Her Calling

As the new US poet laureate, professor Natasha Trethewey hopes to illuminate histories ‘lost or forgotten’

By Mary Loftus

Portrait of Natasha Trethewey at home with her dog

Natasha Trethewey

Kay Hinton

High-angle image of Trethewey in spotlight on stage reading to large audience

Trethewey gives the keynote for the 2012 Decatur Book Festival at Emory’s Schwartz Center.

Photo by Ann Borden

Natasha Trethewey’s earliest memory is of taking a trip from Mississippi to Mexico with her parents when she was three years old. She knows how old she was because she has a photograph her father took of her sitting on a mule, the Monterrey mountains in the background, with “Tasha, 1969” written on the back.

Eric Trethewey was a white college professor and poet originally from Canada, and Natasha’s mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a black social worker from Gulfport. Her parents married when it was still illegal for interracial couples to do so in Mississippi, driving to Ohio and back for the ceremony.

The images from Mexico that stayed with a young Trethewey: the drive through the desert and the mountains, a hotel room with light coming in the bathroom window, someone washing their hands in the sink, a white tile floor.

And this: nearly drowning in the hotel swimming pool.

“I vividly remember sinking into the water and looking up. The sun was bright and I could see the rings on the surface of the water as it was smoothing back above me,” says Trethewey. “Then I saw my mother leaning over me, the outline of her, backlit by the sun.”

Book cover for Thrall

From this enduring memory came the poem “Calling,” from Thrall, her recently released fourth collection of poetry:

“. . . What comes back
is the sun’s dazzle on a pool’s surface,
light filtered through water
closing over my head, my mother—her body
between me and the high sun, a corona of light
around her face. Why not call it
a vision? What I know is this:
I was drowning and saw a dark Madonna . . .”

Trethewey, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory, was named the country’s nineteenth poet laureate consultant in poetry on June 7. At forty-six, she is one of the youngest to hold the title, and the first Southerner in more than a quarter-century.

“ ‘Permission’ is the word that I think of first,” she says of the appointment. “I feel as if I have permission to be the poet that I am, to have my concerns and investigate them, and that’s liberating.”

Established in 1936 as the chair of poetry with a gift from the philanthropist Archer Huntington, the US poet laureate is selected by the librarian of Congress with input from former poet laureates, the library’s Poetry and Literature Center, critics, and recommendations from the public.

“Natasha Trethewey is an outstanding poet and historian in the mold of Robert Penn Warren, our first poet laureate consultant in poetry,” said Librarian of Congress James H. Billington. “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.”

The poet laureate receives $35,000 and serves from October through May; he or she may be appointed for an additional term. A sampling of past poets laureate includes Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Conrad Aiken, Robert Frost, James Dickey, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, and Billy Collins (who, during a talk at Emory in January, said that his first reading in front of Congress was “terrifying. They were cocking their heads at me like border collies”).

The “poet-in-chief” has few official duties. Over the years, these have included working on his or her own poetry, giving public readings, surveying the existing collections at the Library of Congress, corresponding with authors and collectors, conferring with scholars and other poets, answering inquiries from the public, and editing a quarterly literary magazine. Trethewey sees the laureateship as a type of ambassador role, through which she can welcome the public to the unexpected power of poetry.

“Social justice may not be the aim when poets sit down to write, but it can be an outcome,” she says.

Born on April 26, 1966 (Confederate Memorial Day, as she often notes), in the seaport city of Gulfport, Mississippi, Trethewey moved to Atlanta with her mother after her parents divorced when she was six. She made frequent visits to her father and stepmother’s home in New Orleans and spent summers with her maternal grandmother in Gulfport.

Bored and lonely, with no one her age around, she immersed herself in books, taking on an entire set of 1967 encyclopedias. “One day I came upon the section ‘Races of Man,’ where I learned what were supposed to be distinguishing racial characteristics—that if you were white, the ratio of femur to tibia was different than if you were black . . . I sneaked into my grandmother’s workroom to steal away with her tape measure, thinking it would finally reveal to me who and what I was,” she recalled in a Distinguished Faculty Lecture.

Encouraged by her father to write about her feelings and experiences, Trethewey earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, a master’s degree in English and creative writing from Virginia’s Hollins University, and an MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Poetry, says Trethewey, makes us “more observant, more compassionate, empathetic. I write because I cannot stand by and say nothing, because I strive to make sense of the world I’ve been given.”

In addition to Thrall, which focuses on racial complexities in the Americas and her somewhat fraught relationship with her father, Trethewey has published Domestic Work (2000), which recognizes generations of anonymous women who cooked, cleaned, and tended to families not their own; Bellocq’s Ophelia (2001), inspired by early 1900 photos by E. J. Bellocq of prostitutes in the red-light district of New Orleans; the Pulitzer Prize―winning Native Guard (2006), which memorializes both the Louisiana Native Guard and her mother, who was killed by her abusive second husband; and a nonfiction work, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010). She has been honored with the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Grolier Poetry Prize, and a Pushcart Prize, as well as the Pulitzer.

Her poetry is often elegiac; she writes about “buried history, and what was lost or forgotten”—whether the bravery of black Union soldiers, grief over her mother’s untimely death, or the dreams of domestic workers for something better. “These poems are not only about racism and the sense of psychological exile created by that, but they are very much of an assertion of my entitlement to own the South, much as white Southerners own it—the deep knowledge that this is where they’ll bury me,” says Trethewey, who is also Mississippi’s current poet laureate.

She has even written, presciently, of being included in a dream gathering of “Fugitive Poets” lining up for a photo against the backdrop of Atlanta’s skyline.

