Natasha Trethewey: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
>> You're having a program a great deal
of details about Natasha Trethewey.
And I'm not gonna repeat them except to acknowledge
that of the highest awards in our field including
for example the poet-- the Pulitzer Prize that's what she received
for her last book, "Native Guard."
And we know her very much as a poet.
And while we hear a poetry today, we're also gonna hear something new
from her as listeners, as readers which is her prose.
Like Natasha Trethewey, I'm a child of Mississippi,
and with considering how best to introduce her work with this focus
on people in a place and time, I naturally thought
of the writers of our state.
I thought that the parallels between her work
and partners regarding the land is a living character.
Wealthy on the courage of the individual,
Margaret Alexander Walker and Richard Wright on the testimony
and even the rage of the submerged voices, but I found an equal linkage
with Robert Frost and their mutual care for the poetic turn,
for the shape note of knowledge revealed in the space
between two lines of suspended revelation.
Robert Frost stated, "Poetry is a way
of remembering what it would impoverish us to forget."
And when I think about what Natasha's achieved here beyond
Katrina, that's what I think of.
This is a stay against that impoverishment.
It is a stay against that forgetting.
She says one line from a quite wonderful poem
that hopefully we might here.
She says, "Bring only what you must carry."
And clearly she assigned herself that hardest of task,
she decided to carry the story of a region, and a tragedy to a region,
and honestly a neglected story of the Mississippi Coast.
And this was a burden she gave herself
and she carried it to the heart.
And it is my honor and privilege to welcome Natasha Trethewey.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you.
Thank you very much.
It's such an honor to be here.
I'm delighted to get to read a little bit of poetry and prose
to you since I am in the poetry and prose tent.
This book is in many ways a hybrid itself.
Because I am a poet, I couldn't help sticking a little poetry
in between all the prose that I was writing.
The book is an attempt to remember my hometown
and the other hometowns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast
that were devastated during hurricane Katrina.
I began writing this book because I used to go
around the country giving readings.
And before I would read from my last book of poems,
I would ask people what they remembered
when they heard the words "hurricane Katrina."
Always they said, New Orleans,
almost never did anyone say the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
The poem is dedicated-- the book is actually dedicated
to my brother Joe.
It tries to trace the rise of tourism and the gaming industry
on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, the kind of development fermented
by the gaming industry, and also the kind
of environmental destruction that went along with it.
It's interwoven with the story about my ancestors who arrived
on the Mississippi Gulf Coast around the same time that the City
of Gulfport got its charter.
And it ends up being a story about my brother and his life
and what happened to him in the wake of the hurricane.
A story that I think becomes emblematic for the kinds
of suffering that people who are often invisible
on the coast have endured.
I'll begin with the poem from the book
that also is the first poem in my last book.
They're both the first poems in both of these books
because the poem underwent a kind of revision after the hurricane.
I had turned this poem in to my editor in March of 2005.
It was a very figurative meditation on the impossibility of going home
or those places we've left behind, not because the places are gone
or forever changed, but because we are.
By August 29th of '05 this poem became literal.
Theories of Time and Space.
You can get there from here, though there's no going home.
Everywhere you go will be somewhere 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 riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches
in a sky threatening rain.
Cross over the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand dumped
on a mangrove swamp - buried 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,
someone will take your picture: the photograph - who you were -
will be waiting when you return.
Somewhere in the post-Katrina damage and disarray
of my grandmother's house, is a photograph of my Joe and me,
our arms around each other's shoulders.
We are at a long-gone nightclub in Gulfport, the Terrace Lounge,
standing before the photographer's airbrushed scrim - a border of dice
and playing cards around us.
Just above our heads the words "HIGH ROLLERS", in cursive, embellished -
if I am remembering this right - with tiny starbursts.
It is 1992, the year the first casino arrived
on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and with it a new language meant
to invoke images of high-stakes players in exclusive poker games,
luxurious suites on the penthouse floor, valet parking,
and expensive cars lined up in a glorious display of excess.
Scenes from a glamorous casino someplace like Monte Carlo
or Las Vegas - nothing like the gravel parking lot outside the club,
the empty lot beyond it, and the small, run-down houses
on either side, each
with a chained-up dog barking into the night.
Not far from the club, beyond the spot
that held the old Gulfport City Limits sign,
is the neighborhood my ancestors settled
in when they arrived on the Gulf Coast.
Roughly five miles north of the beach and downtown,
the place called North Gulfport was once the northernmost settlement
beyond the city.
