U.S. Poet Laureate Speaks at Gwinnett College

In a joint venture with Gwinnett Public Libraries, Pulitzer prize winning author Natasha Trethewey spoke on race, history and family Sunday evening.

Pulitzer prize winning author Natasha Trethewey spoke Sunday, Oct. 7, at Georgia Gwinnett College. Trethewey, a UGA grad, was named United States poet laureate in June. She currently teaches at Emory University.

As the daughter of a white man and black woman who were illegally married in the '60s, Trethewey uses poetry as a tool to vividly describe the implications of race throughout history while discovering what it means for her personally. Her most recent work, "Thrall," is a powerful juxtaposition of historical analysis and introspection.

“This is a hard book,” Trethewey said. “It’s much more difficult [than previous books]. It asks us to really examine our emotions in a way that might be uncomfortable.

“It’s hard on my father too,” she added.

Discussing race is difficult, she explained, but especially when a parent is considered “other.” Although she is close to her father now, and even appears with him at poetry festivals, working through racial issues was a challenge. With her light skin and eyes, she felt compelled to choose which race to identify with. That, however, turned out to not really be a choice at all.

“Those who grow up in this country, especially in the South, the choice is made for you. You are who the cops say you are,” she said with a shrug of her shoulders, almost apologetically.

Her first poem was written out of an experience related to racial identity. She described running ahead of her parents when she first attended a new school, simply so that she would not have to explain that she was black, not white.

“People assumed I was white,” she said, “and I didn’t correct them. But this was an attempt at intentional passing.”

The decision to identify with her black mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, and grandmother came later on, in part because people would say things like, “Oh, you’re not like the rest of 'them',” or, if she were to succeed at something, they would say “that’s your white side.”

That “erased anything wonderful about my mother and grandmother,” according to Trethewey.

Before taking the stage, Trethewey took an hour to meet her readers and discuss her writing method. One 12-year-old girl, Paris Cooper, came out just to meet such an inspirational figure. Cooper has been writing since the age of seven and hopes to become a writer one day.

Trethewey’s own writing career was encouraged from a young age. She was always wildly creative, according to childhood friend Tonya Groomes.

“You never know who you play with when you’re 10!” Groomes said.  "She’s just going from success to success. She was always delightful and creative and sweet."

Trethewey's father, Eric, also a poet and professor of English at Hullins University, encouraged her gift for writing. She received a graduate degree in English from the University of Georgia and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

She currently teaches at Emory University.

As far as the demands of her schedule and presenting in front of scores of people on a regular basis, that’s no big deal. As former head cheerleader at University of Georgia, she “got used to that.” Performing is the best part.

“Although,” she said, “when I’m reading difficult poems, it’s almost easier to do if the lights are out. It’s easier to just be this voice in a very quiet and dark room and hope the listeners are connecting.”

Trethewey's published works include:

  • Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000)
  • Bellocq's Ophelia (Graywolf, 2002)
  • Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) - Pulitzer prize
  • Beyond Katrina:A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (Georgia, 2010, nonfiction)
  • Thrall

For more information, visit her website. The event was a joint effort between the college and Gwinnett Public Libraries.


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