A Tale of Two Laureates

Natasha Trethewey answers questions at “An Evening with U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey,” at the LA Public Library on Nov. 29th.

While most of the Poetry and Literature Center’s public programs happen here in Washington, DC, a small but growing number take place throughout the country. Last week I had the chance to fly out to Los Angeles, for a reading with the current Poet Laureate at the lovely LA Central Library. The event could not have gone better—Natasha’s reading was as strong as her inaugural reading as Poet Laureate here at the Library, and in the discussion period afterwards she demonstrated her intelligence and insight. She answered questions with generosity, sincerity, and the kind of conviction that our best poets take on when discussing their work.

In my position at the Library I have a unique relationship to the Poets Laureate and their work, which I appreciate more and more. I see the Librarian’s perspective on their work when he selects them, the media’s portrayal of their work when the selection is announced, and the public’s response to their work at their laureate events. I also get to know the laureates very well, and to understand how they see the position—and, by extension, what they feel poetry can do.

Natasha’s poems show how the art can be used to investigate the past and connect it to the present, and how it can bring forgotten voices to the fore and critique the legacy of racism. To me, Natasha’s poems can not only present the facts, as she says, but also present strong arguments—though always with a deep humanity that connects rather than separates, and in language that moves from direct speech to philosophical reckoning with effortless musicality. In the moderated discussion section of her recent reading I had the opportunity to talk about these and other aspects of her work, such as her brilliant use of persona, as well as ask her about the importance of libraries in her life and the ways in which she and her husband (a historian at Emory University) influence each other.

Former Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, with Poetry and Literature staffers Caitlin Rizzo and Kelly Yuzawa.

A week later, the Poetry and Literature Center office had a surprise visitor: Kay Ryan, our 16th Poet Laureate. Kay had given a reading at the Folger Shakespeare Library the night before, and I invited her up to her old office to celebrate her time here. My staff could not have been more delighted to meet her and get to know her—though Kay was laureate before I came to the Library, I know her from my previous work in the field and know just how wonderful she is. Kay’s approach to poetry is very different than Natasha’s: Kay sees poetry as a force onto itself, separate from the kind of cultural agency—a working towards the common good—that Natasha’s poems are committed to. To me Kay’s poems are filled with the surprising insights of wordplay, and in their concision speak volumes about the complexities and mysteries of the human condition. In person Kay embodies her work with her humor, her sincerity, and her humility, as well as her strong positions on the art, that come from a place of conviction and faith — in words, and in how they connect us.

Both Natasha and Kay are connecting people—both represent, in their different ways, the best of what poets and poetry can offer us. (As Natasha is fond of saying, there is a poem for everyone.) It is a pleasure to know them both, and to see how their work—which means so much to me—touches the lives of people far outside the literary world, all throughout the country. They are my heroes, really, along with many other poets who have taken on the laureateship and represented why poetry is age-old and continually necessary.

That Magic Moment

The following is a guest post by Caitlin Rizzo, staffer for the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. Today the Poetry and Literature Center’s friends from the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society debuted a remastered video of former director of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center Alan Jabbour and Howard …

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Summit in the Attic

Every once in awhile, my job offers me an opportunity to do something magical. For instance, last May I received an e-mail from Ken Bolinsky, the Mississippi state coordinator for the Poetry Out Loud Program—2012 winner Kristen Dupard had won the national poetry recitation contest by reciting, among other poems, Philip Levine’s “What Work Is.” …

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State Poets Laureate Roundup; U.S. Poet Laureate Reading

In a February blog post on State Poets Laureate I mentioned that From the Catbird Seat would periodically update readers when new State Poets are appointed. During the past five weeks there have been a flurry of changes to State Poet positions, making this an opportune time to give a brief roundup of recent activity. …

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Welcoming Natasha

  Yesterday was a very important day for the Poetry and Literature Center—the Library announced the selection of a new Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, Natasha Trethewey. Our previous laureate, Philip Levine, served in the position magnanimously and with a great sense of openness. The power of his term will continue to resonate inside and …

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Join Us Today for a Live Online Program Featuring Poet Laureate Philip Levine

NOTE: Follow this link on Friday, May 4, at 3 p. m. Eastern Time, to watch the live video conference with Philip Levine. Philip Levine concluded the Library’s literary season last night with a lecture to a packed audience in the Coolidge Auditorium. Levine’s talk, “My Forgotten Poets,” was a self-effacing tribute to the poets …

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In Appreciation of Phil

  Less than two weeks from today, the Coolidge Auditorium will fill with people eager to see our 18th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, Philip Levine, close out the Library’s spring season. The Poet Laureate will follow up his hugely successful opening reading last October with a talk entitled “Forgotten Poets of My Youth.” I …

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Poet in Motion: Levine Discusses his Tenure as Laureate, the State of his Craft

The following interview with Philip Levine was conducted by Donna Urschel, a Public Affairs Specialist in the Library’s Office of Communications, and originally published in the March 30th issue of the Library’s staff newsletter, the Gazette. In the interview, Levine shared his thoughts on his tenure as Poet Laureate, the state of poetry today, the …

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