Tretheway: ‘Music in Her Sentences’


In the January 2016 issue of Oxford American, poet Claire Schwartz interviews former poet laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey (Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, Thrall, and Beyond Katrina). Language and Ruthlessness is a wonderful interview. Below is an excerpt:

What were some of your early, formative models in language?

Tretheway: Well, I take it back to that time and place. My family lived next door to my great-aunt Sugar, who had helped to found the Mount Olive Baptist Church right across the street. It had begun as an arbor, but by the time I came along, the church was a large structure. For a long time Sugar worked with kids in the Sunday school, so I remember practicing recitations with her. She really loved language such that by the time she was near dying—she lived with Alzheimer’s for about ten years—she didn’t just speak; everything she said had a musical lilt to it. You heard the music of her sentences. At that time, the women from the church would come over to my grandmother’s house to read scripture. So I would listen to them reading things from the Bible, reading psalms, but also talking and singing, telling stories.

And my father was a poet. At that time, he worked part-time on the docks, and the rest of the time, he was in graduate school getting a Ph.D. at Tulane. But he was writing poems, and he would recite poems to me. I’d hear the poems that he was working on.

My mother had been an English and theater major in college, where my parents met. So, even as we were from Mississippi, there was such a precision to the way that my mother spoke. I think that when I read poems, I read like that. All of the words are very crisp. Language came to me in all of those places.

Read all of Language and Ruthlessness.

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