As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Natasha Trethewey in response to a video of her reading her poem “Providence” aloud. Natasha Trethewey wrote letters back to two of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Natasha Trethewey also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you all so much for your thoughtful letters and kind words about my poem “Providence.” I noticed that so many of you found ways to relate to it through your own memories of living through natural disasters or our current, shared experience with the COVID-19 pandemic. Something that makes this particular art form special is the way we can engage both our public histories and personal stories and—with craft and specific vocabulary—create a poem that can reach across time and space.
I often share with my own students this quotation from Philip Levine, who said, “I write what’s given me to write.” I know that I—and I think we all do—have these histories and these stories we need to make sense of, but my goal as a writer is to do it in such a way that I can share it with a reader who finds something that resonates there. I hope you’ll all continue to seek out and read poems that interest and inspire you, and maybe even write your own. Perhaps you’ll look at something you’ve already lived through or discover the buried histories of your own hometowns and come across something interesting there that you want to further explore in the language of poetry.
Natasha Trethewey reads "Providence" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Natasha Trethewey,
My name is Lauren, and I’m a sophomore at Classical High School in Providence, RI. Your poem “Providence” stuck out to me because of its suggested meanings. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece.
The first thing that stood out to me about this piece was the title. I am from the city of Providence and I couldn’t help but notice that the title of your poem is the same. The first thought that came to my mind was the city, and I found it odd that someone would want to write about it. Then I thought more about what the word “providence” means, like an unavoidable act by a divine power and its guiding of the universe. I wondered why you titled your piece this.
I enjoyed the imagery you created, like the lines “hurricane parties, palm trees leaning in the wind, fronds blown back, a woman’s hair.” This gives the reader a vivid image of what it was like before the hurricane hit. “Then after: the vacant lots, boats washed ashore, a swamp where graves had been” shows after the hurricane, and these two images together display the stark contrast between peace and wreckage.
The quote “the next day, our house - on its cinder blocks - seemed to float in the flooded yard: no foundation… In the water, our reflection trembled, disappeared when I bent to touch it” stood out to me as well. I interpreted this as the disappearance of all you have ever known before your eyes. This storm you described, it must have taken everything away from you. I personally relate to the feeling that your world has vanished before your eyes, taking everything, the light, the joy, from it. I’ve suffered from loss and the grieving process is similar to this. After he left this world, I felt empty and I didn’t know how to fix it. I am still trying to figure this out.
I wonder if by “providence” you meant a divine power in the sense that the hurricane you described in this piece was the work of a spiritual force. Did you believe that this storm, Camille of 1969, was an act of a divine power? If so, why did you think this? This poem is so artistically written in the sense that the reader is left thinking about the possible meaning behind your words. If you truly believed that this storm was an act of a divine power, then did you lose faith in this power after the destruction it brought you? After this destruction, how did you find yourself again? How did you recover?
Thank you for sharing this piece with the world. This poem is completely beautiful.
Thank you so much for your letter and your kind words about my poem “Providence.” I appreciated getting a glimpse into your thought process and how you interpreted the poem, beginning with the meaning of the word “providence.” When I am teaching my own students, I often tell them to look up the words they think they know in the dictionary and really dig into the secondary and tertiary definitions of those words. Understanding a word’s other meanings can help bring a poem together or guide it in a different direction. In a genre of writing where every word counts, selecting the best word—the one that can do double duty in the sentence, stanza, or even the whole poem—matters greatly.
I’m so sorry to learn about your own loss. I don’t know if grief is ever something that can be fixed as much as it can be tended to and carried. Throughout my own life I’ve turned to poetry, both reading and writing it, for comfort and to make sense of my own losses. I would encourage you to keep reading poems that resonate with you and even give writing them a try.
One way I try to recover what has been lost is to write about it. I’m interested in ensuring things that happened won’t be forgotten in a textbook as well as seeking out and preserving parts of our history that never even made it into our textbooks in the first place. Writing, and writing poems in particular, is a way that I’ve found to ensure a more complete history can be entered into our American record.
Wishing you all the best,
Dear Natasha Tretheway,
I am writing to you for an English project. Your poem stood “Providence” out to me because it reminded me of listening to the news about hurricanes or natural disasters when I was younger. I have been fortunate enough to have never been in the middle of a natural disaster, but I have always read about them. I live on the coast of Alaska, so there is always a risk of a tsunami. We had tsunami alarms go off in 2018 and people had to evacuate their homes. It ended up being small and didn’t affect anyone or ruin any houses, but it was enough to remind me that I live in an area that could be greatly affected by a natural disaster. Your poem reminded me of that night when my family and some friends walked up a hill to get to higher ground, and it was during winter so there was snow on the ground. Listening to your poem also reminded me of when I was younger, I would watch to news with my dad listening to updates on hurricanes. It was always sad listening to how many people had lost their houses, belongings, and lives. One time, I heard that a shark had been seen swimming down one of the flooded streets and all I could think about was what if someone gets attacked by this shark.
