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Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey

We’ll talk with newly-minted  poet laureate  Natasha Trethewey.

Pulitzer Prize winning author Natasha Trethewey laughs as she recalls the relatives she lived with during her summers in Mississippi, during a break in her speaking schedule at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., Wednesday, Oct. 10,. 2007. Trethewey, a creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and is to receive the governor's award for literary excellence in February. (AP)

Pulitzer Prize winning author Natasha Trethewey laughs as she recalls the relatives she lived with during her summers in Mississippi, during a break in her speaking schedule at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., Wednesday, Oct. 10,. 2007. Trethewey, a creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, received the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry and is to receive the governor's award for literary excellence in February. (AP)

A new poet laureate of the United States was announced last week. Natasha Tretheway. A strong voice of the South and the soul. White father. Black mother. Murdered mother. A poet of history and memory, personal and national. Natasha Tretheway’s poetry is clear and powerful.

It speaks to Americans known and forgotten. To black soldiers guarding white prisoners in the Civil War. To survivors of Hurricane Katrina. To a mixed race daughter coming to terms with mother, father, America.

This hour, On Point: the next poet laureate of the United States, Natasha Tretheway.

-Tom Ashbrook


Natasha Trethewey, a professor of creative writing at Emory University, she was name the nation’s poet laureate in June.

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “The Library of Congress is to announce Thursday that the next poet laureate is Natasha Trethewey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of three collections and a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta. Ms. Trethewey, 46, was born in Gulfport, Miss., and is the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original laureate, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993.”

Slate “In her second volume, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), Trethewey adopts the voice of a mixed-race prostitute from New Orleans’ red light district. Her latest book, Thrall, will be released in September 2012, the same month that she begins her appointment at the Library of Congress. These new poems are studies in racial estrangement as well as glittering art objects, like the 17th- and 18th-century oil paintings they describe. And they allow Trethewey to explore her fraught relationship with her father.”



MANO PRIETA (forthcoming, from “Thrall”)

The green drapery is like a sheet of water

behind us—a cascade in the backdrop

of the photograph, a rushing current


that would scatter us, carry us each

away. This is 1969 and I am three—

still light enough to be nearly the color


of my father. His armchair is a throne

and I am leaning into him, propped

against his knees—his hand draped


across my shoulder. On the chair’s arm

my mother looms above me,

perched at the edge as though


she would fall off. The camera records

her single gesture. Perhaps to still me,

she presses my arm with a forefinger,


makes visible a hypothesis of blood,

its empire of words: the imprint

on my body of her lovely dark hand.


PILGRIMAGE (from “Native Guard,” 2006)

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Here, the Mississippi carved
its mud-dark path, a graveyard

for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
Here, the river changed its course,

turning away from the city
as one turns, forgetting, from the past —

the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up
above the river’s bend — where now

the Yazoo fills the Mississippi’s empty bed.
Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand
on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

they must have seemed like catacombs,
in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

candlelit, underground. I can see her
listening to shells explode, writing herself

into history, asking what is to become
of all the living things in this place?

This whole city is a grave. Every spring —
Pilgrimage — the living come to mingle

with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders
in the long hallways, listen all night

to their silence and indifference, relive
their dying on the green battlefield.

At the museum, we marvel at their clothes —
preserved under glass — so much smaller

than our own, as if those who wore them
were only children. We sleep in their beds,

the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped
in flowers — funereal — a blur

of petals against the river’s gray.
The brochure in my room calls this

living history. The brass plate on the door reads
Prissy’s Room
. A window frames

the river’s crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,
the ghost of history lies down beside me,

rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.


PASTORAL (from “Native Guard,” 2006)

In the dream, I am with the Fugitive
Poets. We’re gathered for a photograph.
Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta
hidden by the photographer’s backdrop —
a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows
lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no. 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?