One of two historically African-American communities
that sprang up along the Mississippi Gulf Coast after emancipation,
North Gulfport has always been a place
where residents have had fewer civic resources than those extended
to other outlying communities.
Isolated and unincorporated,
North Gulfport lacked a basic infrastructure: flooding
and contaminated drinking water were frequent problems.
Although finally incorporated in 1994 - not long after the arrival
of the first casino - many of North Gulfport's streets still lack curbs,
sidewalks, and gutters.
Before the arrival of the casinos brought tourists
down Highway 49 toward the beach, there were few streetlights
and North Gulfport was cast in darkness.
When I was growing up there, North Gulfport was referred to as
"Little Vietnam" because of the perception of crime and depravity
within its borders - as if its denizens were simply a congregation
of the downtrodden.
Even now, it is a place that outsiders assume to be dangerous
or insignificant - run-down and low income, a stark contrast
to the glittering landscape of the post-Katrina beachfront
with its bright lights and neon bouncing off the casinos
onto the water.
Were North Gulfport not along the main thoroughfare,
making it necessary to drive through to get to the beach,
it might be easily forgotten.

Witness, here is North Gulfport - its liquor stores and car washes,
trailers and shotgun shacks propped at the road's edge;
its brick houses hunkered against the weather, anchored to neat,
clipped yards; its streets named for states and presidents -
each one a crossroads of memory, marked with a white obelisk;
its phalanx of church houses - a congregation of bunkers
and masonry brick, chorus of marquees: God is not the author
of fear; without faith we is victims;
sooner or later everybody comes by here.

In the year leading up to landfall, a few miles up highway 49
from the beach, my brother was beginning work
on the shotgun houses.
The boost in tourism brought by the casinos had created a greater need
for housing, North Gulfport had finally been annexed and the strip
of Highway 49 that run right through it,
was undergoing a great deal of development.
>> Where there had been darkness for so many years,
streetlights appeared guiding travelers from the beach
to Interstate 10, pass the Walmart, fast food restaurants, motels,
gas stations, and convenient stores up to the new outlet mall.
My brother's property was right in the middle of it.
Most of it at the crossroads of old Highway 49
and Martin Luther King Boulevard.
For years, the shotgun houses Sonny Dixon had built languish in a state
of disrepair, unpainted sagging, many still occupied
by tenants who'd been there since he was alive, the rest vacant
and sometimes sporadically occupied by drug users.
The remaining tenants had paid the rent now
up to 250 dollars a month, steadily for years.
Ms. Mary in the duplex at the corner of MLK and Arkansas,
Chapman's Fruit Stand, and AD's Bail Bond business
at old Highway 49 and MLK.
Armed with tools and experience, Joe began repairing each one,
putting in new floors and carpet, new countertops and appliances,
brushing on a good coat of paint.
Ms. Mary nearly cried when Joe fixed up her house.
Each day whenever he was outside, someone would drive by,
stop and roll the window down to look.
People kept coming by to say, thank you, he told me, and "Man,
I appreciate what you're doing for the community."
For many long time residents, it must seemed
as if Sonny Dixon had returned in the form of his young nephew.
By the start of the summer of 2005,
nearly all of the houses were renovated and rented.
In a few months with the profit, Joe could get them insured.
Katrina made landfall on August 29th, 2005.
Out in the Gulf, Ship Island was completely submerged.
The storm surged up to 27 feet.
Mississippi officials recorded 238 deaths, tens of thousands
of people were displaced.
Even though she was a renter, Ms. Mary had lived
in her duplex for nearly 30 years.
She survived the storm in it, but before long, she'd have to leave
as the severely damaged structure began to fall down around her.
Hearing her story, I thought of Bessie Smith's Backwater Blues,
when it thunders and lightnings and the wind begins to blow,
there are thousands of people ain't got no place to go.
The kind of repairs her house would need, Joe couldn't afford to do.
He'd spent all his savings on repairing them prior to the storm.
Before the second anniversary of landfall,
the city would demolish the duplex and my brother would be struggling
to pay the taxes on vacant land.
[ Pause ]
>> Watcher, after Katrina, 2005.
"At first, there was nothing to do but watch.
For days, before the trucks arrived, before the work of cleanup,
my brother sat on the stoop and watched.
He watched the ambulances speed by, the police cars,
watched for the looters who'd come each day to siphon gas from the car,
take away the generator, the air conditioner,
whatever there was to be had.
He watched his phone for a signal, watched the sky for signs
of a storm, for rain, so he could wash.
At the church, handing out diapers and water,
he watched the people line up,
watched their faces as they watched his.
