Poetry of Place: 2019 National Book Festival

>>Good afternoon everyone. That was sort of low
enthusiasm [laughter]. So now is part of the day
where everyone is flagging. So maybe we could have a
round of applause for those who love books, reading,
learning, literacy? [ Applause, Cheering ]>>That’s better. What better way to celebrate all
the hard work it takes to put on this festival than
that round of applause. My name is Anya Creightney,
I’m the program’s manager at the Poetry and Literature
Center, the official home of the U.S. Poet
Laureate, which is housed at the Library of Congress. If you haven’t been down to
the expo floor to learn more about what’s going on at
the library, I encourage you to do so before leaving. Today we are hearing
from two poets, Natasha Trethewey,
and Jenny Xie. The panel will start with a
reading, and will be followed by a moderated conversation. Please keep in mind, Natasha
and Jenny will both sign books between 3:30 and 4:30 in
lines 9 and 10 respectively, so be sure to buy your books,
and get them autographed. Before we get to all the fun, I’ll formally introduce
our writers. Natasha Trethewey served two
terms between 2012 and 2014 as the 19th Poet Laureate
of the United States. She is the author of five poetry
collections, most recently, Monument: Poems New and
Selected, which was long listed for the 2018 National
Book Award. Trethewey is the
recipient of many honors, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Kavay Con [assumed
spelling] and Poetry Prize. The Mississippi Institute
of Arts and Letters Book
Prize, among others. Trethewey was also named
Poet Laureate of Mississippi, the same year she became
the U.S. Poet Laureate. She is the recipient
of fellowships from the National Endowment for
the Arts, today’s stage sponsor, the Guggenheim Foundation,
the Rockefeller Foundation, Harvard University and others. At Northwestern University,
she is the Board of Trustees Professor
of English, at the Weinberg College
of Arts and Sciences. Jenny Xie is the author of
Eye Level, and the recipient of the Walt Whitman Award, and
the Holmes National Poetry Prize from Princeton University. She was also a finalist for
the National Book Award, the Penn Open Book Award,
and the Dillon Thomas Prize. Her chap book, Nowhere
to Arrive, received the Drinking
Word Prize. Her work has appeared in poetry,
the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, and
Tin House, among others. She has been supported by
fellowships from Kundiman, the Breadloaf Writer’s
Conference, poets and writers, among others. Well, why don’t we
get down to the poems? First, we’ll have
Natasha, and then Jenny. Please help me welcome
Natasha Trethewey. [ Applause ]>>Hello, and good afternoon. Thank you all for being here. This is really exciting
to be back in Washington. I’m just going to read
three poems to you. To try to give you a sense
of what I was trying to do in Monument, I was
born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day, when interracial marriage was
illegal there, and in as many as 20 other states in the
nation, rendering me in both law and custom, illegitimate,
persona non grata. In his memoriam to William
Butler Gates, W.H. Odden wrote, “Mad Ireland hurt
you into poetry. Likewise, my nation, my
south, my Mississippi with its brutal history of
racism, violence and oppression, inflicted my first wound. Miscegenation. In 1965, my parents broke
two laws of Mississippi. They went to Ohio to marry,
returned to Mississippi. They crossed the
river into Cincinnati, a city whose name begins
with the sound like sin, the sound of wrong,
miss, in Mississippi. A year later, they
moved to Canada, followed a route the same as
slaves, the train slicing, the white glaze of winter,
leaving Mississippi. Faulkner’s Joe Christmas was
born in winter, like Jesus, given his name for the day
he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown,
in Mississippi. My father was reading War and
Peace when he gave me my name. I was born near Easter,
1966, in Mississippi. When I turned 33, my father
said, “It’s your Jesus year, you’re the same age
he was when he died. It was spring. The hills green in Mississippi. I know more than
Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian
name, though I’m not. It means Christmas child. Even in Mississippi. The shared history of our
nation, our struggles to live up to our creed, our
ongoing struggles to live up to our creed, and my native
geography, are at the heart of this newest collection,
my first retrospective. But the book is framed
by the deeper of my two existential wounds, that when combined,
hurt me into poetry. The need to make art out
of trauma, both national and personal, the need to talk
back, to articulate a calling. Imperatives for carrying
on in the aftermath. Do not hang your head