ELEGY FOR THE NATIVE GUARDS (from “Native Guard,” 2006)

Now that the salt of their blood
Stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea…

—Allen Tate

We leave Gulfport at noon; gulls overhead
trailing the boat—streamers, noisy fanfare—
all the way to Ship Island. What we see
first is the fort, its roof of grass, a lee—
half reminder of the men who lived there—
a weathered monument to some of the dead.

Inside we follow the ranger, hurried
though we are to get to the beach. He tells
of graves lost in the Gulf, the island split
in half when Hurricane Camille hit,
shows us casemates, cannons, the store that sells
souvenirs, tokens of history long buried.

The Daughters of the Confederacy
have placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance—
each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard
in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards—
2nd regiment, Union men, black phalanx.
What is monument to their legacy?

All the grave markers, all the crude headstones—
water-lost. Now fish dart among their bones,
and we listen for what the waves intone.
Only the fort remains, near forty feet high,
round, unfinished, half-open to the sky,
the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye.

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  • Kestral

    I heard Ms. Trethewey interviewed recently. I found her to be a very courageous, articulate and talented person. I wish her all the best in her life.

  • Terry Tree Tree

    Talented and attractive lady that has found positive ways to deal with her many personal obstacles!

  • joanna Solfrian

    As a writer and teacher myself (of college kids), I often find I get students after they’ve already decided poetry is not for them.  (“I just don’t get it.”)  I’ve noticed that elementary school kids are more open to what I call “responsible indoctrination.”  How might Natasha use her title to help reach little kids?

  • Steve_T

    Simply put a wonderful poet, with a knowledge of what life can be when examined and measured, then written from the heart.
    Thank you for sharing, your life, thoughts and words.  

  • Mark Three Stars in JP

    Your story has inspired a poem long seated in my mind.

    What is a “Native” dad?

    Who are we is a question I have become,
    and now my son seeks his path.

    Those who write history claim ours as theirs.
    They talk of decimating us, reduced by a tenth
    I wish it were so when extirpation was their goal

    What will we become their memory or ours?

    Thank you a Native

  • monicaroland

    Wonderful show, wonderful poet.  Poems speak our soul when our lips cannot.  I recall Walt Whitman’s capture of the nation’s grief when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in “O Captain, My Captain.”  For myself, I turned to “Crossing the Bar” when my step-grandfather died.  I re-read my father’s favorites when he died.  I wrote a poem when my granddaughter died.  Somehow, the poems helped to bring wholeness back to my life.

    – Monica Roland, Lockport, NY

  • Nutricj

    To say her work is moving, liquid, and mesmerizing is an understatement for me. Thank you for having her on!!

    Please ask Professor Tretheway to tell us who her favorite historical poets are???? Please please ;-)

  • Wanda

    So excited about this interview.  I recently heard an earlier interview with her. She was reading her poem about the hot comb, which took me back to the days when my mom used to straighten my hair.  I recently went back to wearing my hair natural.  It was interesting hearing her discuss racial identity and although I would never have passed as being white it was still important to me  until recently that I embraced the idea that to be less conspicuous, straightening my hair.  Hearing her poem  now I think it was also in my own way an opportunity to “disappear” or should I say “melt” in the “melting pot”.  She really gave me an “ah moment”

  • Ellen Dibble

    I’m wondering how Tretheway feels about the poetry from other traditions, other languages.  Are there languages she knows enough to gather perspective from the different traditions, the different cultural and historical contexts?  I’m thinking particularly of Russian poetry and the way it bucked up against the Communist, um, machine.  But also German poetry in what seems to me a romantic century before the 20th century’s wars.  Does she know African poetry at all?  I mean, that must be huge.  Or Latin American?  
        Come to think of it, there should be a place for poet laureates to come together and mingle, an annual “conference,” diplomacy on an uninhibited front.

