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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The country has a new poet laureate today. She is Natasha Trethewey, a professor of English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Trethewey is just the second poet laureate to hail from the South. She was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, in 1966, the daughter of an interracial couple. Her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, was African-American and a social worker.

SIEGEL: Her father was white, a Canadian emigre and poet named Eric Trethewey. They met at college in Kentucky and had to cross into Ohio to get married. They divorced when Natasha was six. Her mother remarried and was later murdered by her second husband.

CORNISH: Natasha Trethewey's work explores issues of mixed race, history and memory. She won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2007 and we're going to take a moment now to hear her read one of her poems. It's called "Hot Combs."

NATASHA TRETHEWEY: Hot combs. At the junk shop, I find an old pair, black with grease, the teeth still pungent as burning hair. One is small, fine-toothed as if for a child. Holding it, I think of my mother's slender wrist, the curve of her neck as she leaned over the stove, her eyes shut as she pulled the wooden handle and laid flat the wisps at her temples. The heat in our kitchen made her glow that morning. I watched her wincing, the hot comb singing her brow, sweat glistening above her lips. Her face made strangely beautiful as only suffering can do.

SIEGEL: The new poet laureate, Natasha Trethewey, reading her poem, "Hot Combs." Trethewey teaches English at Emory University in Atlanta.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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