or clench your fists, when even your friend,
after hearing the story, says my mother would
never put up with that. Fight the urge to
rattle off statistics that more often a
woman who chooses to leave is then murdered. The hundredth time your father
says, “But she hated violence, why would she marry
a guy like that?” Don’t waste your breath
explaining again how abusers wait, are patient, that
they don’t beat you on the first date. Sometimes not even the first
few years of a marriage. Keep an impassive face whenever
you hear Stand By Your Man, and let go your rage when you
recall those words were advice given your mother. Try to forget the first
trial, before she was dead, when the charge was
only attempted murder. Don’t belabor the
thinking or the sentence that allowed her ex-husband’s
release a year later, or the juror who said,
“It’s a domestic issue, they should work
it out themselves.” Just breathe, when after you
read your poems about grief, a woman asks “Do you think
your mother was weak for men?” Learn to ignore subtext. Imagine a thought, cloud above
your head, dark and heavy with the words you cannot
say, let silence reign down. Remember you were told
by your famous professor that you should write
about something else, unburden yourself of the
death of your mother, and just pour your
heart out in the poems. Ask yourself what’s in
your heart, that reliquary, blood locket, and seed bed,
and contend with what it means. The folks saying you learned
from a Korean poet in Seoul, that one does not bury the
mother’s body in the ground, but in the chest, or like you, you carry her corpse
on your back. And this last poem
is after a painting. Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of
Saint Gertrude, from 1763. Articulation. In the legend, St. Gertrude is
called to write after seeing in a vision the sacred
heart of Christ. Cabrera paints her among the
instruments of her faith. Quill, ink well, and open
book, rings on her fingers like Christ’s many wounds. The heart emblazoned
on her chest, the holy infant nestled there,
as if sunk deep in a wound. Against the dark backdrop,
her face is a wafer of light. How not to see in
the saint’s image, my mother’s last portrait. The dark backdrop, her
dress black as a habit, the bridge edge of her Afro
ringing her face with light. And how not to recall her many
wounds, ring finger shattered, her ex-husband’s bullet
finding her temple, lodging where her
last thought lodged. Three weeks gone, my mother
came to me in a dream. Her body whole again, but
for one perfect wound. The singular articulation
of all of them. A hole, center of her
forehead, the size of a wafer, light pouring from it. 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. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Hello everyone. I want to thank Anya for
moderating the discussion to come to the staff of
the Library of Congress for producing a festival of this
scale, and of course to Natasha, whom I’m tremendously honored
to share the stage with. I’ll be reading a few poems from
Eye Level, which is a collection that is thinking through
the intertwining of the seer and the seen, and one way that the book is having these
themes come into focus is through poems about
travel, about living abroad. I lived abroad in
China, in Cambodia, and in Hong Kong,
for a few years. And being in unfamiliar
places made me think about the porousness of the
self, how much we’re enmeshed in the landscape, and of course, of how our tension gets
activated when we are in a place where we have no history. So this first poem comes
out of those years abroad. And it’s in sections. I’ll pause briefly
between the sections. [Foreign words spoken],
dry season. Motorbikes starting. Mattering horns leave
an aftertaste. I mark the distance on a map. This city, a wrist with a wave
from the last, comes sunrise, street dogs will turn their
thoughts to wet foods. It’s not easy to measure
your life and debts. For years now, I’ve been
using the wrong palette. Each year, with its
itchy blue, as the bruise of solitude reaches
its expiration date. Planes and buses, guest
house to guest house. I’ve gotten to where I am
by dint of my poor eyesight. My overreactive motion sickness. Nine p.m., a noise old quarter. Duck porridge and plum wine. Voices outside the door
come to a soft boil. I sweat over plates of pork
dumplings and watery beer. Can you fix this English? The Chinese restaurant owner
asks pushing a menu toward me. The men here chew
toothpicks like uncles on both sides of my family. They talk with their
mouths full. I translate what little I can. It’s embarrassing. Just passing through,
asks his eldest as she turns away to the fan. My guilt goes off then returns
wilder, for whom does it return. All I do is recede from the
view of those at my back. Heeding only the
