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U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey Strives to Revive the "Ghost of History"

Posted: 06/14/2012 3:59 pm

Without written records, the histories of past generations are quickly forgotten. As the author of "Herstories" - a biographical series of history's remarkable but often forgotten women who helped shape America -- I have long been intrigued with the neglected lives and emotions of those who lived before us.

That sensibility drew me to the work of Natasha Trethewey, 46, the newly appointed 19th U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress and the second African-American woman to win that post since its creation in 1936. One of the nation's youngest Poet Laureates and the first Southerner to receive that award since 1986, Trethewey's work marries "the ghost of history" with emotive poetry.


Lines from poems like "Photograph: Ice Storm, 1971" in her 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard highlight Tretheway's longing to reveal the covert emotions beneath a presumably innocent family snapshot. On the back of that picture, "someone made a list/of our names, the dates, the event: nothing /of what's inside, mother, stepfather's fist?" The poet's union of the superficial with a one-word revelation of the ugly reality beneath it -- a frisson -- is the ideal to which every author, including those like me who write prose, aspire.

Still another example of Trethewey's genius appears in "Pilgrimage" which describe the Mississippi " its mud-dark path a graveyard /for skeletons of sunken riverboats." It's little wonder that literary experts have hailed Tretheway as one of the most illuminating poets in recent memory.

"Natasha Trethewey is an outstanding poet/historian in the mold of Robert Penn Warren, our first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, " said Librarian of Congress James 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."

As the daughter of a white father, poet Eric Trethewey ,and an African-American mother, Gwendolyn Grimmette Trethewey, the poet laureate was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi . Subsequent to her parents' divorce, Trethewey moved with her mother to Decatur , Georgia . As a bi-racial child often openly pitied by locals, Trethewey read voraciously, pondered her dual ancestry, and puzzled over the forgotten lives of earlier African- Americans.

Fascinated by the power of words and the elegiac aspects of poetry learned at her father's knee, Trethewey published her first collection of poems, "Domestic Work," in 2000. As its title implied, the collection linked poems about the inner lives of pre-civil rights African-American workers with old photographs of them on the job. Publishers' Weekly hailed Trethewey's work for bringing those lives to our attention, following " the wake of history and memory, tracing their combined effect on her speaker and subjects."

Domestic Work received three prizes: the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best book by an African American poet; the 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Price, and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry.

In 2001,Trethewey's dedication to reclaiming erasures of history and culture inspired Bellocq's Ophelia . Her 2006 poetry collection, "Native Guard" resulted in the award of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Within that collection, Trethewey's poems depicted the lives of members of a forgotten black Civil War regiment from Louisiana which had been assigned to protect white Confederate soldiers imprisoned on Ship Island off Mississippi's Gulf Coast. The white Confederate soldiers were subsequently memorialized but the black regiment ignored.

Trethewey's focus upon restoration of forgotten historical events includes those in her own life as well as those in her family. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina she returned to her family in New Orleans and gazed upon old neighborhoods with horror. Stunned by the disappearance of buildings she considered " landmarks of my own past," Trethewey began to write about them and the effects of that maelstrom upon her relatives.

An English and creative writing professor at Atlanta's Emory University and the recipient of several other prestigious prizes, Trethewey will be the first Poet Laureate to spend part of her 2012-2013 term in the Poetry Room of the Library of Congress. Houghton Mifflin will publish her latest collection of poems , Thrall, in September.

Trethewey's achievements reflect the legacy of Phillis Wheately, ( 1753-1784) America's first African-American poet and a former slave, who is considered the founder of the African-American literary genre.

 
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