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Pulitzer poet stirs Korean sorrow

Trethewey’s visit provides inspiration for young generation of writers

May 05,2009
Natasha Trethewey
By Hannah BaeContributing writer
With their focus on the black Southern experience, the poems of Natasha Trethewey may not appear immediately relevant to Korean audiences. But oppression, loss and the aftereffects of war are familiar to the psyche of both South Korea and the American South, a message that emerged in the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s series of lectures in Seoul last week.

“I’m constantly talking about historical memory,” Trethewey, a professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, said Friday before her lecture at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College. “I’d like to present a fuller version than what’s always been told by the white men.”

This idea is especially apparent in “Native Guard,” the poet’s latest collection, which includes pieces honoring the heretofore forgotten Native Guard of the American Civil War. Growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi, Trethewey had often visited nearby Ship Island, where a regiment of black Union soldiers had once stood watch over Confederate prisoners. “But there was never any mention of these black soldiers,” she said. “There are not so many monuments to a lesser-known history.”

At the invitation of the United States Embassy in Seoul, Trethewey spoke on her craft of historical poetry and read from Native Guard at Yonsei and the Korea America Educational Commission Friday, as well as the American Studies Association of Korea at Kyung Hee University on Thursday.

“We Koreans may learn from her how to use our backgrounds and history to make poems,” said ASAK president Kwon Teck-young, a professor of English literature at Kyung Hee.

Trethewey, in turn, absorbed some Korean concepts during her visit. “It’s stunning for me to think I had to go so far to learn something about myself,” she said. “I learned the meaning of han [the Korean notion of sorrow and regret], and that there’s regret that I carry around at the loss of my mother.”

An alumna of the University of Massachusetts’ master of fine arts program in poetry, Trethewey was also curious about young Korean writers.

“Trethewey is interested in new Korean thought,” John Dyson, cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy, said. “She has Korean students in her classes [at Emory] and she encounters the challenge of getting these students to open up about their background.”

But the challenge for aspiring writers here is the fact that the field is rather new to Korean academia.

“Not many people know about the creative writing scene in East Asia, and we’d like [Trethewey] to be a part of our program’s expansion,” said Mandy Kim, 22, a senior at Yonsei studying creative writing.

Isabelle Moon, 21, who takes courses in both prose and poetry, added, “I was really eager to have more writers visit us because we haven’t had that many people in that field, especially a woman.”

Their professor, Gabe Hudson, who chairs the college’s creative writing program, agreed. “Trethewey is a world-class literary artist and a female visionary, which made her a perfect role model for our UIC Creative Writing Program students,” he said.

As a fellow educator in the field, Trethewey emphasized the validity of academic work in creative writing. “You can study the craft of writing just like any other discipline, study intimately what makes a language sing.”


By Hannah Bae Contributing writer [hannahbae@gmail.com]



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