Cave Canem Presents: Natasha Trethaway and Metta Sama | The New School

so good evening and welcome I'm Robert pulido director of the new school graduate writing program and it's my great pleasure to welcome you to this special program with Natasha Trethewey in medicine in collaboration with our dear friends at kavi Cano in metasoma we have a poet fiction writer collage artist in SAS Natasha Trethewey has been one of my favorite poets ever since i first read her book Belloc Sophie Leah back in 2002 that of course was her second book so I caught up with her first domestic work the recipient of the first 1999 cavae condom poetry prize and I've been reading her with pleasure and Wonder and admiration ever since their native guard and thrall and I think that's something I can safely say about everybody here to that we've been reading her with pleasure and Wonder and admiration for a long time I want to thank everyone at cafe condom for making tonight possible especially Allison Myers and I wonder if I might have a round of applause for Alice's and now it's my pleasure to welcome hafiza Jeter program and communications coordinator of Cavan condom who will introduce the evening or fully visa hi good evening I want to thank you all for coming for joining us for the New York City launch of thrall bike avocado faculty a United States poet laureate Natasha Trethewey I also like to thank our hosts and co-sponsors the new school for public engagement especially Robert pulido and Lori Lynn Turner of the school of writing and final thanks to our founders the mrs. Giles whiting foundation in the New York State Council on the arts opening the evening for us is kaveh condom fellow metasoma she would be followed by a Natasha Trethewey and we will close the evening with a QA facilitated by meta meta sama is a poet professor activist painter collage artist fiction and essay writer she's the author of south of here new issues press published under the name Lydia Melvin and her work has appeared in numerous journals she received her mfa in creative writing from Western Michigan University and her PhD in English with an emphasis in creative writing at SUNY Binghamton welcome to the stage meta sama good evening it's a great honor and pleasure for me to be here and it's wonderful for me to be back in New York I've moved to Baton Rouge Louisiana and when I was coming back in the cab adjust suddenly thought oh this is the first time I've been home and you know six weeks or something and that was a very strange thing to feel because I typically don't feel like I have a home so you know I can kind of say normally it feels great to be back home now thank you for this invitation so I'm just going to start reading some poems and I really doubt that I'm going to pause in between Medea Medusa the body a myth not the bones I felt blood the stories last weathered vapor child when you were more than cooling ash when were you more acts than the hurt of a splitting tree sometimes it is me I dream liminal bodied unbooked cracked marble street child what haunts your spirit more knowing the acts before it met your neck or knowing the acts would meet you one wound or another I remember the year hearts glass sharp casing recast is sand blemished past I'd already met each of you in previous books look my arms they never belong to me there was a year of burnished fallings of felonious wings cracking it was dusky that year every night every every every night the same waiting the eyes midnight cliffs not yet bound to his promise of blinding and there was me and there was a story of me even now as i sit here wounded worried worded child what can I do but grow tentacled with worry every night every every burnt-out night I wait for some child to dip his foot in a sea to shiver under the eye of my cave child I am cracking cracking cracking Rosa Ingram murders Georgian farmer 1948 mother wife of servant sibling daughter Rosa Woody Guthrie ballot a black history marker a mere footnote Georgia Georgia the whole day through you quiet hain't prick your ring finger on stubborn cotton or you a weapon silver slicing cane flickering in night and insect floating charged wired your loan rage route the rumbling in your children's bellies piercing like engines clamoring through fields tone-deaf mantras pushing you from sleep to labor a sharecropper then slow pay or no pay at all Rosa I wonder strain my ears for a glimpse of your music I wonder if you sing that night did you so I will give you a little bit of background about this foam I was at the virginia center for creative arts and i went to the cemetery in Lynchburg Virginia that has a section that is kind of like this slave section and it was a very strange cemetery I actually enjoy cemeteries quite a bit in part because of their strangeness but this was like the strangest one had ever been to there's a swing in a tree you know for you to just kind of go and swing and their bees so I guess if there's a beekeeper this there and then this cemetery for previously enslaved Africans and so I just kind of thought that all of this collision was very interesting as well as you know just to kind of be in the south to be in Virginia and I'm from the south and to kind of think about what it meant for me growing up in the south amongst these similar kinds of collisions so this poem comes from from being at that cemetery swing at your own risk chicken you are whitened stiff you're sculpted frame frozen your stomach a gourd quarter broken head tilted on a whitewash tree of colored bottles branches stuffed in their necks in the cemetery bees I'm sure squeeze some measure of joy out of their necked are heavy mouths honeybees filled bees pollen bees painted white boxes hand planted flowers every be populating Lynchburg Virginia suck pollinate share no split opposition's no broken necks a six packs leftover polyethylene around