Mississippian chosen as U.S. poet laureate
Published 12:13 pm Thursday, June 7, 2012
Gulfport native Natasha Trethewey began writing poems after a personal tragedy.
While she was a college freshman, her mother was killed by a stepfather Trethewey 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.”
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Trethewey, 46, an English and creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, will be named the 19th U.S. poet laureate today.
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 also is 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 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.
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 said.
Past poet laureates have included W.S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove and Warren — the last poet laureate from the South and 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.
Trethewey’s next collection of poems, “Thrall,” will be published this year.