Q&A: Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey’s ‘Native Guard’ premieres at Alliance Theatre

The Emory professor talks about taking poetry from page to stage
Photograph by Nancy Crampton
Photograph by Nancy Crampton

In September, the Alliance Theatre premieres a play based on Native Guard, the Pulitzer Prize–winning work by Natasha Trethewey that pairs her experience as the child of a then-illegal interracial marriage in Mississippi with the account of a black Civil War soldier. An Emory professor, Trethewey completed two terms as poet laureate of the United States. We talked about taking poetry from page to stage.

How were you involved in the staging?
I sat in on preliminary rehearsals, met with the actor who’s playing the role of the poet, and watched readings. I offered suggestions about timing and pace, but I wasn’t required to write anything. I was sort of a lucky bystander.

How is it for you to see your poetry, which is sometimes deeply personal, performed so publicly?
My poetry seems like it’s this real personal experience, but it’s not so personal when I write it. It’s something I write to give away to a reader.

What new life did your poetry receive on stage?
Well, I used epigraphs throughout the book. But what I know from teaching is that students often skip over not only the epigraphs but also the title of the poem; they forget that these are actually part of the poem.

And in this theatrical production, [epigraphs] are being spoken aloud, and something else happens where these words transition between one poem to the next. Also, some of those epigraphs are music, such as lines from Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” On the page, these are just words, but on stage, you actually hear the vocals. That is what poetry on a page is not able to do, but on a stage it can.

Native Guard runs September 26–October 19.

This article originally appeared in our September 2014 issue.