Natasha Trethewey, a contributor to documentary poetry project In Verse—one of AIR’s eight CPB-funded MQ2 projects—has been selected as the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate.
Tretheway’s poems “dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face," says Librarian of Congress James Billington.
In Verse creator and producer Lu Olkowski isn’t surprised that Trethewey is the new poet laureate. “It does feel like she was destined for it,” she says.
A Fresh Lens for Tough Topics
In Verse was designed to bring people to news stories that are difficult to understand or empathize with.
“Our goal was to create a framework for poets to report about newsworthy issues or events,” Olkowski explains. For the project, Trethewey traveled back to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to chronicle her family’s life after Hurricane Katrina. “We wanted to access her ties. She has written about her home beautifully.”
The series created a multi-sensory experience of reconstruction and recovery in Gulfport. The following piece focused on Tretheway's cousin Tammy, who was fighting home foreclosure.
The topic was personal for Trethewey, as her brother decided to deal drugs in the wake of Katrina and was arrested and jailed very close to the time she got the Pulitzer. “Her time of greatest joy was also her time of greatest sorrow,” Olkowski notes. In Verse took place just as he was was released from jail, and “It was amazing to be with her on that day.”
MQ2’s Long Tail
Along with the story of Trethewey’s family, In Verse featured a radio and multimedia piece by poet Susan B. A.Somers-Willett and photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally, which documents the lives of working mothers in Troy, New York —a powerful exploration of cross-generational poverty in upstate New York.
This and other MQ2 projects served as the testing ground for AIR’s current producer-led innovation initiative, Localore, also funded by CPB. Learn more about how these 10 new projects are fostering innovation at public media stations across the country.
In Verse touched many people, and while Olkowski can’t say if it was the inspiration, NPR does now have a newsroom poet who synthesizes daily headlines into a poem. NPR's NewsPoet is a new monthy segment on All Things Considered. The latest NewsPoet segment is available here.
“It’s very hard for people to want to engage on an issue that’s chronic and seemingly unsolvable,” says Olkowski, but poets “can bring people in, in a very visceral way.”
Thanks to AIR Guest Blogger Erin Polgreen for this report. Find her on Twitter: @ErinPolgreen.