Four Anisfield-Wolf poets distilled their lines into an hour-long symphony of 15 voices. All are chancellors of the American Academy of Poetry, the host of the performance.
The first to speak, Ellen Bass, began with the 30-word poem of Langston Hughes called “Island:”
Wave of sorrow, Do not drown me now:
I see the island Still ahead somehow.
I see the island And its sands are fair:
Wave of sorrow, Take me there.
“I often think how Langston Hughes could never have known that his poem, written from his own sorrow, would sustain an oldish white lesbian living in a beach town in California so many years later,” Bass said. “I never stop being amazed that poetry can reach across distance and time.”
Bass read two of her own poems, including “How to Apologize,” and let her voice flow into Natasha Trethewey’s. The 2021 Anisfield-Wolf winner for her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” read a single poem called “Quotidian.” It, like her memoir, centers on her mother, Gwendolyn Turnbough.
“In my work I’ve always been concerned with the intersections between personal and public history, our national collective memory — with its omissions, erasures — our cultural amnesia and the enduring need for justice for all,” Trethewey tells the online audience.
Her poem is preceded by a 1964 epigraph from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black: “No right is more precious in a free country than that of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which as good citizens we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.”
The poem gives glimpses of Turnbough’s daily life as a young woman around the time of Black’s quotation. She is newly in love with Eric Trethewey, who will become the poet’s father. The final words in “Quotidian” are from Turnbough’s own letter: “’Got to run,” she wrote, ‘have to get downtown to register to vote.’”
Marilyn Chin, Anisfield-Wolf winner in 2015 for “Hard Love Province,” lends her jaunty voice from her sunlit San Diego home to recite “Lockdown Impromtku,” a haiku series.
It begins: “Boyfriend snoring on the yoga mat/who are you smooching in the underworld?” The speaker sees “stone by stone democracy crumbling/into a race war.” Still, “year after year, the pear tree blossoms.” Chin smiles, presses her palms together and bids her listeners “be safe.”
Kevin Young, 2018 Anisfield-Wolf winner for “Bunk,” sits more formally in a book-lined office and holds up his most recent title, “Stones.” The director of the Smithsonian’s African and African American Museum tells listeners that most of the new book is about Louisiana, from which both branches of his family hail.
He begins with the first poem, “Halter,” which itself begins with “Nothing can make me want to stay in this world.” He flips forward to “Dog Star,” in which a boy looks into the night sky, and concludes with “Russet,” which Young says is thinking about graveyards and letting go.
The penultimate poet in the presentation is Tracy K. Smith, the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf recipient for “Wade in the Water.” Her first poem, “Mothership,” is an offering to and commemoration of the poet Kamilah Aisha Moon. It circles into space and the unknown spirit that preoccupies Smith. She concludes with her sweeping, anthem-like piece, “We Feel Now a Largeness Coming On” from her new collection, “Such Color.”
Smith is followed by Joy Harjo, who has taken up Smith’s mantle and is the current U.S. Poet Laureate. Harjo thanks poetry itself “for taking us through these times.” She begins, “The world will keep trudging . . .”
The complete presentation is available here:
Born in Mississippi on Confederate Memorial Day in 1966, Natasha Trethewey’s existence was the result of an interracial marriage, still illegal in the state at the time of her birth. In richly poetic prose, the former US Poet Laureate captures the collective trauma evinced by growing up Black in a society where Black lives matter most as a bolster to white supremacy.
But “Memorial Drive” is also the powerful story of personal tragedy: the murder of her mother in 1985, at the hands of her abusive ex-husband. Trethewey blends her own self-reflection with her mother’s concrete and straightforward account of violence, reproduced from the police record. A portrait of the writer emerges from the transcription of her mother’s voice.
For turning wounds into words that memorialize a life both trapped by and transcendent of its circumstances, Natasha Trethewey is the recipient of this year’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction.
Join the Ursuline College community for an afternoon conversation with former U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, winner of the 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for nonfiction.
Her memoir, “Memorial Drive,” explores her mother’s life and death and the abiding tie between the two women. Trethewey writes of how her mother came to die at the hands of a former husband when the author was 19, as well as the Mississippi context that formed and informed both women.
“When my backstory was written, my mother entered it only as a footnote, or an afterthought – as simply a ‘victim’ or ‘murdered woman,’” Trethewey told the New Yorker. “It really hurt me because her role in my life, in me becoming a writer, was being diminished or erased. I just decided that if she was going to get mentioned then I was going to be the one to tell her story, and to put the important role she played in my making in its proper context.”
Ursuline English Chair Katharine Trostel participated in the Cleveland Humanities Collaborative summer session on teaching “Memorial Drive,” and brought the idea of a campus read of Trethewey’s new classic back to her liberal arts college. Administration and faculty agreed it was an ideal text, especially during Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
Hear Trethewey share the story of “Memorial Drive” October 28. This virtual event is open to the public, and registration is required.
Mary Fecteau is a senior producer at Ideastream Public Media and director of the 2020 and 2021 Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards documentaries. Below, she reflects on the experience of working with the awards staff to pivot from an in-person ceremony to documentary in order to celebrate past two Anisfield-Wolf award classes.
When the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, many of the events I expected to cover as a senior producer for Ideastream Public Media dried up.