a black necked stilts newly strangled neck your hands sometimes welcomed around my neck in the cemetery the man tells me his grandfather's hands sometimes tighten the ropes around weeping necks bitumen stained mouths unnatural disasters slaves buried on one side of the cemetery Confederates flags mark their own headstones necks everything is painted here even the chains on this quaint tree swing come with no memories no branched backs no trees exposing necks lately summer your tongues thick fisted vowels truncated actions abstracted rehearsal of Mon what lies rooted not it beneath your tongues callous muscle psalm and light and light I want always knowledge of Suns burning always bearing weight tongue I want your cleanest light the dirty consonants of fingers you can take fear mistaken is unrequited sharp passion and love sudden gangly gasps delight unpunctual instinct unfurled stamen my mouth when it meets your mouth my pleasure when it needs numb in your mouth I am out I once touched that mouth stroked your singular lines my pleasure when it meets rain and rain and God it is raining dear the winds strong the rain heart the rain again sometimes you're harder still your eyes still still hmm ok so this poem has a blank space that is bracketed in gull wings so I'll just do that so that you know that um that there's a blank space and then sometimes that blank space towards the end of the poem gets filled by only smaller and so instead of doing that and only smaller I'll just do something else but you desired you remind yourself you desired it for so long when you finally got it you always got it you repressed yourself forever wanting you employed desire you took the desired thing in your hand and stroked you pulled it against your mouth and spoke nonsense you named it you choked on this desired thing you spat on wept on located its weakness you exploited exposed exposed back to its original state is shocked face wanted needed weeded out oh look at you split into a larger Vayner wasteful you a smaller you turns into a tightly coiled ? slips into your mouth stumbles on your tongue and neatly dances down your throat you only smaller goes one day you only smaller will implode this outside you this nameless thing that desires the undesired is this it you asked getting what you want is this it you asked getting what you want is this it thank you where's meta ah those were wonderful thanks for coming all the way from Baton Rouge to be part of this thrall is a fire that burns us a fire that illuminates an extraordinary book that deconstructs language at its core languages power to write consciousness its terrors its possibilities we read thralls book of Kostas and understand the oppressors reality is in thrall to a word a phrase mestizo Castillo mulatto turning backwards and symbiotically this taxonomy is in thrall to the terrible enactment of brutality in the hands of the oppressor over and over naming creates the other but words are equally the poet's arsenal / recording of history and everyday acts her acute ways of seeing constitute an excavation a digging beneath an exposure of racist representations the project she sets herself to journey through is painful intensely personal and ultimately a transformational work of art throughout this compelling collection we hear a voice fully realized feel the presence of a penetrating passionate intellect here is a courageous writer facing down history exposing its cruelties in clear-eyed images thralls construction is propulsive propelling its logic and is capable Linda Gregerson describes this relentless progression as serial shocks of historical and personal discovery David Baker as a necessary tale to tell and retell thrall expands and forever deepens our understanding of what poetry can must achieve as you've heard Natasha Trethewey stay hbu collection of poetry domestic work was selected by Rita Dove for the 1999 inaugural kavika no poetry prize for the best first work by an african-american poet she is the author of native guard for which she won the 2007 pulitzer prize for poetry bellick's aphelion named a notable book for 2003 by the American Library Association and beyond Katrina a meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast natasha has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation the Rockefeller Foundation bellagio Study Center the national endowment for the arts and the bunting fellowship program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard she is the state poet laureate of Mississippi and at Emory University the Charles Howard candler professor of english and creative writing what a thrill it is to have Natasha with us tonight please join me in welcoming the nineteenth United States poet laureate Natasha Trethewey thank you thank you very much well thank you all for coming meta is so great to meet you and to have you come from my neck of the woods for me to also meet you in your neck of the woods thank you have a condom for hosting this book launch and the new school and all of you for being here I am going to read then tonight from thrall thrall is a well there's probably nothing I can say better than what Alison just said about it that was a lovely introduction thank you for me it's very much a book about knowledge and the ongoing presence of the past and a meditation on the difficult history of ideas about race across time and space in it I try to examine deeply ingrained and often unexamined notions of inherent difference notions that are manifest in larger public discourses and even in the smaller relations within families by considering historical figures photographs and paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries religious imagery on altarpieces and in narratives dating back to the 13th century I try to make sense of our hair and shared history what we've inherited from the past as well as my