at
exactly the time in your life that your mother was
murdered and you got the Pulitzer at the same time your
brother was arrested? Do you feel like it's just, you
know, unfair that like, I'm not even sure . . .
Trethewey: I think I do feel a good measure of
guilt. I've carried with me a lot of survivor's guilt, I
think, and the coincidence of what happened to me before
my 41st birthday and mother's 41st birthday really
highlights that for me. And with my brother, I think I,
I definitely feel that. It seems so unfair to me that
you could come from the same household and yet have such
dramatically different lives.
But you didn't quite come from the same household.
Trethewey: No, it's true. We didn't. I know—that's
right. I guess I feel guilty that I couldn't protect
[him] from it. When she died, you know, because I was seven
years older than him, my brother began to look to me as
a kind of a surrogate mother. I was the one that he
clung to in that way. And yet, I couldn't mother him or
protect him in the way in which I could have. And when
he was in prison, I think that was really so difficult
and yet, you know, I'm always looking back at the
failures. And for me, one of my failures during that
time, was the kind of responses that I gave to him.
I mean my brother
was writing to me. He would call and, you know, I would
never miss a phone call. I'd do everything I can—I
could to be there for a phone call, if he needed
anything I would send it. You know, along with his
girlfriend Aisha, I worked tirelessly calling and
emailing the commissioner of prisons in the state of
Mississippi and other people in the office, you know, to
get my brother released and to have him moved to the
facility we wanted him to be in so that he could be
close to family. All that kind of leg work, you know, I
was willing to do. But what I never once did was write
him a letter. And so . . .
That seems so odd. I mean you're a writer.
Trethewey: I know.
He started writing when he was in prison. Why didn't you
Trethewey: Terry, I do not know. And once it hit me,
it felt like the worst betrayal ever. And one of the
first things I did when he was out was to sit him down
and apologize for it. And he, you know, not once when he
was there did he, you know, ask me to. And I know now
that it probably hurt him deeply and I don't know why it
didn't occur to me. It didn't occur to me at all.
. . . You grew up fearing
hurricanes. You were three when Hurricane Camille hit
the Gulf Coast and that was a very destructive
hurricane, though not as destructive as Katrina. What
are your memories as a three-year-old of Camille?
Trethewey: What I remember and I think I remember
this, you know, sometimes we have memories that are
given to us because the stories have been told so often
in families. But it seems so vivid to me the storm
hitting us and rain pouring in through the roof and my
mother and father and grandmother and uncle running from
room to room trying to catch as much water as possible
with pots and the hurricane lamps lit. My mother and
grandmother, sort of terrified and praying out loud as
it rained through the hallways. And then I remember just
sort of seeing the house the next day and the
destruction at the church that was across the street.
You know, you describe in your book what it was like as
a child every year to see, to turn on the TV and see
footage of Hurricane Camille and how frightening it was
to you. And it made me think about all the children
growing up now in the Gulf, who for the last five years,
you know, first they witness Katrina and then every year
they watch it again on television.
And how disturbing that must be to relive it every year.
Trethewey: Yeah. You know, it's as if that what is
supposed to keep you safe is this imagery that you have
to look at again and again. And what I've been wondering
is, if the children of Katrina will respond differently
to the threat of natural disaster than those of us who
were the children of Camille. I mean so many people who
managed to ride out Camille and with their homes, for
the most part, intact, had a kind of fearlessness when
Katrina was bearing down. You know, my grandmother was
one of them, thinking that Camille was the worst thing
that could've happened to us, so why be afraid of this
hurricane that's coming? And yet, it was worse.
You know, in your book,
Beyond Katrina, you write
that, you know, your grandmother was a God-fearing woman
and when Hurricane Camille destroyed the church across
the street but only partially destroyed your
grandmother's home, she took that as a message - what
was the message from God that she interpreted?
Trethewey: Well, she felt that she had been spared
and having been spared, had a greater call to duty. And
so began to do as much as she could for the church. For
example, making the draperies, these huge red velvet
draperies for the baptismal font. She also allowed the
church to park its bus in her driveway. The church
didn't have its own driveway. She became even more
devoted because she thought she had been spared.