And when at last there was work, he got a job,
on the beach, as a watcher.
Behind safety goggles, he watched the sand for bones,
searched for debris that clogged the great machines, riding the prow
of the cleaners, or walking ahead, he watched for carcasses,
chickens mostly, maybe some cats or dogs.
No one said remains.
No one had to.
It was a kind of faith, that watching.
My brother trained his eyes to bear the sharp erasure of sand and glass,
prayed there'd be nothing more to see."
After my initial journeys back home following Katrina,
I stayed away for a long time, tough my grandmother asked again
and again to make the trip.
"I know I can't live there anymore," she'd say.
"I just wanna see it one more time."
For three years, I kept putting her off, saying, "One day."
So that at 92, she could at least hold
on to the hope of getting there.
I never considered the consequences of this tactic,
how it might haunt me later.
When I started going back more often, it was because I had to.
And by then, it was too late.
It occurs to me now that I have been waiting foolishly
for the recovery to be complete.
I had wanted to show her the place she'd spent her life
without the narrative of destruction still inscribed on the landscape.
During the year or so, after the storm,
everything that has been disrupted seemed to be starting to settle,
the narrative of recovery overwriting the devastation.
My grandmother had lost a lot of weight during her ordeal.
But in the nursing home at Atlanta, she started eating again.
My brother too, seemed to on his way to remaking his life.
Even without his rental units, he was earning a living.
There was a good deal of work to be had on the coast,
government contractors were hiring Cruz [phonetic] for the work
of cleanup, and Joe was doing it all.
I remember too, that he called one day, excited about the possibility
of a small business loan to rebuild his rental units, though later,
he'd learn that he did not qualify for assistance.
Like a lot of people in North Gulfport, he wasn't eligible
for the kinds of programs that it helped business
and wealthier citizens get back on their feet.
And it wasn't long before the initial cleanup was done,
though recovery was still a long way off and still hasn't occurred
for some of the poor citizens in the region.
Just more than a year after landfall, the contractors pulled
out of Gulfport and other devastated Mississippi Costal towns,
leaving behind much less work for people struggling
to recover and rebuild their lives.
Even the retail store Joe worked
in part time before the storm did not rebuild on the coast.
The owners relocated the business farther north where they had family.
Not only were jobs leaving the coast,
much low income housing had disappeared too,
and wasn't being rebuilt in the same numbers as before the storm,
thus rendering recovery a lot harder to achieve for many of its citizens.
I can't help thinking too that the photograph we made
in 1992 foreshadowed something else.
Driving through the old neighborhood not long ago,
I remember that my brother and I had waited in line to have it taken.
The line had stretched around the dance floor, and we stood there
with everyone else that night to pay the 5 dollars
to pose beneath those words; high rollers.
It was as if we needed to get close to that image of luck and money
in a place where so many people had so little.
Perhaps, it's better the photograph is lost.
I know the desire to see the images of the past in light
of the present would be too strong, and I'd be tempted to read into it
in our gestures, the way we held onto each other,
what I would not see then, the irony of those words,
how they mock so many of the people who stood beneath them.
[ Pause ]
>> The first letter of my brother writes me during his incarceration
arrives on August 13, 2008, a week after we bury our grandmother.
It comes bearing his name and his inmate number, R0470,
along with a warning stamped in red that the letter is from an inmate,
and that the facility, the county jail where he awaits sentencing,
is not responsible for content.
He is a stoic in the letter as he was at the church,
the day of our grandmother's memorial service.
I know things are hard right now.
It seems like everything comes at one time.
And I relived that morning while thinking of him trying to be strong
in his cell, perhaps, because so much has happened in what seems
like a short amount of time.
I feel that I have gone through it as if I were walking
through was set, an artificial backdrop
onto which our lives have been projected, along with a story
that is already in process and beyond our control.
I think of it now as not unlike the fake town
at the dude ranch I visited when I was a child.
The buildings were rundown, mostly facades,
and I was surprised the first time I saw the actor stage a shootout.
My grandmother and I stood watching, at once part of the scene
because we were there and not, as though we had walked
into some bizarre turn of our lives, and it was playing
out right there before us, and we were unable to stop it.
The morning we buried are grandmother,
the church was like that.
Still in disrepair, the sanctuary unused, the church seemed abandoned.
On the ground level, windows on both sides of the church were boarded up,
and a couple of the high windows up top
that overlooked the balcony were still blown out.
>> I could see birds flying in and out of them.
The church marquee hadn't been repaired,
and most of the glass were-- glass was missing.
