In this Oct. 10, 2007, file photo, Pulitzer Prize winning author Natasha Trethewey recalls her young years in Mississippi, during a break in her speaking schedule at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. Trethewey was named the Library of Congress’ 19th poet laureate Thursday, June 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)
Poet-historian of the South named US poet in chief
By BRETT ZONGKER
A poet-historian representing a younger generation of writers will soon take office on Capitol Hill, overlooking the politicians, in a lesser-known post enshrined in federal law.
The Library of Congress named Natasha Trethewey on Thursday June 7 to be its 19th U.S. poet laureate with a mission to share the art of poetry with a wider audience. The 46-year-old English and creative writing professor at Atlanta’s Emory University distinguished herself early, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2007.
Trethewey will be the first poet in chief to take up residence in Washington to work at the library’s Poetry Room for part of her term in 2013. As one of the youngest poet laureates ever selected, she also brings fresh perspective to an office more recently held by poets in their 80s.
Part of her work has focused on restoring history that has been erased or forgotten from the official record and the nation’s shared memory. She has researched in the library’s Civil War archive to inform some of her writings.
Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her collection of poems, “Native Guard.” She wrote of the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Civil War regiment assigned to guard white Confederate soldiers held on Ship Island off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
The Confederate prisoners were later memorialized on the island, but not the black Union soldiers.
A stanza reads:
“Some names shall deck the page of history
“as it is written on stone. Some will not.”
Librarian of Congress James Billington, who chose Trethewey after hearing her read at the National Book Festival in Washington, said her work explores many tragedies of the Civil War.
“She’s taking us into history that was never written,” he told The Associated Press. “She takes the greatest human tragedy in American history – the Civil War, 650,000 people killed, the most destructive war of human life for a century – and she takes us inside without preaching.”
It’s a “happy coincidence,” he said, that Trethewey was chosen during the 150th anniversary of the War Between the States. He was also impressed with her skill in translating a visual image into words and moving from rhyme to free verse – but always keeping her poems accessible.
Trethewey began writing poems after a personal tragedy. While she was a college freshman, her mother was killed by a stepfather Trethewey had long feared.
“I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, after 9/11,” she told the AP. “People who never had written poems or turned much to poetry turned to it at that moment because it seems like the only thing that can speak the unspeakable.”
She is the nation’s first poet laureate to hail from the South since the first federal poet – Robert Penn Warren – was named by the Library of Congress in 1986. She is also Mississippi’s top poet and will be the first person to serve simultaneously as a state and U.S. laureate.
Her term, beginning in September, also coincides with the 75th anniversary of the poetry center and a dedicated poet-consultant position at the world’s largest library.
Trethewey said she hopes to promote national activity around poetry and to engage with the library and people who visit the nation’s capital.
Past poet laureates have included W.S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove and Warren – the Southern native who was an inspiration for Trethewey. Their agendas as the nation’s chief poets have included readings across the country, newspaper syndication of poems and poetry readings over high school public address systems.
Poetry lives in the Trethewey family. Her father, Eric Trethewey, is a poet and college professor. But when she went to graduate school, she was more interested in telling stories and studied fiction writing.
“On a dare that first semester, a poet friend of mine got me to write a poem. I did it because I thought I would prove that I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was at that moment that something really clicked.”
Her Pulitzer-winning poems also included her personal history as the daughter of interracial parents – and the story of her mother, who died at the age of 40.
In “Miscegenation,” a poem in “Native Guard,” she wrote about her parents’ journey to Ohio in 1965 for a marriage that was illegal at home in Mississippi.
“They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
“begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi.”
Trethewey’s next collection of poems, “Thrall,” will be published this year. It explores her relationship with her white father and shared and divergent memory within families, along with poems about paintings and the history of knowledge from the Enlightenment.