WASHINGTON – Natasha Trethewey began writing poems after a personal tragedy.
While Trethewey was a college freshman, her mother was killed by a stepfather Tretheway 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 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, 46, an English and creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, has been named the 19th U.S. poet laureate Thursday.
The Pulitzer Prize winner is the nation’s first poet laureate to hail from the South since the initial one 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.
Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems, “Native Guard.” They focused partly on history that was erased because it was never recorded. 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 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. Billington said he was 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 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 in federal law. Her term, beginning in September, also coincides with the 75th anniversary of the poetry center and a poet-consultant position at the world’s largest library.
The poet historian will be among the youngest laureates and said she hopes to promote national activity around the writings and to engage with the library and people who visit it in the nation’s capital. She has a personal connection to its vast holdings after researching her Civil War poetry in the library’s records.
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.