Thursday, June 7, 2012

AWP Board Member & Cave Canem Prize Winner Natasha Trethewey Is 2012-2013 U.S. Poet Laureate

The next U.S. Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, appointed by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, is Natasha Trethewey. The Poet Laureate “seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry” (U.S.Library of Congress). This distinguished poet has won the Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim, and an NEA Fellowship; she also is Poet Laureate of Mississippi, and she will continue in that position for the full four-year term.
(Mississippi State Poet Laureate site)

 I know Natasha through her service as a board member for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (see AWP site). I value the conversations we have shared about mixed-race heritage, misleading appearances, and historic continuity. I appreciate her accessibility. Consistent with that quality, she will be in residence in DC as poet laureate, not at a distance from the Library of Congress offices. I expect a very hands-on, committed tenure as PL.

Her work ranges from formal sonnets to elegant free verse. Her three published books range from more formal poetry (patterned verse) to skilled experiments in “docu-poetry,” to use Joseph Harrington’s term. She references historical situations as a frequent topic, but with her own interpretive and emotional focus. The American past threads through all Trethewey’s writing; it adds gravitas. Her poem “Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata,” after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619 (forthcoming in Thrall, Sept., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) has one of the most evocative descriptions of a woman, comparing her, and her servitude, to round kitchen containers. The 17th century portrait suggests historic context for women's experiences, with nuanced suggestions about both confinement and beauty. It begins:

She is the vessel on the table before her:
the copper pot tipped toward us, the white pitcher
clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red
and upside down. Bent over, she is the mortar
and the pestle at rest in the mortar—still angled
in its posture of use. She is the stack of bowls
and the bulb of garlic beside it, the basket hung
by a nail on the wall and the white cloth bundled
in it, the rag in the foreground recalling her hand….
The painting structures the poem, but the selection of the copper pot, pitchers, mortar, bowls, garlic bulb, and baskets all echo the female shape. This focus also emphasizes the dehumanization of the woman—she is a kitchen utensil, stacked among the bowls. Most importantly, she leaves an imprint, the "rag" that recalls the shape of "her hand." This woman's life is not obliterated through her low class nor through time's erasure. Velàzquez and Trethewey both honor her.
Her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin 2006) centers on the African American 2nd regiment, in Mississippi, that served in the Civil War for the Union. It is a significant work in American poetics. It also is a casebook of how to refine literary motifs throughout a collection of poetry.
<>Here are more links and a biography for Natasha Trethewey:<><>Academy of American Poets and the rest of the poem “Kitchen Maid”: <><><>New York Times<> article<><>
Emory University article
Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966. She earned an M.A. in poetry from Hollins University and M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Massachusetts. Her first collection of poetry, Domestic Work (2000), was selected by Rita Dove as the winner of the inaugural Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet and won both the 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry. Since then, she has published two more collections of poetry, including Native Guard(Houghton Mifflin, 2006), which received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Bellocq's Ophelia (2002). Her latest collection of poems, Thrall is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in September of 2012. In her introduction to Domestic Work, 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." Trethewey's honors include the Bunting Fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. She is Professor of English at Emory University where she holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry. In 2012, Trethewey was named the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate by the Library of Congress.