Natasha Trethewey is the newly announced, 19th U.S. poet laureate. The position is described by the Library of Congress as "the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."
Trethewey tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin that it's a lot of responsibility.
"Just trying to be the biggest promoter of poetry; someone who's really got to do the work of bringing poetry to the widest audience possible," she says.
Poetry, she says, is one of those things people turn to when they need a way to "speak the unspeakable."
"That's because poetry not only can celebrate our joys with us, but it can also mourn with us our losses," she says.
A professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Trethewey is the first Southerner appointed to the post since the very first poet laureate, Robert Penn Warren in 1986.
Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her collection Native Guard, a book about the Louisiana Native Guard, a black Union regiment assigned to guard Confederate soldiers held on Ship Island off Mississippi's Gulf Coast during the Civil War.
Click on the audio links on this page to listen to Natasha Trethewey read the two poems below.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Last week, the Library of Congress named its 19th poet laureate. Natasha Trethewey is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of three poetry collections, and at 46, she is one of the youngest laureates, and only the second Southerner since Robert Penn Warren and the first African-American since Rita Dove.
She joins us from Emory University in Atlanta where she's a professor of creative writing. Congratulations, Natasha.
DR. NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, the Library of Congress describes the poet laureate as being, and I quote here, "The nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans."
MARTIN: And I'm curious, what does that mean for you?
TRETHEWEY: Well, it means that I have a really big responsibility to undertake in the fall, in terms of just trying to be the biggest promoter of poetry; someone who's really got to do the work of bringing poetry to the widest audience possible.
MARTIN: What do you think poetry can do for people? I mean, do you think that people live with poetry on a day-to-day basis?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I think that lots of people do live with poetry on a day-to-day basis. I believe that we were reminded of that with former poet laureate Robert Pinsky's wonderful Favorite Poem Project, in which people all around the country recorded their favorite poems. And what it suggested was that there were people who still remembered poems, who still carried poems around with them and would recite them throughout the day. I certainly know that I do that.
I think we also live with poetry because poetry is one of those things that people turn to when they need a way to speak the unspeakable, or what seems to be the unspeakable. And that's because poetry not only can celebrate our joys with us, but it can also mourn with us our losses.
MARTIN: You chose to read the poem "Elegy" today for us, which listeners can hear on npr.org. And you chose it because you think that it's particularly appealing to a wide range of people. How so?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I think people like fishing in poems.
TRETHEWEY: But beyond that, you know, it's a poem that I think deals with not only something that is personal and perhaps universal to all of us. And that is a relationship with a parent and the way that those relationships are constantly changing over the years. And that we are constantly sort of remaking our memory of the past and looking back at certain points of it, to make sense of where we are right now. I think that's the thing that we all do.
MARTIN: We mentioned a lot of modifiers in our introduction to you. You're the fourth woman, the second African-American, the second Southerner to be named the National Poet Laureate. What do you think these things mean in the context of this new position?
TRETHEWEY: Well, I think it suggests the great diversity of American poetry. And certainly, each one of those things represents a kind...
TRETHEWEY: ...of diversity that we might not always see. And so, I think what it shows us is that American poetry is not - it doesn't look just one way. There are many voices who might speak to us about poetry in the United States.
MARTIN: Natasha Trethewey is the nation's newly appointed poet laureate. Natasha, thanks so much for joining us and congratulations again.
TRETHEWEY: Thank you.
MARTIN: And you can hear Natasha Trethewey reading her poem "Elegy" for us on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.