tug of the interior. It’s not about the
snare of need, though I forget why I came. Perhaps it’s the shallow
sleep in the subtropics, my youthful ambitions wet
and slack, I wring them out. I want to remember this. Though not with wistfulness. I hang my expectations
out on a string. The city warms its tongue
by not saying anything. Wooden spirit houses on the road
to Campot spray painted gold. Capacious enough for
a pot of incense. A rice bowl. One can of Fanta. Noon, white hour. The outlines of bungalows
in the distance impossible to part the seen and unseen,
what’s here, and what isn’t. The language behind this
language cracks open, and my questions follow suit. Months of medium rare insomnia. Wine makes me confuse
elation with clarity. And so I traverse the night
market, my purse empty. There goes the moon. Hardening on a hot skillet. All that is untouchable as
far as the eye can reach. I thought I owned my worries,
but here I was only pulled along by the needle of genetics. But my mother’s tendency to
pry at openings in her life. Calls made from a booth
where one pays by the minute. I failed to mention the
bite of my mistakes, furnish stories with movement. No shades of despair. No, I didn’t travel here
for the lawlessness. I developed an appetite
for elsewhere. Beauty, too, can become
oppressive, if you let it. But that’s only if
you stay long enough. If you stay long enough, the heat’s fingers
will touch everything, and the imprint will sting. I kept twisting my face in
bar bathrooms in wet markets and strangers’ arms, and
the years here they broke through barriers, one by
one, in a kind of line. Men and women came and went, the
city was dry and then it wasn’t. I knelt to the passing time. The next poem I’ll read has
to do with a different kind of relationship to place, and
also a different kind of travel. That of migration. My parents immigrated to
the U.S. in the late 80s, and I followed with my
grandmother in 1990. And this next poem is about how
immigration shifts your point of reference. Your frames of reference. Naturalization. His tongue shorn, my father
confuses snacks for snakes. Kitchen for chicken. It is 1992. Weekends, we paw at cheap
silverware at yard sales. I’m told by mother to keep
our telephone number close. My beaded coin purse closer. I do this. The years are slow to pass. Heavy-footed. Because the visits are frequent, we memorize shame’s
numbing stench. I nurse nosebleeds, run up and
down stairways, chew the wind, such were the times,
all of us near-sighted. Grandmother prays for fortune to keep us around,
and on a short leash. The new country is ill-fitting,
lined with cheap polyester, soiled at the sleeves. I’ll finish with this
one titled, Inwardly. The lightest realizations
arrive in restraint. So the old masters tell us. Not unlike the tug
at the end of a line. We have a language for
what is within reach, but not the mutable form
behind it, or else why write? I’m sick of peering at the ego. No, my ego is tired
of peering at me. It’s she who awakens
me into being. So it goes. The seer, mistaken for the seen. Thank you. [ Applause ]>>Well, thank you both
for a thrilling reading. It was a pleasure to prepare
for this panel and to read both of your beautiful books. Jenny, I’d like to
start with you. You talked a little bit about
the intent behind Eye Level. Is there anything you wanted
to add before you move on? Is there anything you
feel has yet been unsaid about seeing unseeing?>>Oh wow yeah [laughs]. Like I’m saying, a big part
of this book broadly though, it wasn’t always intentional
as I was writing the book, was this preoccupation with
observing and being observed, and how strange it is that
we call people into our line of sight, numerous
times in a day. We make them visible, which
means we make them real, and we give them a form, and
in return, throughout the day, we are made visible and real,
in all these different ways and called out in all these
different ways whenever we’re in someone’s line of sight. That we’re different when
we’re with family or in front of an audience, or we’re
with our best friend.>>Yeah.>>And how those play out in the
landscape of migration, travel, of being a person of
color, and of course, how strange ultimately it is
to move around the world stuck in a single body, when we are
so fluid and more than that.>>Mm-hmm. What is it about observation
that makes us so capable, right? I mean, the book is so
indebted to looking closely. What is it? What is the meat of observation that makes us tell our stories
more attentively or carefully?>>Yeah, I love that. I mean, the power to observe,
to perceive, to see, I mean, that’s a power of knowing how
to order chaos into something, whether it’s a narrative,
or your sense of the world, your understanding of the world. And when we observe,
