NEW YORK (Reuters) - Natasha Trethewey, author of three poetry collections and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was named on Thursday as the 19th U.S. poet laureate, becoming only the second Southerner appointed to the position.
The Library of Congress, in announcing the appointment, said Trethewey would succeed Philip Levine and officially take up her duties in the fall, around the time her fourth collection, “Thrall,” is due to be published.
Trethewey, an English and creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection “Native Guard.” In addition to poetry, she is the author of a non-fiction book, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
Trethewey, 46, was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, and becomes the first U.S. poet laureate from the South since Robert Penn Warren, who was appointed to the job in 1944.
“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,” Librarian of Congress James Billington said in a statement.
She is the first African-American to be appointed to the position since Rita Dove in 1993.
Dove said in an introduction of Trethewey’s first collection, “Domestic Work,” released in 2000 that included portraits of black workers in a pre-civil rights era, “Trethewey eschews the Polaroid instant, choosing to render the unsuspecting yearnings and tremulous hopes that accompany our most private thoughts.”
Tretheway has also drawn upon her own family history for her poetry, including the union of her parents - her mother was black and her father was white - that was in the mid-1960s still a crime in her native Mississippi.
Her mother, part of the inspiration for “Native Guard,” was murdered in 1985 by an abusive second husband, whom she had divorced. Her father, also a poet, is a professor of literature at Hollins University.
Trethewey talked about her childhood and “evolving attractions to words” at an Emory University lecture two years ago, including being influenced by George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write” upon applying for a graduate creative writing program.
Looking back she said she realized her words were “lifeless” when they lacked political and social purpose, but was always attracted to the lyricism of poetry.
“As a small child I felt the joy of words in their juxtapositions, in the rhymes and near nonsense phrases my mother saying to amuse me, long before I was conscious of their social or political power,” she said.
Visual images often drove her poetry and prose, she said, and research has been important in crafting her words, as well as topics difficult to address.
“The biggest thing that I learn each time is that I can find, I hope, the best words in best the order to convey what seems to me, often, so difficult to speak, what must be spoken,” she said.
“Of course I learn something about myself each time I write a poem as well and that is that store of empathy and that store of the imagination that we have as human beings is inexhaustible.”
Trethewey, who also is serving as poet laureate of Mississippi, will reside in the Washington, D.C., area from January through May.
Poet laureates, who are selected for a one-year term by the librarian of Congress, have few specific duties but in recent years have initiated projects to broaden the audience for poetry.
Reporting by Paul Thomasch and Christine Kearney; Editing by Eric Beech and Carol Bishopric