    • Terry Tree Tree


      • Ellen Dibble

        I look at a Facebook site “Young Ambassadors of Taiwan,” I think it is, and realize what a new frontier this sort of thing is.  Those young people, in a highly sensitive international location, have no idea what to do with their group.  “Hi, so glad to be here; I like this, that, and the other.”  And someone from New Zealand posts, “Hey, I’m bringing a group of high schoolers over to Taiwan; here is a video of the group.”  And the idea seems to be that the goal is to get people to meet face to face, defaulting on the idea that the dialogue in the cloud has any real potential.  

            I would say that poetry is dialogue in a cloud.  Or, that dialogue in a cloud is poetry.  You know it when it happens (to you).  It takes a while to generate.  Certain languages lend themselves to Bing translation more than others.  Certain words do, as well.  Some jokes carry extremely well.  Some don’t.

  • Linda Hobbs

    For the earlier caller regarding Point Lookout Prison, there is one book I am aware of on the subject.  It is Point Lookout Prison Camp for Confederates by Edwin W. Beitzell.  It has lots of information including the names of those imprisoned there.
    Linda Hobbs
    Carrollton, VA

  • Nutricj

    Thank you soooooo much! I love Yeats as well!

    Can’t wait for your book on the fall! ANd congratulations on your most well deserved honor!

  • Terry Tree Tree

    “Living on Borrowed Time”,  Natasha, I look at it as living in BONUS time.  I have survived longer than I expected to, for many reasons.

  • Mark

    Natasha, your phrasing and intonation sound a lot like Billy Collins, while your poetry is obviously different. Is Billy an influence on how your read your work aloud?

  • Ray

    I would like the poet laureate to work at reducing the clichéd vocal delivery style used by so many public readers of poetry.

    Alas, Ms. Trethewey uses it herself, yet it’s both dated and tiresome and to my ears does a disservice to the work.

    There’s a false earnestness and often grandiloquent sense to that type of rhetoric.  It may have emerged from the conventions of poetry slam competitions.

    Seamus Heaney, thankfully, was working too early to be caught up in it.

    • Roy Mac

      I’m getting the impression that laureates are chosen for their writing, and not their reading.  Which is a shame, since it ought to be a combination of both.

    • nj_v2

      I was thinking the same thing. There are mostly two tones, the higher one used so much it becomes almost a drone. Seems like an affectation. It’s hard to concentrate on the content, no matter how lovely, so annoying is the delivery.

      The narrator on one of PBS’ American Masters programs on Ansel Adams (if i’m recalling correctly) adopted the same kind of delivery, using an almost unbroken drone and predictably dropping the tone at the end of almost every sentence. Had to turn the program off after a while.

    • Nutricj

      These criticisms are tiresome. There is a lyrical phrasing that adds deep meaning. The pauses, the highs, the lows, and often double meaning or triple meanings in the words or phrases. If you find drum solos borish, or a guitar rif annoying, well then I suppose that means some people just don’t have an ear for the music. I think it is ok to have an opinion of course about what you like or don’t. Art does this to people and it is supposed to. In this case, maybe you insult something you can’t appreciate? Or something profound that you may not understand? For example, we couldn’t understand her meaning in the poem to her father had she read it any other way. It would just mean something entirely different. She is reading her heart to you. You don’t have to like it, but to call it “cliche” is pedestrian.

    • Cam

      These are great poems and well worthy of a national Poet Laureate!…but…I have to say that I too found that the medium clashed with the message. I’m a big fan of phrasing-lyrical or otherwise-provided it enhances the meaning of the words with which it’s associated. Not the case with today’s readings. I agree with Ray and nj_v2, the delivery is monotonous and actually detracts from the beauty and meaning(s) of the poems as printed on the page.   Instead of contributing in a positive way to overall poetic expression/impression, it’s as if the text were forced into the straight jacket of an extremely limited intonation system  that buzzes along, detached and unaware of the other systems of meaning it constricts. In other words, the phrasing just doesn’t fit the phrase.

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