Is that the church she was buried in?
You describe yourself as not a religious person. But do
you ever wish that you could have religion like your
grandmother did and therefore, find some kind of holy
meaning in the most horrible things that have happened?
Trethewey: I think, you know, she had such a faith
and I understood it as a great comfort to her. And there
are times that I think that I wish I had such a comfort.
I remember when she
was being remembered at her service, the preacher
looking directly at me and saying, grieve not as others
grieve. He was sermonizing about how the faithful don't
have the same kind of grief, because they know that
there is something else. And so I felt indicted as he
looked at me and said grieve not as others grieve, as if
he was pointing to me and saying, I know that you are
not the faithful and because of that you have a
different kind of grief, the wrong kind.
And were you changed by that at all?
Trethewey: Oh, I was angry.
Angry at him for making you feel that way when you were
Trethewey: Yes. I . . .
As if there were a wrong kind of grief.
Trethewey: I think I wanted remembrance of her and I
wanted comfort. I mean, I think funeral services are for
the living in some ways. They are to remember the dead,
but in the face of the living, beloved. And so I didn't
Not to make things too pat, but I think by writing
poetry you're kind of extracting meaning from things.
Trethewey: Oh, I think so. I mean . . . (Soundbite of
Trethewey: . . . there's a poem in which I even talk
about something that's a kind of faith. I think poetry
is always a kind of faith. It is the kind that I have.
It is what can offer solace, meaning, but also makes
sense of even this liturgical language in a secular way
that allows me to understand these events.
Natasha Trethewey, I really wish the best to you and to
your brother. And thank you very much for speaking to us
and for reading some of your poetry.
Trethewey: Thank you, Terry. It was good to talk to
Natasha Trethewey's new book of prose and poetry is
Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf
Coast. You can hear her read another poem
and you can read an excerpt of her book on our website,
* * *
Elegy for the
Now that the salt of
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea . .
We leave Gulfport at
noon; gulls overhead
trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—
all the way to Ship Island. What we see
first is the fort, its roof of grass a lee—
half reminder of the men who served there—
a weathered monument to some of the dead.
Inside we follow the
though we are to get to the beach. He tells
of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split
in half when Hurricane Camille hit,
shows us casemates, cannons, the store that
souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.
The Daughters of the
has placed a plaque here, at the fort's
each Confederate soldier's name raised hard
in bronze; no names carved for the Native
2nd regiment, Union men, black phalanx.
What is monument to their legacy?
All the grave markers,
all the crude headstones—
water—lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements—wind, rain—God's deliberate
* * *
Theories of Time and Space
You can get there from
there’s no going home.
Everywhere you go will
you’ve never been. Try this:
head south on
Mississippi 49, one—
by-one mile markers ticking off
another minute of your
life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end
at the coast, the pier
at Gulfport where
rigging of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening
rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand
dumped on the mangrove
terrain of the past. Bring only
what you must
carry—tome of memory,
its random blank pages. On the dock
where you board the
boat for Ship Island,
the photograph—who you were—
someone will take your picture:
will be waiting when you return.
* * *
Today the ants are busy
beside my front steps, weaving
in and out of the hill they're building.
I watch them emerge and—
like everything I've forgotten—disappear
into the subterranean, a world
made by displacement. In the cemetery
last June, I circled, lost—
weeds and grass grown up all around—
the landscape blurred and waving.