you’re not just taking in the whole world, as is. That’s impossible, right? I mean, you’re constantly
editing and revising and I see, when I look out into
this room, I will– my eyes will land on certain
things that will be different from Natasha’s, will be
different from yours, Anya’s– and that determines
how I think of myself, how I think of how
the world operates. So it was a tremendous
power, and it also– to be able to observe is to
be able to fix another being, or thing, in your sight, right? With a kind of control,
and that, you know, carries with it immense
responsibility as well.>>Well talking about control,
and really what you read, you wrote, “We have language
for what is within reach. But not the mutable form
behind it, or else, why write?” And it’s true, that does seem
like the job of a poet, right? I’ll grant you that. But it also seems like the
book, you know, read in total, seems to suggest something more. That getting– this getting at what’s underneath
things is a human thing, and it’s almost compulsive,
that it’s a communal act, that we do it together. Does that seem right to you?>>Yeah, I love that you
think of it as communal, because in many ways, this
idea of seeing and perceiving, it’s the ways in which
we’re bound to one another, how we get to be known by
other people, how we know them. Right? And yes, I think the
book is very much invested in the unseen.>>Yeah.>>As well, right? All of that, we are biased not
to see, and that is different from everyone, because we
all have different centers of gravity, and what troubles
us about what doesn’t get seen, what doesn’t get spoken about. So that is that mutable
form, right? Behind what we have a name for, and what we can actually
capture with our eyes.>>Mm-hmm. You know, this panel is in
part about the poetry of place, and the place is so
critical to your book, and you gave a little premiere
when you talked a little bit about some of your poems. What is it about travel that
helps us see more clearly, more expertly, more attentively? What does it raise in us? What hairs does it raise?>>Oh that’s great. I think about that a lot. I think when you are
traveling, that your attention, a different kind of attention
gets activated, right? And part of that, I think,
must be because you don’t– when you’re in an
unfamiliar place, you don’t have a personal
history tethering you there. And so you’re constantly paying
attention to the landscape. You have to figure out how to
situate yourself, how to process and map everything around you. And your brain is very
much in the present when you’re doing that, right? And there’s something so
liberating in that sense that you kind of let the
self fall away, right? There’s a self-forgetfulness I
think that happens in travel, because you’re so preoccupied
with just being and traveling and making your way around. So I think that’s huge. And also so much of what a lot
of us experience in travel is through the senses, right? That things are heightened,
that you take in a lot visually, and where, in some ways, trying
to do that by travel guides, by commercials we see, by
movies, all of the ways in which we learn about a place
before we even set foot in it. And so I think you’re constantly
on alert when you’re traveling.>>I’ve done a lot
of traveling myself, and all of that feels right on, and all the various places
I’ve been it felt very true to my experience. Well, what are the
dangers of seeing, right? They’re– when we travel,
first of all, there’s a lot of permission in who
can travel, and where, and how long, and all of that. But then there’s also this
idea being the voyeur, when you’re somewhere,
you’re watching, right? There’s still this
reflective thing of being seen. But there’s also
this eye, seeing out. So how do we avoid,
and I think one of the answers is in your book. But I’m curious about
how to avoid this gaze. This gaze of being the voyeur.>>Yeah, that’s–
it’s really important. I think because you know,
travel writing has a kind of colonial heritage
to it, right? Who has, like you were saying,
the privilege and the power to go out, the mobility, right? And when you write about your
travels, when you reflect on your travels, you
know, you are doing so from one vantage
point, right? And you have to be careful of
that power, because often times, it can be the only, or one of
the few narratives that goes out in the world, and is
informing other people and readerships about
what a place is like, and who has the moral authority to say this is what
this places is like, this is what the people
living there are like, this is judgment
passed on a whole place, with all its complexity, and
irreducibility, so in many ways, I’m– I think, in writing
some of these poems about living abroad,
I don’t know that I– I didn’t want to be
