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Poetic License: US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

Trethewey has known prejudice, violence, and loss. Now US poet laureate, she triumphs through the power of words.

Trethewey’s mother was black, her father white: “When I was born, there were still states with anti-miscegenation laws.” Photograph by Stephen Voss.

In 1965, the year Lyndon Johnson was sworn in for his second term as President, Malcolm X was assassinated, and Alabama state troopers beat 600 civil-rights workers so brutally that the protest was dubbed Bloody Sunday, Natasha Trethewey’s black mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, and her white father, Eric Trethewey, traveled to Ohio to get married. After the wedding, they returned to Turnbough’s native Mississippi, where their marriage was illegal under state law. Natasha Trethewey was born a year later. She writes about the wedding in her poem “Miscegenation”:

They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name

begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong—mis in Mississippi.

More than four decades later, Trethewey, 47, sits in a corner office in the Library of Congress, with windows overlooking the Capitol and Mall. Soft-spoken and poised, she seems at home in the elegant room, furnished with velvet chairs and a 19th-century writing desk barely big enough to hold a laptop.

Last summer, Trethewey was appointed the 19th US poet laureate, making her the first Southerner in that office since Robert Penn Warren was named in 1986 and the first African-American since Rita Dove 20 years ago. It’s a remarkable achievement for a midcareer poet—Trethewey thought the call from the library was a prank—though she already has a résumé full of honors, including, on top of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, a 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

As poet laureate, Trethewey is one of the most prominent people working in the field today, with the responsibility of promoting poetry nationwide. During the first half of her one-year term, she gave readings and spoke to students across the country. As of January, she’s the first laureate to take up residence in Washington, spending the next few months working at the library’s Poetry and Literature Center. The timing, she acknowledges, is apt, given that a biracial President is living just a couple of miles away: “When he was born and when I was born, there were still states that had anti-miscegenation laws, and that wasn’t that long ago.”

• • •

Trethewey’s appointment coincides with the 75th anniversary of the Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center, at a time when poets are making increasing efforts to define their genre as relevant to people who have never experienced it outside a classroom. Rob Casper, head of the program since 2011, has tripled the library’s poetry programs and events. “I’m always struck anew by how literate and engaged the community in the DC area is,” Casper says. “When we first spoke with Natasha, she began by asking if she could spend more time here, and it dovetailed perfectly with our efforts to bring poets and writers in and offer the community the chance to know them.”

Librarian of Congress James Billington first encountered Trethewey at the National Book Festival in 2004. “I was enormously impressed with not just the quality but the stature and beauty of her presentation,” he says. “It was a reminder that poetry is fundamentally meant to be recited, to be shared.”

Trethewey describes her job as being a “cheerleader” for the genre: “People turn to poetry in tumultuous times. A lot of poems were written after 9/11 because people were trying to find a vessel—a way to speak the unspeakable. If people came to that idea more, they’d see that poetry is not only a place to grieve but also to celebrate joy, births, marriages, and even the ordinariness of the day.”

• • •

Trethewey knows grief first-hand—she describes it in poems as “space emptied by loss” and “the constant forsaking” of losing a loved one. When she was 19 and a freshman at the University of Georgia, her mother was murdered by her second husband, Joel Grimmette, whom she’d divorced the year before. Says Trethewey: “It seemed to me that poetry was the only way to try to deal with that sense of loss.”

After her mother’s death, Trethewey started writing poems, but she was too afraid to show them to her college professor: “She would have had to tell me how bad they were, and I already knew.”

She shelved poetry for a few years, finishing her English degree and getting an MA from Hollins University and an MFA from the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “I thought I was going to be a fiction writer.”

One day during grad school, a friend dared her to write a poem. Trethewey bet him that she couldn’t but then found that she could—and that the resulting poem wasn’t all that bad. She realized she just hadn’t read enough poetry to know how to write it.

While at UMass Amherst in the mid-’90s, Trethewey joined the Dark Room Collective, a group of African-American writers founded by Thomas Sayers Ellis and Sharan Strange, then Harvard students. Established as a reading series, the collective became a breeding ground for a generation of black poets, including Kevin Young (who went on to be a National Book Award finalist), Major Jackson (author of three collections and recipient of a Pew Fellowship), and Tracy K. Smith (a Pulitzer winner last year). In 1996, the New Yorker said the group “could turn well out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem Renaissance.”

• • •

In 2000, Trethewey published her first collection, Domestic Work. It was selected by Rita Dove for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize—awarded to “exceptional manuscripts by African American poets”—and received the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Inspired in part by the experiences of her maternal grandmother and photographs of black domestic workers before the civil-rights era, the book marked the start of Trethewey’s exploration of history through family.

Her second collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia, published in 2002, drew inspiration from E.J. Bellocq’s photographs of prostitutes in New Orleans’s Storyville district in the early 1900s. The heroine, Ophelia, is, as the book puts it, “a very white-skinned black woman mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon” who knows that however she poses for the photographer in her room, “this photograph we make / will bear the stamp of his name, not mine.” The book received wide acclaim, winning the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award and being named a notable book of the year by the American Library Association.

In 2001, Trethewey joined the faculty of Atlanta’s Emory University, working in the same city where her mother died and living within walking distance of the courthouse where her stepfather was given two life sentences for the murder. “I never planned to come back here,” she said in 2008, “but a job’s a job… . I think it was impossible for me not to return.”

Photograph by Stephen Voss.

She channeled the feelings that emerged from that return into 2006’s Native Guard, the Pulitzer-winning collection that explored Trethewey’s heritage, her mother’s death, and the black Mississippi regiment that fought for the Union during the Civil War. If the book’s origins were humble—Trethewey told the New York Times she received “a regular poetry kind of advance for it, around $2,000”—it became the work that established her as a major figure in the field.

