Let's talk about poetry readings. Some I've endured, much like some of the more odious vegetables, because I know that they're good for me. Some I've endured because I was raised properly, and it would be rude to just get up and leave. But most of the poetry readings I've attended have been on the spectrum from good to fabulous.
Natasha Trethewey was on the outermost end of fabulous. I do not exaggerate when I say I could have stayed in my auditorium seat and listened to her read and talk about her work all night.
She took questions at the end, and I decided to be big and brave. I've often resisted saying anything to my favorite authors after an early encounter with Marge Piercy, where I tried to tell her how much her work meant to me as she fixed me with a piercing stare, and I could just hardly talk, and I walked away feeling like the world's biggest idiot. When I read, I try to remember to smile, especially afterwards, when people come up to talk to me. I'm still painfully aware of how hard it can be to approach an author or any creative type who seems successful in a way that I worry I will never be.
I prefaced my question by saying I was interested in how people put together book length manuscripts, and I asked Natasha Trethewey how she put together her book Native Guard, which seemed so beautifully woven together.
She said that she was working on poems about her experience of growing up the child of a mixed race marriage in the South and on poems about the black soldiers, often forgotten and nameless, of the Civil War. She said she didn't realize at first that her book would also include poems about the loss of her mother.
She recounts an experience where she was running through a cemetery near her Georgia house, and she could almost hear ancient voices talking to her. She talked about the end of the poem, "Graveyard Blues," the couplet that talks about her mother's headstone. She talked about that poem coming to her in a rush, and that the end is a fiction, that she wrote it even as she realized that her mother had no headstone. She realized that her mother was just as lost and nameless as those black, Union soldiers. And thus, she realized how the poems all worked together.
She talked at great length, and I was so grateful for her thoughtful answer. Some grubby part of me wanted something more technical, how she decided on which poem went in which order. But my more noble part of me was just so thrilled to hear her talk about her work in such an honest way.
She talked about miscegenation before she read the poem of that name. She said, "You know what miscegenation is, right?" She cocked her head quizzically and said, "Raise your hands if you don't know the term miscegenation." I looked around, and all the students had their hands in the air. Again, I thought about how much the world has changed, just in my lifetime. Those students all looked like a glorious mix of races to me, and down here in South Florida, race has a whole different dimension than in most parts of the country. But still, even in the most remote parts of the country, it's not illegal for me to marry outside of my race, and in much of the country, the act wouldn't command much interest at all.
So, will gender be next? How will our lives and our relationships be different in the next 44 years?
But I digress.
Here's another thing I noted. One of the students asked Natasha Trethewey how long she had been writing poetry, and she said basically, her whole life. She said that she had published her first book about 20 years after she published her first individual poems.
Again, the grubby part of my mind sprang into action. Let's see, I first published my poems in 1998, so 20 years . . . . I felt so grateful, because there are times when I feel like I'm behind some sort of schedule. Who creates this schedule? I don't know. But I'm always happy to hear about poets who don't just blaze into public awareness some three months after their first poem appears. I like being reminded that it's fine to let the work take time.
When I was younger, say thirty years old, I still felt behind schedule. Sure, I'd earned my Ph.D. and bought a house or two, but I hadn't published my first book yet (I had written some book-length works, but I gave myself no credit for that). I comforted myself by reminding myself that people were living longer these days, so what used to be midlife really wasn't anymore. I wasn't approaching midlife!
Now that I really am, probably, approaching midlife, more than ever, each passing day, I hear time's winged chariot hurrying near (thank you Andrew Marvell). It's good to go to readings like Natasha Trethewey's, to come away inspired, to remember that the point of it all is to write the poems, to see the connections, to work out one's obsessions on the page.
It's also good to remember how fortunate I am, even if I haven't had a book with a spine published yet. I was surrounded by people who had gotten their M.F.A.s, who couldn't find much in the way of jobs. And I'm in a job where I'm feeling happy and fulfilled these days (even though much of my office work this week has consisted of racing to finish tasks before the computer crashed and watching the computer reboot, slowly, oh so slowly). Unlike some poets, who claim that they need to be miserable to write, I do best when I've got a steady paying job that gives me some fulfillment. I did the adjunct thing for awhile, but the uncertainty drove me mad. That and the driving.
It's wonderful to go to a fabulous poetry reading at any point, but it's especially great during a time when I'm having good luck with my own poetry. Natasha Trethewey is as polished in person as she is on the page. If you have the chance to hear her read, grab it!
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