Poet and professor
B orn in 1966 in Gulfport, MS; daughter of Eric (a poet and professor) and Gwendolyn Ann (Turnbough; a social worker) Trethewey; married Brett Gadsden (a history professor), 1998. Education: University of Georgia, B.A., 1989; Hollins University, Roanoke, VA, M.A., 1991; University of Massachusetts at Amherst, M.F.A., 1995.
Addresses: E-mail—[email protected] Office— N209 Callaway Center, Creative Writing Program, Emory University, 537 Kilgo Circle, Atlanta, GA 30322.
W elfare caseworker, Augusta, GA, c. 1989-90; assistant professor of poetry, Auburn University, Auburn, AL, c. 1998-2001; assistant professor of English and creative writing, then Phillis Wheatley distinguished chair professor of poetry, Emory University, Atlanta, GA, c. 2001—; Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies, Duke University, Durham, NC, 2005-06; also taught at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Contributor to periodicals, including Agni, American Poetry Review, Callaloo, Kenyon Review, New England Review, and Southern Review.
Awards: Grolier Poetry Prize, for “Storyville Diary,” Grolier Poetry Book Shop, 1999; Cave Canem Poetry Prize, for Domestic Work, 1999; Mississippi Institute Arts and Letters Book Prize, for Domestic Work, 2001; Lillian Smith Book Award, for Domestic Work, 2001; Pushcart Prize, for “Labor,” 2002; Guggenheim Fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 2003; Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, for Bellocq’s Ophelia, 2003; Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, for Native Guard, 2007; honorary doctorate of letters, Delta State University, 2007; Jessica Nobel-Maxwell Memorial Award for Poetry; Julia Peterkin Award, Converse College; Money for Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Award; Margaret Walker Award for poetry; Distinguished Young Alumna Award, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
T he winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Natasha Trethewey has published three lauded collections of poems and also works as a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University. Often influenced in her writing by growing up biracial in the Southern United States, the author was considered gifted by many critics. Reviewing her third collection of poetry, Native Guard, in Washington Post Book World, Darryl Lorenzo Wellington commented, “Given her material, she could easily write essays or a memoir. But she has a genuine gift for verse forms, and the depth of her engagement in language marks her as a true poet.”
Born in 1966, in Gulfport, Mississippi, Trethewey is the daughter of Eric Trethewey and his then-wife Gwendolyn. Her white father was a native of Canada, a poet and professor who came to work at Hollins University, and her African-American mother was a social worker. Trethewey spent six years living in Gulfport, where her family experienced acts of racism because her parents’ marriage was illegal in Mississippi; the Klu Klux Klan once burned a cross on their lawn. After her parents divorced when she was in first grade, she moved to Decatur, Georgia, with her mother, and lived primarily in Georgia until 1990.
Always an enthusiastic reader, Trethewey showed signs of being a gifted writer from an early age. She wrote poems about Martin Luther King, Jr. in third grade which were bound and added to her school’s library. By fifth grade, Trethewey was writing a 60page Victorian murder mystery. Indeed, the young Trethewey favored fiction as a child. She told Kathy Janich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I don’t know if I ever set out to be a poet. I do know that at one point in my life I set out to be a fiction writer. I wrote little things like a lot of kids do. And that’s the kind of thing my father would encourage me to do on long trips: ‘Why don’t you write a poem about these trees that we’re passing?’”
Trethewey’s biracial background, as well as her parents, influenced her writing in other ways as she grew older. Trethewey’s father nearly derailed her early poetry career when the young Trethewey showed him one of her poems and he critiqued it harshly. Upset, she tore up the piece and vowed she would never write again. Later in life, Trethewey realized her father was taking her writing seriously by offering such criticism.
Another important incident which drove Trethewey to write was her mother’s death. After her parents’ divorce, her mother remarried. She was murdered by her second husband in 1985, an event that left Trethewey—then a freshman at the University of Georgia—devastated. Trethewey told Teresa K. Weaver of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I immediately turned to poetry to make sense of it and grapple with it and just to articulate some of those feelings.”
Trethewey made literature and poetry her focus as a college student. She studied English at the University of Georgia, and was also the head cheerleader during her senior year. Trethewey earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 1989, but never took a creative writing class. After spending 16 months as a welfare caseworker in Augusta, Georgia, Tre-thewey entered the college where her father taught, Hollins, and studied English and creative writing there. She was granted her M.A. in 1991. Finally, Trethewey went north to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where she earned her M.F.A. in poetry in 1995.
In 2000, Trethewey published her first book of poetry, Domestic Work. She won several awards, including the Lillian Smith Book Award, for the collection. In the book, Trethewey writes about the work of everyday life for women, especiallyAfrican-American women, from actual jobs, to relationships, to raising children, through the life of one woman. She was inspired in part by her black grandmother, Leretta Turnbough, who lived in segregated Gulf-port, worked as a domestic servant, elevator operator, beautician, factory worker, and seamstress. Tre-thewey dedicated the book to her. Trethewey also included several poems inspired by her own mixed race background, including “White Lies,” which focuses on how she tried to pass for white when very young.
