John Amis/The New York Times

Natasha Trethewey, Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner, kickstarts the English department's Zalaznick Reading Series.

March 20, 2024

Distinguished Poet Natasha Trethewey Visits Cornell

Print More

Last Thursday, U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey delivered a poetry reading in Goldwin Smith Hall, kick-starting the English Department’s Zalaznick Reading Series

Trethewey, who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her publication Native Guard, has authored five collections of poetry. On Thursday, she shared poems spanning her career including “Southern Gothic,” “Enlightenment” and a commission piece for the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre titled “Ground Truth.” 

At the event, she began by reading “Miscegenation,” which delves into her identity as the daughter of an interracial couple in Mississippi in the 1960s, where society was strictly segregated by race.  

Across her work, Trethewey delves into questions of memory and pushes back against mainstream narratives. 

“Growing up in the Deep South,” she said, “I became aware at an early age of those intersections and contingents between public history and collective memory and personal, family and community history.” 

Between reading poems, Trethewey shared details about her own family’s history, situated in the greater political history of race relations in the United States. In her poem “Incident,” Trethewey questions whether the attack on the Mount Olive Baptist Church — which she and her family lived across from in the late 60s — was directed at the church itself or at its interracial community. 

“At the time, the church was doing a voter registration drive to get disenfranchised black citizens registered to vote,” Trethewey said. “Because of that we never knew if the act of terrorism was directed at the church or at us, the interracial family inside the house.” 

Trethewey’s poem “Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956,” is similarly inspired by her familial history. 

“Back in the 50s, my grandmother worked in a drapery factory,” Trethewey said. “And, after Emmett Till’s death, which many historians think of as the beginning to the modern Civil Rights movement, my grandmother and some of the women in the factory where she worked decided to stage their own kind of protest.” 

Derek Chan grad, a second-year poet in Cornell’s MFA program, spoke about how Trethewey’s work explores how her personal narrative is linked to the significance of race in past and present America.

“[She places] her story into a larger context to consider how it ripples directly from the racial legacies of the Civil War,” Chan said. “Trethewey’s poems, no matter how deeply interior, ultimately push us outward into the world.”

Chan went on to share how Trethewey was an early source of inspiration to him, giving him a “powerful entry into poetry.”

The Zalaznick Reading Series, funded by Barbara and David Zalaznick’s endowment, invites recognized authors to campus each semester. A book signing and a reception follow each reading, where students are invited to meet the visiting writers. 

Chan described how interacting with Trethewey in person was a valuable part of his education in literature and writing.

“I was able to chat with her at lunch, [and she has this] amazing wealth of knowledge that was really enlightening,” Chan said. “It’s really rare to have this kind of close contact with someone of this caliber.” 

Mairead Clas ’26 echoed Chan’s sentiment. 

“It’s so enriching to be able to interact firsthand with poets we learn about in class,” Clas said. “The last poem she read, [“Enlightenment”], we studied in my poetry class.” 

Previously, Cornell has invited Toni Morrison MA ’55, poet and playwright Claudia Rankine, Billy Collins and Margaret Atwood, among other prominent authors. 

Later this semester, the series will feature novelist Colm Tóibín on April 11 and fiction writer Colin Channer on April 25.

Chan explained why he thought the Zalaznick Reading Series is important.  

“It’s always different having someone read [their work] versus how they present it on the page,” he said. “That alone is worth being here for.”