At my mother's grave, ants streamed in
and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising
above her untended plot. Bit by bit,
red dirt piled up, spread
like a rash on the grass; I watched a long
the ants' determined work,
how they brought up soil
of which she will be part,
and piled it before me. Believe me when I
I've tried not to begrudge them
their industry, this reminder of what
I haven't done. Even now,
the mound is a blister on my heart,
a red and humming
* * *
In Verse is a
multi-media project that combines poetry,
photography and audio footage to create "documentary
poems" for radio, the web, print and iPhone. This
installment of features Pulitzer Prize winning poet
Natasha Trethewey, photographer Joshua Cogan and
producer Lu Olkowski as they cover the ongoing
recovery on the Mississippi Gulf Coast after
In Verse comes to you from Public Radio Makers Quest
2.0, an initiative of AIR, the Association of
Independents in Radio, Incorporated. This project is
made possible with funding from the Corporation for
Public Broadcasting. In Verse is also generously
supported by Virginia Quarterly Review. Studio 360
with Kurt Andersen is the broadcast partner for In
Verse. In Verse was created by Ted Genoways and Lu
* * *
video of Natasha Trethewey's reading at Emory
University on May 8, 2007 in honor of her Pulitzer
Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi. Her first
poetry collection, Domestic Work (Graywolf Press,
2000), won the inaugural 1999 Cave Canem poetry prize
(selected by Rita Dove), a 2001 Mississippi Institute of
Arts and Letters Book Prize, and the 2001 Lillian Smith
Award for Poetry. Her second collection, Bellocq's
Ophelia (Graywolf, 2002), received the 2003
Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize,
was a finalist for both the Academy of American Poets'
James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named
a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association.
Her work has appeared in several volumes of Best
American Poetry, and in journals such as Agni,
American Poetry Review, Callaloo,
Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New
England Review, and The Southern Review,
among others. She has a B.A. in English from the
University of Georgia, an M.A. in English and Creative
Writing from Hollins University, and an M.F.A in poetry
from the University of Massachusetts. She is the
recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation,
the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship
Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at
Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the
She has taught at
Auburn University, the University of North Carolina—Chapel
Hill, and Duke University where she was the 2005-2006
Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and
American Studies. She was a 2009-2010 James Weldon
Johnson Fellow in African American Studies at Yale
University's Beinecke Rare Books & Manuscript Library.
Her most recent
collection is Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin
2006), for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in
Her book of
Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf
Coast, is forthcoming from the University of
Georgia Press (September 2010), and her new collection
of poetry, Thrall, is forthcoming from Houghton
Mifflin Harcourt in Fall 2012.
She is the
recipient of the 2008 Mississippi Governor's Award for
Excellence in the Arts for Poetry and was also named the
2008 Georgia Woman of the Year. She will be inducted
into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame in Spring 2011.
* * *
A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast
Beyond Katrina is poet Natasha
Trethewey’s very personal profile of the
Mississippi Gulf Coast and of the people
there whose lives were forever changed by
Trethewey spent her childhood in Gulfport,
where much of her mother’s extended family,
including her younger brother, still lives.
As she worked to understand the devastation
that followed the hurricane, Trethewey found
inspiration in Robert Penn Warren’s book
Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South,
in which he spoke with southerners about
race in the wake of the Brown decision,
capturing an event of wide impact from
multiple points of view. Weaving her own
memories with the experiences of family,
friends, and neighbors, Trethewey traces the
erosion of local culture and the rising
economic dependence on tourism and casinos.
decades of wetland development that exacerbated the
destruction and portrays a Gulf Coast whose
citizens—particularly African Americans—were on the
margins of American life well before the storm hit. Most
poignantly, Trethewey illustrates the destruction of the
hurricane through the story of her brother’s efforts to
recover what he lost and his subsequent incarceration.
writing about the idea of home, Trethewey’s attempt to
understand and document the damage to Gulfport started
as a series of lectures at the University of Virginia
that were subsequently published as essays in the
Virginia Quarterly Review. For
Beyond Katrina, Trethewey has expanded this work
into a narrative that incorporates personal letters,
poems, and photographs, offering a moving meditation on
the love she holds for her childhood home.
* * *
poems based on photographs of
African-Americans at work in the pre-civil
rights era 20th-century America (not
included), Trethewey's fine first collection
functions as near-social documentary. In
tableaux like "These Photographs" and
"Signs, Oakvale, Mississippi, 1941,"
Trethewey evenly takes up the difficult task
of preserving, and sometimes speculating
upon, the people and conditions of the
mostly Southern, mostly black working class.
