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Pulitzer Poet Has Gulfport Roots: Grandmother Lived on Coast Before Katrina

April 19, 2007

By Pam Firmin, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Apr. 19–Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and Gulfport native Natasha Trethewey has a standing date every Sunday with her grandmother, Leretta Turnbough, 90, who lived in Gulfport all her life until Hurricane Katrina and now lives in a nursing home near Trethewey in Atlanta.

When Katrina was coming, “she and my brother got in his car and met me in Mobile and I got them out of there,” Trethewey said. “That’s when we realized she was not capable of living alone.”

Now, “We go out to lunch or to a movie or shopping, the botanical gardens, the zoo, the aquarium — she loves it all,” Trethewey said in an interview Wednesday with the Sun Herald. Her brother, Joel Grimmette, is the last member of their small family who still lives in Gulfport.

His big sister’s big win wasn’t such a big surprise to Grimmette, who’s going to Atlanta to celebrate with her this weekend.

“I always kind of thought it would happen one day,” he said. “I always dreamed it would. I’m extremely proud of her. She dedicated her life to poetry. She’s put her heart into it.”

Trethewey left Gulfport when she was 6, after her parents had divorced and her mother, the former Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, moved to Atlanta to go to graduate school for a master’s in social work. She was murdered by her second husband when Trethewey was 19.

Her Pulitzer-winning book of about 30 poems is titled “The Native Guard” and is dedicated to her mother. The book’s three sections are three elegies, Trethewey said, “to my mother in the first section, to people in Mississippi’s history and about my own personal history growing up black and biracial.”

Her father, who is white, is a poet and professor at Hollins University in Virginia, and was one of her professors during undergrad studies.

Growing up, Trethewey spent every summer at her grandmother’s house in Gulfport, at 2501 Jefferson St., near U. S. 49 and across from Mt. Olive Baptist Church in North Gulfport.

“For years, it had a big ‘Marine Life’ sign in the drive,” she said.

The story about black Civil War soldiers on Ship Island, which led to her Pulitzer work, materialized during a visit here with her grandmother, soon after Trethewey had started her first job as a professor. She currently teaches creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.

They were having dinner at a restaurant on the beach, Trethewey said, talking about a teaching assignment she had given her class.

“A woman, a white woman, was eavesdropping on our conversation the whole time… . She stopped at our table and said, ‘I think there’s something else you need to know about Ship Island.’ She told me about the black soldiers who were stationed on that island, and that they guarded Confederate soldiers.”

“I had been going to that island every year on the Fourth of July,” Trethewey said. “We would take a picnic and take a tour of Fort Massachusetts. The rangers never said anything about black soldiers there.”

Her interest was caught and the search for information began, leading ultimately to this week’s Pulitzer.

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In brief Who: Natasha Trethewey, 40, born in Gulfport in 1966, recipient of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her book, “Native Guard.”

Where: Trethewey left Gulfport at age 6; spent summers in Gulfport with her grandmother, Leretta Turnbough; brother, Joel Grimmette, resides in Gulfport. Trethewey lives in downtown Decatur with her husband, Brett Gadsden.

Contacts: Earlier this month served as a judge in Jackson for the Mississippi Arts Council’s National Recitation for high school students.

What: Title section of her winning book of poems is a collection of narrative poems based on an imagined man in a Civil War regiment of black soldiers who guarded Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, south of Gulfport. Two other sections are elegies to her mother, who was murdered in 1985; and to the author’s own personal history growing up black and biracial.

Awards: Her first poetry collection, “Domestic Work,” won the inaugural 1999 Cave Canem poetry prize, a 2001 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, and the 2001 Lillian Smith Award for Poetry.

Her second collection, “Bellocq’s Ophelia,” received the 2003 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Book Prize, was a finalist for both the Academy of American Poets’ James Laughlin and Lenore Marshall prizes, and was named a 2003 Notable Book by the American Library Association.

Education: She has a B.A. in English from the University of Georgia, an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University, and an M.F.A. in poetry from the University of Massachusetts.

– EXCERPTS FROM PBS POETRIES SERIES MAY 12, 2006

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Copyright (c) 2007, The Sun Herald, Biloxi, Miss.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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