Carlie Sorosiak, a student on the MSt in English and American Studies, introduces the incumbent US Poet Laureate.
While researching my dissertation on contemporary poetry in the American South, I stopped by Blackwell’s last month to pick up Natasha Trethewey’s new collection, Thrall (2012). I was dismayed to find, after a thorough search of the shelves (and later an even more gruelling search through every bookstore in Oxford and the Bodleian’s resources), that Trethewey’s poetry was nowhere to be found – not even her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Native Guard.
Perhaps I’m partial to the Mississippi native’s memory-filled poetry, as it reminds me so much of my childhood in the American South. Although evidently not yet considered a writer of extreme importance in the UK, Trethewey was recently named the 2012-2013 Poet Laureate of the United States, an honour previously bestowed upon her late southern predecessor and Vanderbilt Fugitive poet, Robert Penn Warren. She is certainly a poet to watch.
As a multiracial woman, Trethewey connects her experience of growing up as a non-white ‘other’ with the brutal cultural history of the South. Her poetry is an attempt to recover marginalized and forgotten histories, especially the stories of mixed-race and African American women. For example, Trethewey’s first published collection, Domestic Work (2000), is almost a social documentary, profiling the often forgotten characters of the pre-civil rights black working class. Her next collection, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), illustrates the life of mixed-race prostitutes in Louisiana’s Storyville district. Clearly, her poetry differs from the traditional, white, patriarchal prose of the South – no moonlight or magnolias from Gone with the Wind here! She establishes, perhaps, a truer picture of the way the South has always been, following a line of critical discourse that began with William Faulkner. In fact, one of her best known poems, ‘Pastoral’, concludes with a reformulation of Quentin Compson’s famous final words in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!: ‘I dont hate [the South]! I dont hate it!’
In Native Guard, her most lauded work, Trethewey best braids her startling personal history with the violent, complex, hidden history of the South. She focuses especially on her mother, who was murdered by Trethewey’s stepfather, and how her mother’s life represents a semi-forgotten narrative. Thrall proceeds in Native Guard’s footsteps, continuing the racial theme but this time in the form of describing 17th and 18th century Spanish American Casta Paintings.
I continue to expect great things from Trethewey in the future. Find more information about her life and work through Emory University, where she teaches creative writing, or through the Library of Congress.
You can find out more about Natasha Trethewey and read and hear her poems at her page on the Poetry Foundation website.