Emory's Trethewey named U.S. Poet Laureate

By Elaine Justice | June 11, 2012

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Natasha Trethewey, recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Lillian Smith Award for her book, "Native Guard," becomes the 19th Poet Laureate. © 2012 Nancy Crampton.

Natasha Trethewey, Emory University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, has been named Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2012-2013 by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington.  

Trethewey, recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Lillian Smith Award for her book, "Native Guard," becomes the 19th Poet Laureate, and will take up her duties this fall. Her term will coincide with the 75th anniversary of the library's Poetry and Literature Center and the 1937 establishment of the Consultant-in-Poetry position, which was changed by a federal law in 1986 to Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.  

"Natasha Trethewey is an outstanding poet/historian in the mold of Robert Penn Warren, our first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry," says Billington. "Her poems dig beneath the surface of history—personal or communal, from childhood or from a century ago—to explore the human struggles that we all face."  

"Poetry is a source of vibrant energy on the Emory campus, in large part due to Natasha's brilliance and commitment," says Robin Forman, dean of Emory College of Arts and Sciences. “This is a wonderful moment not just for Natasha, her friends, family and colleagues, but also for the hundreds of students—undergraduate and graduate—whose lives have been enriched by the opportunity to learn from her."

Trethewey, who is Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing and incoming director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory, succeeds Philip Levine as Poet Laureate. She joins a long line of distinguished poets who have served in the position, including W. S. Merwin, Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, Donald Hall, Ted Kooser, Louise Glück, Billy Collins, Stanley Kunitz, Robert Pinsky, Robert Hass and Rita Dove.  

Trethewey's poetry

She is the author of three poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Native Guard" (2006), "Bellocq's Ophelia" (2002) and "Domestic Work" (2000). Her newest collection of poems, "Thrall," is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2012. Trethewey also is the author of a book of creative nonfiction, "Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast" (2010).  

In 2001, Trethewey researched "Native Guard" in the Library of Congress' Manuscript Division and later spent time writing the book in the library's Main Reading Room. She also has been featured in two Library of Congress National Book Festivals, in 2004 and 2010. Billington said of her readings, "I heard in her voice a classical quality that can speak to the widest possible audience."  

Work in Washington

Trethewey will reside in the Washington, D.C., area from January through May of 2013 and work in the Poets Room of the Poetry and Literature Center, the first time the Poet Laureate has done so since the inception of the position in 1986.  

"Poetry is very close to my heart," says Trethewey. "The idea of having this position from which to try to promote poetry to a wider audience is thrilling, but also humbling."  

Robert Casper, head of the Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress, says, "I am thrilled our next Poet Laureate will spend the second half of her term in the Library's ‘Catbird Seat.' There she will impact the capital and the country even more powerfully, as one of our great poets of reclamation and reckoning."  

Trethewey also is serving as Poet Laureate of Mississippi. She was named to the position in January for a four-year term and will continue in the position while serving as U.S. Poet Laureate.  

For the introduction of Trethewey's first collection, selected for the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize, Rita Dove 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."  

Background 

Trethewey's other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Study Center, and the Bunting Fellowship Program of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard.  She has also received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the Lillian Smith Award for Poetry.  

Born in Gulfport, Miss., in 1966, Trethewey earned a B.A. in English from the University of Georgia, an M.A. in poetry from Hollins University, and an M.F.A. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  From 2005-2006, she was appointed the Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies at Duke University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and from 2009-2010, she was the James Weldon Johnson Fellow in African American Studies at the Beinecke Library at Yale University. 

Opening Event

Trethewey will open the Library of Congress' annual literary season with a reading of her work on Thursday, Sept. 13 in the Coolidge Auditorium.  

More information on the Poet Laureate and the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center can be found at www.loc.gov/poetry.