‘Reckoning With the Past’

Posted October 5, 2012 at 3:08pm

Natasha Trethewey has said she sees her new job as a cheerleader for poetry, and the Pulitzer Prize-winner will be the first poet laureate of the United States to actually take up residence in the Library of Congress’ poetry room, fondly known as the “Catbird Seat.”

She’ll come to D.C. next spring, after spending the first half of her laureateship in Decatur, Ga., where she teaches English and creative writing at Emory University. Trethewey is also the first laureate to serve concurrently as a state poet laureate — for her home state of Mississippi. 

But the multiple tasks are nothing new to Trethewey. Dual identities are in her nature.

Born in Gulfport, Miss., to a black mother and a white father, Trethewey uses poetry to explore her conflicted racial roots and examine the role of African-Americans in our nation’s history. Her parents’ marriage was illegal when she was born in 1966, and she says it made her feel like she was “rendered illegitimate in my native state, my home.” 

To understand her family’s struggles with race, she meshes her personal history with the history of blacks in the deep South. The title of her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, “Native Guard,” refers to the Mississippi Native Guards, a black regiment in the Union Army whose role in the Civil War has been largely overlooked by history.

During her childhood summers in Gulfport, she would gaze across the water to the fort on Ship Island, where the black Union regiment had guarded Confederate captives.

“I’m always interested in investigating my relationship to the past,” she said. “I write to make sense of this history we’ve been given, and I write so that we can be a nation that is reckoning with the past, instead of one that has amnesia about it.” 

Dark as History

She kicked off her tenure as poet laureate with a reading last month at the Library of Congress from her newest collection, “Thrall.”

“Poetry, whether we are reading it or writing it, helps us realize the better angels of our nature,” Trethewey told the crowd of more than 500 packed into the Coolidge Auditorium, borrowing a phrase from Lincoln. 

Many of the poems were about children born of mixed-race heritage in the 18th and 19th centuries and how they were classified — “mestizo,” “mulato,” “castiza.” In one of these taxonomy poems, “De Español y de India Produce Mestiso,” she writes:

“He is dark/as history, origin of the word/native: the weight of blood,/a pale mistress on his back,/heavier every year.”

Her family in Gulfport survived Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and their struggles, as well as the city’s efforts to rebuild, became the subject of Trethewey’s 2010 book, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Returning to Gulfport, she felt “a great sense of loss, not only for what I had lost of my past but for all the people there who were trying to rebuild their lives. … And I certainly felt a deep sadness for the loss of so much of what had been my childhood — the places, the landmarks.”

Her other works include “Bellocq’s Ophelia” and “Domestic Work,” for which she won the 1999 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.

Trethewey began writing poetry at age 19 as a way to work through grief after her mother was murdered by her stepfather. 

Poetry, she says, often plays a similar role in modern society.

“What poetry can always do is to comfort us and remind us that we’re not alone in our grief and suffering. Poems are what we turn to when things seem unspeakable. And that’s why so many people turned to poetry after 9/11 — more poems were read and written in the period following that national tragedy than had been in a long time.”