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A Tale of Two Laureates

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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.


  1. “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.”

    You took the words right out of my mouth…or, I should say, you expressed the same feelings and sentiment I feel as well. This was a wonderful post and I am thrilled to read your insights and feelings as well as a little something else, your point-of-view of these Laureates. Thank you very much for sharing!

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