Natasha Tretheway

I had the privilege of being a part of a group that had lunch with Natasha Trethewey (the Poet Laureate for the United States).  As you would expect, she was extremely thoughtful and eloquent.  But also candid about some of the painful moments in her life and it's influence on her work.

I'm always interested in an artist's approach to their discipline, so I asked Ms. Trethewey how her poems were conceptualized  - whether it was initiated by a memory, a feeling, a word.   She responded that her poems usually began with a strong image - either from art or from her memory.  This image would trigger a question that would lead to intense reading and research to stoke the fire of this image.  Her poems might be historically referent, but she explained that they are very much about the present. 

She also talked about using imitation of other poetry as a way to 'unlock her ideas.' She was open about utilizing the structure of Claudia Emerson's "Aftermath" in the development of her poem "Elegy".  She mentioned that the cadence of another poet's thought can add clarity to her own.  

I asked her about her poem, "Limen."  The poem deals with a woodpecker "hard at his task" on a tree outside of her childhood window as her mother is hanging up wet sheets to dry.  I found this poem ignited a similar response that I had to Robert Frost's "For Once, Then, Something" (which is a jumping off point for my semester project).  I had looked up the definition of the word limen prior to our meeting, to learn that it meant  "the minimum amount of stimulus or nerve-excitation required to produce a sensation;  also called threshold."  Ms. Threthewey mentioned that the title was added at the end, as she searched the OED for words that captured the essence of the poem.

In "For Once, Then, Something," Frost talks about looking beyond and below the surface of a water well.  "I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture, Through the picture, a something white, uncertain" and then the final lines of the poems, "What was that whiteness?  Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something."  He could have ended his poem with "For once, then, nothing," but instead he chose the word "something." Barely perceptible - but something.

Yesterday's meeting brought into tighter focus a central idea that I'm exploring - this idea of limen - of threshold of perception.  Feeling the gravitational pull of 'something,' and then illuminating it's essence through the screen of abstraction.