by Paige P. Parvin 96G
Here is a young poet in full possession of her craft, ready to testify. To which I say: Can we get an “Amen?” And: Let these voices be heard.
—Rita Dove, from her introduction to Natasha Trethewey’s 1999 volume Domestic Work
The first time Natasha Trethewey ever met Rita Dove in person, the older poet opened her arms, and Trethewey walked right in.
For Trethewey, it was the thrilling embrace of a longtime literary muse, an artistic and spiritual communion made manifest. When Trethewey started graduate school some ten years before, her father had introduced her to Dove through a copy of the 1987 Pulitzer Prize–winning volume Thomas and Beulah. The book and its author immediately took up special residence in Trethewey’s blossoming poetic imagination.
“I just fell in love with it, and thought of Rita as my distant mentor and literary ancestor,” says Trethewey, holder of Emory’s Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry. “Those poems meant so much to me. They were poems about her maternal grandparents and their lives, and the first poems that showed me I could write about my grandmother and her life and it would be the stuff of poetry.”
The profound influence of Thomas and Beulah led Trethewey to write her inaugural book of poetry, Domestic Work, which won the first Cave Canem Poetry Prize in 1999. Awarded annually to a debut collection of poems by an African American writer, the prize came to Trethewey based on the judgment of former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction—or poetry.
The following year, Trethewey was invited to read at the prestigious Virginia Festival of the Book. During one of the first readings she attended, she saw Dove in the audience; when the reading was over, she went to meet her mentor for the first time.
“She looked up and saw me and knew exactly who I was,” Trethewey says. “She reached out her arms to give me a hug. I was so excited, I thanked her and said, ‘It was all you!’ ”
The two poets struck up a friendship that has continued through written correspondence, phone calls, and the occasional visit, often at literary gatherings. Their almost magical connection surfaced again in 2007, when Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Sitting in an airport bound for a reading, she answered her cell phone to receive heartfelt congratulations from Dove, who informed Trethewey that her prize was announced twenty years to the day after Dove’s own in 1987. (The date also happened to be the birthday of Dove’s husband, Fred Viebahn, an avid photographer who has documented their meetings over the years.) Then, in 2009, Dove and Trethewey were inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers at the same time—the first African American women to receive this honor.
Trethewey is looking forward to continuing that relationship during the Rita Dove Residency at Emory, March 20 through 22, when Dove will speak at three events in honor of Women’s History Month—culminating in a Creativity Conversation with Trethewey.
The pair no doubt will have plenty to talk about. Many of the same themes thread their way through their respective poems, including family, narrative, and giving voice to the silent figures of the past. Notions of race and gender lend most of their poems shape, but generally lurk in the background, like a grandmother whose constant rocking-chair presence is both essential and matter-of-fact.
Trethewey says that many of her poems began with conscious imitation of Dove’s, a technique she encourages her students to practice freely. “It can be stanza patterns, rhythm, rhetorical structures—just inhabit someone else’s form. I always used to do that,” she says. “Often I would take a first line of hers, and it would guide me. Some of her poems showed me a way into my own.”
Trethewey is hard-pressed to identify a favorite among Dove’s poems. But one in particular, “Sunday Greens,” is intimately linked to the origins of Domestic Work. She wants to hear/wine pouring, it begins. She wants to taste/change. She wants/pride to roar through/the kitchen till it shines/like straw, she wants/lean to replace tradition.
Later, Trethewey asked Dove if Dove recognized her own voice in Trethewey’s poems, but she said no. “They go off in their own direction,” Trethewey says. “That’s the hope, after all.”
Trethewey, who is the daughter of a biracial marriage, says the two women’s commonalities undergird their literary connection. “When I think about Rita’s mentorship, I do think there is something significant about gender, but also about race,” she says. “I am a younger black woman, and it means a great deal to me that another black woman who was farther along in her career and had done all these remarkable things—a two-time poet laureate—would take time to mentor me and support me in the ways she has.”
Once Trethewey invited a group of students to a writers’ convention at a hotel in downtown Atlanta. While they were waiting for an event to begin, Dove walked by, sending a current of excitement through the students. At Trethewey’s request, “She and Fred came over and joined us and sat for a good long time, talking with them and answering questions. They could not believe it.”
Such generosity of spirit, Trethewey believes, should be passed down and shared, like a family recipe for cornbread or cooked greens. “I have a young woman student right now who is doing an honors thesis in poetry,” Trethewey says. “She is wonderful. I am trying to mentor her in ways I learned from Rita’s example.”
Paige P. Parvin 96G is the editor of Emory Magazine and a member of the Center for Women at Emory Editorial Board.