The sonnets, triplets and flush-left free
verse she employs give the work an
understated distance, and Trethewey's
relatively spare language allows the
characters, from factory and dock workers to
homemakers, to take on fluid, present-tense
movement: "Her lips tighten speaking/ of
quitting time when/ the colored women filed
out slowly/ to have their purses checked,/
the insides laid open and exposed/ by the
boss's hand" ("Drapery Factory, Gulfport,
When Trethewey, a member of the Dark Room Collective
(a group of young African-American writers including
Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kevin Young and Janice Lowe),
turns midway through the book to matters of family
and autobiography, the book loses some momentum. But
when the speaker comments on the actions of others,
as in "At the Station," the poems correspondingly
deepen: "Come back. She won't. Each/ glowing light
dims/ the farther it moves from reach,// the train
pulling clean/ out of the station. The woman sits/
facing where she's been.// She's chosen her place
with care/ each window another eye, another/ way of
seeing what's back there." Trethewey's work follows
in the wake of history and memory, tracing their
combined effect on her speaker and subjects, and
working to recover and preserve vitally local
* * *
Bellocq's Ophelia: Poems
Following up her debut,
Domestic Work (2000), which included
a number of historical monologues,
Tretheway's short sophomore effort is a
quiet collection of poems in the persona of
a "very white-skinned black woman mulatto,
quadroon, or octoroon," a prostitute in New
Orleans just before WWI. The
Bellocq of the title is E.J., the
Toulouse-Lautrec-like photographer whose
Storyville prostitute portraits, brought
out from oblivion by
Lee Friedlander, inspired
Louis Malle's 1978 film
Pretty Baby and now this sequence. A
stanza that begins "There are indeed all
sorts of men who visit here" predictably yet
elegantly ends "And then there are those, of
course, whose desires I cannot commit to
paper." Yet this is not generally a
sentimentalized account of a conventional
Much more like Bellocq's
artless, sympathetic and gorgeous portraits
are lines like these, describing the
"They like best, as I do, the regular meals, warm
from the cooks in our own kitchen, the clean indoor
toilet and hot-water bath." While the trend of the
first-person historical novel (think
Wittgenstein's Nephew as much as
Corelli's Mandolin) has passed, the best
poems here fulfill the genre's mandate to spice up
the period piece with intellectual frisson;
Tretheway goes two-for-two by successfully taking on
the poetically dubious task of working from art and
making it signify anew. . . . Despite the book's
brevity, expect review attention, as well as short
items in glossies profiling Tretheway with the
requisite provocative Bellocq reproductions.
National Poetry Month reviewers wanting to take
stock of recent poetry by African-American women
might place this book alongside Harryette Mullen's
Sleeping with the Dictionary . . . and
Antebellum Dream Book.—Publishers
* * *
frontispiece of Natasha Trethewey's
Native Guard informs me she was born
in Gulfport, Miss., that her mother was
black and her father white. Reasonable
deduction (assuming the "I" of the poems is
the poet) tells me that, in her formative
years, issues pertaining to her biracial
heritage were exacerbated by Mississippi's
legacy of oppression—its dark, buried
history. In a region struggling to confront
its past, how was a young poet supposed to
learn to accept who she was?
Trethewey's personal dilemma must have been
awkward, full of tangled emotions and
memorable embarrassments. It's the kind of
background that has humbled many people into
silence. And yet, for the purposes of
literature, aren't these kinds of growing
pains priceless? We should probably envy
this poet's peculiar destiny.
Not only has
Trethewey chosen speech rather than silence, she has
chosen to express herself in verse. Given her material,
she could easily write essays or a memoir. But she has a
genuine gift for verse forms, and the depth of her
engagement in language marks her as a true poet.
Native Guard, Trethewey traces the buried
history of the South to the point where her personal
narrative begins. "In 1965, my parents broke two laws of
Mississippi;/ they went to Ohio to marry, returned to
Mississippi," begins a ghazal (a poem in two-line
stanzas linked by a rhyme scheme) titled
"Miscegenation." "My Mother Dreams of Another Country"
jumps ahead to Trethewey's birth year and depicts her
mother's distress: "This is 1966—she is married to a
white man— / and there are more names for what grows
inside her./ It is enough to worry about words like
mongrel/ and the infertility of mules and mulattoes."
The title poem is a
10-sonnet sequence in which the last line of each sonnet
becomes a variant of the subsequent sonnet's opening
line, creating a lovely, wreathlike effect. The graceful
form conceals a gritty subject. "Native Guard" is a
first-person narrative of an unnamed ex-slave who has
joined the Union army to serve in an all-black regiment.
