CLEVELAND, Miss. -- Natasha Trethewey smashes stereotypes about
poets. She's not stuffy. Or shy. Or aloof.
As U.S. poet laureate, the 46-year-old describes herself as a
"cheerleader" for the written word. She chooses the label
deliberately, not only because she was head cheerleader at the
University of Georgia in the late 1980s (Big hair! Big smile!), but
also because, as a younger laureate, she wants to bring a sense of
energy to the position.
"I want to ask ordinary people if poetry can mean something to
them," Ms. Trethewey told The Associated Press during an interview
at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.
"When kids look at broccoli they call it 'little trees' because
they see it not just for the word 'broccoli.' They see it for what
it looks like, the image," Ms. Trethewey said. "We, as adults,
forget to think like that. We forget to think figuratively and have
to be reminded."
The librarian of Congress, James Billington, named Ms. Trethewey
as the nation's 19th poet laureate in June, and she began the one-
year position in September. She has already given speeches and
public readings in Washington, D.C., and in two states where she
grew up, Mississippi and Georgia.
Many of her poems explore the interplay of race, memory and
Ms. Trethewey, whose late mother was black and whose father is
white, was born in Gulfport, Miss., in 1966, when their interracial
marriage was against the law in the state. (A 1967 U.S. Supreme
Court case that originated in Virginia struck down such bans
nationwide.) Her parents divorced when she was young.
Ms. Trethewey's latest collection, "Thrall," was released in late
summer. Some poems explore her complex relationship with her father,
Eric Trethewey, who's also a poet. Many were inspired by 18th
Century "casta" paintings by Spanish artists, which catalogued the
complex system of labels that society gave to children of mixed-
race relationships in Mexico and other parts of the new world:
"an equation of blood --
this plus this equals this -- as if
a contract with nature, or
a museum label," she writes in a poem called "Taxonomy."
Ms. Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her 2006
collection "Native Guard," which focuses on two disparate topics.
One is the history of the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Civil War
regiment assigned to Ship Island off the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The
other is the personal history of her mother, Gwendolyn Ann
Turnbough, who was killed two decades ago by a stepfather Ms.
In addition to serving as the U.S. poet laureate, Ms. Trethewey
is serving for four years as poet laureate for Mississippi. Then-
Gov. Haley Barbour gave her the title in January before he left
office. She is the first person to serve simultaneously as poet
laureate for a state and the nation.
Fred Moten, professor of modern poetry at Duke University, said
Ms. Trethewey is one of many younger poets whose work pushes the
boundaries of defining American identity.
"She's an extraordinarily well-respected figure in contemporary
American poetry," Mr. Moten said. "What she does is let people know
that American racial history is not just this thing of the past."
Ms. Trethewey is director of the creative writing program at
Emory University. Her husband, Brett Gadsden, is a professor of
African-American studies at Emory. Starting in January, the couple
will move for a semester to Washington, D.C., where she has an
office at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center.
Here are excerpts of the AP interview:
AP: Do you find yourself reading and re-reading work of the
previous poets laureate?
Ms. Trethewey: "My predecessor, Phil Levine, is one of my
favorite poets.... And of course Rita Dove is one of my
favorites.... Maxine Kumin. Robert Penn Warren -- his work has meant
a great deal to me. I'd like to think I'm in conversation and kind
of extending a conversation with Warren -- his thinking not only in
his poems, 'Tell me a story of deep delight,' but also his thinking
about the legacy of the Civil War (and) his book, 'Segregation,'
about his return to the South after the walls of segregation had
fallen in the '50s. …