The United States named its 19th poet laureate on June 7: Natasha Trethewey, a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. She is the nation’s first poet laureate to hail from the South since the initial laureate — Robert Penn Warren — was named by the Library of Congress in 1986.
Tretheway, 46, is a southerner through and through. She was born in Gulfport, Miss., which was also her mother’s hometown. Her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, was a social worker, a black woman who’d fallen in love with a Canadian emigre and poet, Eric Trethewey, while at college in Kentucky.
Tretheway’s parents had to cross into Ohio to get married in 1965. In her poem “Miscegenation,” she wrote about her parents’ journey to Ohio 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.
They divorced when Natasha was 6. Trethewey attended college at the University of Georgia and while there, her mother was murdered by her estranged second husband.
“I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, after 9/11,” Trethewey told The Associated Press. “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.”
Trethewey’s work explores issues of mixed race, history and memory. She’s published four books, including a meditation on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast called Beyond Katrina. In 2007, Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for her third book of poetry, Native Guard, a collection that explored a black Civil War regiment assigned to guard white Confederate soldiers held on Ship Island off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The poems focused partly on history that was erased because it was never recorded.
Read NPR’s full article on Trethewey here.