Pulitzer prize winner talks race, reads poetry

Kevin Lata
Contributing Writer

Natasha Trethewey, former poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winner, recited a selection of her poetry and answered questions about her work on Wednesday in the Commonwealth Ballroom.

She explained that as a bi-racial woman growing up in Mississippi, race played a central part in her development and understanding of the world. Much of her work is a critique of race relations in America.

Her work juxtaposes both the personal and the historical.

Trethewey shows how medicine and racism intermix in Dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on Dissecting the White Negro, 1851.

She claimed it was Thomas Jefferson who was the first to call for a comparative anatomy between the races.

“If you cut the negro open you might then be able to find what Jefferson believed was negro inferiority,”

During her Q&A she mentioned “if someone says you sure do write about race a whole lot.”

“I say I only write about race to the extent that its woven into the fabric of our country,” she said.

She said what brings her to the page is “the deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of racial difference that still manifest themselves in our culture even now,”

Her father is also a poet. He teaches at Hollins University, where Trethewey earned her masters in english and creative writing.

Trethewey has written 4 collections of poetry. Her 2006 Native Guard collection won the Pulitzer Prize.

In her latest collection Thrall, she said she was speaking at a “taxonomy that named me,” she continued,  “there was always kind of a received knowledge I was getting in the language of science, from the language of law and the language of philosophy about my relative position in the larger society.”

Her tenure as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate ended earlier this year. She held the position from 2012 to 2014.

When asked about her most fond memories, teary eyed, she cited the office hours she held at the Library of Congress.

She said there were so many people that wanted to talk to her they scheduled 8 to 10 people at a time. They would come in and just talk about why poetry matters.

During her time as Poet Laureate she hosted a show on PBS entitled “Where Poetry Lives,” where she traveled around the country examining issues that affect Americans through the use of poetry  This position has lead her to places as varied as correctional facilities and Harvard Medical school.

She told the audience about a doctor-poet she met at Harvard that requires all his interns to read poetry because he thinks it makes them more empathetic, which allows them to treat patients better.

VCU’s own Pulitzer Prize-winner of poetry, Claudia Emerson, planned on sharing the stage with Tretheway for the Q&A, but she had a car accident that day and was in the hospital recovering from her injuries. Kathleen Graber and David Wojahn, both creative writing and poetry professors at VCU, took her place.

This reading, organized by the humanities research center, was prefaced by the new center’s director, Richard Godbeer. Godbeer offered a passionate defense of the utility and necessity of humanities in college education.

He was critical of the shift that’s occurred in higher education towards what is useful and economic, and away from the humanities.

“They are not an unnecessary and unaffordable luxury,” Godbeer explained. “They are a necessity.”

Godbeer and the Humanities Research Center have arranged for further speakers and authors to come give readings, lectures, and workshops throughout the semester.

To view the fall 2014 event schedule of the Humanites Research Center visit http://wp.vcu.edu/vcucollege/humanities-research-center-events/

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