Hoppenthaler to discuss poet Natasha Trethewey with Brown Bag



When most people apply for a job, they might list a former boss or a well-connected friend as reference. John Hoppenthaler could list Pulitzer Prize winners Toni Morrison and Natasha Trethewey as his.

Hoppenthaler worked as Morrison’s personal assistant for nine years, and is a friend of Trethewey, who finished her second term as the United States poet laureate in May. His friendship with Trethewey and his admiration for her work inspired his Brown Bag lecture, which will focus on her.

Hoppenthaler, the poet-in-residence for Week Eight, will discuss Trethewey and her work during his Brown Bag lecture, called “Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard: An American Story” at 12:15 p.m. today on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.

Hoppenthaler decided to focus his Brown Bag on Trethewey because her life story and her work cover “so many contemporary bases.”

“Part of what Natasha writes about is her engagement with being mixed race,” Hoppenthaler said. “She’s also a poet who deals with history a lot. Her particular interest is in discovering those things that history has erased for whatever reason — sometimes accidentally, sometimes on purpose — but to restore them.”

Trethewey focuses on her identity and history in her poetry collection Native Guard, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. Hoppenthaler hopes his Brown Bag will serve as an introduction to Trethewey and her work.

“There’s so much to talk about with her,” Hoppenthaler said. “I’m hoping to touch on three main threads. One is how the book deals with black history. The second is how the book deals with her grief over her mother’s murder. The third is how the book deals with her identity as a mixed-race person.”

Hoppenthaler also hopes to cover Trethewey’s identification as a Southern poet.

“For many years, Southern black poets didn’t identify as Southern poets,” Hoppenthaler said. “Because if somebody said ‘Southern poet,’ you’d inevitably conjure up images of white male poets like James Dickey or John Crowe Ransom or Robert Penn Warren — people like that.”

That’s a trend that has changed over the last few decades — something that  Hoppenthaler believes Trethewey has been at the forefront of.

“In the last 15, 20 years, more and more young black poets have started to call themselves Southern poets,” Hoppenthaler said. “So, in a way, they’re reclaiming what it means to be a Southern poet. And what it means to be a Southerner is changing. You know, as Yankees like me go down to the South — and more and more are — the whole nature of the South is changing around us.”

Hoppenthaler hopes his lecture will help his audience better appreciate the value that poetry can have. He wants his lecture to get people to go out and read Trethewey’s Native Guard for themselves.

“Here’s a question that gets asked over and over again: ‘Does poetry matter? Can poetry matter? Why poetry? Who cares about poetry?’ ” Hoppenthaler said. “The fact is that it’s not a big moneymaker or on the best-seller lists. It’s rarely reviewed in the New York Times and that sort of thing. But so many people are interested in it.”

Hoppenthaler thinks that Trethewey’s story and Native Guard are a perfect example of the impact of poetry.

“I’m hoping they’ll come away with an understanding of how poetry can matter,” Hoppenthaler said. “And how a book like Native Guard and a poet like Natasha Trethewey does make a difference in our lives.”