PC Professor Discusses Craft with US Poet Laureate
Chard deNiord knows a thing or two about great poetry. He’s been teaching it to Providence College students since 1998. Moreover, he’s an acclaimed author of five books and compiled another book of interviews with some of the masters of the art.
Recently, deNiord added another highlight to his already praiseworthy career when he interviewed Natasha Tretheway, the U.S. Poet Laureate, in front of hundreds at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival.
Below, the professor of English discusses how he was chosen to conduct the interview, why he thinks Tretheway is ‘remarkable,’ and why her position as U.S. Poet Laureate is an important one.
Tell me about the Palm Beach Poetry Festival
It’s a week-long poetry festival that occurs every year in January. Miles Coon, a former businessman turned poet, started this festival 10 years ago in Delray, Fla., and it has now grown into one of the premier poetry venues in the country.
It attracts several hundred participants who partake in poetry workshops and attend craft lectures and readings throughout the week. Miles has been very successful in attracting eminent poets, such as Billy Collins, Thomas Lux, Nick Flynn, Linda Gregg, Campbell McGrath, Natasha Tretheway, Gerald Stern, Carolyn Forche, Galway Kinnell, C.K. Williams, Jane Hirshfield, and Robert Pinsky, to serve as faculty at the festival.
How did your interview with Natasha Trethewey come about?
Miles had read my book of interviews that I conducted with seven senior American poets titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, and then called me last fall to ask me to interview Natasha at the festival.
Describe how you approached the interview.
I was confident about doing this interview with Natasha, since I had interviewed so many of the most revered poets of the day. But, I also was nervous about conducting this interview before several hundred people on stage. I had conducted my other interviews in the privacy of my subject’s homes where mistakes and awkward moments often slid by unnoticed. I was a bit anxious about getting off track and hesitating. I prepared pretty thoroughly with the hope that we would end up engaging in more of a conversation than a stilted back-and-forth.
I also was nervous about some of the subject matter of Natasha’s life. Natasha’s mother was murdered by her stepfather in 1985 and her childhood home of North Gulfport, Miss., was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Natasha is also the daughter of a white father and black mother and has written very openly about the subject of “passing” and her at-times strained relationship with her father. So, she’s had a lot of grief and racial stress that she has negotiated brilliantly and lovingly in her life. As a stranger to her, regardless of my reputation as an interviewer, I was wary of the prospect of trespassing on sensitive ground. If I had known how gracious and articulate she was going to be about these tragic events during the interview, I wouldn’t have fretted beforehand.
It’s probably quite an honor to have the opportunity to discuss poetry with the U.S. Poet Laureate. Talk about what you took away from your discussion.
I was struck by how open and eloquent Natasha was in talking about her parents, her destroyed home, her brother, and her tenure as poet laureate. She has discussed all these subjects in her memoir, Beyond Katrina, but I felt she taught the audience a new vocabulary for talking about race, loss, and the history of discrimination in this country — and in the West in general. She was able to convey succinctly, memorably, and kindly her own personal narrative as the daughter of mixed race parents who grew up in the deep South and then pursued her dream of writing as a young adult at Hollins University and the University of Massachusetts. As a poet, I came away with great admiration for Natasha’s remarkable career as a poet of witness, as well as the finely crafted, often formal expression of her lyrical narratives. In each of her books, she has focused on the heroic but often overlooked legacies of African Americans and mixed race people. Primarily in the South, but also in Europe and Central America.
The duties of a Poet Laureate are pretty interesting, especially to someone like you — a successful poet and author. Why is this an important job?
The Poet Laureate creates his or her own legacy and job description. Natasha has decided to view her role more seriously than most, holding office hours at the Library of Congress and traveling the country to read, teach, meet with children, and assume an advisory role in consulting with the news anchor, Jeffrey Brown, on the poetry series on PBS. In addition to her duties as Poet Laureate, she teaches and directs the Creative Writing Program at Emory University.