The lines have a stately, chiming perfection. The
circular form mirrors the bizarre circularity of
circumstance that finds the narrator—once a slave—now
guarding Confederates who have been captured and
imprisoned inside the Union fort at Ship Island, Miss.
The narrator compares his life in bondage to his life as
a military officer, guarding the fallen rebels:
I now use ink to
keep record, a closed book, not the lure of
memory—flawed, changeful—that dulls the lash for the
master, sharpens it for the slave. For the slave, having
a master sharpens the bend into work, the way the
sergeant moves us now to perfect battalion drill, dress
try to reproduce the way this character would actually
speak. Whereas many poets would have spiced his
monologue with dialect, she doesn't. Though a former
slave, he is literate; he writes letters for his fellow
soldiers. "I listen, put down in ink what I know/ they
labor to say between silences." Trethewey gives her
narrator a literary voice—the voice of a 19th-century
writer practiced in the diction and oratory of his time,
of Frederick Douglass's masterful autobiographies, a
voice that echoes the rhythms of great Western poetry.
Trethewey has a
gift for squeezing the contradictions of the South into
very tightly controlled lines. A certain staid, formal
approach is both her strength and the only possible
grounds I have to criticize her poetry.
Native Guard is a small book, containing mostly
short poems, a few of which read like exercises. When
poets find their voices, form and content intermesh
seamlessly. One can still see Trethewey's technique and
feel the influence of poetry workshops. One feels a bit
let down when a poem sets up an interesting emotional
crisis, then resolves it almost too quickly. One feels
at times as though her poems are succinct for the sake
of making them work, rather than fulfilling either the
poet's memory of her experience or the reader's
is reserved, even cautious, though her subjects are
emotionally charged, even violent. This creates an
interesting dichotomy, especially in poems such as
"Pastoral" with its touchy image of Trethewey
confronting the great white Southern poets—Allen
Robert Penn Warren and others—while in blackface.
Though this is her third book, Trethewey is still
perfecting her voice and may have only scratched the
surface of her remarkable talent.—Darryl
Lorenzo Wellington, The Washington Post
* * *
Charley Patton (1891-1934)
Rock 'n' Roll
Charlie Patton born Mississippi, April 1891 was
an experienced performer of songs before he was twenty
years old and was first recorded (Thankfully) in 1929.
His influence is everywhere and was arguably the first
of the greats. An influence on
White and without doubt
Howlin' Wolf. We have to thank archivists, the likes
of Harry Smith, that we can hear these inimitable songs
Some people tell me, oversea blues ain't bad
It must not been the oversea blues I had
Everyday seem like murder here
(My god, I'm no sheriff)
I'm going to leave tomorrow,
I know you don't bid my care
I ain't going down no dirt road by myself
If I don't carry my
rider, going to carry someone else
* * *
I'm going away to where I'm known
I'm worried now but I won't be worried long
My rider got somethin' she try to keep it
Lord, I got somethin' find that somethin'
I feel like chopping, chips flying
I've been to the
Nation, lord, but I couldn't stay there
Charlie Patton was the first great Delta bluesman;
from him flowed nearly all the elements that would
comprise the region's blues style. Patton had a coarse,
earthy voice that reflected hard times and hard living.
His guitar style—percussive and raw—matched his vocal
delivery. He often played slide guitar and gave that
style a position of prominence in Delta blues.
Patton's songs were
filled with lyrics that dealt with issues
like social mobility (pony Blues),
imprisonment (“High Sheriff Blues”), nature
(“High Water Blues”), and morality (“Oh
Death”) that went far beyond traditional
male-female relationship themes. Patton
defined the life of a bluesman. He drank and
smoked excessively. He reportedly had a
total of eight wives. He was jailed at least
once. He traveled extensively, never staying
in one place for too long.
Charley Patton was "the"
delta blues man of course, his playing was
raw and expressive, a distinctive style,
rather dissident to the other blues players
of the time. A monument! The Dockery farm was the
sawmill and cotton plantation where Charley
and his family lived from 1900 onwards.
