Last night I had the pleasure of listening to a fine poetry reading by Natasha Tretheway, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2007 for her book Native Guard. She was up in Minnesota as part of the Northwoods Writers Conference, held by the lake on the campus of Bemidji State University.
Born in 1966 in Mississippi to “mixed” parents (her father was white), a elegant woman dressed in blacks and grays and wearing some nifty heels, she reminded me several times of Barack Obama in complexion and manner and use of language. Many of her poems were about, literally or metaphorically, the matter of “mixed blood” and being in the “middle”. Her poems were about mothers, grandmothers, the Civil War, the gulf coast, Vicksburg, visiting the plantation mansions for “living history”–in short, plumbing deeply her personal narrative.
As I listened to her poems, I thought of writer John Champlin Gardner’s point that the best writers often have a “wound” from which their art flows, and which I have mentioned in other blog entries. Certainly Ms. Tretheway’s wound was her dual-culture background, and the many issues surrounding it. I thought of other writers and their “wounds”: Tim O’Brien and the Vietnam War; Harper Lee and black-white tensions; Flannery O’Connor and her intense, pressing Catholicity; Truman Capote and sexual orientation as it bore on his art. The idea of “wound” can likely be recast in more positive language–let’s call it a “well”–because it’s the source from which artistic expression flows, and in the end the writer should honor it, as Ms. Tretheway does in her poems.
Speaking of true sources, Tretheway commented on being at the headwaters of the Mississippi River as opposed to the far end of it in the Mississippi Gulf, a poet’s territory for sure. However, she also spoke to the language and form of poetry during Q and A, using the phrase “the elegant envelope of form”, as she tried to explain how she tries, with each poem, to push beyond the “usual arc of the poem that ends in epiphany.” Most of us would be happy to master that kind of poem (which she writes as well), but her point was hyper-literary and most interesting as she described how certain closed forms let certain poems become more than they would have been, had she gone with the ‘old-fashioned’ (my term) free-verse ending in epiphany. I have to think more about that idea, now, as I read her work–the irony of a poem becoming ‘larger’ within the confines of a closed form.
The lesson here, beyond the necessity to be a reader if you want to be a writer, is to go and hear other writers. You always come away filled with ideas useful to your own work.