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Natasha Trethewey: Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry

by Penne J. Laubenthal

Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey is a poet who gives voice to the voiceless, names to the nameless, and who creates monuments in words for those whom history has forgotten. Relying on photographs, personal memory, and bits of oral history, Trethewey preserves in poetry a piece of history which would have been lost in time. “I’ve been interested in historical erasure and historical amnesia for a long time, those things that get left out of the record,” says Trethewey. “ I am interested in what has gone before that can’t be gotten back.” As Trethewey demonstrates, poetry is a means of reclaiming and eulogizing that moment. “ Robert Hass said (in "Meditations at Lagunitas") ‘a word is elegy to what it signifies.’”

Trethewey’s most recent book of poetry, the prize winning Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), commemorates a regiment of black soldiers, the 2nd regiment of the Louisiana Native Guards, many of whom were killed by “friendly fire’ and whose deaths were called an “unfortunate accident.” Trethewey found out about the Louisiana Native Guards quite by accident when she was visiting Ship Island near her birthplace of Gulfport, Mississippi. There were no monuments for the slain guardsmen or any record of their lives. “In the South, a lot of times the history that is around us is a Confederate history. You might think the South actually won the war because of all the monuments.”

In the same volume, Trethewey also pays tribute to her mother Gwendolyn Turnbough Trethewey who was killed in 1985 by her second husband, whom she had divorced about a year earlier. Trethewey says it took twenty years for her to be able to write about the death of her mother. The poems in Native Guard are at the same time both deeply personal and universal, preserving in language both personal and collective memory. The theme of loss is pervasive throughout the volume. “For the sake of sanity, there is a lot of necessary forgetting,” observes Trethewey. “But the trick is to balance forgetting with necessary remembering, to avoid historical amnesia.”

Shortly after she received the Pulitzer Prize, Trethewey was interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. At that time, she discussed several themes that recur in the poems of Native Guard—the theme of race (her father was white and her mother African American), her mother’s murder, and the members of the Louisiana Native Guards who were slaughtered and left unburied and unacknowledged.

Trethewey was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi, to Eric Trethewey (currently a professor at Hollins University and the author of five volumes of poetry) and Gwendolyn Turnbough Trethewey. A number of Trethewey’s poem deal with the problems of being, as Langston Hughes said in his poem "Cross," “neither white nor black.” In "Miscegenation" Trethewey speaks of the two laws her parents broke before she was born—leaving Mississippi to be married in Ohio and returning to Mississippi.

Her parents divorced before Trethewey started grade school, and she moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where her mother attended graduate school and became director of the DeKalb County Department of Mental Health prior to her death in 1985. Trethewey spent the summers of her youth with her maternal grandmother in Mississippi and in New Orleans with her father. Always a lover words, she said that her father would encourage her to write poems. “My father used to encourage me on long car trips, if I got bored, to write a poem. He used to say that it is a problem if you don’t have inner resources.”

Even at a young age Trethewey spent much of her time in a library reading as many books as possible. There are numerous allusions to the works of William Faulkner in her poems (“I know more than Joe Christmas did.” she writes in "Miscegenation"). In the poem "Pastoral," she begins by identifying with the Fugitive Poets and concludes with having them say (echoing the words of Quentin Compson at the end of Absalom, Absalom!) “You don’t hate the south? they ask. You don’t hate it?”

When Trethewey was nineteen, her mother was killed by her ex-husband, Trethewey’s stepfather. The poem "What is Evidence" speaks of the abuse her mother suffered at the hands of her second husband (now serving two consecutive life terms in the Georgia state prison) “the bruises she’d cover with makeup” and concludes with “her thin bones/ settling a bit each day, the way all things do.” Trethewey says of her step-father, “He had a history of violence. He killed her so no one else could have her.”

Trethewey’s two previous collections of poetry are Domestic Work (Graywolf Press 2000) and Bellocq's Ophelia.( Graywolf Press 2002). Domestic Work, which celebrates the life of her maternal grandmother and the dignity of honest work, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet. Rita Dove who makes the selection for the award said “Trethewey eschews the Polaroid instant, choosing to render the unsuspecting yearnings and tremulous hopes that accompany our most private thoughts—reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie, for strength."

In Bellocq’s Ophelia, Trethewey takes her inspiration from the photographs of E. J. Bellocq who immortalized the working girls of Storyville, the red light district in New Orleans.between 1899 and 1917. She received a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue her work on Bellocq's Ophelia, (poems based on her work as a graduate student about photographs of prostitutes in the 1900's in New Orleans), and she won the Grolier Poetry Prize for the poem "Storyville Diary.” The motif of photography as a “given image” recurs in the poetry of Trethewey. “I am interested in what exists outside the frame, ” she says.

Throughout Trethwey's career, she has received many awards. Her second collection, Bellocq's Ophelia, received the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, was a finalist for both the Academy of American Poets' James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association. Her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2003 and 2000, and in journals such as Agni, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and The Southern Review, among others. 

Trethewey has a B.A. in English from the University of Georgia, an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University, and an M.F.A in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has taught at Auburn University, the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill, and Duke University where she was the 2005-2006 Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies.

Currently, Trethewey is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where she holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry.

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