“…Yes,
I say to the glass of bourbon I’m offered.
We’re lining up now—Robert Penn Warren,
his voice just audible above the drone
of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.
Say ‘race,’ the photographer croons. I’m in
blackface again when the flash freezes us.
My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?”

Since the Library of Congress announcement in early June, Trethewey has been the focus of a media maelstrom, with coverage by NPR (“New US Poet Laureate: A Southerner to the Core”), the Atlantic (“How Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey Wrote Her Father’s ‘Elegy’ ”), the New York Times (“New Laureate Looks Deep into Memory”), the cover of Poets and Writers magazine, and dozens more.

The attention is both wonderful and wearying, since, despite the personal nature of her work, Trethewey considers herself a very private person. “I know that must sound strange once you read my poems,” she says, “But even a poet writing very close to their own experience will still put on a mask. There is a kind of elegant control of the material in terms of what is revealed and what is held back.”

On sabbatical from teaching at Emory for the fall, Trethewey has nevertheless made time to serve as a faculty adviser to incoming students (who were no doubt surprised to find the sitting poet laureate as their freshman adviser), a returning faculty member at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, and the opening night keynote for the annual book festival in Decatur, where she lives with her husband, Brett Gadsden, an associate professor of African American studies at Emory.

She gave her inaugural reading as poet laureate on September 13 at the Library of Congress, where she filled the 485-seat Coolidge Auditorium and an overflow room, and was greeted with a standing ovation.

“I already feel like that space is a poetic space for me,” she told Middlebury Magazine, soon after the announcement. “When I was working on Native Guard I did a lot of writing and research in the library—I would go over to the Madison building, which houses all of the manuscripts, and read through the letters from Civil War soldiers in the collections there. And then I would go back over to the Jefferson, which is where the big beautiful reading room is, and I would sit there with my notes and start writing.”

Trethewey’s poems, which range from ballad to sonnet to free verse, are meditative yet straightforward, bursting with sensory imagery but not overwrought. Her metaphors take root in the natural world, offering a plum’s tautness, palm fronds blown back like a woman’s hair, gliding pelican shadows as dark thoughts crossing the mind. She doesn’t steer clear of emotions, but embraces them, giving voice to scarred-over grievances, tightly held joys, loved ones’ casual betrayals, our nation’s collective dirty laundry—sometimes quite literally.

Domestic Work, writes friend and former US Poet Laureate Rita Dove, “tells the hard facts of lives pursued on the margins, lived out under oppression and in scripted oblivion, with fear and a tremulous hope . . . reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie, for strength.”

The title poem, which was selected for “Poetry 180: A poem a day for American high schools,” begins:

“All week she’s cleaned
someone else’s house,
stared down her own face
in the shine of copper-
bottomed pots, polished
wood, toilets she’d pull
the lid to—that look saying
Let’s make a change, girl.”

Trethewey’s poems have been called “accessible,” which is not always a compliment, especially in literary circles. She’s unabashed.

“I try to write in such a way that even a casual reader might say, ‘I know what’s being said to me, that someone is talking to me.’ I want the surface of my poems to shimmer with a type of clarity. Some people expect obfuscation in poetry, and I’m against that. . . . I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students hear something they can’t understand, and say, ‘Oh, that’s deep.’ Why is it deep, because you don’t get it?”

Trethewey intends for her poems not to be impenetrable, but rather, to penetrate. When she read from her new collection, Thrall, for nearly an hour at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts in late August, she kept the capacity crowd spellbound in a time when audiences often seem to have moved beyond such singular attention.

In his introduction, Atticus Haygood Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing Kevin Young said, “Natasha . . . knows music can be made of anything, of distances as well as intimacies.”

Trethewey read of historic limb transplants between a black donor and white recipient (“always, the dark body hewn asunder”), the taxonomy of mixed-race children captured in Mexican casta paintings (“de Espanol y de India produce mestizo, de Espanol y Negra produce mulato”), and a line from her own father’s poetry (“like a curtain drawn upon a room in which/each learned man is my father/and I hear, again, his words—I study/my crossbreed child”).

The intimacies of mixed blood; the detachment of the doctor, the conqueror, the father. And still, Trethewey seems less angst-filled Sylvia Plath than a cautious optimist who sees poetry as a unifying, healing force.

A week earlier, Trethewey had welcomed the university’s Class of 2016 by saying that poetry remains “our best means of communicating with each other, of touching not only the intellect but the heart.”

Emory, she says, has proven itself as a center for poetry, holding the discipline in high esteem and building outstanding poetry collections in its Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), from the seventy-five-thousand-volume Raymond Danowski Poetry Library, to the papers of Irish poets Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, to African American writers Alice Walker and Lucille Clifton.

“I talk to a lot of writers and poets at other institutions who don’t seem to have that kind of support for such endeavors,” she says. “Emory is unique because, from the moment I got here, it was made clear to me the importance placed on poetry, that I was the practitioner of an art already valued at this place. I didn’t have to fight to make people see that it was of equal value to the scholarship produced.”

Ever a groundbreaker, Trethewey is the first poet laureate to serve in residence for part of her term at the Library of Congress, where she will work in the Poetry Room—famously known as the Catbird Seat—next year.

“The last thing I want to do is sound like a Pollyanna in any of this, but I truly believe that poetry is the best repository for our most humane, ethical, and just feelings,” she says. “We can be made to experience the world, the interior lives of other human beings, by reading poetry.”

A professor once told Trethewey to “unburden yourself of being black, unburden yourself of the death of your mother, and write about the situation in Northern Ireland,” she recounts.

Unburden herself of her self, in other words.

To our collective good fortune, she ignored him.

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