In the book’s first section, Trethewey mines her sorrow following her mother’s death. She writes in “Myth”:

I was asleep while you were dying It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow I make between my slumber and my waking.

Much of Native Guard was researched at the Library of Congress, where Trethewey would look through a list of holdings in the Madison Building, ask for boxes containing documents from the Civil War, then spend afternoons reading letters from soldiers.

The last part of Native Guard explores memories from Trethewey’s childhood. When she was very young, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on her parents’ lawn, an act Trethewey talks about in her poem “Incident,” describing the gathered men as “white as angels in their gowns.”

One Christmas, her parents bought her a blond ballerina doll with a matching outfit for herself. “… I didn’t know to ask,” she writes in “Blond,” “nor that it mattered, / if there’d been a brown version… .”

After her parents divorced when she was six, she divided her time between living in Atlanta with her African-American mother, a social worker, and summers with her white father, who was studying for a doctorate at Tulane in New Orleans. Trethewey began to experience how differently she was treated depending on the parent she was with. In “Blond,” she says that “… with my skin color, / like a good tan—an even mix of my parents’—I could have passed for white.”

But it was spending time with her father that gave her a sense of what it might be like to be a writer: “We’d spend the morning in the stacks at the library, and then in the afternoon he and his friends would go running in the park and I’d get on my bike and go with them. Then we’d go back to someone’s porch and they’d have a nightcap and talk about things that sounded so philosophical and interesting, and they’d recite poems and argue. I thought: That’s the life I want.”

Her father, now a professor of poetry at Hollins, encouraged her interests in literature at an early age, showing her Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” a poem describing a boy dancing with his tipsy father while his mother looks on disapprovingly. “I wrote one of my first poems in traditional form after reading that,” she says. “It’s still one that’s my favorite to recite.”

• • •

Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971

Why the rough edge of beauty? Why
the tired face of a woman, suffering,
made luminous by the camera’s eye?

Or the storm that drives us inside
for days, power lines down, food rotting
in the refrigerator, while outside

the landscape glistens beneath a glaze
of ice? Why remember anything
but the wonder of those few days,

the iced trees, each leaf in its glassy case?
The picture we took that first morning,
the front yard a beautiful, strange place—

why on the back has someone made a list
of our names, the date, the event: nothing
of what’s inside—mother, stepfather’s fist?

From “Native Guard,” copyright © 2006 by Natasha Trethewey. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

An equally deft writer of prose, Trethewey is working on a memoir—the subject of what the New York Times called a “heated auction.” In 2010, she published a nonfiction book called Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, which deals with her complex feelings about her home state as well as the impact of her mother’s death on her half brother, Joel. After his father, who shares his name, was arrested, ten-year-old Joel went to live with his grandmother. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, with work almost impossible to find, Joel—then in his thirties—agreed to transport cocaine for an acquaintance and was sent to jail, the same year Trethewey won her Pulitzer. (He was released in 2009.)

The memoir, Trethewey says, will explore her mother’s life and the side of her she never knew: “I didn’t get to know her as a human being beyond Mom. I was just a freshman in college [when she died], and the relationship we had where I was a kid and she was a parent hadn’t evolved into knowing her as a person. I’d like to know her like that.”

At the core of her research is a box of documents, including letters her mother sent to her father when they started dating in the ’60s, others they exchanged after the divorce, photographs, and the police report filed after her death, which included the contents of her briefcase. “There was a 13-page narrative she’d started writing about her life, about her difficult [second] marriage, and about her decision to try to escape it,” Trethewey says. “That decision in many ways was a dangerous one. And yet I knew she did it because of me.”

Trethewey says writing about her childhood, her mother, and the tragedy of losing her helps her process it all: “If I’m writing about my childhood, I’m writing about a moment in which I was not in control. But when I write it, because I’m shaping events and crafting the language, I do have control and it transforms it.”

• • •

Just as native guard is about her mother, Thrall, published last year, is about her father. Trethewey describes it as much harder to write because her father is still alive and the poems concern an ongoing relationship: “Because we’re poets, our conversation is both private and public. And because of what I had to say, it seemed that the poems were the best way, the most elegant way, to talk about what’s difficult between us.”

In “Enlightenment,” Trethewey writes of returning to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello with her father, years after the pair visited when she was young:

Imagine stepping back into the past,

our guide tells us then—and I can’t resist

whispering to my father: This is where

we split up. I’ll head around to the back.

When he laughs, I know he’s grateful.

I’ve made a joke of it, this history

that links us—white father, black daughter—

even as it renders us other to each other.

Asked what it means to her to be US poet laureate, Trethewey pauses, then says, “It’s a bigger honor than I can describe,” her eyes filling with tears. Sworn to secrecy until the news was made public, she persuaded her father to fly to Atlanta the day of the announcement and broke the news as she was driving him to a restaurant. “He hugged me so hard,” she says. “I know that he’s very proud. It feels like a culmination of everything he told me I could do when I was a little girl.”

• • •

Among the many firsts on Trethewey’s résumé is that she’s the first poet to serve as national and state poet laureate simultaneously. Governor Haley Barbour appointed her in her native Mississippi shortly before he left office.

It’s hard to imagine someone having a more layered relationship with her home state. “It is my homeland and my native land,” she told an audience at Emory last year. “I love the South because it is mine.”

The final lines of the last poem in Native Guard read: “… I return / to Mississippi, state that made a crime / of me—mulatto, half-breed—native / in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.”

And yet, looking out across the Mall at the monuments paying tribute to American heroes, Trethewey seems to feel at home in Washington as well. “Being in the presence of history and a place so rooted in the national imagination—it’s so interesting to me,” she says. “I like it very much. I think I could live here.”

This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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