During a stop in Detroit during a nationwide tour contributing to the PBS NewsHour special, “Where Poetry Lives,” Trethewey spoke to a young girl, asking how the girl would address those who don’t like poetry.
“She said, ‘The first thing I would do would be to read them a poem because obviously if they don’t like poetry, they haven’t heard it or they don’t know what it is.’ And I thought ‘She’s the one who could do this job,’” Trethewey said. “Because to her, poetry just was what it is, and it’s wonderful. I think I tear up every time I think of her saying that to me.”
Trethewey, who will hold a public poetry reading in the Genome Sciences Auditorium tonight, is UNC’s inaugural Frank B. Hanes writer-in-residence.
“It’s an opportunity to hear one of the most important poets of our time. She is a major voice in so many of the issues we’re facing as a region and as a country today,” said Susan Irons, senior lecturer in the English department and director of special programs.
Trethewey will read primarily from her 2012 book, “Thrall,” which covers historical ideas within art.
She said her father, a poet, was an inspiration for the book.
“The book is dedicated to him, which is different than being for him,” she said. “This one is to him because it’s more of a conversation I needed to have with him in what I think of as the only language he would really understand.”
Trethewey also said “Thrall” is about the history of racial discrimination in America.
“I wanted to know something about where the deeply ingrained and unexamined notions of racial difference that people hold onto today, how far I could trace them back in literature, in the texts of legal documents, in paintings,” she said. “I wanted to see where the imagery that we maintain in many ways that we think about ‘other,’ and who the ‘other’ is, came from.”
Irons said Trethewey’s incorporation of these themes makes her work important in contemporary culture.
“It’s really provocative, it’s important, and it’s really quite searing at times,” she said.
English professor Randall Kenan said he’s grateful for Trethewey’s presence at UNC.
“We have had U.S. poet laureates before, but I think of all the poet laureates, she is probably the most electric and has the most relevant message of anyone we’ve had in a long time,” Kenan said.
Trethewey said one of the most memorable personal experiences came when a man recognized her in Washington, D.C.
“He passes us by, and then he stops and turns around, and he says, ‘Hey! You’re the poet laureate! You’re doing a heck of a job.’ Who ever recognizes a poet walking down the street?” she said.
“To be told in Washington D.C., when so many people think so many people are not doing a good job, that you’re doing a good job, was great.”