On Wednesday, Oct. 1, the West Chester University Poetry Center was honored to host a craft session and reading by the award-winning, nationally-recognized poet Natasha Trethewey. Her work has been published in numerous poetry reviews and journals, and her collections of poetry including ‘Domestic Work’ (2000) and ‘Bellocq’s Ophelia’ (2002) have earned her critical acclaim. ‘Native Guard’, her most recent work, was the recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Trethewey has also been distinguished with honors such as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment from the Arts and induction into the Fellowship of Southern Writers as its first female African-American member.
Recently, Trethewey was additionally awarded the 2008 Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in poetry and named 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year. In addition to her career as a poet, Natasha Trethewey has held teaching positions at Auburn University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; she is now the Phyllis Wheatley Distinguished Chair and Professor of Poetry at Emory University in Atlanta.
Trethewey is currently the 2008 Poet-in-Residence at the West Chester University Poetry Center. Professor Michael Peich, director of the WCU Poetry Center, explained that Trethewey’s craft lecture, readings, and occupation as the Poet-In-Residence were supported by a Challenge Grant awarded to the Poetry Center by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“What makes the Poet-In-Resident program truly unique is that it’s completely designed for students,” Peich said. He went on to say that the interaction between the poet, WCU students, and the West Chester community is a key component of the program.
According to Peich, other universities that host poets usually have very limited interaction with students; however, at WCU, the poet has direct involvement with students in lectures and workshops. He added that in the future, the Poetry Center hopes that the Poet-in-Resident will have an even greater role in the university’s community by teaching their own course. The Poetry Center will certainly evolve with the beginning of its 2008-2009 programs.
As the Poetry Center’s first event, Natasha Trethewey’s poetry reading exceeded the expectations of those who attended the program. It was during her last visit to WCU that Trethewey found out she had won the Pulitzer Prize for her work; she informed the audience before the reading that she considered her visit a “homecoming” because the WCU community shared the experience of her accomplishment with her.
From her first reading,
Trethewey captivated the audience with selections from her poetry collections. Listeners traveled through time as they witnessed the experiences of the Second Regiment of African-American Civil War soldiers in Native Guard; they gained insight into the struggles of a young woman supporting herself as a prostitute in 1911 New Orleans in Bellocq’s Ophelia. In other poems such as “Miscegenation” and “Graveyard Blues,” Trethewey shared with the audience her personal experiences of growing up biracial in Mississippi and losing her mother at an early age.
The final readings were new pieces and other work that had been left out of previous collections. Trethewey explained that history had always been an inspiration to her, but as she broadened her perspective and evolved as a writer, she found that she had new interests in the colonization periods the Native Americans and the indigenous people of Mexico experienced. The event was closed with a question and answer period that allowed students to gain even more literary insight from the accomplished poet.
At the program’s close, Trethewey stated that her experiences at WCU had been very positive, and that she truly appreciated the warm reception from the community and the enthusiasm of the students she worked with. When asked if she had any advice to young aspiring writers, Trethewey emphasized the importance of a dictionary in the crafting of poetry.
“Looking at words and their various definitions helps deepen the figurative language of a poem,” she replied. “Really fall in love with the dictionary.”
She also explained that she learned about the construction of verse and the power of language by reading the work of many different poets. “You have to find the writers whose poems you love. Live with them, study them carefully,” she said.
With her poignant reading selections and insight from personal experiences, Natasha Trethewey certainly enriched the West Chester University community as they “live” her poetry’s profound impression.
Jen James is a first-year student majoring in English with a minor in music. She can be reached at JJ655874@wcupa.edu.