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Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey crusades for her craft

The woman sitting next to me leaned in. “Do you think I could talk to her?”

We watched the poet from a few rows back as she spoke with creative writing faculty and set up for her Q&A session. Over the course of an hour, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey fielded questions about history, her writing process and discussions of race and ethnicity in the classroom.

“Sure,” I replied. “Isn’t that what she’s here for?”

The key task of the Poet Laureate, a title bestowed upon Trethewey this year, is to make the reading and writing of poetry more accessible to a larger audience. Trethewey draws equally from history and from her personal experiences, using human detail and emotion to inform our understanding of our nation’s past. She uses the context of the Civil War or the casta paintings of colonial Mexico for what Eavan Boland, director of the Creative Writing Program, described as “a dialogue of belonging and not belonging” amidst the “complications of race and memory.”

Trethewey credited much of the evolution of her latest book of poems, “Thrall,” to “serendipity.” She promoted poetry as a means for her “to deal with what seems unspeakable,” whether that meant the domestic violence of the Civil War or the domestic violence of her own childhood.  She spoke of writing as a method of “convergence” – a way for her to connect a “quarrel with the nation” to a quarrel within herself.

Prior to being named poet laureate, Trethewey was Poet Laureate of Mississippi, won a Pulitzer for her collection “Native Guard” and holds a professorship at Emory University.

Later this school year, she will take up residence in Washington, D.C. to work on her own projects nationwide and in cooperation with the Library of Congress. At 46, she is among the youngest poets to be appointed to the position.

Tobias Wolff, novelist and professor of English, prompted Trethewey to share with her audience what she planned to do with the “bully pulpit” of U.S. Poet Laureate, arguably one of the most influential positions for a poet to hold in the modern age. Trethewey said that she was looking forward to continuing her exploration of historical memory and erasure, and hoped that she could encourage more people to become involved with poetry, whether or not they liked her as the messenger of such a pursuit.

When asked for a message for the larger Stanford community, Trethewey had one: “Read more poetry!”