Natasha Trethewey’s Poetry Dragged a Portfolio Out of Me

The clean lines of her newest, most popular poetry book were so soft in the palms of my hands that it almost felt like a crime when I stained it with my black ballpoint pen. Every word was so meaningful to me that I book marked several poems with big blocks around a whole stanza, or sometimes a whole poem would be sectioned. There are dozens of little brightly colored Post Its hanging on to the edge of pages, like bookmarks for me to find my most favorite lines or poems without having to bend the neat pages back.

I was assigned Natasha Trethewey for a poetry project but if I’m honest, I think Natasha Trethewey assigned me to herself. What I mean by this is that I felt like she took over my life when I was supposed to be investigating hers and learning about her work. Trethewey may as well be a doctor because she brought back to life my poetry. Its an experience reading her work, like sitting the bed of your parents and letting the pillows sink beneath your weight.

Every poem I read in Natasha Trethewey’s book, “Native Guard”, was like a heart to heart with her. There were lines, like “My back to my mother, leaving her where she lay.” in Graveyard Blues shattered me. The whole book left me breathless, almost like she had bloomed a flower of faith in me. A line like that, one that it’s honesty is more important than making the reader feels something artificial, is the line I starve for when I read poetry.

Let’s examine these lines; “For the slave, having a master sharpens / the bend into work, the way the sergeant / moves us now to perfect battalion drill, / dress parade.” Absorb this, understand that these lines came from a poem about the black soldiers who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. This poem, titled Native Guard is basically a journal entry of one of these soldiers. Natasha Trethewey created a book of poetry that one of the Pulitzer Prize and moved my heart back into its rightful poetry state.

She was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2012-2014 because of her poems on racism and family conformation. She changed the face of poetry in the US with her elegiac verse. Natasha Trethewey opened a world for me all about her and the life of African Americans. Her personal experience made me think of every moment in my life similar to hers. Whenever I feel like my poetry is running its head into the sand, I flip through Native Guard and read poems like “Myth,” “At Dusk,” “The Southern Crescent,” and “My Mother Dreams Another Country.” Her poems lift me from whatever rut I’m in and make me feel like my brain is growing bigger and bigger.

Valerie Busto, Creative Non-Fiction/Fiction Editor

Michael Dickman

At the start of my freshman year of high school, I did not know how to write. I knew that I wanted to write, and I knew that I had a lot to say, but I hadn’t quite figured out how to articulate any of it. The poem that changed all of that for me was “Killing Flies” by Michael Dickman. I stumbled upon it by chance, and I was immediately captivated. The opening lines grabbed me and pulled me into a situation that I had never come close to experiencing, but that I somehow felt incredibly connected to

 

“I sit down for dinner

with my dead brother

again

This is the last dream I ever want to have

 Passing the forks

around the table, passing

the knives

 There’s nothing to worry about”

 – Killing Flies

 These lines stunned me, and expertly conveyed grief in just a few words. This poem came at an important time for me, and showed me the way that words can affect people in a way that can’t always be explained. During freshman year, I experienced the loss of purpose that comes with being 15. I was writing all the time for school, but I didn’t really know why. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything important. After reading this poem, I understood why.

As much as I love Dickman’s craft, I can’t say that is specifically what draws me to his work. Rather, it’s the unexplainable feeling I get each time I read one of his pieces.

The most valuable advice I was ever given as a writer was that specificity is your friend. In a lot of my early writing, I was trying to be as general as possible. I wanted to write what I thought people wanted to read, and I tried to be relatable to everyone. I was a 15 year old girl pretending like I lived in New York City, or played guitar in a band, or was struggling through college. In Michael Dickman’s poems, nothing is ever general. The detail is astounding, whether he is talking about his deceased brother, his relationship with his father, or Emily Dickinson.

“You eat the forks,

all the knives, asleep and waiting

on the white tables

 What do you love?

 I love the way our teeth stay long after we’re gone, hanging on

despite worms or fire

I love our stomachs

turning over

the earth”

– My Autopsy

These lines strike me in ways I can’t explain, but the feeling I get when I read his work resonates through me. In a way, this feeling is what I am searching for in what I read, and what I am striving to produce in what I write. Michael Dickman taught me how to speak, how to be honest about the things that it hurts to be honest about. Now, I know that I can find myself, and by extension my writing, inside his poetry.

Meredith Abdelnour, Junior Layout and Design Editor

Robert Hass: A Poetry Wizard

Meditation at Lagunitas, a Robert Hass classic, changed the way I write poetry. Every time I read it, I grasp something I missed before. On my first read, I grasped this emotional connection but to what I wasn’t sure. This idea of making the reader feel something they didn’t know existed within them, nor know how or why, was new and brilliant to me. I soon fell into the trap, which is intentionally set from the beginning, of being so intrigued I had to know how Hass was able to pull this emotional connection out of me, although I barely understood the context of the poem at the time. Once I read the poem a second time, I found evidence in the subtle switch from a macro, philosophical view of the world to another view that was much more micro and personal. The poem starts out, “All of the new thinking is about loss” and from there builds upon human experience which creates the series of lines, “But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread/ the thing her father said that hurt her, what/ she dreamed”. The switch adds layers to what could have been a simple poem.

Typically, my own poems are about human experiences, but I am always looking for ways to make them more dynamic than what is on the surface. I find myself so inspired by Hass’ ability to do this, that I tend to follow suit by building upon the experience with more than the physical. Suddenly salt is describing the faults and impurities in a relationship. Light is no longer so happy, types of light take the form of the darkness and showcase the ugly and unmanageable parts about being in a relationship. I do this in trying to master the flow of reality with other-worldly, macro and micro, that Hass showcases in all his poems.

In the poem Misery and Splendor, Hass uses setting to create juxtaposing images. With lines like, “Morning, maybe it is evening…” and “Outside,/ the day is slowly succeeded by night,/ succeeded by day…”, the reader is imagining conflicting images. One light and beautiful and another dark and long. This allows the reader to feel the confusion, the back and forth, the speaker and the character of the poem feels. The confusion of most human-to-human interactions. Hass also plays with time. In some parts of the poem, there is this splendor in how quickly time is passing by and in others you feel the misery in how slow time is moving. All of this represents the what-could-have-been and what-is central idea of the poem. With all these dynamics, there has to be some kind of grounding factor. In the case of Misery and Splendor Hass contains the dynamics with this everlasting image of light and his use of statements. The quality of light dictates how intensity of a moment. This couple is in this other room where light is “flowing” through it but the statement goes to say, “They feel themselves at the center of a powerful/ and baffled will…”.

Reading any of Robert Hass’ poems, I am put into the mindset of what truly mastered craft is. I find that the more I read of his poems, the more it is natural for me to incorporate his techniques into my own writing and that has gotten me through a lot of rough patches in my writing. Whenever I find a new technique used in a Hass poem, I immediately try to incorporate that same technique into my own poems.

Lex Hamilton, Co-Marketing Editor/Soical Media Editor