Poet inspires writers at conference

Type in “Trethewey” on an iPhone, and autocorrect wants to turn the name into “Truth Way.”

That software glitch expresses the sentiment of poet and keynote speaker Natasha Trethewey’s talk last Friday at the state of the 15th annual Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, held June 10-14 at Land’s End Resort. To the conference attendees, Trethewey told the truth of her way to finding her voice as a writer.

The 19th U.S. Poet Laureate, Trethewey, 50, won the 2000 Cave Canem Prize for “Domestic Work,” awarded to the author of a first book by an African American poet. She also won the Pulitzer in 2007 for her collection, “Native Guard.” Trethewey also has written a memoir, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” and two other poetry collections, “Bellocq’s Ophelia” and “Thrall.” She teaches English and creative writing at Emory University, Atlanta.

Trethewey’s talk, “A Necessary Utterance: Writing, History and Social Justice,” is based on a talk she gave in 2010 for the distinguished faculty lecture series at Emory. She takes as her motif a question posed by George Orwell’s 1946 essay, “Why I Write.”

“It seems to me that all writers, at some point, must respond to a question — posed either by themselves or someone else — in order to answer, as Orwell did,” she said.

Trethewey said she first pondered that question in an application essay when she applied to graduate school. Trethewey said she found resonance in Orwell’s idea that his work became lifeless when it lacked a political purpose. One professor who reviewed her graduation school application and poetry disagreed with that. He said Trethewey was “too concerned with my message to write real poetry,” she said.

“What mistake had I made by revealing that political, social and ethical concerns undergirded my poems and gave me a sense of purpose?” Trethewey said.

Born to a white father and African American mother, raised in the South in the 1960s, she said she had “begun to come face to face with notions of difference and how aspects of my existence were often subjects of curiosity or contempt to many white people I encountered.” Her father, an English professor, told her at an early age she had to be a writer because of her experience, that she had something to say.

“I had no idea what it was,” she said. “It would have been impossible then, as it is now, to say, ‘I am going to sit down and write a poem about social justice,’ though I see now how the hope for and commitment to it pervades every word I write.”

Trethewey noted Orwell’s idea that have four primary motivations to write: ego, aesthetics, historical impulse and political purpose. She said she finds her work balanced between historical impulse and political purpose, “an intersection, a place of overlap wherein I find my dominant motivation, or at least the one that deserves to be followed.”

That history comes from growing up in Mississippi, a place whose Jim Crow laws made her parents’ marriage illegal and her birth illegitimate, she said.

“I write to claim my native land even as it has forsaken me, rendered me an outside. I write so as not to be a foreigner in my homeland,” Trethewey said.

She writes for social justice, she said.

“Social justice depends on social awareness, not blindness, an awareness rooted in both historical knowledge and a contemporary reckoning with the past and its ongoing influence on the present,” Trethewey said.

In her career, Trethewey said she sometimes ran into the attitude that she shouldn’t write from her own experience. One of her professors told her, “Unburden yourself of being black, unburden yourself of the death of your mother and write about the situation in Northern Ireland,” she said.

When some poets are accused of writing from personal experiences, what critics really mean is that when poets considered “other” write about their personal experience, “some readers assume that the poems can’t speak to universal human experience, thus imparting the works with a ‘message’ some readers would rather not encounter,” she said.

Trethewey said she’s often been described as a poet who writes about race.

“I can assure you that not only have I never sat down to write a poem on the theme of race, but also that I don’t consider my poems to be about race at all,” she said.

Trethewey said she writes “because I cannot stand by and say nothing, because I strive to make sense of the world I’ve been given, because the soul sings for justice and the song is poetry,” she said.

To illustrate that idea, Tretheway closed her talk by reading three poems: Terrence Hayes’ “A Postcard from Okemah,” R.T. Smith’s “Dar He” and Jake Adam York’s “The Crowd He Becomes.” Each vividly describes scenes of racist horror: a lynching, the trial of Emmitt Till’s accused murderers and the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham, Ala., church.

“It should go without saying how crucial the motivation of aesthetic enthusiasm is to all these poets,” Trethewey said.

The poems have a message, but the message arises from the power of poetry.

“The enduring rhythms of poetry give voice to the spaces that silence has inhabited and oblivion has ruled,” she said. “Social justice may not be the aim when poets sit down to write, but it can be an outcome.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.