- Congregation (2014) chapbook, William Meredith Foundation/Dryad Press.
- Thrall (2012)
- Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf (2010) (creative non-fiction)
- Native Guard (2006) (Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007)
- Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002)
- Domestic Work (2000)
by Ashley C. Hamilton (SHS) 2002, Updated 2017
Poet Natasha D. Trethewey was born April 26, 1966, in Gulfport, Mississippi, to Eric Trethewey (also a poet) and Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough Trethewey. Before Trethewey started grade school, her parents divorced; and she and her mother moved to Decatur, Georgia. Her mother then married Joel Grimmette.
In her poetry Trethewey sometimes writes about her mother (who was murdered by Grimmette in 1985 when Natasha was nineteen) and her own experiences as the daughter of a white father and a black mother growing up in the South. As a child, Trethewey spent her summers with her grandmother in Mississippi and in New Orleans with her father and stepmother. She has always loved words and even at a young age spent much of her time in a library reading as many books as possible. Her father, who died in 2014, first inspired her to write poetry.
After high school, Trethewey earned her Bachelor’s degree at the University of Georgia in English and creative writing. She earned her Master’s degree in English and creative writing at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where her father was a professor of English and the author of six collections of poetry himself. Later she went to the University of Massachusetts from which she received her M.F.A. in poetry (Gale).
In addition to Trethewey’s father Eric being a poet, her stepmother Katherine Soniat, originally from New Orleans, was also a poet who taught English at Hollins and Virginia Tech (Emory Report). Soniat now teaches at the University of North Carolina in Asheville’s Great Smokies Writers Program.
Throughout Trethewey’s career, she has received many awards, including grants from the Alabama State Council on the Arts and a Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue her work on Bellocq’s Ophelia, (poems based on her work as a graduate student about photographs of prostitutes in the 1900’s in New Orleans). For Storyville Diary she won the Grolier Poetry Prize.
In 1999, she was selected by Rita Dove to receive the Cave Canem Poetry Prize for the best first book by an African American poet for Domestic Work , which was published in the fall of 2000 by Graywolf Press. In 2001, she received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize and the Lillian Smith Award for poetry. She received the prestigious Bunting fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. She received a stipend from the Women/Barbara Deming Memorial Fund award.
Other awards that Trethewey has received include the Margaret Walker Award for poetry, the Jessica Nobel-Maxwell Memorial Award for poetry, the Julia Peterkin Award at Converse College, and the Distinguished Young Alumna Award at the University of Massachusetts (Gale). Most impressively, Trethewey was the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin 2006). It is a collection of letter poems by black guardsmen who were once stationed at Gulfport, Mississippi.
She also received the 2008 Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts for Poetry. She was named the 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year and has been inducted into both the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. In 2012 she was named Poet Laureate of the state of Mississippi and served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States.
Trethewey’s work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines. She has published five collections of poetry: Domestic Work, Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, Thrall, and Congregation, and one non-fiction work: Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf. Natasha Trethewey taught as an assistant professor of English at Auburn University in Alabama before accepting a position at Emory University in 2001 where she was Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing Director.
In 2005-2006, she served as the Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies, a joint appointment at Duke University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and in 2009 she served as the James Weldon Johnson Fellow in African American Studies at Yale University’s Beinecke Library.
In 2007 she won the Pulitizer Prize in Poetry for Native Guard and in 2012 and 1014 was appointed United States Poet Laureate of the United States. During her second term as poet laureate, she worked with Jeffrey Brown in the PBS NewsHour series Where Poetry Lives, which was, according to PBS, “a reporting project that focuses on issues that matter to Americans through the framework of poetry.” She was also Poet Laureate of Mississippi, her home state, for four years from 2012 to 2016.
In 2017 Trethewey left Emory and joined Northwestern University’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences as the Board of Trustees Professor of English. She was selected by the Heinz Family Foundation to receive the 22nd Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities category. The award recognizes her outstanding abilities as poet, writer, and teacher, and is an unrestricted cash award of $250,000.
