Too long after its publication, I read Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey. She won the Pulitzer Prize for this poetry collection. (You might remember that I heard Natasha Trethewey read from Beyond Katrina at the National Book Festival.) The poems merge personal history (her mother’s murder by her stepfather) and the United States’ military and racial history. This wonderful NPR interview with the poet discusses her experience writing Native Guard and how the poems came together. She also reads a few poems.
As a poet, I am most interested in how Trethewey combines historic and personal fact with poetic imagining. In one example, Southern History, the reader enters into both an actual classroom and commentary on our collective past. The reader is welcomed and challenged at once.
For a writing prompt, choose a historic moment that connects to your personal story. Retell that moment in verse. You might start by writing non-stop for five to ten minutes on that historic moment and then on your own personal reaction. If you get stuck, consider the situation when it happened and then what has changed since that moment. I invite you to share your writing below.
Poetry can offer insight into history, or the present or future, without becoming a piece of propaganda. Natasha Trethewey is not the only poet who does this. What other poems/poets would you recommend reading?