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Natasha Trethewey

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Bellocq’s Ophelia, poems by Natasha Trethewey
Graywolf Press (cover image courtesy of Pricegrabber)
Natasha Trethewey is a poet-historian, Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, where she holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry, and in 2012 she was named Poet Laureate of both her home state of Mississippi and the United States as a whole.

Mixed Race in the South:

Natasha Trethewey was born in 1966, the child of an interracial marriage that was outlawed by the miscegenation laws of many Southern states at the time. Her parents, Canadian poet Eric Trethewey and Mississippian social worker Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, had met in college in Kentucky, and had to cross the river into Ohio to get married. They settled in Gwendolyn’s home town of Gulfport, Mississippi, where the family lived until Natasha was six and her parents divorced. Natasha moved with her mother to Decatur, Georgia but spent her summers on the Gulf Coast, visiting her maternal grandmother in Gulfport and her father in New Orleans. It was this childhood of moving back and forth between the homes of her black mother and grandmother and that of her white father that crystallized the experiential differences between the races in Natasha’s young life.

Great Loss Points to Poetry:

In 1985, when Natasha was a 19-year-old freshman studying literature at the University of Georgia in Athens, her mother was murdered by Joel Grimmette, the man who had been her second husband until they divorced two years before. Natasha said in later interviews that this brutal tragedy was the event that turned her interest to poetry: “I started writing poems as a response to that great loss, much the way that people responded, for example, after 9/11. 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.”

Poetry Made from Personal Memory and Historical Research:

Trethewey’s manuscript entitled Domestic Work was selected by Rita Dove as winner of the very first Cave Canem Poetry Prize for a first book by an African American writer, with this comment: “Here is a young poet in full possession of her craft, ready to testify.” Like most of her published work, these poems blend personal memory with historical research to bring to life the experiences of hitherto-unknown people from the past—in this case, African American domestic laborers of her grandmother’s generation. Her second book, Belloq’s Ophelia, is also a work of historical imagination, poems illuminating the life of one of the early 20th century Storyville prostitutes photographed by E.J. Bellocq.

Imagining the Forgotten Civil War:

During her childhood summers on the Gulf Coast, Trethewey had often visited Ship Island, across from Gulfport, for 4th of July picnics. But she didn’t known until much later about the Louisiana Native Guard, the first official regiment of black and Creole soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War, who were stationed at Fort Massachusetts on the island to guard Confederate prisoners of war. In an interview with Bookslut, she described the discovery that would lead to her third book, Native Guard: “When I took my grandmother to a restaurant on the beach on Ship Island, someone heard our conversation and told me this history that I hadn’t learned my whole life. It occurred to me that there was all kinds of historical erasure like that—things that get left out of the record and are equally important in the history of us as Americans. I started doing research about the guards, and that was what I wanted to write about.” In 2007, Trethewey was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Native Guard.

Books by Natasha Trethewey:

  • Thrall (poems, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012)
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  • Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (essays, letters and poems, University of Georgia Press, 2010)
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  • Native Guard (poems, Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
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  • Belloq’s Ophelia (poems, Graywolf Press, 2002)
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  • Domestic Work (poems, Graywolf Press, 2000)
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