Meanwhile across Euclid Avenue, Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, was weighing what to do about the 2020 ceremony. For years, the in-person event brought a crowd of book lovers to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. But in a year like 2020, she had to get creative. Together, we created an Emmy Award-winning documentary, which was distributed nationally on PBS.
Well, 2021 has turned out to be just as unpredictable as last year, and we were determined to make something just as memorable. After all, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards has been a Cleveland tradition for 86 years.
It’s been cited as Cleveland’s best kept literary secret. Founded by visionary philanthropist and poet Edith Anisfield-Wolf in 1935, it has the distinction of being the only American book award designed specifically to recognize works addressing issues of diversity, race and our appreciation of human cultures.
Although many Clevelanders haven’t heard of it, it’s a big deal in the literary world. So frequently is it awarded to African American luminaries, it’s often referred to as “the Black Pulitzer.” Past winners include Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and Toni Morrison.
This year’s honorees are a fitting addition to that illustrious winners circle: Victoria Chang for “Obit,” her haunting book of poems; historian Vincent Brown for “Tacky’s Revolt,” a rewriting from the ground up of an episode in the Atlantic slave trade; Natasha Trethewey for “Memorial Drive,” a memoir at once clear-eyed and heartrending; James McBride, for his vibrant work of fiction “Deacon King Kong”; and Samuel R. Delany, the lifetime achievement honoree, for his robust, fearless, and genre-spanning body of work, which includes science fiction novels, memoirs and essays.
My colleague, Shelli Reeves, and I spent our summer filming with these brilliant writers in their hometowns. We perused the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Samuel Delany (he’s partial to the Cézannes), crashed James McBride’s band practice at his Brooklyn church, and dug through police records with Natasha Trethewey (some of which served as source material for her memoir).
Our goal was to create an experience for the viewer that is as moving and inspiring as the in-person Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony, but it’s also a rare glimpse of writers at the top of their craft, recounting their process. And, of course, it’s once again hosted by the magnetic Henry Louis Gates Jr.
You can watch it September 14 at 9 p.m. on WVIZ/PBS or online. Get a short taste below:
“I always feel slightly at home in Ohio,” she said. “It is the state that allowed my parents to get a marriage license in 1965, allowed me to be born legit in this country, even as our laws still rendered me persona non grata.”
The newborn Trethewey arrived a year later in Gulfport, Mississippi, where her parents’ marriage was illegal under a national patchwork of anti-miscegenation laws. The couple met at Kentucky State College — Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a black woman fresh from Gulfport, and Eric Trethewey, a white Canadian who hitchhiked his way to campus.
Their brief marriage – they divorced when Natasha was 6 – features heavily in her work, including the poem she chose to open the evening, “Miscegenation.” As she moved through her reading, an expert mix of personal history and political commentary, Tretheway threaded each poem with the pointed focus of race and place.
Such themes frequently lace through her verse, including in her 2012 poetry collection, “Thrall,” in which she uses historical figures to parse identity and belonging. Prior to that, she released “Native Guard,” which heralded the unsung black soldiers who protected the Union during the Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
Parts of the evening were somber, as Trethewey shared the anger and longing lodged in poems she’d written after the murder of her mother, a social worker, when Natasha Trethewey was a 19-year-old student at the University of Georgia. The awful death, at the hands of a second husband her mother had divorced, pushed Trethewey toward poetry more than anything else. In “Myth” she grapples with painful reoccurring dreams of her mother, often triggering a new wave of grief:
I was asleep while you were dying.
It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
“He had been writing about me my whole life. And he was excited and had a little dread about me becoming a poet because he knew I would set the story straight,” she quipped before a sizeable audience gathered by the Wick Poetry Center.
Now 51 and a professor at Northwestern University, Trethewey took a moment to stitch the social justice movements of the past and present. “Incident,” about an attack at her grandmother’s home when she was a child, brimmed with relevance: “It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns./When they were done, they left quietly. No one came.”
Trethewey looked out at the assembled. “We hear a lot about voter fraud when we really should be talking about voter suppression, voter intimidation, redistricting,” she warned. “But this is not new. We’ve seen this.”
A 2009 National Endowment for the Arts study found that only 8 percent of adults read any poetry in the previous year. Children do better. The Poetry Foundation discovered that the main reasons adults take a pass is loss of interest, lack of time, lack of access, and the perception that poetry is difficult and irrelevant.
U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey, recently appointed to her second term, is working to welcome more adults to the party.
“We can’t know what poem is going to be the poem that brings someone to poetry, comforts them in times of grief, tragedy, and loss, or celebrates with them in times of joy and triumph,” she told the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. “But it is our job — as poets, as teachers, as the poet laureate — to try to bring people to a wide variety of poems so they might find that one among the many.”
During her first year as poet laureate, Trethewey relocated from Emory University in Atlanta to Washington D.C., where she held weekly office hours at the Library of Congress, an nontraditional move for the role. This year, she will film a regular feature on the PBS NewsHour Poetry Series, during which she will travel the country to examine how poetry plays out in the lives of everyday Americans.
Trethewey is also writing a memoir, currently untitled, recounting her experiences as a biracial child in the 1970s. It will be released in 2014. Readers who are impatient can pick up a copy of “Thrall,” or her Pulitzer-winning 2007 collection, “Native Guard.”