Finding poetry in our moment of crisis | Ft. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

January 13, 2021


A Pulitzer Prize winner and former US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey has developed a high-profile platform for her perspective. Although her poetry gained her an initial following, she hopes to spark difficult conversations by putting her personal story in prose. Hers is a journey fraught with turbulence, from grappling with black womanhood in America to losing her most reliable role model for the challenge at just 19. This anxious moment in our history moment give her insights added gravitas in this emotionally charged edition of the podcast.


2:08 A Rudderless Ship

Against the backdrop of a global health crisis, the stratification of society has come into sharp relief. The ongoing vaccine rollout has garnered mixed results in its early stages, with uneven distribution and questionable infrastructure greatly impeding the process. Even more egregious, members of the outgoing administration have been prioritized for inoculation after spending most of 2020 detracting from public safety measures. For Treadway, these latest calamities are characteristic of a regime defined as much by incompetence as corruption.

11:00 Public Confrontation

As much as Trethewey highlights her need to tell her story to others, her new book “Memorial Drive” is also a means of processing her own pain. In her own words, her writing stems from two existential wounds. One is the specter of white supremacy that laid a heavy hand on every aspect of her upbringing and adulthood. The other was the untimely loss of her mother. She credits these enduring challenges with shaping her as a writer, although the reality of facing things she had spent most of her life avoiding took a toll on her spirit.

15:42 Racism Served Raw

As unpalatable as America’s long history of racial inequality may be, the worst aspects of the nation’s Original Sin continue to reverberate today. In her book, Trethewey discusses her birth in a segregated Mississippi hospital on the state’s 100th Confederate Memorial Day. The date itself serves to underscore the oppression that permeated the very oxygen of her age, a future Poet Laureate born in a place where her subjugation was still celebrated. Being born to biracial parents placed an additional layer of otherness onto her formative years.

31:03 Echoing Effects

The murder of Trethewey’s mother forced her to contend with the bloody legacy of race in America as well. A constant inspiration in her daughter’s life, she made her most impactful decision when she elected to leave her abusive relationship before irreversible damage was done. For the poet, her personal tragedy is reflective of the nation’s history, from her birth on a Confederate holiday to her mother’s place of death in the shadow of Stone Mountain. The common thread in these tragic tales is the unresolved wounds of systemic oppression.

32:01 Free to Be

Although much of her work speaks directly to black women, the central truth contained within is relevant to any reader. The most profound sense of freedom Trethewey’s story explores is freedom of fulfilment. When a person feels free to develop in a fashion that suits them alone, they walk without the burden of outside prejudice. As an example, the poet recalls instances where her literary inclinations were ascribed “to her white side” as opposed to her personal passion. This robs individuals of their humanity, and reduces them to flat caricatures.

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