Natasha Trethewey, the newest United States poet laureate, in her first book wrote of a moment in her parents’ life in Frankfort, shortly before she was born.
The poem, “Early Evening, Frankfort, Kentucky,” describes her father and pregnant mother, students in the 1960s at what was then Kentucky State College, as they walk through town at twilight.
The peaceful images of “blue hills shimmering,” billowing distillery stacks and the leather-bound poetry book her father carries to read as they walk turn mournful with the last few lines of the poem.
Natasha calls that evening the “dead center” of her mother’s life, which ended with gunshots in a parking lot when she was not yet 41.
Her murder was one of the struggles in a family history of tragedies and triumphs – from racism, poverty and divorce to success on the stage, academic achievement and a Pulitzer Prize.
Natasha’s parents, Eric and Gwen, were one of the first interracial couples on campus, forced to cross state lines to marry in Ohio, where their union was legal. When they moved to Mississippi after graduation, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on their front yard.
They divorced when Natasha was young, and her mother remarried into an abusive relationship. Her father moved to New Orleans, where he divided his time between the university library and the boxing ring.
Natasha won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her collection “Native Guard.” She is the author of three other books of poetry and prose, and serves as poet laureate of Mississippi.
Her father is also a poet and an English professor at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.
Natasha, 46, invited her father in June to a dinner in Atlanta, where she works as an English professor at Emory University. That’s when officials made the surprise announcement that she would be the 19th U.S. poet laureate.
She begins her one-year term in September with a mission to share the art of poetry with a wider audience.
Eric still keeps in touch with friends from his time at Kentucky State College, including Jo Leadingham and Richard Taylor. He recently spoke with The State Journal about his daughter’s success and the sometimes-bumpy road they both traveled.
“I was very, very surprised – not that she had won another big prize because she’s already won a Pulitzer – but to become poet laureate is a much rarer thing. I was astounded and deeply gratified,” he said by phone from his office in Roanoke.
“From the very beginning she was gifted with language and interested in reading and writing – she was winning prizes back in grade school. I’m happy that it’s turned out this way and that she’s been blessed with so much success.”
Media reports often pinpoint Gwen’s murder as motivation for Natasha becoming a writer. Eric said he believes the tragedy played a role in his daughter’s decision to become a poet.
“Any kind of life-changing event like that, if you’re at all literary, it’s got to push you in that direction,” he said.
Natasha was a freshman at the University of Georgia when her mother died, killed by her second ex-husband.
The Associated Press reported in a June 6, 1985, article about her murder that Gwen had told police of repeated threats from her ex-husband, recently released from jail after an incident of violence against her.
On the morning of her murder, her ex-husband stopped their 11-year-old son on his way to school, drove him back to the apartment and used his key to enter, the AP reported. After a struggle, he caught up with her in the parking lot, shooting her in the head.
The couple had divorced in 1983 and had a history of abuse, according to the AP. Eric, in a 2008 essay in the Antioch Review, said Gwen’s killer was sentenced to life in prison with a chance for parole.
He is still incarcerated in Georgia.
“Gwen and I were long divorced by then, but we were still friends, and so it was pretty cataclysmic, shocking,” he said. “I was just happy that I was there for Tasha when it happened.”
Eric recalls the painful days he spent helping Natasha pack up her mother’s belongings and clean her apartment, coming across items he hadn’t seen in years.
The struggle between Gwen and her ex-husband in her apartment resulted in a gunshot to the kitchen wall, Eric said, damage that the building superintendent noted when she refused to return the rental deposit to Gwen’s family.
“I made sure that we left the apartment spotless, and then I went over to the super’s apartment to invite her to inspect the apartment so I could get the deposit back,” he said, adding that he wanted Natasha to have the money when she returned to school.
“She looked at me as if I were wielding a knife in front of her, and she said, ‘What do you mean deposit? Didn’t you see that bullet hole in the wall?’”
Eric said some of the most notable achievements in Gwen’s life happened on the stage. She was a member of The Kentucky Players, an acting troupe at Kentucky State College.
“She did a lot of lead roles, and she was a beautiful young woman,” said Winona Fletcher, a retired professor who worked with students interested in theater, including Gwen.
“She was a very good actress, very flexible, and she could work in several different kinds of roles – she was one of my top actresses.”
Fletcher, now 85, remembers Eric and Gwen as one of the first interracial couples on campus, during a time when racial tensions were particularly high in the South.
“They were such a beautiful couple together,” she said. “I always saw them on campus and they seemed so happy, and it was early in the years when we were heading into lots of racial problems.”
Fletcher said she kept in touch with Eric, but lost track of Gwen until she heard word of her death.
“Gwen was one of my favorite people,” she said. “Such sadness occurred in her life – I try to remember the good parts.”
A KY. CONNECTION
Eric, a native of rural Nova Scotia, was a high school athlete. He grew up poor, so he enrolled at Kentucky State College in hopes of landing a track scholarship.
As a freshman, he majored in physical education, but before long transferred to the English department. Writing and reading had always been important to him, he says, noting that he began writing poems as a teenager.
Beyond sparking his future career and life’s work, English class is where Eric met Gwen Turnbough.
“The literary connection was the thing that probably brought us together, but also she was very beautiful,” he said.
The union between Eric, who is white, and Gwen, who was black, was still illegal throughout the South, so the couple headed to Cincinnati to marry.
“We had been living together, which was unheard of at the time – Kentucky State in those days was a very conservative place – but I had already gotten kicked out of the dorm,” he said.
