The following is a guest post written by Courtney Deal, a summer intern at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center.
Two years ago when Philip Levine was named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, I began volunteering at the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. I helped pass out flyers at events and seat guests at Levine’s inaugural reading as well as his final lecture. I was excited to feel connected to the literary community in Washington, DC, a few miles away from the university I was attending. The next year when Natasha Trethewey became Poet Laureate, I attended her opening reading and volunteered again at her final lecture. I found a personal connection with Trethewey’s poetry, especially in her complicated treatment of race and relationships. As a young black woman at a predominantly white university, I found myself struggling with how to discuss race with my classmates.
I often turn to poetry to grapple with my frustrations. Poems offer me a private space to reconcile with the inequitable treatment of marginalized groups, both as I experience it in my personal life and in society-at-large. After hearing Natasha Trethewey read from section three of her poem “The Americans,” I was moved by the lines “she must have tried to make of her face / an inscrutable mask and hold it there,” which describe her mother’s restraint and resistance to a society that cast her as “a prop” or a “black backdrop” to her seemingly white daughter. At times I have felt the same need to restrain myself from confronting those issues that seem most uncomfortable and painful.
Later I had the opportunity to meet Natasha during her Library “Office Hours,” with a group of students from my university. I was deeply excited but reluctant to once again raise those uneasy issues. Before coming to her office, I had already made the decision to not address race but to instead focus on Natasha’s career as a poet. However, when our professor, Dr. Hollynd Karapetkova, asked Natasha to talk about her experiences as a bi-racial child in the 1960s, I felt a door had been opened.
The conversation quickly became personal: I asked her opinion on my responsibility, as a person of color and a student, to stand up for and give voice to those everyday injustices that seem to go unnoticed. Natasha assured me it was okay to be uncomfortable and to feel pain when I tried to grapple with race issues. She said it would be strange if I didn’t feel pain and if talking about race didn’t make me uncomfortable. It’s an uncomfortable thing.
After talking with Natasha, I am unafraid to speak openly about my own painful experiences. I used to keep my frustrations private, but today I can introduce myself to a whole new group of readers as a confident young woman, and that confidence is not limited to one area of my life. I can become an advocate for my own voice in the same way Natasha became an advocate for hers. I’ve begun editing the poems I wrote before my visit to meet the Poet Laureate so they truly reflect the voice I want to be heard. Unlike the mother in Natasha’s poems, my true feelings no longer have to be masked by my own fears and sense of restraint.