Trethewey was named the 19th U.S. poet laureate in 2012 by the Librarian of Congress.
Born in Gulfport, Miss., and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, she teaches English and creative writing at Emory University.
U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson introduced Trethewey to the crowd of about 100 gathered at The Georgian Club, among them Attorney General Sam Olens, Marietta Schools Superintendent Emily Lembeck and retired University of Georgia Coach Vince Dooley.
Trethewey read a few of her poems, one of them about her father.
“My father is also a poet, and so most of my life he’s been writing poems about me, and he’s been anticipating with I think excitement and a little anxiety about the day that I would start writing poems,” she said. “He wanted me very much to be a poet, but he also knew that it meant I would set the story straight.”
Trethewey spoke of being born in 1966 to parents of different races. Interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi, along with a number of other states at the time.
“Not until 1967, the case Loving v. the state of Virginia, did the Supreme Court rule that those anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional. I just love the fact that it was ‘Loving’ to let us see that people who love and wanted to marry each other should be able to do so.”
One attendee asked her what it would take to change the laws banning same-sex marriage.
“Well, it’s interesting, it’s hard not to think about anti-miscegenation laws without thinking about our contemporary moment and the same issues, the same desire for people who love and want to be with each other,” she said.
Trethewey cited changing attitudes.
“The laws are going to be changing, that within a couple of years we’ll see a lot more of those freedoms granted to all citizens across the country, but it takes what it always takes — legal argument,” she said. “And in many ways the same kinds of things were said about why you shouldn’t have mixed-race marriages that are being used now, so it’s interesting to see the way that our history has continued to move forward, and that we can use our lessons from the past to see our way into being on the right side of history in the future.”
In her role as poet laureate over the last few years, Trethewey said she’s spoken of the importance of poetry and the way people make use of it in their day-to-day lives. Her signature project in her second term as poet laureate was traveling the country with a PBS News correspondent to “report on where poetry lives.”
“We went everywhere from the juvenile detention facility in Seattle to the Brooklyn Memory Center that uses poetry to help Alzheimer’s patients live in the moment. We also went on the annual congressional pilgrimage to Selma with Congressman John Lewis, and we looked at the ways that poetry matters in all those different places,” she said.
Being named poet laureate changed her schedule.
“It changed my poetry because there wasn’t much writing of it for the past two years,” she said. “I am happily trying to sit down at my desk and get some more writing done.”
Charles Wright was named to the position in June.
“I have some deadlines that I have to meet, but the traveling that I did around the country meant that it was not easy for me to have the same kind of regular schedule as a writer that I had kept before,” she said. “In my first term, I actually moved to Washington and my project was to hold office hours in the Library of Congress, so I met the public regularly to talk about poetry. So those kinds of things kept me from writing.”
Trethewey lives in Decatur within walking distance of Emory.
“I like to have a walking life. I thought about that, no offense, but I thought about that as I drove almost an hour to get from my home to see y’all today,” she said.
The poet believes a writer of poetry can improve their craft with effort.
“I wouldn’t be a good professor of creative writing if I didn’t say you couldn’t learn to write a better poem,” she said. “I absolutely believe that everyone can learn to write a better poem. You can learn to use elegant sentences to find ways to clearly express what it is you’re thinking or feeling. I also think you probably need to have a real love for words, a passion for them. You want to hang out with your dictionary a little bit. If you have some measure of those two things I think you might have a shot at it.”
As director of Emory’s creative writing program, Trethewey can’t always have whole days to herself where she sips coffee and writes like she used to.
“That’s how I started when my life was less busy,” she said. “I like to be at my desk in the morning, and I would write until noon or until I wrote a poem, whichever came first, and then I would do the other kinds of work that I had to do in the afternoon.”
Now, she gets up and likes to take a long walk with her dog.
“I find that the rhythms, the cadences even of walking help my mind to start thinking about the stories I need to tell, but the best thing that is part of my writing routine or schedule that always happens is reading,” she said. “I can’t start writing without reading. I like to interact with the thinking of another writer. The cadences of their thought and the rhythms of syntax that begin to open up my own words for me, so no matter what, before I even look at my own journal I pull a book off a shelf that’s been useful for me in terms of guiding me toward the material that I’m working on.”
After answering questions, Trethewey recognized the winners of the Cobb Library Foundation’s poetry contest.
Winners received $100 and a plaque.
Neba Evans, 17, a senior at Osborne High School, is the winner for the Grade 7 to 12 entry for her poem “Grandparents Sun.”
Joseph Fisher, 11, a sixth-grade student at Dickerson Middle School, won the Grade 3 to 6 entry for his poem, “Sweet Dreams.”
Fisher said he was motivated to begin writing about two years ago by his 16-year-old sister, Jasmine, who attends Walton High School.
“My sister is really good at poetry and so I thought I’d try it,” he said.
Fisher, who named Robert Frost as his favorite poet, said he was thrilled to receive the award and meet Trethewey.
“I’m very excited. It’s such an honor,” he said.