personal history with my black mother and white father a story that is quintessentially American elegy for my father I think by now the river must be thick with salmon late August I imagine it as it was that morning drizzle needling the surface missed at the banks like a net settling around us everything damp and shining that morning awkward and heavy in our hip waders we stocked into the current and found our places you upstream a few yards and out far deeper you must remember how the river seeped in over your boots and you grew heavier with that defeat all day I kept turning to watch you how first you mind our guides casting then cast your invisible line slicing the sky between us and later rod in hand how you tried again and again to find that perfect arc flight of an insect skimming the rivers surface perhaps you recall I cast my line and reeled in two small trout we could not keep because I had to release them I confess I thought about the past working the hooks loose the fish writhing in my hands each one slipping away before I could let go I can tell you now that I tried to take it all in record it for an elegy I'd write one day when the time came your daughter I was that ruthless what does it matter if I tell you I learned to be you kept casting your line and when it did not come back empty it was tangled with mine some nights dreaming I step again into the small boat that carried us out and watch the bank receding my back to where I know we are headed this poem takes as its starting point the Mexican Costa paintings that were painted across the 18th century in colonial Mexico to represent the mixed blood unions that were taking place in the colony I was interested in them because not only did they were they made in series of 16 that began with the white Spaniard father but also that the representation of mother father and mixed-race offspring was also represented with the actual taxonomy is created to name these mixed blood children I was also interested in the idea that when you were born a mixed-blood Acosta in colonial Mexico your name was recorded at Birth in the book of Kostas there was an idea that in many ways has come down from there to us even now about indigenous blood that over a few generations can be purified to whiteness but that the taint of African blood is irreversible so you had names like mulatto returning backwards hold yourself in midair and I don't understand you this is after a series by juan Rodriguez Juarez circa 1715 taxonomy one day espanol de indias produce a mestizo the canvas is a leaden sky behind them heavy with words gold letters in scribing an equation of blood this plus this equals this as if a contract with nature or a museum label ethnographic precise see how the father's hand beneath its crown of lace curls around his daughter's head she's nearly fair as he is calidad see it in the brooch at her collar the lace framing her face an infant she is born over the servants left shoulder bound to him by a sling the plain blue cloth nodded at his throat if the father his hand on her skull divine as the fizzy onimous does the mysteries of her character discursive legible on her light flesh in the soft curl of her hair we cannot know it so gentle the eye he turns toward her the mother glancing sideways toward him the scarf on her head white as his face his powdered wig gestures with one hand a shape like the letter C C she seems to say what we have made the servant still a child cranes his neck turns his face up toward all of them he is dark as history origin of the word native the weight of blood a pale mistress on his back heavier every year to de espanol I negra produce a mulatto still the centuries have not dulled the sullenness of the child's expression if there is light inside him it does not shine through the paint that holds his face in profile his domed forehead eyes nearly closed beneath a heavy brow though inside the boy's father stands in his cloak and hat it says if he's just come in or that he's leaving we see him transient rolling a cigarette myopic his eyelids drawn against the child passing before him at the stove the boy's mother contorts watchful her neck twisting on its spine red beads yoked at her throat like a necklace of blood her face so black she nearly disappears into the canvas the dark wall upon which we see the words that name them what should we make of any of this remove the words above their heads put something else in place of the child a table perhaps upon which the man might set his hat or a dog upon which to bestow oh the blessing of his touch and the story changes the boy is a palimpsest of paint layers of color history rendering him that precise shade of in-between before this he was nothing blank canvas before image or word before a last brushstroke fixed him in his place 3 de espanol a mestiza produce a cust ISA how not to see in this gesture the mind of the colony in the mother's arms the child hinged at her womb dark cradle of mixed blood call it Mexico turns toward the father reaching to him as if back to Spain to the promise of blood alchemy three easy steps to purity from a Spaniard and an Indian a mestizo from a mestizo and a Spaniard a Castillo from a Castillo and a Spaniard a Spaniard we see her here one generation away nearly slipping her mother's careful grip for the book of Custer's call it the catalogue of mixed Bloods or the book of not not Spaniard not white but mulatto returning backwards or hold yourself in midair and the Mariska the Lobo the Chino sambo albino and the note a entiendo the I don't understand you guidebook to the colony record of each crossed birth it is the typology of taint of stain blemish sullying spot that which can be purified that which cannot Canaan's black fate how like a dirty joke it seems what do you call that space between the dark geographies of sex call it the taint as in it taint