* * *
Blues (A song about cocaine,
(spoken: I'm about to go to jail about this
In all a spoon', 'bout that spoon'
The women goin' crazy, every day in their
life 'bout a . . .
It's all I want, in this creation is a . . .
I go home (spoken: wanna fight!) 'bout a . .
Doctor's dyin' (way in Hot Springs !)
just 'bout a . . .
These women goin' crazy every day in their
life 'bout a . . .
Would you kill a man dead? (spoken: yes, I
will!) just 'bout a . . .
Oh babe, I'm a fool about my . . .
(spoken: Don't take me long!) to get my . .
Hey baby, you know I need my . . .
It's mens on Parchman (done lifetime) just
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I ain't long)
'bout my. . .
It's all I want (spoken: honey, in this
creation) is a . . .
I go to bed, get up and wanna fight 'bout a
. . .
(spoken: Look-y here, baby, would you slap
me? Yes I will!) just 'bout a...
(spoken: you know I'm a fool a-)
'bout my . . .
Would you kill a man?
(spoken: Yes I would, you know I'd kill him)
just 'bout a . . .
Most every man (spoken: that you see is)
fool 'bout his . . .
(spoken: You know baby, I need)
that ol' . . .Hey baby,
(spoken: I wanna hit the judge 'bout a)
'bout a . . .
(spoken: Baby, you gonna quit me? Yeah
just 'bout a . . .
It's all I want, baby, this creation is a...
(spoken: look-y here, baby, I'm leavin'
just 'bout a . . .
Hey baby, (spoken: you know I need)
that ol' . . .
(spoken: Don't make me mad, baby!)
'cause I want my . . . Hey baby, I'm a fool
(spoken: Look-y here, honey!)
I need that . . .
Most every man leaves without a...
Sundays' mean (spoken: I know they are)
'bout a . . .
Hey baby, (spoken: I'm
sneakin' around here)
and ain't got me no . . .
Oh, that spoon', hey baby, you know I need
my . . .
* * *
Charlie Patton—Shake it and Break it /
Charlie Patton—Revenue Man Blues' (1934)
Charlie Patton—Going To Move To Alabama
and Bertha Lee—Yellow Bee (1934)
Charlie Patton—Poor Me (1934) /
Charlie Patton—Some These Days I'll Be Gone
Charlie Patton—When Your Way Gets Dark
Charlie Patton—You're Gonna Need
Somebody When You Come to Die
* * * * *
The Slave Ship
By Marcus Rediker
Guarding the Flame of Life
Strange Fruit Lynching Report
John Henrik Clarke—A Great and Mighty Walk
* * * * *
mixed race-isims in the Caribbean—Mariel Brown
Indi Groove, which
carries the amusing descriptive subtitle “It’s BBC meets
MTV under the coconut trees,” presents the interview
“mixed race-isims in the Caribbean_MARIEL Brown.”
Calling it “a must see for all the ‘Curly Heads’, ‘Reds’
and “Douglas,’” the video focuses on Trinidadian
director Mariel Brown’s observations on being of mixed
race and a woman in her profession, specifically in the
Caribbean. She speaks about how perceptions of her
identity shifts according to the standpoints of her
interlocutors and how, at times, this indeterminacy may
Mariel Brown is the
director of the creative and production company Savant,
and has been working in television and print since
1997. She is the managing editor of the art books
“Meiling: Fashion Designer” and “Barbara Jardine:
Goldsmith.” She has produced video features for TV6 and
the WITCO Sports Foundation Awards, and her features and
news reports have been broadcast on CNN and CARIBSCOPE.
Mariel is the creator and producer of “Sancoche” and
“Makin’ Mas”—television series “designed with Caribbean
content for a Caribbean audience.” She is director of
two documentary feature films: The Insatiable Season
(2007)—which was awarded the Audience Choice Award for
Best Documentary at the Trinidad and Tobago Film
Festival—and The Solitary Alchemist (2009).
Filmed in England,
Scotland, and Trinidad with an all-Trinidadian crew, The
Solitary Alchemist is “a moving and intimate portrait of
a life in art.” The film documents the life and work of
artist Barbara Jardine, affectionately known as Barbie,
delving into the artist’s intimate and professional
life. The documentary also explores the transformative
power of art as a way to get through pain.
