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The Poet Laureate Among Us

Poetry has long been an integral part of Natasha Trethewey’s life, but there was a time not long ago when she was surprised and moved to see how much it meant to someone else.

She and her husband were in a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, celebrating her recent Pulitzer Prize for her 2006 volume of poems, Native Guard. A maintenance worker had come to their room to tinker with a nonworking air conditioner and noticed the champagne. After Trethewey explained and he asked to look at a copy of her book, he put down his tools, clasped his hands in front of him and recited from memory the short but powerful poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen.

“He transformed into what looked like the little kid he must have been when he first learned and recited that poem,” said Trethewey. “People really do have poems they have memorized or kept with them that they can turn to for some reason in their lives.”

Trethewey was recently named the 19th United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, but before she takes on that momentous role this fall she’s fulfilling her duties as a returning faculty member at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury’s mountain campus in Ripton.

There, in the Blue Parlor reading room of the Bread Loaf Inn, Trethewey ruminated on what her legacy might be as the national ambassador for reading and writing poetry. She recalled Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project,” founded by that poet laureate in 1997 and still flourishing today, and hoped she would leave behind something similarly memorable and lasting.

Trethewey, who is also the Mississippi state laureate, wants to talk with other state laureates and hear their thoughts and needs, in the hope that she can develop a national project that engages the state levels as well.

“Somehow the right thing to do will be revealed to me through my conversations with other people, and I’ll be able to tap into what I can best bring to the program.”

When not in Washington, Trethewey will continue in her position as Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is also director of the creative writing program. Though she’s not teaching her favorite freshman seminar this year, called “Poetry and the Historical Imagination,” she will be visiting the classes of several colleagues who are teaching her books.

When she talks about her new office in the Library of Congress, where she’ll be spending a good deal of time, Trethewey has fond memories of the place. “I already feel like that space is a poetic space for me. When I was working on Native Guard I did a lot of writing and research in the Library—I would go over to the Madison building, which houses all of the manuscripts, and read through the letters from Civil War soldiers in the collections there. And then I would go back over to the Jefferson, which is where the big beautiful reading room is, and I would sit there with my notes and start writing poems.”

Trethewey’s poems are very much rooted in the history of human struggle, both personal and communal. While Native Guard latticed the history of the South through the lives of plantation slaves, the gentlemen who owned them, and the black soldiers who fought for freedom during the Civil War, her most recent collection, Thrall, takes on questions of heritage, culture, and difference through works of art, history, and family relationships.

“I’m an elegiac poet,” she said. “And while I’m someone who’s certainly interested in investigating the self, it’s always through the lens of history. I want to make sense of my place in the world, my place in history.”

Trethewey herself is the child of a biracial marriage in Mississippi in the 1960s—illegal at the time—that subjected her and her parents to plenty of social scrutiny. And when Trethewey was still in college, her mother was murdered by an abusive second ex-husband. There is much for her to ponder and question, about herself as well as her society.

“For many reasons, our family history is also a national history, and I think because of that, it’s almost like I was born to think of myself always as an historical being or caught up in the movements of history,” she added.

This is Trethewey’s fourth summer at the Writers’ Conference. She has also had numerous poems published in the Middlebury College-sponsored New England Review. She first came to Bread Loaf in 2001 as a Fellow, having just published her first book, and was assigned to Ellen Bryant Voigt’s workshop.

“Just listening to her talk about poetry was eye opening. You think you know something about writing your own poems, but I learned so much in Ellen’s workshop. One morning we met up in the Barn and she gave me an impromptu one-on-one conference about form and meter—in about 30 minutes she gave me a private lecture that seemed like everything I needed to know!”

In 2007 she returned as faculty, right after receiving the Pulitzer for Native Guard, and then again in 2010.

“I’ve saved all my notes and poems from my Writers’ Conference workshops over the years and it’s nice to go back and read them. They continue to tell me something each time I open them and look at them again.”