U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey explains her undying obsession with the South 

'I love the South because it is mine.'

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"I moved that close to the place that I had left behind," she recalled in the Southern Spaces interview, "but it was completely different."

Soon, though, Trethewey started to feel at home again, as she became reacquainted with a city that, like her, had undergone vast changes.

"Atlanta had transformed a lot in the time since I had gone away and come back, of course because of the Olympics primarily," she says. "Downtown Decatur was an area I had been very familiar with when I was a child growing up. It had transformed into the lovely, quaint little town it is now with great restaurants, shops, and bookstores."

A literary scene had also sprouted, emerging alongside the Decatur Book Festival. First held in 2006, the event has since become the nation's largest independent book festival. The growth of the town as a budding literary hotbed helped attract writers and poets from outside the South, including three of Trethewey's favorites — Amber Dermont, Kevin Young, and Chelsea Rathburn — who all moved to Decatur after growing up outside the region.

"That was a really big difference, and I think the literary scene with the Decatur Book Festival — that just seems like something remarkable that helped to transform the culture of the place," she says.

The flourishing community allowed Trethewey to find her place, and as a poet, helped her finally tackle the looming subject of her mother's tragic murder. For nearly 20 years, Trethewey had attempted to write about her life-altering trauma. It wasn't until she started working at Emory, however, that she found herself able to convey the experience. Those poems became part of her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection, 2006's Native Guard.

In "Pastoral," one of the collection's finest poems, she vividly dreams that Robert Penn Warren and other Fugitive Poets inquire: "You don't hate the South? They ask. You don't hate it?" Trethewey evokes Atlanta's skyline as the poem's backdrop, which, like the rest of Native Guard, has enabled her to understand her personal experiences within the ever-evolving, yet complex, South.

"It's always been a love-hate relationship. It's the only home I have," she says. "I'm more interested in recovering parts of our shared history as Southerners and Americans that have been overlooked and telling a fuller version of American history."

This reconciliation has empowered Trethewey to staunchly claim her native land despite its historical blemishes. While she admires the South, Trethewey doesn't blindly defend it. Instead, she's worked to reclaim the area's tradition, which she believes skims over certain "erased" memories. As a result, she's taken it upon herself to depict some of the lesser-known stories, such as the all-black Union regiment that inspired her Pulitzer Prize–winning collection's title.

Georgia's former state flag, which incorporated the Confederate flag in its design from 1956 to 2001, was another point of interest for the poet upon her return to Atlanta.

"There was a lot of controversy over the Confederate flag in the parts of the Georgia flag," she recalls. "There was a letter to the editor of a newspaper that read: 'all true Southerners love that flag.' In just one sentence, the letter writer could say that, if you didn't love the Confederate flag, you weren't really a true Southerner."

"I refused to accept that," she says. "[I thought] this is just as much mine as it is theirs. I love the South, but I also want the American flag to fly over it."

In Thrall, Trethewey further investigates her biracial identity while challenging preconceived societal classifications, both in the South and beyond. In "Help, 1968," she recalls her mother being mistaken for her maid. In that poem — inspired by a Robert Frank photograph from his 1958 book, The Americans — she writes:

when my mother took me for walks,

she was mistaken again and again

for my maid. Year later she told me

she'd say I was her daughter, and each time

strangers would stare in disbelief, then

empty the change from their pockets.

Trethewey also elaborates on her relationship with her father, a longtime poet that has written about her for years. Thrall's opening poem, "Elegy," describes their intimate, and at times divisive, relationship. Another work, "Enlightenment," reveals the ways in which her white father would rationalize the inherent contradictions in Thomas Jefferson's beliefs about liberty while owning slaves.

In her first published collection as the U.S. Poet Laureate, Trethewey doesn't directly speak to her Atlanta experience. Nevertheless, she continues to address the same issues that have permeated her entire life, which has been informed by her time in this city.

"I think that there are ways that you can maintain a strong awareness of Southern history and Southern culture without being mired in what is bad about the past and what we need to leave behind about it," she says. "I also hate its violent history and some of its ongoing blindness and racism. And yet, to love a place like this is to want to make a place better."


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