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Natasha Trethewey, poet-historian, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, holder of the Phyllis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry, was named Poet Laureate of both her home state of Mississippi and the United States in 2012.
A Southern Belle
Natasha Trethewe, born in 1966, child of an interracial couple in a day and age when such a marriage was frowned upon and outlawed by miscegenation laws of many Southern states. Her parents, Canadian poet Eric Trethewey and Mississippian social worker Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, met on a college campus in Kentucky, crossed the river to Ohio and got married.
Settling in Gwen’s home town of Gulfport, Mississippi, the family took up residence there until Natasha was six years old when her parents divorced. Natasha split with her mother to Decatur, Georgia but spent summers on the Gulf Coast, visiting her maternal grandmother in Gulfport and her father in New Orleans. It was thisearly childhood seesawing back and forth between the homes of her black mother and grandmother and of her white father that crystallized the experiential differences between the races in Natasha’s young life.
Tragedy Awakens the Poet:
In 1985, Natasha was a 19-year-old freshman studying literature at the University of Georgia in Athens,when her mom was murdered by Joel Grimmette, her second husband whom she divorced two years previously. Natasha revealed in later interviews, this brutal tragedy was the seminal event turning, pivoting her life’s focus to poetry: “I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, 9/11. 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.”
Poetry from Personal Memory and Historical Research:
Trethewey’s manuscript entitled Domestic Work was selected by Rita Dove as winner of the very first Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book by an African American writer, with this comment: “Here is a young poet in full possession of her craft, ready to testify.”
Like most of her published work, these poems blend personal memory with historical research bringing to life the experiences of hitherto-unknown people buried inanonimity of the past—in this case, African American domestic laborers of her grandmother’s generation. Her second book, Belloq’s Ophelia, also a work of historical imagination, consists of poems illuminating the life of one of the early 20th century Storyville prostitutes photographed by E.J. Bellocq.
Imagining Forgotten Civil War Battlefronts:
During her childhood summers on the Gulf Coast, Trethewey visited Ship Island, across from Gulfport, on 4th of July picnics. During these early childhood sojourns and later while undertaking academic studies she learned about the Louisiana Native Guard, the first official regiment of black and Creole Union Army soldiers serving during the Civil War, they were stationed at Fort Massachusetts on the island guarding Confederate prisoners of war.
In an interview she described the discovery that would lead to her third book, Native Guard: “When I took my grandmother to a beachfront restaurant on Ship Island, someone heard our conversation and told me this history that I hadn’t learned my whole life. It occurred to me that there was all kinds of historical erasure like that—things that get left out of the record and are equally important in the history of us as Americans. I started doing research about the guards, and that was what I wanted to write about.” , Trethewey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard in 2007.
Books by Natasha Trethewey:
- Thrall (poems, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
- Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (essays, letters and poems, University of Georgia Press, 2010)
- Native Guard (poems, Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
- Belloq’s Ophelia (poems, Graywolf Press, 2002)
- Domestic Work (poems, Graywolf Press, 2000)
Thanks and a tip of the hat to Aboutcom Poetry for reprin edit….