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Life's lessons become Pulitzer-winning poetry

Natasha Trethewey recalls the experiences that informed the work in 'Native Guard.'

January 29, 2008|Emily Wagster Pettus | Associated Press

CLEVELAND, Miss. -- Natasha Trethewey looks at a photograph and wonders what the camera didn't catch. She tries to visualize the split second of action that was omitted, intentionally or accidentally, by the way a person pointed the lens.

Her poetry tries to reveal the action beyond the frame.

Trethewey, a creative writing professor at Emory University in Atlanta, has long been fascinated with historic erasure -- the idea that certain people or events are forgotten because they've never been recorded.

Her book "Native Guard," which won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, focuses on two disparate and long-overlooked 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 Trethewey's mother, who was killed two decades ago by a stepfather Trethewey always feared.

"I think it's probably the book that I was destined to write, the one I needed to write for a long time," Trethewey said during an interview at Delta State University, where she addressed students last year and received an honorary degree.

In February, Trethewey will return to her native Mississippi to receive the Governor's Award for literary excellence.

The daughter of a black woman and a white man, Trethewey was born in 1966. Her parents' interracial marriage broke not only the societal norms of the segregated South but also the laws of Mississippi, which since have been repealed. In "Miscegenation," one of the poems in "Native Guard," Trethewey wrote about her parents' journey to Ohio to marry in 1965.

D. Allan Mitchell, an English professor, helped arrange Trethewey's appearances at Delta State. He said students responded to her poems' visual images of Mississippi, such as these from "Theories of Time and Space," the opening piece in "Native Guard":

"...the pier at Gulfport where

"riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

"in a sky threatening rain . . . "

Mitchell said Trethewey has a comprehensive knowledge of Southern literature without feeling she has to emulate William Faulkner, Eudora Welty or others.

"There is a trap with a Mississippi writer that it has to be a certain type of literature and it has to be wordy," Mitchell said. "She's not wordy. And it's refreshing that she's a poet. She takes all these familiar landscapes and terrains of the heart and re-creates them."

Trethewey lived in Gulfport until she was 6. That's when her parents divorced and she moved with her mother to Atlanta. Every summer until she graduated from high school in 1984, Trethewey split her time between Gulfport -- where her mother's extended family still lived -- and New Orleans, where her father, Eric Trethewey, was a poet and English professor at Tulane University (he now teaches at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.).

Putting loss into words

Natasha Trethewey dedicated "Native Guard" to her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, who was killed when Trethewey was a college freshman. It took the daughter 20 years to face her own grief and commit words to a page. From "Graveyard Blues":

"It rained the whole time we were laying her down;

"Rained from church to grave when we put her down.

"The suck of mud at our feet was a hollow sound."

After getting a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Georgia, a master's in English and creative writing from Hollins University, a master of fine arts from the University of Massachusetts, Trethewey moved back to Atlanta to work at Emory. She found a home near the courthouse where her stepfather had been tried, and sentenced, for killing her mother. There, she started working on the collection that became "Native Guard."

"I was approaching my 40th birthday, which is the last age my mother ever was. She died 11 days shy of her 41st birthday," Trethewey said. "I wanted this book to come out to honor her memory at that same moment that I turned her age. And I think it's really strange to think that 10 days shy of my 41st birthday, I won the Pulitzer."

Trethewey started writing as a child when she went on long car trips with her father.

"He would say, 'You need to have inner resources,' " she recalled. "And so he suggested that I write what I was seeing outside the car window."

In an American society obsessed by race, Trethewey said she has been asked all her life what color, or even what nationality, she is.

"There's an expectation that people have about inherent ways of being, based on what your race is. And that just drives me crazy," she said.

Growing up, she was treated differently by outsiders, depending on whether she was with her black relatives or her white ones.

"When I was with my father, I could sort of pass for white. People might just think I had a dark tan or something. We were treated a lot better than when I went downtown with my grandmother, for example," Trethewey said. "It was . . . an education in racism that I was able to get because sometimes I was one and sometimes I was the other."

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