Trethewey’s first collection, Domestic Work (2000), won the Cave Canem Prize for a first book by an African American poet. Domestic Work explores the lives and jobs of working-class people, particularly black men and women in the South. Based in part on her grandmother’s life, the poems are particularly attuned to the vivid imagery of her characters’ lives and the region itself. The book effortlessly blends free verse and traditional forms, including ballads and sonnets.
Trethewey is adept at combining the personal and the historical in her work. Her second book, Bellocq’s Ophelia (2002), is about a fictional prostitute in New Orleans in the early 1900s. For the book, Trethewey researched the lives of the women in the red-light district, many of whom were mixed-race. She commented that the project combined “the details of my own mixed-race experience in the deep South” with facts about the real women’s lives.
Her third book of poems, Native Guard (2006), won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. The book contains elegies to her mother, who died while Trethewey was in college, and a sonnet sequence in the voice of a black soldier fighting in the Civil War. Her recent work includes a book of creative non-fiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010), and the poetry collection Thrall (2012). The latter book examines historical representations of mixed-race families, focusing on fathers and children, through a series of poems that treat portrait art of the 18th century.
Trethewey's many honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Radcliffe Institute, where she was a Bunting fellow. She has held appointments at Duke University, as the Lehman Brady Joint Chair Professor of Documentary and American Studies; the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; and Yale University, where she was the James Weldon Johnson Fellow in African American Studies at the Beinecke Library.
The recipient of a Mississippi Governor's Award for Excellence in the Arts, Trethewey was named the 2008 Georgia Woman of the Year. She has been inducted into both the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. In 2012 she was named Poet Laureate of the state of Mississippi and the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States.