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”:
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.”