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.

Joseph Ross: ‘Ferguson, Mo. Looking Like Money, Miss.’

MacyBlackLivesNot sure what to think about the Ferguson grand jury decision? Want to trust the justice system to work? Don’t understand why folks won’t just “let this go”?

Please read Joe Ross’ short excellent essay “Ferguson, Missouri Looking Like Money, Mississippi” excerpted below:

Yes, Ferguson, Missouri is looking a whole lot like Money, Mississippi. In 1955, two white men were charged, tried, and found not guilty in the murder of Emmett Till. Then they bragged about it to national magazines. Nothing could be done. The Mississippi “justice” system was built entirely in their favor. That’s how it’s looking in Ferguson today. The Washington Post reported this morning that Officer Darren Wilson was allowed to drive himself alone from the crime scene, wash blood off his hands at the police station, and enter his own gun into evidence. None of this should happen in a professional police department. But that’s the problem. Ferguson is not a professional police department. Apparently Officer Wilson and none of the other officers and detectives who arrived at the scene thought they were at a crime scene. They assumed. They knew. This is the picture of white privilege. And it’s an ugly picture.

With the report of this unprofessional and unethical behavior, no matter what one thought of the case, the very things we call “evidence” cannot be trusted. …

Read Joseph Ross’ whole essay here.

Our New Organizer-in-Chief

I caught indy journalist and Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman at D.C.’s Green Festival yesterday. She reminded the still-deliriously happy crowd that the work of rebuilding democracy is just beginning.

Democracy Now!'s Amy Goodman
Democracy Now's Amy Goodman

Calling Obama our new “Organizer-in-Chief,” Goodman said the election was won by a combination of community organizing and unprecedented fund raising. But the jury’s still out, she said, on the lessons learned.

The answer is in who gets listened to in the new administration. Will it be the big dollar donors who find an ear? Or will it be a new day for community organizations and the people they represent?

Goodman made the point that Obama will need organizers pushing from the outside – both in times when community leaders genuinely disagree with him, but also for the added power it gives the president when he knows millions are ready to take him to task should he wander astray.

And to prove her point, Goodman lifted up two women as models for the kind of leadership that we now need:

Rosa Parks. Contrary to the watered-down history that portrays her as a tired seamstress too exhausted to give her bus seat to a white man, Parks was a trained community organizer – trained, in fact, at the Highlander Center with Myles Horton. Goodman called her a “first-class troublemaker” and pointed out that it was Rosa who sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott that launched Dr. King into leadership of the civil rights movement.

Mamie Till. The mother of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was lynched during a summer vacation to in Mississippi in 1955, Mamie Till made the strategic choice for an open casket at Emmett’s funeral. Because of a mother’s courage, photos in newspapers around the world showed the brutality of racism.

Our new Organizer-in-Chief needs a few “first-class troublemakers” like Rosa Parks and Mamie Till to lead from the grassroots. Tuesday’s victory was huge and necessary, but this campaign was won, not solely by Barack Obama, but by an electrified citizenry committed to change. To move this from a historic “moment” to a historic “era” will take ongoing commitment by that same citizenry..