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Famous Poet Friday ~ Natasha Trethewey

Posted by Cutter on February 22, 2013 at 9:40 AM

Greetings fellow word junkies and welcome to Famous Poet Friday! I am your host Cutter and this week we are answering a request. New Orleans own guitar gunslinger and word beast Dwayne St. Romain requested this week's poet and since D is my brother, how could I say no, n'est pas?

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In all honesty I was surprized that I had not already done this poet because she is definately a favorite and I have two of her collections on my shelf. Her work is power house, elegant and carries with it the flavors on the new and old south. She never lets you forget her insight as a mixed race woman but never leans or relies on it and her work is garnering much praise still.

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Please support living poets, buy their work because they may be us, they will be us, they are us. Cheers and enjoy!

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Natasha Trethewey, an English professor at Emory University in Atlanta, was named poet laureate of the United States in 2012. Her collection Native Guard won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 2007.

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Trethewey's works forge a rich intersection between the historical and autobiographical. In poems that are polished, controlled, and often based on traditional forms, Trethewey grapples with the dualities and oppositions that define her personal history: black and white, native and outsider, rural and urban, the memorialized and the forgotten. The daughter of a black mother and a white father, Trethewey grew up in a South still segregated by custom, if not by law, and her life astride the color line has inspired her recovery of lost histories, public and private.

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Life and Education

Although Trethewey has spent much of her life in Georgia, she maintains deep roots in her native Mississippi, where she was born on April 26, 1966, in her mother's hometown of Gulfport. Her parents, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, a social worker, and Eric Trethewey, a poet and Canadian emigrant, met as students at Kentucky State College (later Kentucky State University) in Frankfort and later crossed the state line into Ohio to marry—a situation whose ironies and implications the poet deftly explores in "Miscegenation."

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After her parents' divorce, six-year-old Trethewey moved with her mother to Atlanta, returning every summer to the Gulf Coast, where she split time between the homes of her mother's family and of her father, who was then living in New Orleans, Louisiana. Here she began to discover the complexities of her essential duality—when she was with her father she could pass for white and be treated more equally than when she was among her mother's people. Trethewey also began to write during these years, at her father's urging.

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Trethewey's young adulthood was ruptured by violence and tragedy. In 1984 her mother divorced her second husband, Joel Grimmette; a year later, Grimmette shot his ex-wife to death. Nineteen-year-old Trethewey, who was finishing her freshman year at the University of Georgia (UGA) in Athens, where she was an English major and a varsity cheerleader, turned to writing poetry to deal with her grief.

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Trethewey completed her B.A. degree at UGA in 1989, and in 1991 she earned an M.A. degree in English and creative writing at Hollins College (later Hollins University) in Roanoke, Virginia, where she studied with her father, a professor there. By the time she earned her M.F.A. degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1995, Trethewey was starting to publish, and her work has since appeared in the country's most prestigious literary journals and anthologies, including The Best American Poetry in both 2000 and 2003.

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Trethewey took her first teaching job as an assistant professor of English at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, in 1997. In 2001 she joined the faculty at Emory University, where she is a professor of English and the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry. In 2005-6 she served as the Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Trethewey was the fourth African American poet, and UGA's first graduate outside of journalism, to win a Pulitzer Prize. In early 2008 she received the Mississippi Governor's Award for literary excellence, and in 2011 she was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. Mississippi named her state poet laureate in 2012.

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Trethewey lives in Decatur with her husband, Brett Gadsden, a historian and assistant professor of African American studies at Emory.

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Books

In 1999, Trethewey's watershed year, Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove selected the manuscript for Domestic Work as the winner of the inaugural Cave Canem Prize, an annual award for the best first collection of poems by an African American poet. The collection was published the following year by Graywolf Press, and in 2001 the book won a Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the Lillian Smith Book Award (named for Georgia writer Lillian Smith and administered by the Southern Regional Council).

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Although Domestic Work began as Trethewey's homage to her maternal grandmother's lifelong labors, the embedding of personal particulars within a historical context transforms the work into a portrait of a generation, in poems with a distinct musicality. In "Three Photographs," one of several poems based on old photographs, the viewer is compelled to witness for those unable to speak for themselves: "The eyes of eight women / I don't know / stare out from this photograph / saying remember."

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Trethewey mined her own experiences as a mixed-race woman for her second book, Bellocq's Ophelia (2002), based on E. J. Bellocq's early-twentieth-century photographs of prostitutes in the infamous Storyville District of New Orleans. Written mostly in the form of letters or diary entries by the imagined Ophelia, the poems envision her as an object caught in the monocle of a scrutinizing white male customer, as a subject framed in Bellocq's lens, and as a woman beginning to grasp her role in shaping her own identity. Winner of the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, Bellocq's Ophelia was a finalist for both the Academy of American Poets' James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association.

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Trethewey's attention to lost histories finds full expression in the Pulitzer Prize–winning Native Guard (2006). The collection's three parts—elegies to the poet's dead mother, a ten-sonnet persona poem in the voice of a black soldier fighting in the Civil War (1861-65), and a final section of autobiographical poems—emerge from Trethewey's desire to remedy historical amnesias. As an adult, Trethewey learned that the guards of the Confederate prison at Mississippi's Ship Island were the Louisiana Native Guards, the Union army's first official all-black regiment to serve in the Civil War—a fact never mentioned by tour guides or historical plaques during her annual childhood visits. The link between this historical erasure and her mother's death became clear to Trethewey when she composed "Monument," a poem about her mother's virtually unmarked grave in Gulfport:

At my mother's grave, ants streamed in

and out like arteries, a tiny hill rising

above her untended plot.

