New U.S. Poet Laureate: A Southerner To The Core

Jun 7, 2012
Originally published on June 7, 2012 5:54 pm

The United States named its 19th poet laureate today: 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.

Librarian of Congress James Billington, who chose Trethewey after hearing her read at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., said her work explores forgotten history and the many human tragedies of the Civil War.

"She's taking us into history that was never written," he told the AP. "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.

Trethewey will be the first poet laureate to take up residence in Washington in January 2013 and work directly in the library's Poetry Room since the position was created by federal law. The poet historian will be among the youngest laureates and said she hopes to promote national activity around the writings and engage with the library and people who visit it in the nation's capital.

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.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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The country has a new poet laureate today. She is Natasha Trethewey, a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.


Trethewey is just the second poet laureate to hail from the South. She was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966, the daughter of an interracial couple. Her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, was African-American and a social worker.

SIEGEL: Her father was white, a Canadian emigre and poet named Eric Trethewey. They met at college in Kentucky and had to cross into Ohio to get married. They divorced when Natasha was six. Her mother remarried and was later murdered by her second husband.

CORNISH: Natasha Trethewey's work explores issues of mixed race, history and memory. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007 and we're going to take a moment now to hear her read one of her poems. It's called "Hot Combs."

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Hot combs. At the junk shop, I find an old pair, black with grease, the teeth still pungent as burning hair. One is small, fine-toothed as if for a child. Holding it, I think of my mother's slender wrist, the curve of her neck as she leaned over the stove, her eyes shut as she pulled the wooden handle and laid flat the wisps at her temples. The heat in our kitchen made her glow that morning. I watched her wincing, the hot comb singing her brow, sweat glistening above her lips. Her face made strangely beautiful as only suffering can do.

SIEGEL: The new poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, reading her poem, "Hot Combs." Trethewey teaches English at Emory University in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.