Originally published in Washingtonian.
Natasha Trethewey has been named the 19th US poet laureate, succeeding Phillip Levine. Trethewey, 46, joins a distinguished line of poets who’ve held the coveted post at the Library of Congress over the years, including W.S. Merwin,Kay Ryan, Charles Simic, and Rita Dove. Her duties will begin in the fall.
In a statement released today, the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, says, “Natasha Trethewey is an outstanding poet/historian in the mold of Robert Penn Warren, our first poet laureate consultant in poetry. 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.”
Billington told the New York Times how struck he was when he saw Trethewey read her work at the National Book Festival in 2004. (Listen for yourself.) “I admired the way she had a certain classical sound but also moved easily from traditional forms to free verse. And then when I began reading her poems for myself, that impression was just confirmed. It seemed very natural, all of a piece.” He added: “I go to a fair number of poetry readings, and I’m not always motivated to go back and read the poems. But in her case I was.”
Trethewey is the author of three poetry collections, including Native Guard, (2006), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Her newest collection of poems, Thrall, is forthcoming later this year. Trethewey is also the author of a nonfiction book, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010).
Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966, the daughter of an interracial marriage, the experiences of which inform much of her poems. Though considered to be mid-career, she’s racked up an enviable amount of accolades, fellowships, and honors. She’s the first poet laureate to hail from the South since Robert Penn Warren, and the second African-American to be named to the position (the first was Rita Dove)—though Robert Hayden (1976 to ’78) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1985 to ’86) both served as “consultants in poetry to the Library of Congress” before the official name change to “poet laureate consultant” in 1985 by an act of Congress. An English and creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Trethewey has elected to reside in the Washington area for the second half of her term.
For more information on upcoming readings the new US Poet Laureate will give in Washington, visit the Library of Congress’s Poetry Center.