Renowned Poet Natasha Trethewey Visits Dickinson Virtually

Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, visited Dickinson College virtually on Tuesday, March 29th, sitting in on a creative writing class and holding a public Q&A as part of this year’s Stellfox Distinguished Writers series.

Professor Adrienne Su, Poet-in-Residence at Dickinson, has high praise for Trethewey’s work in emphasizing how “a good poem is written in a way that feels as if it could not have been written any other way. You can read it over and over again without feeling as if you are repeating the same experience; it yields new layers or interacts with you in a different way each time. Natasha Trethewey is the author of many such poems.”

Trethewey opened her Q&A session by reading aloud the poem “Myth” from her 2007 collection “Native Guard”, before answering questions from students and faculty. Topics varied from a discussion about her creative writing process to her transition from writing poetry to the memoir she recently undertook in her 2020 novel Memorial Drive, and the mixture of memory and history that inspires much of her writing.

She condensed the writing process at its most fundamental level to “getting in touch with what our obsessions are,” saying that these “abiding concerns” (for Trethewey, her mother’s murder and the violently racist history of her home state of Mississippi) are key to the creative process. 

One amusing anecdote that Trethewey shared from her time as Poet Laureate, a position she held from 2012 to 2014, concerned advice given to her by the staff of the Library of Congress. Her predecessor, the late Phillip Levine, had made a remark during his tenure calling Congress “a viper’s den.” Trethewey was warned not to make such controversial public comments, with the caveat that she could say whatever she wanted, so long as she said it through poetry. As Trethewey recounted with a grin, “when you tell a poet that, you open the door for just about everything.”

The Stellfox series has been held at Dickinson since its creation in 2003, connecting renowned writers with the college community. When asked about the impact of meeting world-class poets and authors on students, Professor Su responded, “there is nothing quite like direct interaction for debunking the idea that literature is made only by dead superhumans.” She says, “These conversations can be life-changing.”

Trethewey’s time with Dickinson students was just the first event in this year’s Stellfox series, which will continue April 14th and 15th via Zoom, with the Wu Ming writer’s collective and comic book creators Greg Rucka and Cully Hamner respectively making appearances.