March 26, 2015

History and Memoir

I want to celebrate the poet Natasha Tretheway. Her work inspired me while I wrote Night Train Red Dust (a poetic people's history of my Iron Range). Natasha Trethewey's work comes out of the intersection of history and memoir. The people she writes about had been forgotten by history, nearly erased. Of her book, Native Guard, she said, "I was thinking about the buried history we overlook. Really so much of it is literally beneath us -- the real bones of the people who are beneath us. The Native Guard was a troop of black soldiers who fought for the Union cause during the Civil War. They are a forgotten story in Mississippi and in US history. Here are excerpts from interviews with the poet:

I think I’m someone who has a constant awareness of things that are invisible... I think it in some ways comes from growing up in New Orleans...people either love it or they hate it. People who hate it think it’s seedy. I always think that seediness is just the presence of this history. There are ghosts everywhere around you.
This book won the Pulitzer Prize, but it also holds her own family story about her mother who was murdered by her stepfather. This connects the violence in the political sphere with violence in the domestic sphere. It gives this work a deep emotional heart. The poems are beautifully crafted and haunting.

For a long time I thought the main thing was the Native Guard. When I took my grandmother to a restaurant on the beach on Ship Island, someone heard our conversation and told me this history that I hadn’t learned my whole life. It occurred to me that there was all kinds of historical erasure like that -- things that get left out of the record and are equally important in the history of us as Americans. I started doing research about the guards, and that was what I wanted to write about.
My more personal poems, about me and my place in the South, started to enter into this book. I saw that connection. I started thinking about my place as a southerner, and as biracial, and as a black southerner and what gets left out of history and who’s responsible for remembering, recording, those things that are left out -- the native duty of many of us."
She served two terms as US Poet Laureate, and I look forward to reading her new work, and I hope she will continue to receive accolades and recognition of her important writing.
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