In August, Natasha Trethewey recited selected poems from her latest collection, Thrall, at Emory University's Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. She was giving the Decatur Book Festival's keynote speech — her first public appearance since the Library of Congress named her the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate in June. Utter stillness engulfed the center's sold-out 800-seat theater as Trethewey rolled through her verses in a soft, melancholy lilt. The delivery was powerful and confident, and her voice contained only the slightest hint of a Southern accent.
Speaking on Emory's campus, where she's worked as a professor for more than a decade and now serves as the Creative Writing Program's director, Trethewey made her debut as the nation's preeminent poetry ambassador in front of a hometown audience. The late August evening represented a culminating moment for the Decaturite, the first Southerner to hold the position since Robert Penn Warren in 1986 and the first African-American poet laureate since Rita Dove in 1993.
The importance of Southernness and of race in Trethewey's life cannot be understated. They have come to define the biracial, Mississippi-born poet on both personal and artistic levels.
"I've always been aware that the South made me," she says. "I am the product of this place, as well as anyone from this place."
Much of Trethewey's poetry explores her personal experiences living below the Mason-Dixon line within the context of the South's overarching, historical narrative. She's immersed herself in understanding the region, and for better or worse, claimed the South as her own.
"It is my homeland and my native land," she says. "If I don't claim it, if I allow the people who ought to say that it is not really 'my place' because of race or something like that, then it renders me homeless. I'd have no homeland. I love the South because it is mine."
Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Miss., on April 26, 1966. Her mother, an African-American social worker, and father, a white Nova Scotian poet and professor, had married at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in more than 20 states, including Mississippi. In a coincidental twist of fate, Trethewey's birth occurred on the centennial anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day. It's the kind of biographical tidbit that's impossible to make up, yet futile to ignore.
"To me, it seems like one of those great ironies that help to produce a writer, being born 100 years to the day that they first celebrated [Confederate Memorial Day]," she says.
When she was 6 years old, Trethewey moved from Gulfport to Atlanta, eventually settling in Decatur. She attended DeKalb public schools and lived with her mother and abusive black stepfather, who ostracized her for being biracial and regularly looked through her diary. Her mother divorced him after 10 harrowing years in an effort to escape the violent relationship.
But the torment didn't end. Following the relationship's demise, Trethewey's former stepfather unsuccessfully attempted to take her mother's life after beating her and repeatedly injecting her with a syringe full of battery acid. He spent one year in jail before being released, and, in June 1985, tried to kill her a second time. He was successful.
Trethewey was asleep when it happened, as she would later describe in her sorrowful ode, "Myth":
I was asleep while you were dying.
It's as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow
I make between my slumber and my waking,
the Erebus I keep you in, still trying
not to let go. You'll be dead again tomorrow,
but in dreams you live. So I try taking
you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,
my eyes open, I find you do not follow.
Again and again, this constant forsaking.
At the time, she was living 65 miles away in Athens, Ga., and attending the University of Georgia. She vowed never to return to Atlanta.
"When my mother died, I was 19, and I said to myself that I would never come back," she said in a 2010 interview with Emory's Southern Spaces. "I never thought that I'd want to come back, that I would come back."
It took Trethewey more than 15 years to return to Decatur. When she finally did, she was an established poet and professor. Her debut collection, 2000's Domestic Work, had been honored with the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and her follow-up, Bellocq's Ophelia, was already slated for publication. In 2001, she accepted a position as a Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University.
Coming back, however, wasn't easy. Trethewey moved within walking distance of the courthouse where her former stepfather was sentenced for shooting her mother to death. She not only had to re-familiarize herself with the city, but she also had come to grips with the psychological terrain of decades past.
What's more important? Girth or length?
JR, why you feel so fucking entitled to tell artists just what they should and…
Great story... I love Sean's books. I have both! I like his art too...
Im going on his twitter at 3am tonight...give me something good!