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Believe me when I say

I've tried not to begrudge them

their industry, this reminder of what

I haven't done. Even now,

the mound is a blister on my heart,

a red and humming swarm.

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As a monument not only for the forgotten soldiers but also for the poet's mother and for Trethewey's own conflicted relationship to the South, Native Guard exemplifies this writer's ambitious project to testify to "those stories often left to silence or oblivion, the gaps within the stories that we are told, both in the larger public historical records and in our family histories as well."

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In 2010 the University of Georgia Press published Trethewey's Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a narrative chronicling the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 on her childhood home of Gulfport, as well as on the life of her family.

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Miscegenation

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In 1965 my parents broke two laws of Mississippi;

they went to Ohio to marry, returned to Mississippi.

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They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name

begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong, mis in Mississippi.

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A year later they moved to Canada, followed a route the same

as slaves, the train slicing the white glaze of winter, leaving Mississippi.

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Faulkner's Joe Christmas was born in winter, like Jesus, given his name

for the day he was left at the orphanage, his race unknown in Mississippi.

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My father was reading War and Peace when he gave me my name.

I was born near Easter, 1966, in Mississippi.

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When I turned 33 my father said, It's your Jesus year -- you're the same

age he was when he died. It was spring, the hills green in Mississippi.

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I know more than Joe Christmas did. Natasha is a Russian name--

though I'm not; it means Christmas child, even in Mississippi.

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Pilgrimage

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Vicksburg, Mississippi

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Here, the Mississippi carved

its mud-dark path, a graveyard

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for skeletons of sunken riverboats.

Here, the river changed its course,

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turning away from the city

as one turns, forgetting, from the past—

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the abandoned bluffs, land sloping up

above the river's bend—where now

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the Yazoo fills the Mississippi's empty bed.

Here, the dead stand up in stone, white

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marble, on Confederate Avenue. I stand

on ground once hollowed by a web of caves;

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they must have seemed like catacombs,

in 1863, to the woman sitting in her parlor,

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candlelit, underground. I can see her

listening to shells explode, writing herself

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into history, asking what is to become

of all the living things in this place?

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This whole city is a grave. Every spring—

Pilgrimage—the living come to mingle

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with the dead, brush against their cold shoulders

in the long hallways, listen all night

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to their silence and indifference, relive

their dying on the green battlefield.

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At the museum, we marvel at their clothes—

preserved under glass—so much smaller

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than our own, as if those who wore them

were only children. We sleep in their beds,

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the old mansions hunkered on the bluffs, draped

in flowers—funereal—a blur

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of petals against the river's gray.

The brochure in my room calls this

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living history. The brass plate on the door reads

Prissy's Room. A window frames

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the river's crawl toward the Gulf. In my dream,

the ghost of history lies down beside me,

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rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm.

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Letter Home

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Four weeks have passed since I left, and still

I must write to you of no work. I've worn down

the soles and walked through the tightness

of my new shoes calling upon the merchants,

their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking

my plain English and good writing would secure

for me some modest position Though I dress each day

in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves

you crocheted--no one needs a girl. How flat

the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins.

I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet

industry, to mask the desperation that tightens

my throat. I sit watching--

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though I pretend not to notice--the dark maids

ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive

anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown

as your dear face, they'd know I'm not quite

what I pretend to be. I walk these streets

a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes

of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,

a negress again. There are enough things here

to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through

the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall

the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard

at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking

their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads

on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots

and irons of the laundresses call to me.

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I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending

and domestic; my schooling a gift--even those half days

at picking time, listening to Miss J--. How

I'd come to know words, the recitations I practiced

to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up

or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until

I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,

I repeated whole sections I'd learned by heart,

spelling each word in my head to make a picture

I could see, as well as a weight I could feel

in my mouth. So now, even as I write this

and think of you at home, Goodbye

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is the waving map of your palm, is

a stone on my tongue.

 

Categories: POET'S OPEN BLOG, CUTTER'S FAMOUS POET FRIDAY, Cutter

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5 Comments

Reply Missy (AKA MRS. Wordmachinist)
12:57 PM on February 22, 2013 
WOW, I will have to look more into her work. I really enjoyed reading her. Thank you Cutter for opening my mind up, once again. :D
Reply MoonCookee
3:02 AM on February 23, 2013 
Ho rah Brother!1 what a generous gift. How proud are we of our beautiful Poet Laureate. She is a truly unique voice and is a blessing of a teacher. I love having this here and it is a grand reference and a guide to all of us for what poetry can be. Brother you should have your own university lecture hall. You are our Dean of Education in everything you do. i love you brother.
Reply Cutter
12:48 PM on February 24, 2013 
MoonCookee says...
Ho rah Brother!1 what a generous gift. How proud are we of our beautiful Poet Laureate. She is a truly unique voice and is a blessing of a teacher. I love having this here and it is a grand reference and a guide to all of us for what poetry can be. Brother you should have your own university lecture hall. You are our Dean of Education in everything you do. i love you brother.


Brother dear Brother, thank YOU! Both for the suggestion and for coming by to read it! I enjoy doing these and it means a lot that you keep coming by. Cheers Bro!
Reply MoonCookee
3:31 PM on February 25, 2013 
Cutter says...
Brother dear Brother, thank YOU! Both for the suggestion and for coming by to read it! I enjoy doing these and it means a lot that you keep coming by. Cheers Bro!

Your Famous Poets are what my Friday's for . I love you.
Reply Tammy Hendrix
12:07 AM on February 27, 2013 
Fantastic! Her words are so down-to-earth, so raw and honest. She is an illumination on what is kept dark far too long. The weight of her history, her steps through life are weary and bold. Really, really good stuff, Cutter. Thank you so much.