Natasha Trethewey is named as the newest poet laureate

The writer is the first African-American poet laureate in almost a decade and the first Southern writer since Robert Penn Warren was appointed in 1986.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP
Natasha Trethewey is one of the rare poet laureates who is relatively young and in midcareer, unlike her predecessors Philip Levine and W.S. Merwin, both in their 80s when appointed.

Meet your new poet laureate, folks.

Natasha Trethewey, 46, an English and creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, was named the 19th poet laureate Thursday. A Pulitzer Prize winner, she is the nation’s first poet laureate to hail from the South since the very first, Robert Penn Warren, was named by the Library of Congress in 1986, and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993.

“I’m still a little in disbelief,” Ms. Trethewey told the New York Times earlier this week.

Trethewey is known for exploring the histories of forgotten peoples – black Civil War soldiers, domestic workers like washerwomen, mixed-race prostitutes – in her rich verse, which flows from free verse to more traditional forms like the sonnet and the villanelle.

She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for her poetry book, Native Guard, that reflects on the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Civil War regiment assigned to guard white Confederate soldiers held on Ship Island off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The Confederate soldiers were later memorialized on the island; the black Union soldiers were not.

A stanza of her poem reads:

“Some names shall deck the page of history

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

“She’s taking us into history that was never written,” Librarian of Congress James Billington told the AP. “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.”

Mr. Billington said he chose Trethewey after hearing her read at the National Book Festival in Washington and was “immediately struck by a kind of classic quality with a richness and variety of structures with which she presents her poetry … she intermixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it,” he said.

Trethewey said she began writing poetry after a personal tragedy. While she was a college freshman, her stepfather, whom she had long feared, killed her mother.

"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 AP. "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.”

Her poetry also speaks to her personal history as the daughter of interracial parents. In “Miscegenation,” she writes about her parents’ journey to Ohio in 1965 for a marriage that was illegal in their home state of Mississippi.

“They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name

“begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong – mis in Mississippi.”

Trethewey, who is also the poet laureate of Mississippi, will begin her appointment in September, which is also when her fourth poetry collection, “Thrall,” about her relationship with her white father and other topics, will be published. Her responsibilities will include public readings across the country and promotion of poetry in schools. She will be one of the rare poet laureates to take up residence in Washington, which she will do from January to May. She is also one of the rare poet laureates who is relatively young and in midcareer, unlike her predecessors Philip Levine and W.S. Merwin, both in their 80s when appointed.

“We’re not necessarily on some kick to find a younger poet,” Billington told the New York Times. “The more I read of it, American poetry seems extremely rich in diversity, talent and freedom of expression, and she has a voice that is already original and accomplished. I have an affinity for American individuals who are absolutely unique, and I think that this is one.”

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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