Pulitzer Prize-winner Natasha Trethewey will be the 19th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, the Library of Congress announced on Thursday.
“Natasha Trethewey is an outstanding poet/historian in the mold of Robert Penn Warren, our first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry,” Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a statement. “Her poems dig beneath the surface of history–personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago — to explore the human struggles that we all face.”
Born in Gulfport, Miss., in 1966, Trethewey’s work has chronicled the complicated history of her own family and that of the South. As the daughter of a black mother and white father, an interracial union that was still illegal in Mississippi at the time, “it was very hard to drive around town with my parents, to be out in public with my parents,” she told the NewsHour in 2006. Her hometown was later ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. The shotgun houses in the neighborhood where she was born and raised were destroyed.
With the NewsHour, she returned home for the first time following the storm to discuss her third collection of poems, “Native Guard,” which went on to win the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.
“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,” Trethewey said.
The poems in “Native Guard” are set on Ship Island, just off Gulfport, and are inspired by the Louisiana Native Guards, the first sanctioned regiment of black Union soldiers in the Civil War stationed on 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.” Trethewey said.
Coincidentally, she was born “exactly 100 years to the day that Mississippi celebrated the first Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1866.”
After she won the Pulitzer Prize, we caught up with Trethewey in our studio:
Trethewey’s 2010 book, “Beyond Katrina,” is a personal account of how the people of the Gulf Coast region, including her family, have lived with the threat and consequences of natural disasters for generations.
“Oddly, not until after Katrina did I come to see that the history of one storm, Camille — and the ever-present possibility of others — helped to define my relationship to the place from which I come,” Trethewey writes.
“There are so many things that haven’t come back,” Trethewey told Art Beat in 2010. “There are these big gaps where my own history seems to have vanished. All these buildings that were landmarks of my own past [are] gone.”
The storm hit her own family hard. Her grandmother, who had also been born and raised in North Gulfport, survived Hurricane Camille in 1969, but was forced to flee to Atlanta after Katrina. She died there, never able to return home. Trethewey’s brother Joe, who before the hurricane had recently begun to make a living renting the family’s shotgun houses in the area, found himself listless after the storm which destroyed their property.
“At first, there was nothing to do but watch,” Trethewey writes in her poem “Watcher.” “For days, before the trucks arrived, before the work / of cleanup, my brother sat on the stoop and watched.”
Out of work, Joe got into trouble and was sent to jail for trafficking cocaine. Her family’s story was the basis for “Beyond Katrina,” and the collection even contains a poem by Joe, who began writing in prison.
Trethewey will be the first U.S. Poet Laureate to actually take up a residency at the Library of Congress, starting in spring 2013. She is also far younger than the last two to hold the honor. At 84, Philip Levine is the outgoing laureate. He followed W.S. Merwin, who was also in his 80s when he was named to the post.
“I am thrilled our next Poet Laureate will spend the second half of her term in the Library’s ‘Catbird Seat,'” said Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress. “There she will impact the capital and the country even more powerfully, as one of our great poets of reclamation and reckoning.”
In January, Trethewey was named Poet Laureate of Mississippi, a four-year position she will retain while serving as U.S. Poet Laureate. She is also a professor of creative writing at Emory University.
Trethewey’s first poetry collection, “Domestic Work,” won the inaugural 1999 Cave Canem poetry prize, a 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Her second collection, “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” received the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, was a finalist for both the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association.
Below, Trethewey reads from “Native Guard.” You can also read the poems here on our Poetry Series page.
Here are links to conversations with past U.S. Poet Laureates:
Rita Dove, 1993-1995
Robert Hass, 1995-1997
Robert Pinksy, 1997-2000
Stanley Kunitz, 2000-2001
Billy Collins, 2001-2003
Ted Kooser, 2004-2006
Donald Hall, 2006-2007
Charles Simic, 2007-2008
Kay Ryan, 2008-2010
W.S. Merwin, 2010-2011
Philip Levine, 2011-2012