prescriptive, or have a sense of this is the way you have
to do it, but I was thinking about all of what made
me a little bit uneasy about being this person, even
in someone who lived and worked in a place of feeling a sense of
ownership, and I think I tried to turn some of the
gaze back onto myself, as a person with mobility
and means, who could leave at any time I wanted,
and return to the states, and work in the states. And see that, you know, I was
aiming a very particular lens onto everything that I was
catching through my eyes. I was not a neutral observer.>>Mm-hmm. Even the poem you read to
us has this expectation that you would be able
to translate the menu, and then there’s a moment
where it’s like, well, I can’t quite try–
you know, it’s the rub, between what is expected
and what is real. And so I think you
do it very capably. It’s subtle. But I think very effortless. You know, many of the poems,
especially in section 3, described building
a sort of selfhood. And the speaker here is
ferocious, capable, insistent, but is also really aware
that one is being watched. And so I’m wondering
how you relate to that, in terms of building
a selfhood, right? How do we get this paradox
of being seen out of there? You mentioned this a little bit. But can you relate it
to the idea of selfhood? Building a self?>>Yeah, I mean, when I think
about some of what draws me to the page, and to writing
poetry, it is because in the act of writing, you are allowed
a certain kind of unknowing, a certain kind of
messiness and fluidity that we don’t normally allow
ourselves, or are permitted when we walk out in
the world, right? Whenever I’m out in the world,
there are all these images, and labels and categories
imposed on me, depending on the context, what
room I’m in, who I’m with. And you can feel very
constrained, right? Whether it’s your gender,
your sexuality, your race, your profession, and I
think selfhood, or something that I was interested
in is interiority, which is bound up in selfhood. Being able to get to this place
where you feel very liberated, that you don’t have
to just perform to some idea of yourself. And I think that comes through. I think the relentless
questioning in the poems of always never settling
in some fixed idea of what role you play, or
what self you have to occupy.>>That’s beautiful.>>Yeah. Natasha, I’m eager for
you to join this conversation and again, I want
to congratulate you on a beautiful new
[inaudible], it’s gorgeous. Maybe we can start a little bit
by your approach to the book. How you related to sequencing
the book, and its arc?>>That’s the part that I enjoy
the most, putting it together.>>Really.>>Because these represent poems
from about a 20-year period of my career, and you
know, I’ve always written from the same obsessions.>>Mm-hmm.>>And yet, I noticed that
if I was giving a reading, for example, from one book
that was dedicated to my mother from native guard, people
would come up to me afterwards and say, well, do you ever write
any poems about your father?>>Mm.>>And then, I had a book
dedicated to my father, called Thrall, and I’d read from
that, and people would come up and say do you ever
write any poems about your mother [laughter], it was as if I was somehow
leaving something out.>>Can’t win, yeah.>>Yeah. And I think connected to that was the idea
of why I write. And because my father was a
poet, it was easy for a lot of people to imagine that
that was sort of the conduit. That I became a writer
because my father was a writer, and I really learned to
set the record straight.>>Hmm.>>I wanted to talk about
those existential wounds. The wounds are shared wounds
of history and then the, that personal wound, 35 years
later, has not really abated. That sense of loss. I’ve lived in a state of bereavement my
entire adult life.>>Yeah.>>And I wanted to
shape a collection that, even though it was about
my engagement with history, it was really about
also this very– the way that my personal
history was connected to that. And so the two poems that I
read last are the book ends.>>Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.>>You know? I wanted to sort of begin
with these two poems that say this is the real thing
that made me need to write.>>Yeah.>>That wound of history
was there, but I don’t know that I would have
been really wounded into writing had I also
not lost my mother.>>Yeah.>>And these things
are connected because as I mentioned,
you know that I was born on Confederate memorial day.>>Mm-hmm.>>That my mother was murdered
on Memorial Drive, in the shadow of Stone Mountain, the largest
monument to the Confederacy.>>Yeah.>>These two things have
always been connected, and I’d always been
working toward that. So, in sequencing, I was able
to really make that point.>>Yeah. Yeah.>>I hope I was.>>Yeah.>>The books themselves
