Natasha Trethewey: Poet in Chief
The country’s newest poet laureate reflects on history, memory, and why Hollywood rarely gets the South right
Poet and Mississippi native Natasha Trethewey is a magician. She writes about the Civil War and it feels like she is writing about your grandmother. She writes about her grandmother and it feels as if she is writing about the whole of the South. In June, the Pulitzer Prize winner and professor at Emory University in Atlanta became our nineteenth poet laureate, the first Southerner to hold the post since Robert Penn Warren, the original honoree. Her poems—and soon enough, a recently commissioned memoir—quietly explore the in-betweens of life. No one is either this or that. No story the definitive telling. Nothing is as simple or straightforward as it seems, which is precisely the point. And as true a thing as has ever been said about the South.
Geography is essential in your writing. When did you first feel the pull of place?
I was always very aware of the nature of the place where I was growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi, how that place was shaping my experience of the world. I had to go to the Northeast for graduate school because I felt like I had to get far away from my South, be outside it, to understand it.
What defines the South for you?
In my head are all these images. I see places that are beautiful that I love, but underneath, that dark side. What I don’t like is anything that renders us quaint. That I don’t see.
I love the last lines of [your poem] “Pastoral”: “You don’t hate the South? they ask. You don’t hate it?” which you borrowed in part from Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Do you find yourself defending the South often?
Absolutely. I get so mad when I see movies portray the South as us always sweating in courtrooms. I remember in graduate school I was a TA and one of my wicked students wrote a parody of me and he described me not wearing shoes until I was five. Now, I did run around barefoot. But the South represented as always being backwards is annoying. Look at the literature that has come out of the South.
What kind of writer would you have become if you had been born outside the South?
I have no idea. I can’t begin to imagine myself without the fate of my geography. I feel lucky to have been born into a troubled and violent history and a terrible beauty.