Daniel Cross Turner: Looking back, do you see a sense of progression—or perhaps “direction” might be a better term—in your career as a poet, from Domestic Work to Bellocq’s Ophelia to Native Guard?
Natasha Trethewey: Yes I do. I see in my volumes a deepening of my main concerns. In Domestic Work, I began with the historical impulse and the impetus to recover from the margins the stories of those people who often get left out of public histories. In that volume, I explored the life of my maternal grandmother, placing the narratives that she told me, the stories of her life, within larger historical contexts: American history, the history of the American South, the history of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. Her own history is firmly set in those broader cultural moments. Transitioning from there to Bellocq’s Ophelia, we hear again a woman’s story that is infused with a particular time and space. The character Ophelia represents that kind of person who would have been ignored in official public histories, who may not have left records for us to know her individual narrative. I continue to be attentive to matters of historical memory and historical erasure, questions that are central to Native Guard. I can see now that this interest began in simply trying to relate a story about my grandmother’s life.
DCT: Your poems often have strong narrative lines, like a series of vignettes that accumulate value and momentum as we move through them all together. Why not fiction? What does poetry add to the ideas or responses to your work?
NT: What interests me most about poetry is the elegant envelope of form and the kind of density and compression that a poem demands. Because of those demands, I think I get to work more with silences than if I were writing prose. The silences are as big a part in my poems as what is being said. I believe my poems do a lot of work with what is implicit, rather than what is explicit. I just finished writing a work of creative nonfiction, Beyond Katrina, and I noticed that even in prose I have a strong tendency to circle back; repetition is a thing that I make use of constantly. It seems to me to be more natural in poetry and yet it also appears in my other writing.
DCT: Yes, your poems often contain overlapping levels of repetition, in terms of individual words, but also structural repetitions: the re-use of similar poetic forms as well as rhythmic and metrical reiterations. Do these layers of repetitions connect to your concern with memory and history?
NT: Absolutely. The types of forms I use in Native Guard have everything to do with the idea of historical memory and reinscription. I decided that it was necessary to invoke forms that had repetition or refrain in order to reinscribe those things that had been erased or forgotten. The necessity of repeating them, saying it not once, but twice, to make such things become memorable.