Trethewey ends second term as U.S. poet laureate

Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Emory professor will give final lecture in D.C.

As she brings her two terms as the nation’s top poet to a close this Wednesday, Natasha Trethewey chose the words of a homeless Seattle teen she met last year, to, in a fashion, sum up what has been her mission as the nation’s poet laureate.

“She said that being able to write about the ugly things that she’d experienced in life, through poetry, she was able to turn them around and make them beautiful,” Trethewey said.

In that statement, Trethewey said, she found echoes of the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. And yet, in the girl’s quote there were also echoes of Trethewey’s work. It has plumbed some of the most disturbing moments in world history, Southern history and her own. Her ability to spin those moments into graceful verse that speaks to something larger than any single event is what landed her the nation’s most honored position for an American poet two years ago.

On Wednesday, Trethewey’s tenure as the 19th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry will end with her final lecture, “The World of Action and Liability: On Saying What Happens.” It begins at 7 p.m. in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Over the past two years, she has traveled from Atlanta — where she is Professor of English and Poetry at Emory University — to Detroit, Seattle and as far as Dubai, insisting through readings, television appearances, and lectures that poetry is thriving.

“Her commitment and her enthusiasm have elevated the position, and the art,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said in a statement. Billington selected Trethewey for the post in 2012 and again in 2013 and called her work in the post “remarkable.”

The role of the laureate is to promote poetry, and laureates are encouraged to come up with projects to do that. Her first year, Trethewey, 48, kept office hours for five months at the Library of Congress meeting with members of the general public.

In her second term, the poet began a collaboration with PBS’ “Newshour” with a senior correspondent, Jeffrey Brown, called “Where Poetry Lives.” In some ways, the title was a tweak at those who have proclaimed poetry irrelevant or dead. Trethewey found it thriving at Harvard medical school, at an Alzheimer’s project in Brooklyn, New York, in a program for homeless teens in Seattle and in an elementary school in inner-city Detroit.

“They were the best ambassadors for poetry that we have,” Trethewey said. “They had such a faith in it.”

Her only regret during her laureateship was not being able to hold office hours at libraries in many of the cities she visited for the show. She said she wanted to do that “to make a full accounting of all the ways and all the places where people are talking about poetry.”

So, it’s ironic that during the past two years, Trethewey has written no poetry of her own. Writing her memoir, originally scheduled for release this year, also took a back seat. Nonetheless, she was prolific, she said, writing posts for her blog on poetry for PBS, penning two commencement addresses, blurbs for books by fellow poets, lectures at home and abroad, “and reports for the dean’s office” at Emory, where she remains director of the creative writing program.

Throughout her career, Trethewey’s poetry has drawn inspiration from, and has brought fresh context to, historical events and movements. For her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning work, “Native Guard,” she gave voice to bands of forgotten, black, Union soldiers who died on a Mississippi island. In describing New Orleans in the early 1900s, in “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” she focused not on the city’s role as a midwife to jazz, but on the prostitutes of the city’s red light district. She sees her work not simply as historical, but as a way to reckon with the uncomfortable themes that have fueled conflict through the centuries, such as race, sexism and poverty.

“It has been a real privilege to serve history with poetry at this particular historical moment,” Trethewey said.

She was referring to the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement and the landmark legislation it spawned.

For now, Trethewey is looking forward to getting back to her office in her Decatur home, where she’ll begin writing the memoir in earnest and preparing for a new school year.

“Sometimes I say, ‘Where do I go now,’” Trethewey said. “I’m looking forward to getting back to the solitude that I cherished before all of this, but I still want to find ways to continue the work I’ve done the past two years.”