Three Poets Laureate: Lightning Rods for Poetry

Nick Narbutas
From the July/August 2015 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Natasha Trethewey
United States Poet Laureate, 2012­–2014
Mississippi Poet Laureate, 2012–2016

The author of five collections of poetry, most recently Thrall, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2012.

Could you talk about your signature project as the U.S. poet laureate, “Where Poetry Lives?” What were your goals behind that project?
Well, just what the title says: to show how and where poetry lives in the United States. How people are making use of poetry in their everyday lives in order to contend with all sorts of social issues. For example, we went to the juvenile detention facility in Seattle and looked at a program called Pongo there that uses poetry with incarcerated teens, as well as with homeless teens who are often coming to the homeless shelter after being released from a juvenile facility.

Do you feel like the project was a success? Or was there anything you would do differently now?
Oh, I think it was wonderful. We hit such a wide variety of places, from a juvenile detention facility to Harvard Medical School, where the poet [and physician] Rafael Campo believes in teaching poetry to interns because it helps make better doctors. It helps make physicians better able to treat the whole patient—physicians who have more empathy. We also [visited] an MFA program in Los Angeles that has a service component as part of its curriculum where the graduate students go out and find ways to bring poetry into their communities.

Could you talk a bit about your office-hours project? It had been a while since a poet laureate had held office hours before, right?
Right, not since the position was a consultantship, before it became the laureateship [in 1985]. I thought of it because, when I was named poet laureate, one of the things that happened was newspapers called and asked, “What’s your project going to be?” And I doubt that most people are sitting around thinking, “When I get named poet laureate, this is what I’m going to do.” So of course I didn’t have a project in mind, and it occurred to me that since the Library of Congress thinks of the poet laureate position as a “lightning rod” for poetry in America, and that the role that they like to see the laureate take on is to bring poetry to a wider audience, I wanted to figure out how best to do that. And it seemed to me that one of the best ways was to talk to people about the role of poetry in their lives and to see how they imagined poetry could be brought to a wider audience in the country. And so that’s why I decided to open my office and invite people in to talk to me about just that.

And through these meetings, by talking to people about poetry in this way, did you feel like you learned about what was happening in poetry in America?
I did. You know, every few years an article comes out in the Wall Street Journal or other places about how nobody cares about poetry and it doesn’t mean anything. We hear that again and again, and yet that was not the case at all when I met with people, from all walks of life, who came in to talk about what poetry means to them, and how it is important. And so I learned with even more conviction that poetry is alive and well and matters to people in this country.

What kinds of people were coming in to meet with you?
Everybody, really. I had everybody from groups of schoolchildren to senior citizens, writing groups who either got together because of a fellowship program at their church or at their senior community center. I think someone who was a lobbyist in Washington came. I should have made a list of all the different kinds of people, but it was just people who did all sorts of things. Sometimes it was researchers or people writing about poetry, or other poets themselves, or college students. It was a big list of people who were very different. But all lovers of poetry.

You once said in an interview for PBS NewsHour that you considered the role of poet laureate to be as a “cheerleader for poetry.”
[Laughs.] Oh, yes, I did say that, didn’t I?

I was wondering if you could expand a little more on what you meant by that. You also said that part of the role is to be a promoter. How do you feel like you as a poet laureate can promote or be a cheerleader for poetry?
Yeah, you know, that’s one of the funniest things I think I ever said. If only I’d said ‘advocate,’ or ‘ambassador,’ or something more dignified. [Laughs.] But I just had to come on record and say that the University of Georgia, when I was in college, I was head cheerleader. Yes I was. And I think I had been talking to Rob Casper right before I went in to speak with [PBS NewsHour’s] Jeff Brown—Rob is the head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. He is, to use another one of those phrases, like an Energizer bunny. He has so much energy that he gets me kind of hyped. And so we were sitting there, getting excited about what we were going to do about poetry, and then I go in [to the interview] and say, “I want to be a cheerleader for poetry!”

But I guess in some ways it’s not that silly. It’s a very plain way of saying that I have great enthusiasm for poetry and I want to share that with other people in ways that gets them enthusiastic about it, too. That’s what a cheerleader does.

During your tenure as U.S. poet laureate, you had also begun serving your four-year term as the state poet laureate of Mississippi. How do those two roles differ, in your experience?
Well, because I was doing both at the same time, a lot of my focus was drawn to the national level. And so I did the kinds of things that I did on the state level, which are of course ongoing, because I have two more years on my term. I participated in, for example, going to the state house, the capital, in Jackson on the day that they promote the arts, where various arts groups come to talk to the state senators and people in the house about the roles of arts in our lives. And so I was there to participate in that and to promote the arts and poetry in the state of Mississippi. I’ve also done other events, readings and other kinds of visits in the state. Not as much as what I was doing on the national level.

What has been your greatest challenge during your time as poet laureate?
Oh, goodness. That’s a good question. I’ve only had the opportunity to talk about the things that have been the greatest rewards of it. Well, I suppose the greatest challenge for me would have been that, because I wanted to be an advocate and because I wanted to see the role as a public service position, I occupied a very public place for those two terms and I traveled a lot and I did a lot of things and it made it harder for me to have the quiet time that a poet needs to write poems. So my biggest challenge was finding time to also still be a poet—not just an advocate for poetry, but a working poet who could sit down and have some time to write poems.

Nick Narbutas is Poets & Writers Magazine’s Diana and Simon Raab Editorial Fellow.