A few letters hung on, and oh, on its side,
what looked to be a broken F. Missing its smaller arm,
it resembled the gallows in a child's game of hangman.
Only the small bunker attached to the back
of the church was functional.
It was the place food was served after services,
and it held Sunday school classrooms and a nursery.
When I call to tell the caretaker, Mr. Crouch,
that I was bringing my grandmother's body back to Gulfport
to have her home going ceremony in the church she belonged
to her whole life, he thanked me.
Since the storm, we've lost a lot of our members, he said.
Mount Olive is still struggling to raise the money for repairs
that the insurance company didn't cover.
Most people have moved on to places that are still
in the process of rebuilding.
Mr. Crouch, now in his early 80s, had done this job most of his life.
I had arranged with him to have the doors opened early
so Joe would be able to have some time with our grandmother.
The Sheriff had granted him permission to come,
but only to a private viewing,
and we had to schedule it two hours before anyone was supposed
to arrive for the ceremony.
My husband, Brett, and I arrived early, even before 8 AM,
when officers reschedule to pick him up for transport.
We didn't find anyone there when we arrived.
No police car.
So we decided to circle the block around the building
in case they parked somewhere else, turning the corner
of Jefferson right in front of my grandmother's house
onto the access road that runs parallel to Highway 49, we saw them.
They were near in the intersection of 49 and MLK,
headed in the direction of the jail.
I could see my brother's head just above the top of the back seat.
When I saw the car's blinker come on, I panicked.
It seems funny to me now that in moments like this,
it becomes so easy to ignore the rules of traffic,
of law and order on the road.
I asked Brett to speed up, and he did, flashing the headlights
and honking the horn as he pulled up close behind the police car.
When they stopped, I got out and hurried toward the driver.
Later my brother would tell me
that the two officers have been skeptical,
that because of the condition of the church,
they hadn't believed any kind
of services could be taking place there.
As I stood in the middle of the road,
afraid they were just going take him back, I could see the officer
in the passenger side looking at me, my black dress, and stockings,
and shoes, while the other one chuckled, "We are just going
to get something to drink," he said.
"We'll bring him right back."
We've been told when our request to have Joe there was approved,
that we were not allowed to have any contact with him, and that we'd have
to stay back several feet from where he was.
I didn't even look at him in the car.
When the officers brought him back and parked near the entrance
of the church's auxiliary building, Brett and I stood off
to the side, away from the entrance.
A few people had begun to arrive early,
and I had to tell them they'd have to wait outside in the heat
until the private viewing was over and Joe was gone.
When he emerged from the car, I saw that his ankles were shackled
and his hands were cuffed behind his back.
I hadn't seen him like that before, and I stood there trying not
to register any emotion on my face as I watched him walk
into the church, flanked by the two officers.
In my memory, this happens in slow motion, like a trite scene
from a movie, and I feel like I noticed everything,
particularly the sound of his feet shuffling in the leg restraints,
the birds flying out of the sanctuary and settling in the tree
across the street, the whoosh of the door
as Mr. Crouch opens it to let them in.
When Joe was inside several feet, Brett and I follow,
shutting the door behind us.
The flowers haven't yet arrived, and the low ceilinged room seems sparse,
homely, except for the fuse they've managed to salvage
and the folding chairs where the choir will sit,
the room holds only an organ, a small podium, and wooden chairs
for the pastor and deacons, and the platform bearing the casket.
Before Mr. Crouch shuts the door to the makeshift sanctuary,
I can see Joe standing before the open casket, his head bowed.
When Joe comes out a short while later, his eyes are red,
and I look at him a good long moment trying
to make my face convey everything I am not allowed to say.
Perhaps the officers are moved by all this.
The grandson in restraints,
the run down shirts still wearing the vestiges of Katrina,
the small congregation there to say goodbye to a woman
who wanted nothing more than to come back home.
During the home going ceremony, I can't help thinking of what recovery
and rebuilding means in this little room dressed
up to served as the sanctuary.
My grandmother had made the draperies that hung in the church,
and she'd seen her own daughter eulogize before them.
And yet, here she was, being remembered in a room that served
as church cafeteria, beneath low ceiling tiles,
warped in stains reminders that Katrina isn't over.
As my niece PJ stood at the podium to remember her great grandmother,
I realized just how much she'd lost in this ordeal, and I imagined
that for the rest of her life she remember this time as underscored
by the devastation of Katrina.
She could mark the passing of her great grandmother,
the arrest of her father, the turmoil of these years as aftermath.

[ Applause ]
>> Thank you.
People carry with them the blue prints of memory for a place.
