Natasha Trethewey, the United States’ 19th Poet Laureate, will give her first reading at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. this Thursday.
Trethewey became the national Poet Laureate in June of this year. The reading later this week will kickstart her duties in the role.
The “poet-historian,” as the Library of Congress describes her, was born and raised in the South, hailing from Gulfport, Mississipi, the state in which she currently holds another Poet Laureate title. Trethewey is also Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta. Besides teaching, the poet and author has published four collections since 2000 and one work of non-fiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Her 2006 collection, Native Guard, won her the esteemed Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Of her poetry, James Billington of the Library of Congress has said Trethewey
inter-mixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it. It is her ability to weave the present and the past, to engage the public and the personal, and to give language to the unsaid that makes Trethewey’s poems of such lasting import.
The history Billington references is Trethewey’s own family history, which her poetry relates to the “racial legacy of America” as a whole. At the time of her birth, Trethewey’s parents’ marriage wasn’t legally recognized; on Natasha’s birth certificate her mother’s ethnicity was recorded as “colored,” her father’s “Canadian.” The Supreme Court reversed anti-miscegenation laws a year later, but the impact of racial prejudice surely struck the future poet from a young age. Later, the family tragedy that was her mother’s murder further spurred Trethewey to become a poet, if anything to simply “make sense of what had happened.” Her mother’s life became the inspiration behind Native Guard, which is dedicated to her memory.
Perhaps one of the best examples of the weaving between present and past, public and personal stories, is found in the poem “Letter Home”:
I sit watching–
though I pretend not to notice–the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown
as your dear face, they’d know I’m not quite
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,
a negress again. There are enough things here
to remind me who I am.
For a preview of her upcoming reading, view the clip below recorded at Trethewey’s April 12th recitation at the Poetry Foundation in Chicago, courtesy of Poets & Writers magazine and the Dark Room Collective.