one and it taint the other illicit and yet naming still what is between between her parents the child mulatto returning backwards cannot flip their hold the triptych their bodies make in paint in blood her name written down in the book of Custis all her kind in thrall to a word some of you may already know that my father is also a poet and this next poem makes use of a line from a poem of his it's after a chalk drawing by JH hassle Horst 1864 knowledge whoever she was she comes to us like this lips parted long hair spilling from the table like water from a pitcher nipples drawn out for inspection perhaps to foreshadow the object she'll become a skeleton on a pedestal a row of skulls on a shelf to make a study of the ideal female body for men gather around her she is young and beautiful and drowned a Venus de Medici risen from the sea sleeping as if we could mistake this work for sacrilege the artist in tombs her body in a pyramid of light a temple of science over which the anatomist resides in the service of beauty to know it he lifts a flap of skin beneath her breasts as one might draw back a sheet we will not see his step-by-step parsing a translation Mary or Catherine or Elizabeth to corpus a real a vulva in his hands instruments of the empirical scalpel pincers cold as the room must be cold oh the men in coats trimmed in velvet or fur soft as the down of her pubis now one man is smoking another tilts his head to get a better look yet another at the head of the table peers down as if enthralled his fist on a stack of books in the drawing this is only the first cut a delicate wounding and yet how easily the anatomist blade opens a place in me like a curtain drawn upon a room in which each learning man is my father and I hear again his words I study my crossbreed child misnomer and taxonomy the language of zoology here he is all of them the preoccupied man an artist collector of experience the skeptic angling his head his thoughts tilting toward what I cannot know the marsh allure of knowledge knuckling down a stack of books even the dissector his scalpel in hand like a pen poised above me aimed straight for my heart now this next poem is about the miracle of the black leg and the miracle of the black leg is a myth of a miraculous transplant performed by physician saints the patron saints of Medicine cosmos and Damien involving always a black donor and a white recipient in narratives dating back to the 12th century and pictorial representations dating back to the mid 14th century these representations appear in several Greek narratives a Scottish poem as well as paintings and altarpieces in several countries including Spain Italy Germany Austria Belgium Switzerland France and Portugal one of the things that was a delight for me in what might seem like a mccobb kind of poem is to discover that in the original Greek that little black leg that little piece cut off is the word kama the original with a que miracle of the black leg one always the dark body hewn asunder always one man is healed his sick limb replaced placed in the other man's grave the white leg buried beside the corpse or attached as if it were always there if not for the dark appendage you might miss the story beneath this story what remains each time the myth changes how in one version the doctors harvest the leg from a man for days dead in his tomb at the Church of a martyr or in another desecrate a body fresh in the graveyard at st. Peter in Chains there was buried just today an Ethiopian even now it stays with us when we mean to uncover the truth we dig say unearth two emblematic in paint a signifier of the bodies lacuna the black leg is at once a grafted narrative a redacted line of text and in this scene a dark stocking pulled above the knee here the patient is sleeping his head at rest in his hand beatific he looks as if he'll wake from a dream on the floor beside the bed a dead more hands crossed at the groin the swapped limb white and rotting fused in place and in the corner a question poised as if to speak the syntax of sloughing a snake's curved form it emerges from the mouth of a boy like a tongue slippery and rooted in the body as knowledge for centuries this is how the myth repeats the miracle in words or wood or paint is a record of thought three see how the story changes in one painting the ethiopia body featureless in a coffin so black he has no face in another the patient at the top of the frame seems to ride in pain the black leg grafted to his thigh below him a mirror of suffering the blackamoor his body of fragment arched across the doctors lap as if dying from his wound if not imminence the souls bright anchor blood passed from one to the other what knowledge haunts each body what history what phantom ache one man always low in a grave or on the ground the other up high closer to heaven one man always diseased the other a body in service plundered for both men are alive in be old owes carving in twinned relief they hold the same posture the same pained face each man reaching to touch his left leg the black man on the floor holds his stump above him the doctor restrains the patient's arm as if to prevent him touching the dark amendment of flesh how not to see it the men bound one to the other symbiotic one man rendered expendable the other worthy of this sacrifice in version after version even when the Ethiopian isn't there the leg is a stand in a black modifier against the white body a piece cut off as in the origin of the word comma caesura in a story that's still being written this is after a photograph from the Americans by Robert Frank help 1968 when I see Frank's photograph of a white infant in the dark arms of a woman who must be the maid I think of my mother and the year we spent alone my father at sea the woman stands in profile back against a wall holding her charge their faces side by side the look on