Poetry lovers will have a chance to eavesdrop on a conversation between Pulitzer Prize-winning poets Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith when the two compare notes at Princeton University on Thursday, February 28, at 4:30 p.m.

Since both poets draw upon their own lives and memories of their family relationships the conversation may well have an intimate quality to it.

Smith and Trethewey are well-acquainted with each other, having first met in the early 1990s when Smith was an undergraduate at Harvard and Trethewey, just six years her senior, was an emerging poet at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Both were active in the Dark Room Collective, a group of black writers in Boston and Cambridge who hosted a reading series that in 1996 the New Yorker said “could turn well out to be as important to American letters as the Harlem Renaissance.”

“Every other Sunday, the Dark Room would present a reading by an established writer and an emerging one,” recalls Smith. “It was my first immersion in contemporary poetry, and it pushed me to begin to think of myself not just as someone who hoped one day to become a writer, but as a writer just starting out,” she says.

Many of the poems Trethewey read for the Dark Room series were collected in her first book, “Domestic Work” (2000), which Rita Dove selected to win the Cave Canem poetry prize. The collection recognizes generations of anonymous women who cooked, cleaned, and tended to families not their own and was inspired in part by the experiences of Trethewey’s maternal grandmother and black domestic workers in the pre-civil-rights era.

For Smith, Trethewey was an inspiration as someone who was laying claim to “the life and the vocation of a poet.” She says, “Natasha was one of the people who made me feel confident that, with discipline and devotion, I could begin to find my way toward my own poems.”

That Smith has done. And how. She is the author of three books of poetry. Her first, “The Body’s Question,” written in 2003, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize; her second, “Duende” (2007), the James Laughlin Award. Her third, “Life on Mars,” won her the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and a citation describing “a collection of bold, skillful poems, taking readers into the universe and moving them to an authentic mix of joy and pain.” The book takes inspiration from Smith’s father, Floyd Smith, a NASA engineer who worked on the Hubble space telescope.

Born in 1972, Smith was the youngest of five children in a family that had roots in Alabama. She grew up in a northern California suburban town halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento. In 2006 she joined the faculty of Princeton University’s creative writing program.

Natasha Trethewey was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966, a year before the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws. Her mother was black; her father, white. When Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough married Eric Trethewey in Ohio, their interracial marriage was illegal in more than 20 states, excluding Ohio but including Turnbough’s home state of Mississippi.

Trethewey writes about her parents in her poem “Miscegenation,” “They crossed the river into Cincinnati, a city whose name begins with a sound like sin, the sound of wrong — mis in Mississippi.”

When Trethewey was six, her parents divorced; she moved to Atlanta with her mother who remarried. Trethewey was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Georgia when her mother was shot and killed by her abusive second husband, not long after she had divorced him. The poet recalls her mother’s death as the moment she turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened and try to deal with the loss: “People turn to poetry in tumultuous times. A lot of poems were written after 9/11 because people were trying to find a vessel — a way to speak the unspeakable.”

Poetry is not only a place to grieve, she says, “but also to celebrate joy, births, marriages, and even the ordinariness of the day.” Her work explores biracial identity and challenges preconceptions of race and color. It’s been called “elegiac” and “accessible.” Trethewey embraces the latter attribution. “Some people expect obfuscation in poetry, and I’m against that,” she says.

In addition to “Domestic Work,” Trethewey, who teaches in the creative writing program at Emory University, has published three award-winning poetry collections, beginning in 2002 with “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” “Native Guard” four years later, and the 2012 “Thrall,” not to mention the 2010 book of nonfiction, “Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

“Bellocq’s Ophelia” uses the form of an epistolary novella to tell the story of a mixed-race prostitute photographed by E.J. Bellocq in the early 20th century. Bellocq, who lived from 1873 to 1949, is noted for haunting portraits taken in the Storyville red light district of New Orleans. The book’s eponymous heroine is “a very white-skinned black woman mulatto, quadroon, or octoroon.”

Trethewey’s 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Native Guard” memorializes her mother and the Louisiana Native Guard, an all-black regiment of mostly former slaves who enlisted in the Union Army. The coincidence of Trethewey’s birth date with Confederate Memorial Day — April 26 — prompted an early fascination with history and the Civil War.

Her work examines America’s racial legacy. “These poems are not only about racism and the sense of psychological exile created by that, but they are very much of an assertion of my entitlement to own the South, much as white Southerners own it — the deep knowledge that this is where they’ll bury me.” Of her love-hate relationship with the South, Trethewey says: “It is my homeland and my native land; I love the South because it is mine.”

The last poem in “Native Guard” ends as follows:

I return

to Mississippi, state that made a crime

of me — mulatto, half-breed-native

in my native land, this place they’ll bury me.

Long an admirer of Trethewey’s work, Smith says she is drawn in and delighted by the scope and reach of Trethewey’s latest and fourth collection, “Thrall,” published last August. “Thrall” focuses on racial complexities in the Americas and the poet’s relationship with her white father.

In spite of the personal nature of her work, Trethewey describes herself as a very private person. “I know that must sound strange once you read my poems,” she says, “But even a poet writing very close to their own experience will still put on a mask. There is a kind of elegant control of the material in terms of what is revealed and what is held back.”

Besides numerous national awards, Trethewey received the 2008 Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and was named 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year. In 2009 she was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and in 2011 into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.

If there is one question that Smith is most keen to put to Trethewey, she says: “I’m interested in talking about Natasha’s work over the span of her career, and hearing her describe her own development from project to project. I’m interested in both her sense of craft or form, and also her commitment to exploring the kinds of public history that drives so much in her writing. And, of course, I want to ask about her sense of her mission as U.S. Poet Laureate.

Last year, Trethewey was selected as the 19th United States Poet Laureate (and also named poet laureate of the state of Mississippi). She’s the first Southerner in the office since Robert Penn Warren in 1986 and the first African-American since Rita Dove in 1993. At 46 years of age, she’s also one of the youngest.

The poet laureate serves as the nation’s official poet, a sort of cheerleader for the genre, says Trethewey, with the goal of raising the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of poetry. The position was modeled on the poet laureate of the United Kingdom and previous holders include Billy Collins, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Conrad Aiken, Robert Pinsky, Rita Dove, James Dickey, W.S. Merwin, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

When the Librarian of Congress James Billington first heard Trethewey read at the National Book Festival in 2004 he said, “I was enormously impressed with not just the quality but the stature and beauty of her presentation. It was a reminder that poetry is fundamentally meant to be recited, to be shared.”

On hearing the news of Trethewey’s selection, Smith was elated. “Because I met her so long ago, in a setting that felt like a kind of home for aspiring writers, I felt tremendously proud. Natasha is so intelligent, and so mindful — her work peers with courage and clarity into pockets of history that are under-explored, under-discussed. And she opens up a rich and complex conversation.”

Tracy K. Smith and Natasha Trethewey speak as part of the Conversation Series at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University’s in the Chancellor Green Rotunda, Thursday, February 28, at 4:30 p.m. The event, which is co-sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts, is free and open to the public. A book signing and reception follows. Books will be available for purchase courtesy of Labyrinth Books. For more information, call 609-258-4270.

Tracy K. Smith and Natasha Trethewey speak as part of the Conversation Series at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University’s in the Chancellor Green Rotunda, Thursday, February 28, at 4:30 p.m. The event, which is co-sponsored by the Lewis Center for the Arts, is free and open to the public. A book signing and reception follows. Books will be available for purchase courtesy of Labyrinth Books. For more information, call 609-258-4270.

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