Poet Laureate Moved


Bluffton visit moves U.S. poet laureate

United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey may have taken the first step toward understanding her mother in Bluffton, Ohio.

She said as much following an Oct. 15 lecture at Bluffton University, where her late mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, attended college for one year 50 years ago.

After delivering the university’s annual Keeney Peace Lecture, Trethewey told a group of faculty, staff, students and visitors that she is supposed to be writing a memoir now. She hasn’t had time, though, said the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, who became U.S. poet laureate in 2012 and is also a faculty member in English at Emory University in Atlanta.

“But I believe the journey here today was what I was waiting for,” an emotional Trethewey said. “It was what I needed to get started.”

“I want to know her,” she added about Turnbough, who divorced Eric Trethewey when their daughter was 6 and was killed at age 40, when Natasha was 19. “My mother is still such a mystery to me.”

She said she needs to write the book “to know her myself”—and to “own” her own story. After she was named U.S. poet laureate, Trethewey explained, media mentions of her background “always” included her mother’s death. “I was reduced to my murdered mother’s daughter,” and her social-worker mother was reduced to a murdered woman, she continued, saying there is more to be made of Turnbough’s “transcendent life.”

Turnbough was from Gulfport, Miss.—the site, from 1946-76, of a Mennonite voluntary service unit that built relationships between whites and blacks through involvement in numerous community projects and religious programs.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, the General Conference Mennonite Church and its colleges—including Bluffton—made it possible for 10 African-American students from Gulfport to attend church colleges. Two of those students came to Bluffton, including Turnbough. But she only stayed for a year before transferring to Kentucky State College, now University, where she met and fell in love with Eric Trethewey, a white Canadian.

They married in 1965 in Ohio, because Kentucky was among the nearly 20 states—most of them in the South—that still outlawed interracial marriages in the 1960s, Trethewey pointed out during her lecture.

Her parents settled in Gulfport, where their daughter was born April 26, 1966—the 100th anniversary of the first Confederate Memorial Day. Thus, she said, she was born during the civil rights movement in a place that deemed her parents’ marriage as illegal and her as illegitimate. “I have a native land that made me a poet,” said Trethewey, who wrote her first poem after her mother’s death and is now the poet laureate of Mississippi as well.

One of the poems she read from her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 collection, “Native Guard,” described a cross-burning in her grandmother’s Gulfport yard in the late ‘60s. Because her grandmother let the church across the street park its bus in her driveway during a voter registration drive, her family—which was also living there at the time—never knew if the message was meant for the church or for them, she said.

The “Native Guard” title refers to the Louisiana-based, Union Army regiment of former slaves whose Civil War work included guarding Confederate prisoners on Ship Island, off the coast from Gulfport. There is no monument to the regiment, Trethewey said, and 150 years later, only a handful of Civil War monuments mention any black soldiers.

“When I began writing this book, my quarrel was with national memory,” she said. However, citing a quote from Irish poet William Butler Yeats that “… out of the quarrel with ourselves, we make poetry,” she also acknowledged an inner quarrel for not having placed a stone on her mother’s grave for more than 20 years after her death.

So, “Native Guard” also holds elegies for Turnbough, with whom Trethewey had moved to Atlanta following her parents’ divorce. Recalling “difficult” early teenage years there with her mother and stepfather, Trethewey told the Bluffton group she wants to hold some things in her memory but has also needed to forget others “just to survive.”

“This project I’m undertaking is going to bring back a lot I’ve necessarily forgotten,” she said about the memoir. “I welcome the challenge, but I’m afraid at the same time.”      

Promoting the reading and writing of poetry and overseeing events at the Library of Congress are among Trethewey’s responsibilities as U.S. poet laureate. In addition to “Native Guard,” her poetry collections include the award-winning “Domestic Work” (2000); “Bellocq’s Ophelia” (2002), which was named a Notable Book for 2003 by the American Library Association; and “Thrall” (2012). She also wrote the 2010 nonfiction book, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Bluffton’s Keeney Peace Lectureship was established in 1978 by the family of William Sr. and Kathryn Keeney to express appreciation for Bluffton’s influence and to strengthen the continuing peace witness among the community.