the child's face strangely appreciate a tiny furrow in the space between her brows neither of them looks toward the camera nor do they look at each other that year when my mother took me for walks she was mistaken again and again for my maid years later she told me she'd say I was her daughter and each time strangers would stare in disbelief then empty the change from their pockets now I think of the betrayals of flesh how she must have tried to make of her face an inscrutable mask and hold it there as they made their small offerings pressing coins into my hands how like the woman in the photograph she must have seemed carrying me each day white in her arms as if she were a prop a black backdrop the dark foil in this American story this is another Costa painting poem with an epigraph that reads after dlb Nia espanol nace torna a trois from albino and spaniard a return backwards is born anonymous circus 1785 to 1790 torna a trois the unknown artist has rendered the father a painter and so we see him at his work painting a portrait of his wife their dark child watching nearby a servant grinding colors in the corner the woman poses just beyond his canvas and cannot see her likeness her less than mirror image coming to life beneath his hand he has rendered her homely so unlike the woman we see in this scene dressed in late century fashion a chica door mark of beauty in the shape of a crescent moon affixed to her temple if I say his painting is unfinished that he is yet to make her beautiful to match the elegant sweep of her hair the graceful tilt of her head has yet to adorn her dress with lace and trim it is only one way to see it you might see instead that the artist perhaps to show his own skill has made the father a dilettante incapable of capturing his wife's beauty or that he cannot see it his mind's eye reducing her to what he's made as if to reveal the illusion imminent in her flesh if you consider the centuries mythology of the body that a dark spot marked the genitals of anyone with african blood you might see how the black moon on her white face recalls it the Rosita she passes to her child marking him torna a truss if I tell you such terms were born in the Enlightenment hallowed rooms that the wages of empire is myopia you might see the phone fathers vision as desire embodied in paint this rendering of his wife born of need to see himself as architect of truth benevolent patriarch father of uplift ordering his domain and you might see why to understand my father i look again and again at this painting how it is that a man could love and so diminish what he loves you know i think it was perhaps thomas jefferson who first called for in notes on the state of virginia a kind of comparative anatomy the dissection of Negroes in order to determine what he imagined was the essence of racial difference and thus inferiority this is dr. Samuel Adolphus Cartwright on dissecting the white negro 1851 to strip from the flesh the specious skin to weigh in the brainpan seeds of white pepper to find in the body its own diminishment blood deep and definite to measure the heft of lack to make of the work of faith the work of science evidence the Word of God Canaan be the servant of servants thus to know the truth of this this derelict corpus a dark compendium this atavistic assemblage that flatter feet bowed legs a shorter neck so deep the tincture see it we still know white from not calling Mexico 1969 why not make a fiction of the minds fictions I want to say it begins like this the trip a pilgrimage my mother kneeling at the altar of the black virgin enthralled light streaming in a window the Sun at her back holy water in a bowl she must have touched what's left is palimpsest one memory bleeding into another overwriting it how else to explain what remains the sound of water in a basin I know is white the Sun behind her light streaming in her face as if she were already dead blurred as it will become I want to imagine her before the altar rising to meet us my father lifting me toward her outstretched arms what else to make of the mines slick confabulations what comes back is the sun's dazzle on a pool surface light filtered through water closing over my head my mother her body between me and the high Sun a corona of light around her face why not call it a vision what I know is this I was drowning and saw a dark Madonna someone pulled me through the waters bright ceiling and I rose initiate from one life into another I think some of you must be familiar with those phrases like touched by the tarbrush or somebody in the wood pile that suggests the presence of black blood the term mano prieta also refers to that mono prieta the green drapery is like a sheet of water behind us a cascade in the backdrop of the photograph a rushing current that would scatter us carry us each away this is 1969 and I am three still light enough to be nearly the color of my father his armchair is a throne and I am leaning into him propped against his knees his hand draped across my shoulder on the chairs arm my mother looms above me perched at the edge as though she would fall off the camera records her single gesture perhaps to still me she presses my arm with a forefinger makes visible a hypothesis of blood its empire of words the imprint on my body of her lovely dark hand so I'm going to finish up now with I think three more poems sailors in the Canadian Navy officers where the tattoo of the fouled anchor to suggest the hardships that they go through on ship fouled from the next room I hear my father's voice a groan at first a sound so sad I think he must be reliving a catalogue of things lost all the dead come back to stand ringside the glorious body of his youth a light heavyweight fight ready and glistening that beauty I see now in pictures looking into the room I have imagined I'll find him shadowboxing the dark arms and legs