starting with domestic work, up to my last collection,
Thrall, are presented in order. But the poems in each book,
the order of the poems changes. The ones that I select. The only book that is there in
its entirety is Native Guard, but the others, often
I began with the poem that ended a collection.>>Hm.>>And so it allowed me to create a different narrative
arc, by starting there, and moving into a collection, the one that followed
it in another way.>>Mm-hm. As you’re talking, I’m thinking both an
opening and closing. And it’s interesting
that you read the opening and the closing just
now in the reading. And I thought, you know, the
opening poem is, in a way, about a misinterpretation or
several misinterpretations, well-meaning sometimes,
of your mother’s story. And then, by the end,
she’s literally shining through with light, right? I mean, it’s just
transcendent, right? So I wonder, you know, it
sounds as if you’re saying yes, that the book helped you
put a course correction on what her story was. What it meant to
you, and of course, her own story, is that right?>>Yes.>>Okay.>>It was a hard thing to do.>>Yeah.>>I’ve been living with that
grief in a much fresher way.>>Yeah.>>Recently, because putting
together that collection at the same time
writing a memoir.>>Yeah.>>In many ways,
about my mother, writing that also helped
me to shape Monument.>>Mm.>>I found that the more
sort of personal fame, if you can call it
fame, for a poet–>>Mm-hmm [laughter].>>The more sort of
my name was out there, the more my back story–
my mother was part of, but she was always
an afterthought, she was always mentioned as,
you know, the murdered woman. As if she were merely a victim.>>That’s right.>>And not the powerful
resilient woman who made me [chokes up].>>That’s right, yeah.>>So I wanted to correct that. I got tired of other
people telling the story.>>Yeah.>>And it also is about
seeing and perceiving. I needed to tell that story.>>Mm-hmm. Well it shone through,
so beautifully, in the way that you selected
the poems, and I came away with I think a different
argument than when reading the
books individually. So it was really palpable. I think you were
quite successful.>>Thank you.>>You know, I think
we’ve talked a little bit about this panel being
the poetry of place, whatever that necessarily means,
but I was reading Monument, and because that was the brief, I was sort of tracking all these
physical locations, you know, and as a way to visit all these
other places in the country, and then I finally gave up,
and I said this is silly, like, what– this is not
the way to do this.>>Yeah.>>And then I thought,
well, what’s the root. Is there one root? I kept turning the whole thing
to pick some newer thread that was going back, you
know, millennia, centuries. You know, centuries
and centuries. Does it feel like
there is a single root, or is that a misnomer? What feels palpable for you?>>Well, you know, I think
for me I take it back to Ralph Ellison’s revision
of Heracleids’ Axiom. Character is fate to
geography is fate.>>Yeah.>>And the geography into which
I was born, the deep south, Mississippi, on Confederate
Memorial Day, it felt like– it is a kind of destiny. When you’re given a
particular history, you inherit the history
of the place. And of the people there. You are both inside of it,
and I think if you’re lucky, you’re able to step outside,
and look at your place in this particular history. So that is very much
the root for me. It’s the lens through which,
you know, I see the rest of the nation in
many ways, you know, Mississippi is certainly
a microcosm for looking at the rest of the ocean.>>Yeah, yeah.>>Our troubles, our wounds,
are the nation’s wounds.>>Yeah. So the business
with seeing, the trouble with this seeing. Once we’ve seen Mississippi,
what do we do? It’s funny, this morning
I was reading excerpts from the 1619 project,
and then again thinking of your book, Monument, right? What to do with these
types of monuments. And then I was thinking of
sort of twin poems in the book. Graveyard Blues, and
then also Monument. And so in one poem, there
is a physical marker, for your mother, and another, there is an absence
of a physical marker. And I thought, well, what to do. What is it that we need? What, in terms of the reckoning
of this country it requires? Do we need these
physical landmarks, as well as abstract
ones, what do you think? Where do you come
down on this idea of monuments, physical
or abstract?>>Oh, I do think
that we need both. I think that there are some
people for a long time believed that the physical monuments,
those stone markers that are in various places, you know,
in little town squares all across the country, with
some text written on them, a lot of people have thought that those things
were sort of lifeless. Because, you know, once you