Reviewing Domestic Work in Ploughshares, Kevin Young praised Trethewey and her poems. Young wrote, “In a voice confident, diverse, and directed, Natasha Trethewey’s Domestic Work does what a first book should, and more, all while avoiding what first books often do—either borrowing themes from other poets or recycling a narrow vision of family life. Here, Trethewey brilliantly discusses family not for its extremes or its small hurts, but rather for the small intimacies that symbolize larger sufferings of history, both personal and public.”
Trethewey began teaching at Emory University in Atlanta in 2001, as a professor of English and creative writing. The following year, she published her second poetry collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia. More focused in theme than Domestic Work, this collection explores the life of fictional prostitutes in New Orleans in the early 1900s. She was inspired to write the poems based on photographs of such women shot by well-known New York City photographer E. J. Bellocq. The poems are written from the women’s points of view, and one of the primary voices is a light-skinned African American. Most of the poems were written as letters home or journal entries.
Like Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia was also well received. Publishers Weekly commented, “Trethewey goes two-for-two by successfully taking on the poetically dubious task of working from art and making it signify anew.” Adrian Oktenberg of the Women’s Review of Books noted, “Trethewey’s language throughout is calm, fluid, one line moving into the next as a fish moves through water, language borne in its natural element. In all, the book is finely crafted, elegantly played out—but not finished!”
It took five years before Trethewey published her next collection, Native Guard, which was dedicated to her mother. She began working on it as early as 2002, and used her 2003 Guggenheim Fellowship to help fund the related research in the Southeast. Like Bellocq’s Ophelia, many the poems are a first-person imagined history, in this case, a former slave serving in the Native Guard of Louisiana during the Civil War. The Native Guard was the first legitimately sanctioned regiment of African-American soldiers, and they guarded Confederate soldiers at Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, off the coast of Mississippi. Her primary character had to write letters home for the illiterate Confederate prisoners of war as well as for his fellow soldiers.
Trethewey also touched on her family background in Native Guard, as she relates her personal struggles to the lost past of the South. Several poems, including “Miscegenation” and “My Mother Dreams of Another Country,” talk about her parents’ marriage, her subsequent birth, and her mother’s death. Much of the first section of Native Guard focuses on bereavement, especially the loss of a mother as Tre-thewey experienced it. The poet related this experience to the loss of self and the history of a people, as the essentially forgotten story of the Native Guard showed. Trethewey admitted her mother and her violent death were important to the book. She told the New York Times’ Deborah Solomon, “I can’t go back and save her. I can only save her memory. Figuratively, the title represents the idea that I am a native guardian to the memory of my mother’s life.”
Reviewing the collection of 30 poems in the Washington Post Book World, Wellington noted, “Tre-thewey has a gift for squeezing the contradictions of the South into very tightly controlled lines.” Similarly, Carrie Shipers of Prairie Schooner noted of Native Guard, “The major strength of these poems is the compelling connections Trethewey makes between personal experience and cultural memory.”
The strength of Native Guard led to more awards for Trethewey. She was surprised to learn that she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for the collection. Emory University officials informed her about the award while she was teaching a workshop class, and she ended the class early to celebrate. Tre-thewey was only the fourth African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
Winning the Pulitzer had deep personal meaning for Trethewey. She told Bill Thompson of Charleston, South Carolina’s Post and Courier, “I wanted to write this book to remember my mother, to really make a monument to her and her life. I started really putting together the book as the 20th anniversary of her death approached. She died just shy of her 41st birthday. I’ll turn 41 while I’m in Charleston. I wanted this book in hardcover because I wanted it to feel more real, more enduring. For the Pulitzer committee to put this stamp on it will make it endure ever more.”
After the win, Trethewey planned on continuing to write, but was not going to let such a prestigious prize affect her work. She told Weaver of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Writing a poem is a terribly, terribly difficult and terribly wonderful thing. And I wouldn’t want past successes or past failures to join me when I sit down to write. I hope I can banish all those things.”
Domestic Work, Graywolf Press (St. Paul, MN), 2000.
Bellocq’s Ophelia, Graywolf Press, 2002.
Native Guard, Houghton Mifflin (Boston), 2007.
Associated Press State & Local Wire, April 17, 2007; December 7, 2007.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, GA), September 15, 2002, p. 8L; April 17, 2007, p. 7A; April 29, 2007, p. 1B.
Georgia Trend, October 1, 2003, p. 42.
New York Times, May 13, 2007, p. 15.
Ploughshares, Winter 2000, p. 205.
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC), April 22, 2007, p. H3.
Prairie Schooner, December 22, 2006, pp. 199(3).
Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2002, p. 57.
Roanoke Times (Roanoke, VA), October 3, 2001, p. 1.
Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS), April 19, 2007.
U.S. States News, May 23, 2007.
Washington Post Book World, April 16, 2006, p. T4.
Women’s Review of Books, October 2003, pp. 20(3).
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007.