twitching as a dog runs in sleep tonight I've had to help him into bed stumbling up the stairs his arm a weight on my shoulders so heavy it nearly brought us down now his distress cracks open the night he is calling my name I could wake him tell him it's only a dream that I am here here is the threshold I do not cross a sliver of light through the doorway finds his tattoo the anchor on his forearm tangled in its chain rotation like the moon that night my father a distant body white and luminous how small I was back then looking up as if from dark earth distant his body white and luminous my father stood in the doorway looking up as if from dark earth I saw him outlined in a scrim of light my father stood in the doorway as if to watch over me as I dreamed when I saw him outlined a scrim of light he was already waning turning to go once he watched over me as I dreamed how small I was back then he was already turning to go waning like the moon that night my father when I was trying to finish this book I knew that because my father had taken me to Monticello for the first time over 20 years ago that in order to finish the book I had to take him back there and so last summer we went to Monticello and noticed how many things had changed one of the specific changes was that whereas there wasn't much talk of Sally Hemings the first time I think after all the amazing work that a net Gordon Reid has done it is now the official position of the foundation that Thomas Jefferson fathered at least two of Sally Hemings children when you walk in now the docent this is one of the first things that the docent says enlightenment in the portrait of Jefferson that hangs at Monticello he is rendered two-toned his forehead white with illumination a lit bulb the rest of his face in shadow darkened as if the artist meant to contrast his bright knowledge it's dark subtext by 1805 when Jefferson set for the portrait he was already linked to an affair with his slave against a backdrop blue and ethereal a wash of paint that seems to hold him in relief Jefferson gazes out across the centuries his lips fixed as if he's just uttered some final word the first time I saw the painting I listened as my father explained the contradictions how Jefferson hated slavery though out of necessity my father said had to own slaves that his moral philosophy meant he could not have fathered those children would have been impossible my father said for years we debated the distance between word and deed need I follow my father from book to book gathering citations listen as he named like a field guide to Virginia each flower and tree and bird as if to prove a man's pursuit of knowledge is greater than his shortcomings the limits of his vision I did not know then the subtext of our story that my father could imagine Jefferson's words may flesh in my flesh the improvement of the blacks in body and mind in the first instance of their mixture with the whites or that my father could believe he'd made me better when I think of this now I see how the past holds us captive it's beautiful ruin etched on the mind's eye my young father a rough outline of the old man he's become needing to show me the better measure of his heart an equation writ large at Monticello that was years ago now we take in how much has changed talk of Sally Hemings someone asking how white was she parsing the fractions as if to name what made her worthy of Jefferson's attentions a near white quadroon mistress not a plain black slave imagine stepping back into the past our guide tells us then and I can't resist whispering to my father this is where we split up I'll head around to the back when he laughs I know he's grateful I've made a joke of it this history that links us white father black daughter even as it renders us other to each other thank you okay so thank you for those poems that was really quite wonderful thank you very damning you know I think the way that southern palms go right there's a lot of damnation that needs to come down like rain so I'm going to ask you a few questions and then we'll open it up for the audience to ask questions and there are microphones that are out there so can everybody hear us doing it can you can you hear me okay great so in each of your poetry collections with the exception of Biloxi Ophelia the block velux Ophelia the historical and kind of public past moves intimately alongside the private personal past and I'm wondering how you see the public past and the private personal intersecting and what's the importance for you of bringing these two worlds into the same kind of house hmm well let me start by saying that I you know even in belek Sophie Leah there is that merging no I was not a prostitute but when you of course write a persona you give to that persona some of your own interior life and so in many ways putting on the mask of a persona has many of you must know allows you actually to tell more truth than you might without that mask you know it's kind of like at Mardi Gras or carnival you get behind a mask and people do all kinds of things they wouldn't have done and so in that way I think that might for me be one of the most intimate deeply personal books I've written even though it's all about a persona simply because i have given to her my own experience of growing up black and biracial in the deep south of being stared at being looked at as a curiosity the way Ophelia is some of the things you know some elements of her relationship to her mother and even to her father come out of some twists of my own experience but of course you know the reason that these things are melded always for me is you know what what the feminist movement told us that the personal is always political it's always historical to we are always historical beings you know sort of caught up with in the continuum of history and I right to make sense of not only myself but