University of Georgia alumna Natasha Trethewey has been hailed as one of the United States' greatest contemporary poets. Her poems on race, history, labor, and family delve into the past and reach outward from empathy and a common, painful ground of loss, claiming resilience and hope.
Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, to Eric Trethewey, a white poet and professor of English, and Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, an African-American social worker -- a union that was considered criminal at the time. They had met as college students in Kentucky and had to cross into Ohio to marry, at a time before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down southern "miscegenation" laws that forbid interracial marriages.
"As a child, I was acutely aware of people staring at me. I have been asked all my life, What are you? My mother was black, and my father is white."1
In another interview, Trethewey described how she approaches her own complex ideas about growing up in the South in her work: "I think perhaps if you're an African American writer, you always have a love-hate relationship with the South. And I love it, but I know it has secrets that need to be uncovered."2
In her poem "Incident," from Native Guard, Trethewey recalled the night when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her family's yard:
It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns When they were done, they left quietly. No one came. ...Nothing really happened.By morning all the flames had dimmed.We tell the story every year.3
In 1984, Trethewey entered the University of Georgia. Trethewey's parents divorced when she was six and she had moved to Georgia with her mother. As she completed her freshman year at UGA tragedy struck, as her mother was murdered by her second husband, an abusive man she had divorced. The effort to recover from memory that which has been lost, or taken from us, appears often in Trethewey's work, where the poet weaves together stories from her own individual past and the common past of a people.
In Native Guard, Trethewey drew upon a story of a black Union Army regiment guarding white Confederate prisoners on Ship Island, Mississippi, unwinding the story through the perspective of one of the soldiers. According to Trethewey, "for the sake of sanity, there is a lot of necessary forgetting. But the trick is to balance forgetting with necessary remembering, to avoid historical amnesia." 4
The desire to avoid this mistake remains present throughout her other works as well. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010) pays homage to her birthplace, Gulfport, Mississippi, and the post-hurricane predicaments of the people there. Thrall, her 2012 collection of poems, explores the historical, cultural, and social forces that determine the roles that those forces expect a mixed-race daughter and her white father to fill. In 2018, Trethewey published Monument, a retrospective collection of her verse about race, time, and life, as experienced through stories heard and studied and personally witnessed, and distinguished by the poet's sense of loss, trauma, resilience and love.
Even though her first poetry collection was only printed in 2000, Trethewey has already won multiple awards for her work. In addition to the Pulitzer for Native Guard, Domestic Work won the 1999 Cave Canem poetry prize, a 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Bellocq's Ophelia received the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association.
Trethewey has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2008 she was named Georgia Woman of the Year. In 2013 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2017 she received the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities.
In 2012 Mississippi named her its official poet laureate, and the Librarian of Congress appointed her to serve as poet laureate of the United States. Though Mississippi is her birthplace, Trethewey received a B.A. in English from the University of Georgia in 1989 and became UGA's first graduate outside of journalism to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2007. She is the Board of Trustees Professor of English at Northwestern University and Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, where she has taught since 2001.
Trethewey was elected in 2019 to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
The following titles by Natasha Trethewey may be found in the Hall of Fame Library:
Domestic Work.Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2000.
Bellocq's Ophelia. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2002.
Native Guard. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf.Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2010.
Thrall: Poems. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.
Monument: Poems, New and Selected. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.
Conversations with Natasha Trethewey. Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2013.
Emory University's Manuscript, Archivess, and Rare Book Library holds the papers of Natasha Trethewey.