Written by: Rikki Lux
“They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi.”
So begins “Miscegenation,” a poem by freshly appointed U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey. The subject of the poem is her parents’ 1965 quest to marry outside of their home state of Mississippi because their interracial union was illegal. Born of a black mother and white father, Trethewey has utilized her own history to write her Pultizer Prize winning poetry.
When Trethewey, 46-year-old English professor at Atlanta’s Emory University and poet-historian, received the happy news earlier this week, she stated, “I’m still a little in disbelief.”
Others were more expectant of her appointment as 19th U.S. Poet Laureate. “The appointment of Natasha Trethewey is a very welcome event,” said Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and a long-time Trethewey fan. “She writes out of the complicated history of the region, and even from her own complicated history.”
Trethewey’s interpretation of history is what has gained her notoriety. Her 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poems “Native Guard” is about an all black Civil War regiment that guarded imprisoned white Confederate soldiers. In “Native Guard” she comments on the memorialization of the white soldiers, but not the black:
“Some names shall deck the page of history
as it is written on stone. Some will not.”
“Native Guard” follows the tragedies of the Civil War, especially the ones we have never read about. “She’s taking us into history that was never written,” said Librarian of Congress James Billington, the man who first became aware of Trethewey after he heard her read at the 2004 National Book Festival in Washington. Her work, in the form of sonnets and free verse, interprets history and transforms memory. Of her prose style, Billington comments, “I admired the way she had a certain classical sound but also moved easily from traditional forms to free verse.”
The beginning of Trethewey’s career began in her freshmen year of college when her 40-year-old mother was murdered. She reported to the Associated Press, “I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, after 9/11.” Therefore, memory is a pervasive theme in her poems – and not only her own. She sought to write the histories of people who would not be represented under most circumstances.
Her first volume, published in 2000, is called “Domestic Work” and focuses on the lives of laborers – black maids, cleaning women, and workers in factories. Published in 2002, “Bellocq’s Ophelia” is a novella that tells the story of a prostitute, followed by her 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning work “Native Guard” that was written from the perspective of black Civil War soldiers. Her first non-fiction book, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast” was published in 2010.
Trethewey, born in Mississippi and now living in Decatur, Ga., is the first Southerner to hold the post since original laureate Robert Penn Warren, and the first African-American since 1993 U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove.
This fall, her fourth collection of poetry titled “Thrall” will be published. In the poems, she will analyze her relationship with her white father, as well as the subject of family memories.