June 10, 2012 in Features

Tragedy, history fuel new U.S. poet laureate

Brett Zongker Associated Press
 

Natasha Trethewey
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON — Natasha Trethewey began writing poems after a personal tragedy.

While Trethewey was a college freshman, her mother was killed by a stepfather Tretheway had long feared.

“I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, after 9/11,” she told The Associated Press. “People who never had written poems or turned much to poetry turned to it at that moment because it seems like the only thing that can speak the unspeakable.”

Trethewey, 46, an English and creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, was named the 19th U.S. poet laureate Thursday.

The Pulitzer Prize winner is the nation’s first poet laureate to hail from the South since the initial one — Robert Penn Warren — was named by the Library of Congress in 1986. She is also Mississippi’s top poet and will be the first person to serve simultaneously as a state and U.S. laureate.

Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems, “Native Guard.” They focused partly on history that was erased because it was never recorded. She wrote of the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Civil War regiment that guarded white Confederate soldiers held on Ship Island off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

The Confederate prisoners were later memorialized on the island, but not the black Union soldiers.

A stanza reads:

“Some names shall deck the page of history

“as it is written on stone. Some will not.”

Librarian of Congress James Billington, who chose Trethewey after hearing her read at the National Book Festival in Washington, said her work explores forgotten history and the many human tragedies of the Civil War.

“She’s taking us into history that was never written,” he said. “She takes the greatest human tragedy in American history — the Civil War, 650,000 people killed, the most destructive war of human life for a century — and she takes us inside without preaching.”

It’s a “happy coincidence,” he said, that Trethewey was chosen during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Billington said he was impressed with her skill in translating a visual image into words and moving from rhyme to free verse — but always keeping her poems accessible.

Poetry lives in the Trethewey family. Her father, Eric Trethewey, is a poet and college professor. But in graduate school, she studied fiction writing.

“On a dare that first semester, a poet friend of mine got me to write a poem. I did it because I thought I would prove that I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was at that moment that something really clicked.”

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