Natasha Trethewey

(b. 1966) Poet

Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize winner and US poet laureate, was born on 26 April 1966 in Gulfport, Mississippi, the daughter of poet Eric Trethewey, who was white, and social worker Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, an African American. As Trethewey describes in the poem “Miscegenation,” their 1965 wedding took place in Ohio because mixed-race marriage was illegal in Mississippi. After her parents divorced, Trethewey moved to Decatur, Georgia, with her mother but returned to Gulfport every summer for long visits with her maternal grandmother. In 1985, when Trethewey was a student and cheerleader at the University of Georgia, her mother was killed by her second husband, whom she had recently divorced, a crisis recorded in several elegies from Native Guard (2006). Trethewey graduated from the university and worked for more than a year as a food stamp caseworker before earning a master’s degree in English and creative writing at Hollins University in Virginia, where her poetry teachers included her father and her stepmother, Katherine Soniat. In 1995 she graduated from the master of fine arts program at the University of Massachusetts. She holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair of Poetry at Emory University in Atlanta, where her husband, historian Brett Gadsden, teaches African American studies.

In her introduction to Trethewey’s first book of poetry, Domestic Work (2000), former US poet laureate Rita Dove describes the “steely grace” with which Trethewey “tells the hard facts of lives pursued on the margins.” “At the Owl Club, North Gulfport, Mississippi, 1950” depicts dockworkers relaxing away from their dangerous jobs; in “Drapery Factory, Gulfport, Mississippi, 1956,” Trethewey’s grandmother recalls the embarrassment of black women workers when a white male boss inspects their purses at quitting time. “Flounder,” “White Lies,” and other poems reflect Trethewey’s early self-consciousness as a child of mixed racial heritage. She told an interviewer that her grandmother’s constant movement, “recreating and remaking herself,” corresponded to the idea of “making my own self as poet.” Trethewey sought to inscribe the neglected labors of African Americans “into the American literary canon, and into American cultural memory, into public memory.”

Trethewey’s second and third collections present earlier periods of African American history. Inspired by E. J. Bellocq’s photographs of a Storyville prostitute who could pass for white, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002) portrays a young woman who leaves Mississippi’s cotton fields to work in New Orleans. Recruited by the madam of a brothel, Ophelia eventually escapes her humiliating employment when the fictionalized Bellocq trains her to become a photographer. In March 1912 Ophelia identifies with the “budding” trees and the “throbbing” spring grass as she travels west to a new life. Trethewey adapts many poetic forms in each book, and several pieces in Bellocq’s Ophelia and Native Guard are sonnet variations. Ten poems narrated by a black soldier from Louisiana’s Native Guard are linked in a corona sonnet sequence. This centerpiece of Trethewey’s third volume memorializes the African American regiment that guarded Confederate prisoners on Ship Island, off Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. Insulted by their Yankee leaders and their rebel captives alike, the soldiers have no monument at the island fortress. Trethewey’s sonnets remedy the lack, much as the elegies “What Is Evidence?” and “Monument” guard her mother’s memory in the same book. Native Guard won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry as well as the Poetry Prize from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters, an honor also bestowed on her two earlier collections.

In 2010 Trethewey published Beyond Katrina, which detailed the effects Hurricane Katrina had on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and members of her family. A prose memoir that includes some poetry, the volume concentrates on the story of her brother and his time in jail. Her fourth poetry collection, Thrall, was published in 2012. That year Trethewey was also named both Mississippi poet laureate and US poet laureate, and she was appointed US poet laureate a second time in 2014. In 2016 she was awarded an Academy of American Poets Fellowship, and the following year she received the Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities. She joined the faculty at Northwestern University in 2017.

Further Reading

  • Joan Wylie Hall, ed., Conversations with Natasha Trethewey (2013)
  • Jill Petty, Callaloo (Spring 1996)
  • Debora Rindge and Anna Leahy, English Language Notes (Fall–Winter 2006)
  • Charles Henry Rowell, Callaloo (Fall 2004)
  • Deborah Solomon, New York Times Magazine (13 May 2007)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Domestic Work (2000)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Journal of American History (September 2004)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Native Guard (2006)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Thrall (2012)
  • Natasha Trethewey, Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 2005)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Natasha Trethewey
  • Coverage b. 1966
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date February 16, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update December 20, 2018