inscribe it in stone, it’s dead, it’s graven, it’s
perfect, it’s unchanging. I never believed that, because I
believe that any time, you know, someone stops and pays attention
to one of those monuments, if it’s reanimated in the
imagination of the person who is reading it,
engaged in the landscape. If people thought that
before, after Charlottesville, I think it’s impossible to think that these monuments haven’t
been meaning something.>>That’s right.>>And have not been
simply a dead issue.>>Mm-hmm.>>They have lived on, and they
have told us various competing narratives, and I think
that we both need things to mark certain places, to
tell us lest we forget, I mean, I’m thinking about this, because
I was just in Mississippi, last week, and I spent an
afternoon driving around to all of the sites that were connected to Emmett Till’s
abduction and murder. And they have begun to put
markers there, and perhaps many of you know that the monument,
the big marker that they put at the river over the
Tallahatchie, has been shot up.>>Mm.>>Again and again, B.B. guns,
other kinds of guns, people– it, to think that it
angers some people enough that they want to deface it.>>I know.>>But the people at the Emmett
Till Interpretive Center are determined to mark that site, so that we don’t ever
forget Emmett Till, and what he means
to us, then and now.>>Mm-hmm.>>So now they’re going to
get a sign that’s bullet proof [laughter]. And it will be there,
to remind us.>>Good.>>But I do think also
with there are monuments that need contextualization.>>Mm-hmm.>>You know, and I’m
afraid that, you know, when people don’t
know the history of when a monument was
erected, or why it was erected, then they’re missing the story. I think we need to
tell the whole story.>>It sounds like
you’re saying places, somewhat of a place
holder for history.>>Mm-hm, and that we can’t
have one without the other.>>Mm-hmm.>>It would be silly to
have one without the other.>>Well, I’ll ask one more
question of you, Natasha, and then I’ll open it up. You write a lot of poems
that could be described as ekphrastic, that
are dependent on, or in service of
something visual. Can you describe– can you tell
us that relationship for you– what it opens to your mind?>>Mm-hmm. You know, I started
writing poems about art by writing poems
about photographs. Early on, I was interested
in that given frame of image.>>Mm-hm.>>I was interested in it both
as just the pure image itself, and the juxtaposition of
people and objects within, and the kinds of
narratives that are suggested by those interactions. I was also interested in
them as historical artifacts, the way that we can think
about what happened outside of the frame that
is invisible to us. What happened just before or
just after, the way that looking at a photograph, we’re looking
at a moment that is no longer. Sometimes the people
in it are no longer. And there’s ways that
we know something about that historical
moment and the people in it that they didn’t
know at that moment. And because of all of
those opportunities, to get at what is beyond
the frame and behind it, I moved from photographs
to looking at other works of art, mostly paintings. And I think of also
paintings as a way into the particular history
of the time and place, I mean, the art being made is
telling us something about the historical moment.>>Mm-hmm.>>And also is a
kind of framing. What is there, and
what is not there.>>Jenny, I’m going to ask you
a version of the same question, in part, because as I
was reading, I felt oh, this feels painterly,
and in part, because you capture the
scene so capably and precise, and in part what
we were discussing about not being a
voyeur, accurately. So the whole sense
of the thing as much as one can do, of course. But honestly, for
lack of a better word. And then you borrow terms from
the visual arts, for example, diptych, triptych,
so and so forth. So it does– does that, do you
resonate with the visual arts? Does it feel important to you?>>Yeah, absolutely, I think a
lot about poetry as a kind of, through cinematic metaphors,
thinking about film, how the kind of shot that a poem
might open up with, how it jumps to another shot, image
is always something that, ever since I began to be
interested in writing, has always been at the
forefront of my poetics. I think an image can do so much than just what the language
in it is suggesting. Right? And the image contains
so many ideas and thoughts and put you directly in a place
for the reader to perceive, not just to be told what
they’re supposed to be feeling, or thinking or understanding. So yeah, I think a lot about how
the visual figures into a poem.>>Mm-hmm, sounds like you’re
describing a lot of jump cuts, several, over and over.>>Yes, absolutely, that’s a
technique I am in love with.>>Yeah. Natasha, you were
