x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Natasha Trethewey finds common ties through culture

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair: The US Poet Laureate, who grew up in a racially hostile community in America's South, says that verse allows people to "hear each other across our differences".

Natasha Trethewey says that growing up in a racially hostile community in America's South continues to inform her work. Rogelio V Solis / AP Photo
Natasha Trethewey says that growing up in a racially hostile community in America's South continues to inform her work. Rogelio V Solis / AP Photo

When Natasha Trethewey was announced as the 19th US Poet Laureate last year, it broke the trend of poets being given the title as a form of lifetime achievement award.

In her career, beginning with her first published collection, Domestic Work, in 2000, Trethewey has achieved numerous milestones including a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2007.

She welcomes the fact that her position will introduce her to a new readership.

"It certainly feels like a validation of my work and that I am encouraged to continue being the poet that I am," she says.

"I feel very fortunate the post does not require me to write differently."

It also means spending more time on the road.

Trethewey says the Poet Laureate role resembles that of a cultural ambassador and her Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) visit will focus on using culture to bring people together.

"It is really about one thing," she explains. "To promote poetry to a wider audience."

Born in Gulfport, Mississippi in 1966, Trethewey is the daughter of interracial parents. Her father is the esteemed poet Eric Trethewey, also a professor of English at Virginia's Hollins University.

Trethewey explains how growing up in a racially hostile community in America's South continues to affect her poetry.

Her works, some of which move from free verse to tightly structured vignettes, also touch upon the historical terrain of the South with its echoes of the American Civil War.

In The Pilgrimage, written from Vicksburg, Mississippi, Trethewey describes how "this whole city is a grave. Every spring - Pilgrimage - the living come to mingle with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders in the long hallways, listen all night to their silence and indifference, relive their dying on the green battlefield."

In Elegy, Trethewey recalls a childhood fishing trip with her father: "I can tell you now that I tried to take it all in, record it for an elegy I'd write - one day - when the time came. Your daughter, I was that ruthless."

As well as using poetry to understand America's complex race relations, Trethewey says verse has a special role to play in exploring matters of the heart.

"The intimacy of a single voice speaking into the silence against the noise of everyday life makes it possible for us to really hear each other across our differences," she says. "It reminds us, in the singularity of the voice speaking about our collective and shared experience, that we are alike."

With that goal in mind, Trethewey looks forward to her first visit to the UAE and to mixing with fellow book lovers.

"I am delighted to be attending the Abu Dhabi book fair," she says.

"I am excited about the opportunity to interact with other readers and writers at such a prominent international gathering."

Meet Natasha Trethewey, the 19th US Poet Laureate, April 24 from 11.30am on the ADIBF discussion sofa.

sasaeed@thenational.ae

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