Born on April 26, 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi, Natasha Trethewey was appointed the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States in 2012. She is currently serving her second term in this position in Washington, DC. Trethewey is also the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University. She has published four collections of poetry exploring themes related to the American South and how the legacies of slavery and the Civil War haunt the present. She was awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for Native Guard, which looks at an all-black regiment in the Union Army and the relationship between monuments and narratives of history. Other major themes in her poetry include the spectre of miscegenation, interracial intimacies of the past, and New Orleans. In addition, she published a work of creative non-fiction titled, Beyond Katrina: Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the residents of the Gulf and her childhood in the region.
The fact that her parents’ marriage was illegal because of anti-miscegenation laws at the time plays a significant role in her poetry. In 1965, not only was it illegal for her white Canadian father, Eric Trethewey, to marry her African American mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, in Mississippi, it was also against the law to marry elsewhere and return to the state married. Trethewey’s father is also a poet and an English professor at Hollins University, so literature and criticism played an important role in her early years. However, it wasn’t until her mother’s tragic death when Trethewey was 19 that she decided to become a poet. She says, “that was the moment when I both felt that I would become a poet and then immediately afterward felt that I would not. I turned to poetry to make sense of what happened.” Thus in the beginning her work took an elegiac tone in memory of her mother.
The themes of photography, memory, and history are also important in Trethewey’s work. Her first book of poetry, Domestic Work, Trethewey looks at the everyday labors and lives of workers from dockworkers to maids. In her collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Trethewey uses early 20th century, Louisiana photographer E. J. Bellocq’s found archive of nude portraits as a way to inhabit an imagined 1910s brothel in the Storyville district of New Orleans, where all the sex workers are black women who can pass as white. Trethewey invokes Shakespeare’s Ophelia because she is a woman suspended in a frame who has been in the keeping on men, Hamlet, John Everett Millais, and E.J Bellocq. But, Trethewey gives voice and agency to Ophelia beyond the erotic tableau vivant. Trethewey inhabits the voice of Ophelia, a sex worker, no longer in the keeping of men who becomes photographer instead of subject. Trethewey’s most recent book of poetry, Thrall, explores her complicated relationship with her father, the legacy of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson, and Sally Hemings. In the way that her work is concerned with the way the history of the American South haunts the present she has been influenced by fellow Mississippi author William Faulkner. In her poem, “Miscegenation,” Trethewey alludes to her kindred feeling to Faulkner’s Joe Christmas from Light in August. She is currently at work on a memoir.
In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;
they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.
They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name
begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong—mis in Mississippi.
A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same
as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.
Faulkner’s Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name
for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.
My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.
I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.
When I turned 33 my father said, It’s your Jesus year—you’re the same
age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.
I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name—
though I’m not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.
Poet Laureate of the United States, 2012-2014
Poet Laureate of Mississippi, 2012
Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, 2007
Fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation, 2004
Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 2003
Bunting Fellowship fro the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Study, Harvard University, 2000
Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, 1999
Domestic Work (2000)
Bellocq’s Ophelia (2003)
Native Guard (2006)
Beyond Katrina: A Mediation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010)