Natasha Trethewey’s Call

Part of the large crowd on Wednesday evening at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival for the reading by the new laureate.

This is how it’s done. In the early 1990s, you go off to graduate school in Massachusetts, though you are from the south.  You study poetry there, because this will help you make sense of your mother’s murder by her second husband, and other matters including being the daughter of an interracial couple. You come under the tutelage of a great teacher at UMass named Margaret Gibson, in whose Subaru you drive off afterward to travel the roads of the poetic life. On instinct, really, you accept an invitation to read in 1997 at the Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford though the audience won’t be big and you don’t even have a book to sell. A man named Rennie McQuilkin, impressed by your reading, asks you to read the following summer at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which he directs, and which draws large audiences. You appear there at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, in the summer of 1998, and the audience loves you, in part because it discovers that in three days you will be married. You are buoyed by this reception and by those you get at the readings that follow. Eventually your first book is published, then another. And then, in 2008, you win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. And in 2012, you get a call on your home phone — the caller ID says Library of Congress. You wonder if you know anybody there and are tempted to ignore the call but you don’t. It is the man whose job it is to call the newly chosen U.S. poet laureate. You think what he tells you is a joke. But he persists. You are to follow the likes of Philip Levine, W.S. Merwin, Donald Hall, Stanley Kunitz, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Kay Ryan. You are told, though, that you can’t breathe a word of it for a month to anyone, until the public announcement is made, even your husband. (But of course you tell him anyway.) This is because the Washington Post and New York Times have exclusive rights to break the news, and the last time a laureate was named, Facebook spread the word. You are told there are certain things you shouldn’t say when the news becomes public, such as what Philip Levine said about Congress being composed of a bunch of vile people. And then the word comes out officially that you will begin your duties this September. And where, exactly, is your first public reading after the announcement? Back at the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, where it all began. On a beautiful July night in 2012, you join others for dinner beforehand in the dining room. A writer named Lary Bloom, whom you met 14 years earlier but understandably can’t recall, asks you to reveal the details of being named U.S. poet laureate. After dinner, you go out into that beautiful garden, where there are about 1,000 people awaiting you. Your old UMass teacher, Margaret Gibson, is at the podium, introducing you, and saying that teachers should treat every student as if they are potential Pulitzer Prize winners. You are overcome with emotion, and, at first, you have to wipe away a tear when you reach the podium yourself. Then you read. And, once again, the Farmington audience issues sighs of recognition and awe. It is enthralled by what you read from your upcoming book, Thrall, and the insights to your father’s life. Thank you, Natasha Trethawey, for showing us how it’s done.

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8 Responses to Natasha Trethewey’s Call

  1. Carolynn says:

    So this is the success which emerges from pain, hard work, learning and God’s gift, the dream.
    Lary, how do you write so gently about the power of a story so strong? You are the master after all, wonderful.

  2. Beautiful story wonderfully told. Thank you, Lary.

  3. this is pure honey 🙂

  4. Donna Lockhart Hodge says:

    Thank you for the pearls.

  5. Donna Orazio says:

    What a wonderful journey,Natasha.
    Thank you for reminding us of something very
    important Lary.

  6. Diane Lipartito says:

    At the poetry reading Wed. night I bought one of Natasha’s books. While waiting in line to have it signed the couple in front of me, who I am guessing may have both been somewhere in their mid to late 50’s, possibly early 60’s, informed her that this was the first poetry reading they had ever attended and the first book of poetry they had ever owned. She was thrilled and told them that the primary job of a Poet Laureate was to introduce new people to poetry all over the country and, hopefully, inspire them to become life-long poetry lovers. I think she is well on their way

  7. Karen Devassy says:

    Very inspirational piece, Lary. Thank you.

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