Pain, loss fuel acclaimed poet Trethewey’s fire

Natasha Trethewey smiling as Professor Natalie King-Pedroso speaks kind
words about her poetic journey. Photographed by: Ke’Neesha Weaver

Pulitzer Prize winner and 19th Poet Laureate of the United States, Natasha Trethewey, had an intimate gathering with students for the Tenth Annual Spring Literary Forum on Friday in the Black Archives.

Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Miss., on April 26, 1966. Her mother, an African-American social worker, and father, a white Nova Scotian poet and professor, had married at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in more than 20 states, including Mississippi. In a coincidental twist of fate, Trethewey’s birth occurred on the centennial anniversary of Confederate Memorial Day.

Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her book “Native Guard,” and her poetry often draws on her childhood as a biracial child in the South.

When she was 6 years old, Trethewey moved from Gulfport to Atlanta, eventually settling in Decatur. She attended DeKalb public schools and lived with her mother and an abusive black stepfather, who ostracized her for being biracial and regularly looked through her diary.  Her mother divorced him after 10 tormenting years in an effort to escape the violent relationship.

Although she was able to escape, that didn’t stop her stepfather from trying to kill her mother countless times. According to an article on, Trethewey’s former stepfather unsuccessfully attempted to take her mother’s life after beating her and repeatedly injecting her with a syringe full of battery acid. He spent one year in jail before being released, and in June 1985, he tried to kill her a second time in which he was successful.

“When my mother died, I was 19, and I said to myself that I would never come back,” she said in a 2010 interview with Emory’s Southern Spaces. “I never thought that I’d want to come back, that I would come back.”

At the time of her mother’s death Trethewey was was living about 60 miles away in Athens, Ga., attending the University of Georgia and vowed to never return to Atlanta. She didn’t start taking poetry seriously until after college when she was about to enter graduate school.

Trethewey went on to earn her MFA in 1991, which was six years after she lost her mom. The first two things she tried to write about was the loss of her mom and the wounds inflicted upon her through the South and the injustices that was there. One of her professors told her to unburden herself from being black, as well as to unburden herself from the death of her mother, and to write about a different situation in Northern Ireland. She was taken aback by the suggestion and although her professor told her that, she took the worst thing told to her and made it better.

Trethewey has a poem named “Myth,” that was featured in her book “Native Guard,” and that poem discusses how she was asleep when her mother died and the emotions she went through at the time.

“The wound is still there. It doesn’t go away. How does one even heal?” Trethewey said. She further explained how her bereavement shaped her life and how that wound is something that’s always behind and through her with anything she does.

“I wouldn’t be me without that wound. The wound is the place where the light enters you,”  Trethewey said.

That wound is a place through which she finds light and writes about it.

It took her more than 15 years to return to Decatur. When she finally did, she was an established poet and professor. Trethewey holds the Phillis Wheatley Distinguished Chair in Poetry at Emory University. In 2000 her first collection,”Domestic Work,” won the Cave Canem Prize for a first book written by an African American Poet. She served two terms as the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States from 2012-2014, and currently she works at Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts & Science in the Department of English.

Trethewey, is working on a new book about domestic violence which is scheduled be available November 2018.