A Pulitzer Prize winning poet made a lasting impression in Omaha Thursday night as she read gripping poems that delved into racial issues she doesn't want the world to forget.
U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey spoke at the Joslyn Art Museum as the featured speaker of Creighton University's Center for Health Policy and Ethics 23rd Women and Health Lecture.
Trethewey is serving her second year as the U.S. Poet Laureate and has written four collections of poetry. She is a creative writing professor at Emory University in Georgia.
Trethewey discusses tough issues in her poems, including blacks in the Civil War, growing up in an interracial family during the 1960s and coping with her mother's 1985 murder.
She is known for her 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry collection, titled “Native Guard.” The series of poems ties her family history to the time period between the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement in her home state of Mississippi.
She began her lecture with a poem from that collection she calls “Miscegenation.” She said it's a “poem about the kind of hurt that might make one begin to write poetry.”
It tells the story about how her black mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, and her white father, Eric Trethewey, broke Mississippi law by getting married in 1965. A year later her mother gave birth to Trethewey in Gulfport, Miss.
Trethewey read another poem about her mother and Canadian father meeting at an all-black college.
Her father, now a poet and professor of English at Hollins University, had applied to the school because it was affordable. He didn't know it was an all-black school until he arrived, Trethewey said.
She continued reading more poems, going deeper and deeper into civil rights and family issues.
One poem talked about a night when the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in her yard. She describes how her family peered out the window and saw white men dressed like angels.
Another poem talks about how while on a walk with her mom, passers-by asked if her mother was her maid.
When her mother said she was Trethewey's mother, the people emptied their pockets.
She has authored several other poems about losing her mother.
She said her mother's death pushed her to write poetry.
Her most recent collection, “Thrall,” examines race and her ongoing relationship with her father.
Trethewey said poetry is a language that asks people to “listen differently.”
“In the elegant language of a poem, I find that we have the best repository for our most humane and just expressions of feeling,” she said.
The crowd of more than 700 appeared moved by Trethewey's powerful words. Wendy Wright, a theology professor at the Creighton University, said the lecture was “soul nourishing.” Another audience member, Renee O'Brien of Omaha, said she was impressed by the depth of the poems.
“I thought she was marvelous,” O'Brien said. “She really touched my heart and mind.”