“I had an argument with one of the dorm counselors, because he wanted me to make my bed with a Marine tuck, and I figured just making my bed was enough. Over that trivial issue I got turfed from the dorm.”
On June 12, 1967, about a year after they were married, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled bans on interracial unions unconstitutional, declaring marriage a basic civil right.
Natasha was born in 1966 in Gulfport, Miss., the same year her father graduated from Kentucky State College. Eric headed home to Canada to look for work and a place for his family to live.
His wife and daughter arrived soon after, he said, and Gwen began working. Eric landed a job as a reporter, but he didn’t like life in the newsroom.
“We were still up against it, so I joined the Royal Canadian Navy, which gave us a certain amount of security,” he said.
But it also separated him from his wife and daughter. As soon as he finished basic training, the navy sent Eric out to sea.
Gwen returned to Frankfort to finish her degree, which she earned in 1969, and moved to Gulfport, Miss., where her family lived.
Eric joined them after a couple of years with the navy, and his mother-in-law helped him secure a job working with a stevedore gang loading and unloading ships.
Intent upon going to graduate school, he successfully applied to the University of New Orleans. The 80-mile trip from Gulfport to New Orleans eventually wore on him, and he rented a small apartment in New Orleans, traveling to see his family on the weekends.
After Eric and Gwen divorced, she moved with their then 6-year-old daughter to Atlanta to work toward a graduate degree in social work. Natasha would spend the summers in Gulfport with her grandmother, traveling to New Orleans to visit her dad.
He stayed there for 17 years, eventually earning a doctorate from Tulane University. Beyond the classroom, he fought as an amateur boxer, a sport he first picked up as a kid in Nova Scotia, hooked after his older friend “dragged me into the boxing gym one day.”
Both father and daughter have written poems about his time in the ring. He won a junior national American Athletic Union championship and then turned pro for a few fights, until he had to retire because he couldn’t pass the eye exam required to participate.
From those days, he remembers fishing with his daughter in the creeks of Louisiana and Mississippi and dining out at restaurants.
“She was always impressed with a good New Orleans restaurant – that was one of her favorite things and it remains one of her favorite things,” he said.
They also read together.
“I was working on my doctoral dissertation at the time, so she would go with me to the library, and while I was working on my dissertation, she would be haunting the stacks and reading books,” he said.
Natasha never lost interest in the written word, Eric said, but she didn’t commit to the craft until after college. She took a job in social work, like her mother, but soon told her father she wasn’t happy.
He suggested she enroll in the writing program at Hollins University, where he taught. She agreed, and her father says, “never looked back.”
As a father, Eric had taught his daughter many things, but he took on the role of professor when she entered his classroom as a graduate student.
“People talk about the awkwardness of those situations, but it wasn’t in the least bit awkward,” he said. “She’s quiet and not a show-off, and she works hard, so it worked out fine.”
The father and daughter have since done readings together, starting with one in Kentucky organized several years ago by Henry and Jo Leadingham, friends since his college days.
Natasha was scheduled to read with another poet, but the guest canceled at the last minute. Eric planned to watch from the audience, but filled the vacancy instead.
“The other poet couldn’t make it, so Natasha and I read together and it worked pretty well, so we’ve done that a number of times now,” Eric said.
“Usually we pick poems that sort of talk to each other, and frequently they’re about the same subject.”
Jo, a retired art history professor at KSU, remembers the event well. The Tretheweys write in different styles, she said, but they often address similar topics, people and life events.
“They had a wonderful tandem reading that they developed here in Frankfort, in which they address similar topics in their lives in terms of poetry,” she said.
“It turned out to be quite an amazing success, and they have read all over the country because it was so personal and so unique. They’re very good poets, both very different poets.”
Eric describes his daughter as a “very formal poet” at a time when free verse is more popular, though she has dabbled in that unrestrained style of poetry.
“I think it’s probably rooted in her personality, her tastes, and probably some of her tastes have been shaped by my tastes being passed on to her – after all, I was her teacher in a formal way as well as informally,” he said.
“I think that poems ought to make sense, and I don’t have much patience for those that don’t, and she’s pretty much the same way.”
Some of her poems are based on old photographs or documents, while others tell the story of her family, her childhood split among Gulfport, Atlanta and New Orleans.
Family stories were the inspiration for her poem about her parents’ romance in Frankfort, Eric said.
“She remembers something, and then she also remembers stories that I’ve told or that her grandmother has told her – the kind of stories that become family lore,” he said of the Frankfort poem.
“She takes her memory, the family lore and perhaps something that I’ve written, and she puts all of that together into a single poem. That particular poem is a perfect example of that.”
Eric just finished a collection of new and selected poems and a book of essays, a memoir that tells the story of his family life.
“I’m also working on a new book of poems, and it’s sort of in that not-quite-there stage, but it’s drafted, and so I’m tightening up the poems, and then I’m always doing odd things – writing an essay here and there, whatever happens to strike my attention,” he said.
The Associated Press reported this month that Natasha is working on a memoir, currently untitled. The memoir will tell of her childhood in the American South in the 1970s and ’80s, the daughter of a white father and black mother.
Natasha will open the Library of Congress’ annual literary season with a reading of her work on Sept. 13 in the Coolidge Auditorium.
“She has said that she really wants to take it seriously,” Eric said of the role his daughter is about to embark upon.
“A lot of people who have held the position in the past have done a few things, but haven’t really gone at it in a full-time, concentrated way, and I think that’s what she’s going to do.”