my place in history yeah and I think that that is so readily apparent in thrall I was quite taken by the poems like America the Americans knowledge and torna Atreus that you begin with these paintings and pull your family into these paintings and kind of take the paintings out into the world like that was really quite startling for me to see how you did that with such B's thank you I you know some of the poems I think I've mostly the way I've worked before is through juxtaposition you know that I've wanted to have over here's this poem right here and then this one will be next to it and you'll see it but they're the poems you mentioned are ones in which I am trying to do that juxtaposition with in the same poem so that torna I trust you know goes on until the last two lines seemingly about a painting right but of course the discovery of the end is also discovery for me I was compelled by that painting but didn't know why until I saw my father in it at the end of that poem hmm very interesting so you have clearly I think a deep interest in photographs many of your books look at photographs themselves and so could you talk about your attraction to the stilled image and do you see the photograph and the poem as twin arts I do you know I think that the photograph that still is how the image has always worked in my imagination even as a child I would take snapshots of the world around me the places that I saw and record them as imagery like that in the stills and of course the poem allows you to animate those stills the way a film once it gets you know those old films once they start moving and you see the pictures whizzing by but I can't begin a poem without making a photograph of it in my head of creating that kind of image that is there just for a moment which then allows me to think not only of the Nashville photograph but even in my own memory what has been cropped what has been intentionally left out what has been erased because of necessary forgetting what happened just before or after the photograph the image is always that to me yeah yeah you know I think that when you were reading I was thinking about the poem in domestic work where you're with your grandmother at the beach and how that poem itself feels like I mean well part of it you're looking at a snapshot at night you're thinking back on it but when you take that snapshot and breathe life into it that too feels like some of those cropped moments yeah and it felt very in some strange ways like a kind of wpa shot you know which some of those shots in in that book seem to look at as well right and then in thrall you're you know kind of putting that painterly gaze on the family mm-hmm well I think that the the poem that you mentioned from domestic work me night because I actually you know writing it had those two photographs side-by-side and really the poem just began in that kind of comparison not only of the images themselves but also the two historical moments so again it's that same juxtaposition same place same Beach you know 40 years apart or no more than 40 50 some years apart right yeah so when you talk about this risk in there are these cropped images that when you're composing your palms in it there that your cropping these images and thinking about what's theorem was kind of not there was not present you know and of course that's space in between which comes up quite a bit in thrall I'm wondering about this risk of recording actions in the act of you know sharing an intimate moment so that you have a couple of pounds and throw where you know you apologize for for being like you know in this intimate moment with your father and kind of recording it or you and your dad out somewhere and you're both searching for metaphors to encapsulate right the scene you know so I'm wondering like what what that risk is what that tension is well you know I think you know as I say in that first poem there is a ruthlessness to the fact of not simply living in a moment but also thinking about how it will be made use of later on for art and I learned this from My Father you know who my whole life there would be moments where he would stop listening to me pull out a notebook and write it did something down and I thought oh my god what did I just say what is going to be in a poem one day so you know and i think that bothered me in some ways and I and I but I learned it myself too and I learned you know what you learn is that he's though he was the one writing things down so he had the power of story and so not until I would write things down did I have any control over the narrative or could my narrative stand in contention with his vying for you know dominants innocence but also I understand that that's always a tricky thing you know which is why I have a poem that begins and I think this has been my project in many ways all along why not make a fiction of the minds fictions I'm trying to tell you maybe you shouldn't even trust how I remember this to you but the point of doing that is not necessarily to cast myself in this unreliable light but it is indeed to consider and to make use of Yates's idea that of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric of the quarrel with ourselves poetry and so even as I'm accusing my father of certain things I've got to in those poems reckon with my own you know my own culpability as someone who is doing some of the similar trying to tell the truth but knowing that my own Forgetting willed or not is going to always change the story so I think that should we open this up to the audience at this point are there where are the mics oh the mics are there so if you just raise your hand they'll bring a mic to you there are two people over on this side hi um I just wanted to say my personal favorite line in is the way you end the poem aim straight for my heart he I found it to be so utterly personal and at the same