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


After getting the chance to be an audience to Billy Merrell at a previous Elan Alumni reading as well as seeing him at Writer’s Fest in 2016, I’m excited to see what he brings to the table at this year’s Writer’s Fest. Reading through his poems have been an emotional experience, but one that I’ve enjoyed greatly.

It takes a level of vulnerability and acceptance towards opening up to be able to write intimately and personally. This is something that took me three years at Douglas Anderson to finally do, but it was a freeing feeling once I finally opened up. I got the same feeling from reading Billy Merrell’s “Canon,” a poem I felt I had some secret connection to through my existence as a writer, as someone who looks onto the work of others in order to give myself the ability and the might to write on my own. I admire the way Merrell not only brings this connection into the piece but makes it specifically personal to himself through the listing of specific poets.

Another admirable aspect of the poem is its beginning, the very conversational tone it takes on from the start. I think much of this comes with the topic of the poem and how open it is to different types of readers to connect. The topic of the poem, self-acceptance, makes the conversational tone seem intimate. There’s an emotional understanding between speaker and reader.

I really enjoy reading poems saturated with emotions and experiences that feel very personal to the writer or the speaker themselves. That’s what it was like when reading “Cannon,” a saturation. I felt discomforted in the best way possible.

Another powerful poem by Merrell is “Folding Sheets,” from his collection Talking in the Dark. This poem describes the moment between a mother and son in which they carry out an everyday action like holding sheets together, but the closeness that comes with doing so. I’ve recently written a lot of poems concerning the relationship I have with my own parents, so this one caught my attention.

This poem focuses specifically on a single moment. It’s layered with many different images, the same object and action shown in different ways, symbolizing different things. I love that Merrell does this, that he makes this moment so vivid that I picture myself there. One line that stuck out to me the most is “And then the air underneath is undone/like hands just after a prayer.” This line, beautifully unique, felt like a breath of air. This moment feels very traditional and devotional. It shows the love between a mother and her son, how much it can be appreciated through such a simple thing.

Knowing that Billy Merrell comes from Douglas Anderson, that he returns to share the art he has continued to produce with much vigor and talent, is inspiring. It strikes down the fear of losing this passion after leaving a sanctuary such as DA. I look forward to being immersed in the art with all the writers next month.

Kinley Dozier, Senior Managing Editor