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Natasha Trethewey Named Poet Laureate

The Mississippi native is the first Southern poet laureate since Robert Penn Warren.

The new poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey. Photograph by Joel Benjamin.

Natasha Trethewey has been named the 19th US poet laureate, succeeding
Phillip Levine. Trethewey, 46, joins a
distinguished line of poets who’ve held the coveted post at the Library
of Congress over the years, including

W.S. Merwin,
Kay Ryan,
Charles Simic, and
Rita Dove. Her duties will begin in the fall.

In a statement released today, the Librarian of Congress,
James H. Billington, says, “Natasha Trethewey is an outstanding poet/historian in the mold of
Robert Penn Warren, our first poet laureate
consultant in poetry. 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.”

Billington told the
New York Times
how struck he was when he saw Trethewey
read her work at the National Book Festival in 2004. (Listen
for yourself
“I admired the way she had a certain classical sound but also
moved easily from traditional forms to free verse. And then
when I began reading her poems for myself, that impression was
just confirmed. It seemed very natural, all of a piece.” He
added: “I go to a fair number of poetry readings, and I’m not
always motivated to go back and read the poems. But in her case
I was.”

Trethewey is the author of three poetry collections, including
Native Guard, (2006), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Her newest collection of poems,
Thrall, is forthcoming later this year. Trethewey is also the author of a nonfiction book,
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010).

Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi,
in 1966, the daughter of an interracial marriage, the experiences of
which inform much of her poems. Though considered to be
mid-career, she’s racked up an enviable amount of accolades,
and honors. She’s the first poet laureate to hail from the South since Robert Penn Warren, and the second African-American to be named to the position (the first was Rita Dove)—though Robert Hayden (1976 to ’78) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1985 to ’86) both served as “consultants in poetry to the Library of Congress” before the official name change to “poet laureate consultant” in 1985 by an act of Congress. An
English and creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta,
Trethewey has elected to reside in the Washington area for the
second half of her term.

For more information on upcoming readings the new US Poet Laureate will give in Washington, visit the Library of Congress’s
Poetry Center