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The 'existential wound' that fueled poet Natasha Trethewey's acclaimed career


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: She is one of our most acclaimed poets, a two-time poet laureate and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her collection "Native Guard."

Now Natasha Trethewey has written a memoir of her childhood, the murder of her mother, and her own calling as a poet. The book is published today.

And Jeffrey Brown has this conversation for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Natasha Trethewey: A Daughter's Memoir": "Three weeks gone, my mother came to me in a dream, her body whole again, but for one perfect wound."

Jeffrey Brown: In the poem "Articulation," Natasha Trethewey writes of the violent death of her mother, and how that forever shaped her own life and work.

Natasha Trethewey: "How then could I not answer her life with mine, she who saved me with hers? And how could I not, bathed in the light of her wound, find my calling there?

Jeffrey Brown: Natasha Trethewey was born to a black mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough, and white father, Eric Trethewey. It was 1966 in Mississippi. Mixed raced marriages had only recently been legalized, but Jim Crow customs continued.

In 1972, her parents divorced. Her father, who became a poet and English professor, died in 2014. The young Natasha spent her teenage years in Atlanta, where her mother met and married another man, Joel Grimmette, who would beat, abuse and, in 1985, murder her.

Natasha was 19 at the time. Now, at 54, she's written "Memorial Drive: A Daughter's Memoir."

Natasha Trethewey: I am trying to pay homage to her, but also trying to remember her, trying to get back a little bit of what I buried and tried to forget so many years, because parts of it were painful.

Jeffrey Brown: You write about how, at a certain point, you realize that abuse was taking place, that she was being beaten. And you write about knowing it, not wanting to know it.

Natasha Trethewey: I think that's the kind of way that trauma can divide you. You can be conscious of something, but try so hard to bury it, so as not to feel the pain of it.

I think that's what I was trying to do, trying to live with a smile on my face, as if that weren't the story behind it.

Jeffrey Brown: And then you describe yourself sort of shutting down for years on end, right, kind of losing years, turning away, trying to forget, but, of course, never really forgetting.

Natasha Trethewey: I think that the body does not let you forget. Trauma waits to remind you that it still exists inside in myriad ways. And it kept finding me.

Jeffrey Brown: When she became a public figure, as poet laureate, Natasha saw articles written about her make her mother's killing almost a kind of footnote.

Natasha Trethewey: And I thought, if that was going to continue to happen, that I needed to be the one to tell her story, so that she could be put in her proper context, as the reason that I am a writer.

Jeffrey Brown: Over the years, taking notes on legal pads and in notebooks, she pieced together memories, dreams, police and court documents and more, all incorporated into the book. At one point, she even writes in the second person, addressing her younger self.

Natasha Trethewey: The second person was an attempt to show that kind of split in my mind, trying to divide myself from the self that's experiencing that trauma.

And so I wanted to enact that in the prose by speaking to the self. And that section ends: You know. Look at you. Even now, you're trying to distance yourself from that.

"Ask yourself what's in your heart, that reliquary."

Jeffrey Brown: As her memoir makes clear, there's no distance between the trauma and the writer Natasha became.

Her most recent collection, "Monument<" contains some of her most direct poems about her mother. And we saw it up close, the empathy and focus on how stories impact lives, in the year-long "NewsHour" series "Where Poetry Lives," when our travels with Natasha, then poet laureate, took us to a Brooklyn dementia program. Teenager: I started writing because I didn't have another way to cope.

Jeffrey Brown: A Seattle writing workshop for troubled teens.

Natasha Trethewey: What kinds of things have you written about?

Jeffrey Brown: A Detroit elementary school.

Natasha Trethewey: We all tell ourselves stories about our lives, whether we're writers or not. That's the way that we give meaning and purpose and shape to what seems chaotic, random.

Being able to do that, to tell a story, to tell one's own story, I think, is empowering.

Jeffrey Brown: You write of how, eventually, it's story, it's metaphor. Eventually, it's poetry. Those are the things that helped you come to understand what had happened and how you, in fact, survived.

Natasha Trethewey: The facts sometimes are difficult and banal, but seeing them through the lens of metaphor helped me see that what seemed merely senseless is, if I think about my own calling to be a writer, it redeems what would otherwise be senseless, gives it meaning and purpose.

Jeffrey Brown: So you see a direct line from all of this in becoming the writer that you became?

Natasha Trethewey: Absolutely.

I don't think I'd be a writer without that existential wound. As Lorca pointed out, that in trying to heal the wound that never heals lies the strangeness in an artist's work, that kind of awareness of death that can make something, not just beautiful, but something also meaningful in a different way.

I think, at 19, I was telling myself that I had experienced that wound, and that I would have to make something of it. And, as Rumi said, the wound is the place where the light enters you. And it did.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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