time I could almost imagine the two of you sort of with pens at death's facing each other right you know and it and it made me wonder if I if I may ask you so how did it feel when you first realize that you two would follow and be a poet and follow to did you feel conflicted did you feel happy because you know it must have been because of reading all arrested it must have been not I don't imagine it was so easy well I mean it's kind of like what I was saying about the necessity for having a voice having an agency in the telling of the story that image that whole poem is you know including the line from a poem of my father's that he wrote when I was probably four years old the the feeling of being the observed the feeling of being sort of helpless on the table as you know men of knowledge and science are trying to dissect and figure out what you are or who you are I think I grew up feeling like that and so and feeling written by my father that last image is about him being able to write and what that feels like to be written by someone else and not having the power to write the self I think when I made the decision it probably felt like a necessity that I was going to enter the conversation and the things that I was going to say we're going to have a lot of weight to them as well hi I would just wanted to return to the topic of persona real quickly and I was wondering if you could talk about maybe how or even if you feel kind of a responsibility to the persona that you're portraying in different poems and how that affects the writing of it mm-hmm you know for the most for the most part up until a poem that's in this book I always chose or two poems in this book i should say i chose to imagine personas to create possible people out of historical facts i hadn't actually engaged yet in putting words in the mouths of someone who'd lived who'd actually existed and that made me feel that I wasn't ethically I wasn't doing a disservice to an actual human being or their descendants or you know anything and it gave me a sense of trying to to find in the poem the integrity of the voice that integrity comes from not only an attention I think to history but also to attention to my own impulses to what it is I'm giving to the character because I'm creating that persona from my own interior life I feel like it's it's true it's it's deeply true you know writing the personas that are in this book I mean there's there's the Samuel adolphus Cartwright you know Here I am you know here's an actual scientist who was actually dissecting some people and you know i render him a little hysterical but i think that what he was doing actually renders him a little hysterical I mean I you know I try to make use of that kind of scientific language so to be true to the language that would have been in his writing and then the other the other one is a little harder I mean maybe the farther we get from a particular historical figure so i write in the voice of Juan de pareja you know who was the slave of Diego velázquez later a painter himself all I really have of him is the painting that he made and so for me to try to imagine his voice is really to sort of give him my own experience also but what's interesting about trying to create something that could be true about him was that you know there's the painting that the last quest did of him which is called juan de pareja was a you know he did it as an experiment to get ready to paint the Pope and then there's the the portrait that Juan de pareja did in which he inserts himself in the painting the calling of st. Matthew and the the biggest thing that I noticed was that the last quiz is painting of him he had big wide eyes and he looked kind of innocent and you know when we think of what this means to look like this but when he painted himself he looked like this which a narrowing of the eyes always suggest the kind of wisdom a shrewdness and so thus i have a line you know to make myself i looked at how my master saw me then i narrowed my eyes so he knows more than perhaps his master does about who he is what i also give to him is that sense of apprenticeship because he was working in Velazquez a studio he would he with a kind of apprentice watching him paint grinding colors it's not unlike the apprenticeship that I went through as a daughter of a poet watching you know then knowing that I was going to also step in and and create something out of that experience really you know this is always the case you know I found in Juan de pareja I found in the native guard I found in Ophelia people who might help me speak to some of my own experience and that's what a persona is for me but I don't want to simply make mouthpieces of them so they have to have in some ways they're their own agency which is why in Belloc's Ophelia she leaves the book and I don't even know where she goes that she had to have her own life beyond the boxes that everyone had put her in photographers you know her father the poet who wrote about her she had to escape me as well so maybe one more and then we can hear in the front I have about a million questions that I'd like to ask you but I'm going to ask you to what was the word that inspired you for knowledge that was from your father's poem and do you do any research on the on any of these homes they sound very historically researched lots of research yes I mean I find that that's fun to me you know I don't trust what I know only I want to know something else and and and to have my poems undergirded by this knowledge that reaches outside of myself in the poem knowledge it is the line the entire phrase I study my crossbreed child not one word but that whole whole line yeah thank you okay well thank you so much for coming out and sharing this event with us thank you to coffee column and new school for hosting Kazakh you

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