TOPICS > Arts

New Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey ‘Explores the Human Struggles We All Face’

June 7, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Natasha Trethewey was named the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, the Library of Congress announced Thursday -- noting her ability to "dig beneath the surface of history." The NewsHour first profiled her in 2006 for her third book of poems, "Native Guard." Jeffrey Brown reports.
LISTEN SEE PODCASTS

TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, a new poet laureate has been named for the U.S., but she is not new to NewsHour viewers.

Natasha Trethewey will be the 19th laureate appointed by the Library of Congress.

We first profiled Trethewey in 2006 for her third book of poems, “Native Guard.”

NATASHA TRETHEWEY, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet: This is my first trip back to Gulfport since Hurricane Katrina.

It’s been over a year since I have seen the place. And it’s odd to come back here after having written this book, seeing the places that I was trying to elegize years ago when I first started working on these poems in a very figurative sense, because I was distant from these places, not that these places were actually gone.

And now, as I walk around here today, I realize that those poems that I wrote have become quite literal, that Gulfport really is destroyed, and so many of those places that I connect to my childhood and growing up are no longer here.

When I was born here in Gulfport in 1966, my parents’ interracial marriage was still illegal. And it was very hard to drive around town with my parents, to be out in public with my parents.

We’re going to Ship Island, the home of Fort Massachusetts, which is just off the coast of Gulfport, Mississippi, my hometown. We’re going out there to try to remember the Louisiana Native Guards, who were the first officially sanctioned regiment of African-American soldiers, Union soldiers in the Civil War, who were stationed at the island.

I used to come out here every Fourth of July as a child to picnic and to swim on the island, to tour the fort and wander through it. And all of that time, I never knew anything about the presence of black soldiers on the island. And so, for me, this was a way of trying to tell another history, a lost or a forgotten or a little-known history about these black soldiers who played an important part in American history.

“The Daughters of the Confederacy has placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance, each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard in bronze, no names carved for the Native Guards, 2nd Regiment, Union men, black phalanx.

What is monument to their legacy?

“All the grave markers, all the crude headstones, water lost. Now fish dart among their bones, and we listen for what the waves intone. Only the fort remains, near 40 feet high, round, unfinished, half-open to the sky, the elements, wind, rain, God’s deliberate eye.”

JEFFREY BROWN: In 2007, “Native Guard” was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

Natasha Trethewey officially takes up her duties in the fall. You can watch much more of her, as well as readings, profiles and interviews with 11 other former U.S. poet laureates on our Art Beat page.