The Voice I Want to Be Heard

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.

Courtney and fellow students discuss poetry with the Poet Laureate. Picture courtesy Marymount University Department of Literature and Languages.

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.


One Comment

  1. Constance Currie
    May 30, 2013 at 8:18 pm

    No matter who we are, what background, we all have things that have to be faced. I’m white, but I’ve always had a weight problem, and I have been ridiculed for that. Called names, left out of the so called social circle.
    I also find that poetry gives me the outlet. I write it, and I read it. I also like to hear it read. I find rhyming particularly soothing.

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