by Jessica Reyes
Kansas State University
I have a confession: I’m an English major who isn’t fond of poetry. So when I found out that the common reader for convention this year is a collection of poems, I was less than eager to read it. But then I found out Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia is a prostitute living in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, and I was smitten.
In the collection, Trethewey uses a series of historical portraits by E.J. Bellocq to invent a life for her main character, whom she names Ophelia. Each poem reveals an episode of Ophelia’s life, picking up with her arrival in New Orleans as a naïve and hopeful young girl. Unable to find work, Ophelia takes up residence in a brothel for colored women. The poems feature a variety of speakers writing in an array of forms, including diary entries and letters. Each entry provides the reader a glimpse into Ophelia’s struggles to shape her own life despite the invisible forces of race and gender that organize society in the still heavily segregated south. Trethewey writes in a way that is accessible and yet still stunningly complex. Ophelia’s story is riveting, and I found myself drawn into it despite my initial hesitance.
There is another great reason to read Bellocq’s Ophelia: everyone at the convention will be talking about it. Several conference sessions will feature either critical or creative work on Trethewey’s poetry (including a roundtable facilitated by yours truly on Friday afternoon). Reading the common reader is a great way to join the conversation. Also, if you’ve peeked at the convention schedule, you know that Natasha Trethewey is one of this year’s featured speakers. We’ll have a chance to hear her talk and have our books signed Friday evening, followed by a question and answer session with the author on Saturday.
P.S. If I still haven’t convinced you to read Bellocq’s Ophelia yet, there are two other things you should know. First, you can get a used copy online for as low as $5.95. And, if you’re busy with school and feel like you won’t have time to read it before convention, just tuck it in your carry-on and read it on the plane. With only 48 short pages, it’s the perfect book to get you in the mood for the Big Easy.