Have you ever been in a situation like Hurricane Camille? Is there a specific reason why you chose to write about a hurricane, or did it just come to your interest? I think learning about hurricanes is interesting because there's so many different elements to one. My parents are both scientists, so they always explain the details about how hurricanes are formed, and what causes them. It's really cool to hear a poem about a hurricane because it brings back loads of memories from when I was younger. Did writing this poem bring back memories from when you were younger? I've always been really into reading books, but I haven't always been interested in poetry, when I do read a poem it always makes me think outside of the box for what the poem means. I am part of a club activity called Future Problem Solvers (FPS), it's an activity where we research a topic for a few months, and then we put our skill to use and we have 2 hours to finish a process of coming up with a solution to solve this futuristic problem. The process involves a lot of writing and erasing when we make a mistake, but some problems that we have done in the past include natural disasters, and food shortages. Both of which are a problem in our present-day time. When you wrote this poem, were you thinking about the aftermath of the issue, or just the problems that were happening in the moment?
Lastly, this poem relates to coronavirus in a way. The poem talks about the destruction that the hurricane is causing, but the same thing is happening with a virus right now. Have you written a poem about current world events? Do you find yourself writing more during this time because there isn't anything else to do? It has been a struggle finding new things to accomplish during this time, but doing what I love (running, reading, baking etc.) has really helped me focus on things. Do you turn to writing when you get stressed out or worried? When you are writing do you write about past times, or present times? Thank you for writing this poem, it was inspiring for me to read and it was cool to think about all the parts inside the poem.
Thank you so much for your letter and kind words about my poem “Providence.” I appreciated getting a glimpse into how the poem resonated for you and how you related it to your own life and experiences. I was glad to hear that you and your community were able to avoid being directly hit by the 2018 tsunami. When you grow up with the threat of a natural disaster, it can be scary and affect your relationship with your home and the landscape. I was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, which is right on the Gulf Coast and often, unfortunately, vulnerable to hurricanes. I was three years old when Hurricane Camille tore through my hometown.
I especially loved your question about whether I write about past or present times. There’s a William Faulkner quotation I like to share with my students: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Even when I’m writing about the past, I’m always writing about the present. What I’m drawn to write about, even if it happened a long time ago, still has everything to do with what’s happening today. The more we study history and the more we uncover stories that have been left out of our textbooks, the better equipped we can be to repair the world in which we live. I hope you’ll continue to look for ways to solve problems.
With best wishes,
Dear Natasha Trethewey,
I really enjoyed reading your poem, “Providence”. Your experience described in this poem shows how your life was changed, and I felt connected to that thought, especially with what’s going on now in the world.
It’s crazy how one event can change your life forever and how valuable things can be taken away in such a short amount of time. I had so many plans for the spring, especially with softball, that were in place, but they were all cancelled. Also for the summer, I have a number of things on hold. After the current situation going on in the world regarding COVID-19, I think life will never be the same. Although many things will reopen (at some point), I believe that new measures will be put in place or even pre existing conditions will be changed. Everyone and everything will try to act normal and go back to how things were pre-COVID-19. But deep down inside, I feel like nothing will be the same because we’ll still have thoughts in our head about the pandemic that drastically changed our lives. Do you still think about the hurricane to this day? If so, how does the thought of it affect you? Is there any way as to how you overcame your own tragic event?
With already surviving your own personal life-changing event, is there any specific way that you are dealing with this pandemic?
Living in this world pandemic, I have seen many different videos, pictures, notes, etc. regarding how/what things were taken for granted before this situation. I’ve realized how valuable certain things are and it’s unfortunate that they’re postponed or cancelled at this time. Was there anything you took for granted before this disaster? Some other questions I have regarding your poem include: Did your most valuable item get destroyed in this disaster? Or how long did the “night” feel? I know that sometimes the most happy and memorable times can feel like a short amount of time and not-so good but memorable times feel like forever (or vice versa), once looking back at it.
Dear Natasha Trethewey,
I recently read your poem, “Providence.” It made me think about life a lot more and made me think about something that I have never realized. It made me think … do I really want to experience something life-changing or do I want to continue to live my life day-by-day, rinse and repeat?
In your poem you wrote, “What's left is footage: the hours before Camille, 1969— hurricane parties, palm trees leaning in the wind, fronds blown back, a woman's hair.” I would like to know if this poem is something that happened to you during your childhood? How old were you and who were you with in your home? Your poem made me feel your fear and I pictured how scared you must have been during the storm. The words “hurricane party” makes me imagine lots of rain and wind rushing through a street, but people gathering together in their homes to give each other company and keep each other safe.
When I finished your poem, I thought about what I would do and feel in a hurricane. Would I feel the same way as you - full of fear? I sometimes picture a scary event, like a tsunami or a wildfire, and wonder if that will happen to me. I always wanted to be an adventurous kid, but do I want to be that kid from an “I survived” book? Do I?
As I write this letter, I can admit that I am experiencing a life-changing event - living with social distancing due to the Coronavirus. I can no longer stay in my house before I lose my sanity, but then I take a deep breath and realize that I have a lot to be grateful for. So far, everyone that I love is healthy. But, I am living in my Coronavirus party, and my family is trying to keep each other sane, happy and healthy. Safe.
So my final question is, were you so lucky during the hurricane? Your poem ends with you still feeling fear.