“Ah, Satan sees Natasha!’”

“That’s my favorite palindrome, for obvious reasons,” says the poet Natasha Trethewey with a sly smile, which is met by smiles from a dozen students hanging on her every word.  

Natasha Trethewy

Natasha Trethewey, the 19th United States Poet Laureate, reads a poem to students from her book, Monument, at a Litfest Craft Talk.

They’ve come to Room 308 in Converse Hall for one of the small craft classes eminent writers offer to students during Amherst’s LitFest. This year marks the ninth LitFest, and Trethewey—named Natasha by her father, who was reading War and Peace when she was born—was joined on campus Feb. 22–25 by other writers, including Aparna Nancherla ’05E, Justin Torres, Ed Yong, Lisa Biggs ’93, Paul Harding and Blair Kamin ’79.

Trethewey was the 19th United States Poet Laureate and won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. And on this cold-snap Saturday afternoon, she’s parsing palindromes—since she’s been asked how she chooses the forms her poems might take.

Trethewey’s poem “Myth,” for instance “is a palindrome, but it did not start that way,” she explains. “People like to think there’s divine intervention, that all of a sudden a poem comes fully formed onto the page. That never happens to me. If lightning strikes in the brain, it’s only because I have been working it out a long time before it gets onto the page.”

Students listen attentively to Natasha Trethewey.

Natasha Tretheway speaking to Willow Delp ’26, Jovante Gonzalez ’27, Ryn Patin ’25, Olive Amdur ’23 and Jenna Berkman ’26.

In this case, that “working out” came from several sources: the vivid dreams she has of visits from her late mother and Orpheus’s ill-fated journey to the underworld to bring back Eurydice. Greek mythology often figures into Trethewey’s work; her father used to read her the stormy stories “at bedtime, which is kind of crazy,” she laughs. “He used mythology as cautionary tales.” Then, she adds pointedly, again with a smile, “On any given day, my father had to tell me the story of Narcissus or Icarus.”

In “Myth,” she realized that a loose, looping-back-on-itself palindrome could capture the feeling of Orpheus’s journey there and back and the liminal spaces in her own dreams. As a weak sun filtered through the windows, she recited the poem, noting the hinge on which the  palindrome turns—the “sees,” as it were, between “Ah, Satan” and “Natasha.”

… So I try taking

you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,   
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.   
Again and again, this constant forsaking.

Again and again, this constant forsaking:   
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.   
You back into morning, sleep-heavy, turning…

Trethewey spoke of other poetic infrastructures, too. She recited “Incident,” which uses the pantoum form, and “Miscegenation,” inspired by the Persian ghazal form. “I’ll turn to form because I can’t get a handle on a poem and need a big constraint to make it possible,” she explained.

That day in the classroom, she mentioned a bevy of poets, including William Wordsworth, Mark Doty, Lisel Mueller, Michael S. Harper and Seamus Heaney. And she spoke of one of her favorite genres, the Ekphrastic poem, from the Greek word for “description,” in which a poet responds to a piece of visual art. Trethewey’s ekphrastic poems include “Repentance,” based on Johannes Vermeer’s A Maid Asleep, and “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” in which the poet cites both the painting of Ophelia by Sir John Everett Millais and E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of women who were sex workers in early 20th-century New Orleans.

Students at Nathasha Trethewey's Craft Talk about writing poetry.

Olivia Law ’27 (left), Maxim Melnichuk-Litvak ’24 (center), and Lila Schlissel ’27 (right).

Olive Amdur ’23, a literary editorial fellow at the College, asked about Trethewey’s ties to the Five College area, noting that the poet got her MFA at UMass Amherst. Trethewey revealed that she first saw Bellocq’s images at Frost Library and that her time in the Valley was “that moment of my becoming a writer.”

Gracie Rowland ’25 wondered how Trethewey handles hard, heavy topics in her poetry, from both her personal and public history. This prompted Trethewey to discuss a poem she’d been commissioned to write about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 and a charged visit to Monticello with her father, who is white. Trethewey is biracial: her mother is Black. “I write poetry in order to contend with my two existential wounds,” she said. “One wound is losing my mother at 19. That wound that never heals. The other is the wound of history, being born into a place where white supremacy is woven into the thread of the nation.”      

Yet recollection in tranquility still works for Trethewey, she added, no matter how emotional the subject: “I really admire poets who seem to be writing in the heated moment. But I need to turn something over in my head until the sharp edges become smoother. Smoothing the edges doesn’t get rid of the rage or the intensity of grief.”

After class, Willow Delp ’26 marveled at the experience of learning from Trethewey. “I was already a fan of hers, and knew I would love to meet a poet I really admire,” Delp said. “I was struck by how she seamlessly quoted so many other poets, and how she goes from older traditions to new. I hope to be that knowledgeable some day—and I loved soaking in all of her wisdom.”