shaking your head in agreeance, what is the job of image?>>Yeah, I think Jenny just said
it perfectly [laughter], yeah. But that’s exactly,
I mean, it’s the– especially the visual
image for me is the one that I cleave most to. I begin there. Even though, you know,
the others are sort of working themselves in. But it is, for me, in writing
a poem, if I can’t see it, if I can’t make that image of
it, that seeing, as you say, in– before animating it, the way that a photograph
can move into being a film.>>Yeah.>>Then I can’t write it. I have to begin there too.>>Mm-hmm. That makes sense.>>So I have a question,
maybe a contemporary question or a current question would
be a better way to say. How do you make sense
of our current moment? I know this is a big
question [laughter], but we’re constantly [laughter], we are constantly
distracted, right? We have a lot of
information, a lot of access, a lot of stimuli, right? And yet, we are also insatiable. We are hungry for what is,
as you say, underneath. So how do you make sense of
those two– the schism, right? This– this overabundance,
and yet this hunger? How do we stay eye level
[laughter] use Chinese book, use your title?>>Wow, can we add another
20 minutes [laughter], no I think about that constantly
because I am always battling with my own attention,
being over-stimulated, just over-saturated
with knowledge, with what I have access
to, through something as simple as a small phone. I think, you know, writing, and specifically
definitely poetry trains us to a different kind
of attention. I mean, think about a poem,
it does not, you know, we have line breaks, right? So you’re not just reading,
and then not just thinking about how a line moves, right? There’s constant stopping
and starting and fragments. The language is so
rich and heightened, and as soon as you
finish a page, you can jump right back
up and revisit again. So it asks of you to train
and inhabit your intention in very different ways to
slow it down, to pay attention to particulars, to the image, to what lies both inside the
frame, and outside of it. It becomes a whole
experience in and of itself. So you know, that
gives me a lot of hope when I feel just
completely scattered.>>Yes.>>And also at the same time
to feel completely filled up with all that there is, but
also starved for something else. A different kind of way
of being, a different kind of knowing, that just
being on your phone won’t, you know, provide you.>>Mm-hmm. Well I like any answer that
basically says poetry, poetry! What do you think, Natasha?>>Well I mean, listening to
Jenny, I was thinking about one of the really important things
that Tracy K. Smith did, our Nation’s outgoing
Poet Laureate. She really encouraged
that kind of slowing down that a poem permits.>>Yes. Mm-hm.>>I think she got a lot
of people to slow down, and to take in poems,
perhaps the evidence of that, I think the NEA has
statistics about this, but–>>They do.>>Since 2012, the readership
for poetry is going up.>>Shot up, mm-hmm.>>I mean, how do you
make sense of that? That’s the evidence,
right there.>>Yeah, people are hungry. Mm-hmm.>>And willing to
slow down with a poem.>>Yeah, yeah. And see themselves reflected. We have limited time, so I want
to end by asking this question, which I often ask, is
what do you listen for, both of you, in poetry. What keeps you attentive and your mind wrapped
as you read others.>>I think I am looking
for new kinds of music. Strange sounds, new
arrangements of language. I think because poetry is
so linguistically wild, and inventive, that
arranging language in new ways lets you listen to
what language can’t capture.>>Yeah.>>The larger ineffable,
the complexity of an issue that you can’t just
pin down with language. But poetry has a way
of bringing you close.>>Mm-hmm, I agree.>>Natasha, how about you?>>You know, when a poem is–
really has me in its grip, sometimes the music
can wash over me.>>Mm-hmm.>>Because I’m so focused
instead on being transported to a very vivid and
particular place through image. That’s what it was like
listening to Jenny.>>Mm-hm.>>To, you know, the seeing
in those poems was so precise.>>Yes, I agree.>>That I could find
myself there.>>Mm-hmm.>>And the music
is washing over me. I think sometimes also as Jenny
said, I may notice something about the different combinations
of sounds that are arresting, before I even can grasp
what else the poem is doing. So it is really some combination
of those two things, though, I know on a more sort of
in the front of my brain that I am really attuned to
the visual, to the precision and the clarity of
the seeing in a poem.>>Yeah, yeah. Thank you, it was an
absolute pleasure. Guys, can we give them a big
round of applause, please. Thank you. [ Applause ]

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