Since her extraordinary debut work, Domestic Work, poet Natasha Trethewey has evoked the voices, struggles, and dreams of people all too often left out of America’s written narrative. “My intention in poems,” she writes, “ is to try to tell a fuller version of history, to consider things that might help change the future that we’re headed to, to make a world that is more inclusive, just, and humane than at our present moment.” Hers is an essential voice in this country’s ongoing struggle to achieve racial equality and justice.
Born in Gulfport, Mississippi to a mixed-race couple whose union was still illegal at the time of their marriage, Trethewey was an intimate witness to the inequality and everyday strife that would someday become a common theme in her work. When she was nineteen, her mother was murdered, a tragedy that led her to turn towards writing poems: “I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened …. It took me nearly twenty years to find the right language, to write poems that were successful enough to explain my own feelings to me and that might also be meaningful to others.” Readers all over the world have found strength in Trethewey’s willingness to share her own personal tragedy and in her ability to turn the unspeakable into an occasion for connection and understanding.
Trethewey is the author of four poetry collections: Thrall (2012); Native Guard, for which she won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize; Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), which was named a Notable Book for 2003 by the American Library Association; and Domestic Work (2000). She is also the author of Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010) and the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. At Emory University she is Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing.
Natasha Trethewey is widely known as the nineteenth Poet Laureate of the United States, a position she held for two terms from 2012-2014. One of her most powerful projects as Poet Laureate was the PBS NewsHour series, “Where Poetry Lives,” an in-depth look at civic life in the United States through the lens of poetry. During this series Trethewey and NPR correspondent Jeffrey Brown traveled 100 miles from Mississippi to Alabama as part of Congressman John Lewis’ fourteenth Annual Civil Rights Pilgrimage. Along the way Americans tuning in got to see their Poet Laureate out in the world, considering the ways poetry might aid in the fight for justice for all.
Of her work, former Poet Laureate Rita Dove has said, “Trethewey eschews the Polaroid instant, choosing to render the unsuspecting yearnings and tremulous hopes that accompany our most private thoughts—reclaiming for us that interior life where the true self flourishes and to which we return, in solitary reverie, for strength.”
She is the poet we need most right now: a clear-eyed witness who gives voice to the best and worst in us, helping us see how we might move forward.