In August, Natasha Trethewey recited selected poems from her latest collection, Thrall, at Emory University's Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. She was giving the Decatur Book Festival's keynote speech — her first public appearance since the Library of Congress named her the 19th U.S. Poet Laureate in June. Utter stillness engulfed the center's sold-out 800-seat theater as Trethewey rolled through her verses in a soft, melancholy lilt. The delivery was powerful and confident, and her voice contained only the slightest hint of a Southern accent.
Speaking on Emory's campus, where she's worked as a professor for more than a decade and now serves as the Creative Writing Program's director, Trethewey made her debut as the nation's preeminent poetry ambassador in front of a hometown audience. The late August evening represented a culminating moment for the Decaturite, the first Southerner to hold the position since Robert Penn Warren in 1986 and the first African-American poet laureate since Rita Dove in 1993.
The importance of Southernness and of race in Trethewey's life cannot be understated. They have come to define the biracial, Mississippi-born poet on both personal and artistic levels.
"I've always been aware that the South made me," she says. "I am the product of this place, as well as anyone from this place."
Much of Trethewey's poetry explores her personal experiences living below the Mason-Dixon line within the context of the South's overarching, historical narrative. She's immersed herself in understanding the region, and for better or worse, claimed the South as her own.
"It is my homeland and my native land," she says. "If I don't claim it, if I allow the people who ought to say that it is not really 'my place' because of race or something like that, then it renders me homeless. I'd have no homeland. I love the South because it is mine." (Read the full story here)