It is not uncommon to hear directions given in terms
of landmarks that are no longer there, turn right at the corner
where the fruit stand used to be, or across the street from the lot
where Ms. Mary used to live.
Some time ago, before the storm, my grandmother and I were shopping
in Gulfport, and we met a friend of her shopping
with her granddaughter too.
The woman introduced the girl to us by her nickname,
then quickly added the child's given name.
My grandmother, a proud woman, not to be outdone, replied, "Well,
Tasha's name is really Nostalgia."
[ Laughter ]
>> Drawing the syllables out to make the names seem more exotic.
I was embarrassed, and immediately corrected her, not anticipating
that the guilt I'd feel later could be worse than my initial chagrin.
Perhaps, she was trying to say, Natalya, the formal version
in Russian to which Natasha is the diminutive.
At both names, Latin root, the idea of nativity
of the birthday of Christ.
They share a prefix with words like natal, national and--
>> -- although it was very poetic prose was that?
>> Yes. You know, it seems too big, I think, in many ways.
Too big for the kind of extended meditation that I wanted to do
about the nature of historical memory, interwoven with the history
of the Mississippi Gulf Coast, as well as my family history.
I had in mind Robert Penn Warren's segregation,
the book that he published two years after the ground decision,
which was very much a travel narrative, where he journeys back
to the south to rethink his own relationship
to the place he comes from.
It was a lovely model for me, a very slender book, but it helped me
to figure out a way to tell this story
that I didn't think I could tell in poetry.
>> I have two questions.
The first one was, would you talk a little bit
about your experience with Cave Canem?
And then the second one is, who are your favorite poets?
>> Okay. Actually, my very first book won the first Cave Canem poetry
prize, which is how it got published,
something I'm deeply grateful for because it allowed,
all of the sudden, an audience, you know.
I thought I would never get a book published.
So it was great that Cave Canem came along
for black poets to send their work to.
I am actually gonna be there as faculty
for the first time next summer.
So it feels like I get to give back, you know, to this place.
I forgot your other quest-oh, my favorite poets.
You know, there are so many, and you know, it's always changing.
But the easiest thing, that I can say, at least about my last book is
that I found a great kinship with Irish poets
because of their relationship to homeland and histories.
So for example, the work of Eavan Boland and Seamus Heaney,
particularly his book, North, the engagement with history,
that sense of psychological exile.
Of course, the first book that my father gave me that I carried
around as my literary bible when I was first writing to write poems,
was Rita Dove's, Thomas and Beulah.
I added to that Yusef Komunyakaa's Magic City.
So if you take Heaney's North, Eavan Boland's In a Time of Violence
and The Lost Land, and Thomas and Beulah and Magic City,
those are my literary ancestors, at least most, immediately.

>> Hi, Ms. Trethewey.
In your book, Native Guard, there are quite a few poems and form,
as well as [inaudible] forms.
And I was wonder if you could comment on--
well, your thoughts on how form can still be relevant for poets today.
'Cause you hear a lot of people still saying, "Oh, you know,
form is for 50 years ago.
You can't use that."
>> Yes, yes.
I have been told that I am old fashioned because of that.
I can't imagine that I could write about some of the difficult things
that I try to write about without the scaffolding of form.
For me, it's a way of imposing a very necessary restraint.
I found that-- I know a lot writers will say this-- that some--
they turned to form for the most difficult material.
But form is, of course, memorable.
I mean, that's not to say that free verse writers haven't invented their
own sort of memorable cadences in poems that we love and recite.
But there is something about the memorable nature of poems
and traditional forms, those cadences, those rhymes,
and in Native Guard, because I was trying to remember,
trying to re-inscribed things that have been forgotten,
I realized that I needed that scaffolding of form to try
to create something memorable.
Thanks. Yes?
>> Hey. I'm from Pascagoula a long time ago--
>> Hey, yeah.
>> And I just wanted to say thank you.
>> Thank you.
>> The same.
I am long time Gulfport native, lived in New Orleans for awhile.
So thank you.
>> Thank you.
Yeah. It's nice to have the hometown folks ya'll, because-- yeah.
You know, people-- I mean, you guys know the story.
I mean, so much of the media did turn to the travesty
of New Orleans with good reason.
But it's a different story.
And the people I talk to in the Mississippi Gulf Coast--
want the nation to remember the difference
between the manmade disaster of New Orleans and the natural disaster
that hit the Gulf Coast and those towns all along the coast,
ground zero, for Hurricane Katrina's landfall devastation.

Well, thank you very much.
[ Applause ]
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[ Silence ]