Season: Making Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago traces
the evolution of one of Brian MacFarlane’s mas bands
from beginning to end. The Caribbean Review of Books
describes it as “a film that, simply and appropriately,
finds joy in the mundane romance of putting a mas
together, from the conceptualising of the band to the
construction of the costumes . . . and yes, in the end,
to wining down to the ground come Carnival Tuesday. . .
This is a highly enjoyable film, not least for the bits
of candour it is so adroitly able to capture.”
* * *
* * *
Life on Mars
By Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection's "lyric brilliance" and "political impulses [that] never falter." A New York Times review stated, "Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we're alone in the universe; it's to accept—or at least endure—the universe's mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith's pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant." Life on Mars follows Smith's 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet's second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.
The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy.
The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.”
Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides
through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles
jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on
this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding
like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for
She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * *
Hopes and Prospects
By Noam Chomsky
In this urgent new book, Noam Chomsky
surveys the dangers and prospects of our
early twenty-first century. Exploring
challenges such as the growing gap
between North and South, American
exceptionalism (including under
President Barack Obama), the fiascos of
Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-Israeli
assault on Gaza, and the recent
financial bailouts, he also sees hope
for the future and a way to move
forward—in the democratic wave in Latin
America and in the global solidarity
movements that suggest "real progress
toward freedom and justice."
Prospects is essential reading for
anyone who is concerned about the
primary challenges still facing the
human race. "This is a classic Chomsky
work: a bonfire of myths and lies,
sophistries and delusions. Noam Chomsky
is an enduring inspiration all over the
world—to millions, I suspect—for the
simple reason that he is a truth-teller
on an epic scale. I salute him." —John
* * *
By Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie
Somebody has to tell the truth sometime, whatever that truth may be. In this, her début full collection, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie offers up a body of work that bears its scars proudly, firm in the knowledge that each is evidence of a wound survived. These are songs of life in all its violent difficulty and beauty; songs of fury, songs of love. 'Karma's Footsteps' brims with things that must be said and turns the volume up, loud, giving silence its last rites. "Ekere Tallie's new work 'Karma's Footsteps' is as fierce with fight songs as it is with love songs. Searing with truths from the modern day world she is unafraid of the twelve foot waves that such honesties always manifest. A poet who "refuses to tiptoe" she enters and exits the page sometimes with short concise imagery, sometimes in the arms of delicate memoir. Her words pull the forgotten among us back into the lightning of our eyes.—Nikky Finney /
Ekere Tallie Table
Her Voice /
Mother Nature: Thoughts on Nourishing Your
Body, Mind, and Spirit During Pregnancy and Beyond www.ekeretallie.com
* * *
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
derives her form and jaunty, deal-with-it
attitude from the blues, an American
tradition that beats back despair with wit,
élan, and grace. Artfully distilled,
Jeffers' musical and forthright lyrics cut
to the chase in their depictions of
self-destructive love, treacherous family
life, and sexual passion turned oppressive
or violent. She calls on her mentors,
soulful musicians such as Dinah Washington,
James Brown, John Coltrane, and Aretha
Franklin, for guidance, then, sustained by
their voices, segues into vivid imaginings
of the inner lives of biblical figures such
as Sarah, Hagar, and Lot's wife; a man about
to be lynched; and a former slave bravely
attending college. And whether she's singing
the "battered blues" or critiquing
Hollywood's depiction of slavery, Jeffers is
questioning the nature and presence of God.—
* * *
Red Clay Suite
By Honorée Fanonne
third book of poems, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
expresses her familiarity with the actual
and imaginary spaces that the American South
occupies in our cultural lexicon. Her two
earlier books of poetry,
Gospel of Barbecue and
Outlandish Blues, use the blues
poetic to explore notions of history and
trauma. Now, in
Red Clay Suite, Jeffers approaches the
southern landscape as utopia and dystopia—a
crossroads of race, gender, and blood. These
poems signal the ending movement of her
crossroads blues and complete the last four
“bars” of a blues song, resting on the
final, and essential, note of resolution and
* * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
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Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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posted 26 August 2010