Through rainfall and gray skies, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey transformed the Bill R. Foster ballroom into an intimate, warm space last Tuesday.
Her clear, strong voice rang out as she read selections from her volumes of poetry. She interspersed readings with anecdotes and interludes about what Mississippi means to her as a native of the state, how its dark past intersects with her personal history, what it means to come back to her home state and which poets have inspired her own work. If her poetry is a peek through a cracked door at her life, she swung that door wide open for us Tuesday.
Trethewey’s visit illustrates the reason Mississippi State University hosts writers and scholars as speakers. Their visits break down the walls existing between students and professionals, between the intellectualization school requires and the men and women producing the work we study and cherish.
During the Q&A session following Trethewey’s reading, Trethewey and Catherine Pierce, associate professor of English and co-director of MSU’s creative writing program, rested in armchairs flanking a side-table bearing a small vase of flowers.
If seeing a nationally-honored poet cross her legs and sit back in an armchair was not humbling enough, one of Trethewey’s answers during the Q&A crumbled any barrier between her and the audience.
An attendee asked Trethewey about depictions of dark and light in her poems, which returned Trethewey to the discussion of her mother, who passed away when Trethewey was 19 and who Trethewey depicts and remembers in a myriad of ways in her poetry.
Trethewey’s perfect enunciation broke as she spoke of her mother. The memories and emotions Trethewey held overwhelmed her as she paused and dammed her tears long enough to speak. The audience was respectfully silent as Trethewey responded after a moment and said that it is only through poetry that her mother returns to her.
Trethewey’s response pointed the audience directly to the heart of her work and to any poet or writer’s work. Her poetry is for sharing, but it comes from experiences and stories only understandable, at their core, to her. Memories terrible and beautiful, as Trethewey might call them.
Trethewey reminded us that her elegant, concise poetry pours from messy, emotional moments in life. She attempts to explain the inexplicable.
When poets and writers, scholars, scientists and visual artists visit, they remind us that their work is but a small snapshot of their lives and not a panoramic view. Any work one produces comes from a deep wellspring. A person’s life can never be completely captured through any medium, no matter how hard we try. The relics left behind are but frames sliced from innumerable film reels only we can carry with us.
Thomas Anderson, professor of English and director of undergraduate studies in English, fixated on the intimacy of Trethewey’s reading. He said Trethewey’s humanity during the visit contrasted the somewhat impersonal analyzation of poetry.
“This is an example of how the past is always with us in powerful ways,” he said. “In the end, we can intellectualize poetry and the act of writing all we want, but at that moment for her, it was just a memory of her mother that she was feeling.”
Passionate speakers not only deconstruct barriers between students and professionals but can have an uncanny ability to spread inspiration like a virus.
Pierce, who is a well-reviewed published poet as well as professor, moderated Tuesday’s reading and Q&A session. She said, for her, it’s beneficial to hear a speaker like Trethewey bring thrilling motivation and parcel it out to the audience.
“Any time I have the opportunity to hear a reading or a talk by someone so fiercely smart and so powerfully dedicated to the arts, I feel inspired and energized — as poet, professor, reader and human,” she said.
Jane Walton, junior communication major and Mississippi native, said part of the importance of Trethewey’s visit, for her, was Trethewey’s thoughts on Mississippi. Trethewey’s discussion of the “terrible beauty” of the state included an unflinching look at both the great and despicable moments littered throughout Mississippi’s history. Walton said she found Trethewey’s views particularly engaging.
“She discussed how ‘geography is fate’ and how she has a love-hate relationship with Mississippi, which she views as healthy, as ‘to love a place is to want to see it get better,’” Walton said. “Mississippi is often belittled in the media for a multitude of reasons, and it’s always a bit disheartening, so these sentiments were an interesting take on being a Mississippi native.”
When poets, writers, scholars or scientists visit MSU, we see them without the filter of words, images or numbers on pages. We remember that whoever we look up to, they come from their own failures and successes and stake out their ground, attempting to solve problems they find unsolvable.
Last Tuesday, we gained a glimpse behind the curtain of a poet’s work. The shell of a renowned poet — the awards, the beautiful language, the lauding reviews, the work analyzed in classrooms — splintered and fell to the floor around Trethewey’s armchair.