Trethewey now lives in Evanston, Illinois, with her husband Brett Gadsden (also a professor at Northwestern University) and currently teaches in Northwestern’s Litowitz Creative Writing Graduate Program, a joint Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and Master of Arts in English degree program. She teaches both graduate and undergraduate courses in creative writing.
Trethewey’s poetry is based on extensive research and on memories of her own experience as the daughter of an African-American mother and a white father whose marriage in the 1960’s was illegal in Mississippi.
She has two half brothers: Joel Grimmette, III, and Silas Shinn. Her father Eric Trethewey died in 2014.
A Review of Bellocq’s Ophelia
by Ashley C. Hamilton (SHS)
The book Bellocq’s Ophelia by Natasha Trethewey is full of free verse poems, written as letters and diary entries. Trethewey brings to life a New Orleans prostitute named Ophelia. The character actually originated from a photograph taken by E. J. Bellocq in the early 1900’s. The photographs taken by E. J. Bellocq featured women prostitutes in New Orleans, but their names are unknown. These photographs inspired Trethewey to imagine the life of Ophelia.
The setting is in New Orleans, Louisiana, and spans the years of 1910 to 1912. Ophelia is a mulatto who originally lived in Mississippi but moved to New Orleans when her money began running low. Some of the letters Ophelia wrote were to her former teacher Miss Constance Wright. She explains what her life is like in New Orleans. Later on, Ophelia explains that she has found work as a prostitute at parlor owned by a woman named Countess P.
As Ophelia continues to write Miss Constance, she describes her work environment, her co-workers, and her customers. One particular customer she mentions a lot is E.J. Bellocq. She explains how he visits the parlor often and only buys enough time to take pictures. Ophelia was not only a model for Bellocq but soon became his apprentice. Soon she starts to see her environment and people the way a photographer does.
In her diary entries, she explains the first time she met her father. Her mother told her that a white man was her father and that he was the one who named her. Ophelia explains how she tried to impress her father when she was young. Now she fears that one day a man will walk into her room, not just as a customer but as a father too. The remaining entries are about Bellocq and the photographs he takes of her.
As I read Ophelia’s letters from Storyville, I was shocked at some of the things that took place in the parlor I was also amazed at the fact that Ophelia was not ashamed of what she did for a living. While reading this book, I have a few questions that I couldn’t find the answer to. However, I did enjoy reading Bellocq’s Ophelia. The poems were not like what I thought they were going to be. I thought that every poem was going to rhyme and be hard to follow, but it wasn’t. Trethewey’s poems were easy to read and to understand I would encourage everyone to read at least one collection of poems by Natasha Trethewey I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Ever wonder what Mississippi poet Natasha Tretheway is reading? Or what book influenced her life? Read this 2018 interview from The New York Times
- Brett Gadsden, husband of Trethewey, is Associate Professor of History at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.
- Poet Natasha Trethewey named 2017 Heinz Award Winner.
- Natasha Trethewey is appointed the 19th Poet laureate Consultant in Poetry in 2012.
- Natasha Trethewey, Pulitzer Prize Winner celebration at Emory
- Poet Natasha Trethewey presents her “Elegy for the Native Guards,” April 9, 2005, on Ship Island, Mississippi
- Trethewey reads Theories of Time and Space, 2005
- Poets.org has biography and some poems by Trethewey
- Faculty page for Trethewey at Emory
- Native Daughter: an interview By DEBORAH SOLOMON of the New York Times. Published: May 13, 2007.
- Jake Adam York Interviews Natasha Trethewey in Southern Spaces.
- Read poems written by Natasha Trethewey.
- PBS NewsHour on Natasha Trethewey
- Read the poem Elegy for the Native Guards
- Emory Report profiles Trethewey’s Ophelia by Eric Rangus
- Online feature of Emory Magazine features Trethewey reading Beyond Katrina.
- Rangus, Eric. “Trethewey’s Ophelia”. Emory Report. 7 Oct. 2002.
- Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2002. Etheridge, Eric.
- Trethewey, Natasha. Bellocq’s Ophelia. Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2002.