The writing of Natasha Trethewey explores a past that often is unsettling – growing up biracial in 1960s Mississippi, the lives of forgotten African-American soldiers during the Civil War, the murder of her mother, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“When you begin to think about the past, you realize how much of it is lost to us,” says Trethewey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Native Guard.”
On Thursday, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced the selection of Trethewey as the Library’s 19th poet laureate consultant in poetry.
Trethewey will open her one-year term and the Library’s annual literary season on Sept. 13 with a reading in the Coolidge Auditorium.
Trethewey succeeds Philip Levine in a position previously held by some of the most prominent American poets of the past 75 years: Robert Penn Warren, Robert Frost, Allen Tate, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams, Rita Dove and Gwendolyn Brooks, among many others who have served as consultant in poetry or poet laureate at the Library since 1937.
“I’m truly humbled by it. I want to be the best advocate and promoter for poetry that I can be,” says Trethewey, the author of four books of poetry – “Domestic Work,” “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” “Native Guard” and the upcoming “Thrall” – and one work of nonfiction, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Trethewey, a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University, is no stranger to the Library of Congress – she researched and wrote part of “Native Guard” at the Library.
She first began conducting research at the Library in 2001 and spent all of the summer of 2004 studying Civil War letters in the reading room of the Manuscript Division.
That summer, she also worked frequently in the Main Reading Room – “a beautiful place,” she says – where she wrote many of her poems of that period.
Growing Up Down South
Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Miss., the child of a social worker mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, and a Canadian poet and professor father, Eric Trethewey.
The marriage of Gwendolyn and Eric was illegal under Mississippi law at the time – she was African-American, he was white – and they left the state to get married before going back home.
“In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi; they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi,” Trethewey wrote in “Miscegenation,” one of the poems in “Native Guard.”
Trethewey grew up biracial in the Deep South – the Gulf Coast and, later, Atlanta – in the years immediately following the civil rights movement.
“I knew at a young age that the irony of my own existence was connected to the fact that I was born 100 years to the day that Mississippi first celebrated Confederate day,” she says. “So growing up, my birthday was always Confederate Memorial Day. It helped to create this profound sense of awareness about the Civil War and the 100 years between the Civil War and the civil rights movement and my parents’ then-illegal and interracial marriage.”
She often explores that confluence of personal and cultural history in her work.
“Writers, particularly poets, always feel exiled in some way – people who don’t exactly feel at home, so they try to find a home in language. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do,” she says. “It’s important for me to assert just how much I love my native state, even as I have that kind of love-hate relationship with it.”
An ‘Unthinkable’ Event
Trethewey’s parents divorced when she was 6.
Gwendolyn moved to Atlanta, remarried and divorced again.
After that divorce, in 1985, Gwendolyn was shot and killed by her second husband – Natasha’s stepfather.
Natasha, at the time, was a student at the University of Georgia. She wasn’t really a practicing poet, just a 19-year-old trying to put her grief into words.
“I wrote a couple of poems right then to try to say the unthinkable, to deal with that tragedy – much like all the people who wrote poems after 9-11, who only turned to poetry because it seemed the only place to make sense of what happened,” she says.
But Trethewey didn’t think those poems were any good, and she hid them away.
She went on to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English from Georgia, and, with the encouragement of her father, to write poetry seriously. She earned a master’s in poetry from Hollins University and a master’s in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Trethewey eventually – reluctantly – found herself back in Atlanta to take the job at Emory.
“I had sworn to myself that I’d never return to this place – to Atlanta, to Decatur – where I had grown up and where the tragedy happened,” she says.
But, she ultimately figured, a good job is a good job. She found a nice home that, coincidentally, was near the courthouse in which her stepfather had been tried for, and found guilty of, the murder of her mother.
The place – and a few other things – “began to work on me a little bit,” Trethewey says.
She was approaching her 40th birthday – the age of her mother when she was murdered. She was nearing the moment when she had lived as many years without her mother as with her.
She began to write about the loss of her mother again.
“It rained the whole time we were laying her down; Rained from church to grave when we put her down,” Trethewey wrote in her poem “Graveyard Blues” from “Native Guard.”
Once more, she put away the finished poems – this time because they were so personal, not because she didn’t think they were good.
But, when editors asked her for more of her work, she reluctantly sent in these.
They ultimately ended up in “Native Guard” – and winning a Pulitzer Prize.
Trethewey plans to work in the Poetry and Literature Offices in the Jefferson Building during the second half of her term – the first time a laureate has done so since an act of Congress changed the consultant-in-poetry to poet laureate in 1986.
“It’s a place that’s close to my heart both as a poet and an academic researcher,” she says. “I want to be there because it’s a place that I felt nurtured me and my craft. I’m hoping that being there – at the seat of it all, the hub of it all – will give me a way to give back and to honor poetry.”
You can read her poem, “Domestic Work, 1937″ here.