Gulfport native wins Pulitzer prize for poetry

Published 2:19 pm Thursday, April 12, 2007

ATLANTA — Emory University associate professor of English Natasha Trethewey has been awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

“Native Guard” draws on her personal experience and Southern heritage. In the book’s title work, she imagines the life of a former slave in her hometown of Gulfport, Miss., during the Civil War, in a former Union prison housing Confederate prisoners.

The slave was charged with writing letters home for illiterate POWs and fellow soldiers. Trethewey said she used the racial legacy of the Civil War to honor her mother and her personal history.

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Trethewey told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that winning felt “unbelievable.”

Trethewey said she didn’t even know she had won the prize until more than an hour after it was announced when Paula Vitaris, the coordinator for the school’s creative writing department, got a call from a reporter at 4:30 p.m.

“Paula walked in,” Trethewey said, “and said, ‘I need to tell you something.’ I must have looked panicked, because she said, ‘No, it’s good!’ I walked out in the hall, she told me and I screamed. Then she told the students and they applauded.

“I went back into class,” Trethewey said, “and said, ‘I don’t think I can finish workshop today.'”

By 6 p.m., Trethewey said was enjoying a bottle of wine with friends.

Growing up, Trethewey says, she was never told that black soldiers in Gulfport played a role in the war.

In one poem, she says:

The Daughters of the Confederacy

Has placed a plaque here, at the fort’s entrance

each Confederate soldier’s name raised hard

in bronze; no names carved for the Native Guards

Trethewey was born to a black mother and white father in 1966 in Mississippi. Her poetry also recalls her childhood as a mixed race child.

She cites her two greatest influences as her father, a poet and professor at Hollins University in Virginia, and her mother, a social worker who was killed in 1985 by her second husband.

“I’m the last age my mother ever was,” said Trethewey, who turns 41 next week. “And this book, ‘Native Guard,’ is dedicated to her. That means a lot to me.”

She has taught at Auburn University, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and Duke University where she was the 2005-2006 Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies.