Eric Trethewey taught poetry to graduate students aiming to become the next great American poets. He taught poetry to jail inmates looking for a constructive outlet for their torments.
He also taught poetry to his daughter, Natasha, who grew up to be a Pulitzer Prize winner and the 19th U.S. poet laureate.
News of the 71-year-old Hollins University professor’s death left the campus surprised and saddened on Monday. His death was discovered by Kelley Shinn, a resident of Ocracoke, North Carolina, who was in a relationship with Trethewey for about 10 years. The couple had a son, Silas.
An official cause of death has not yet been determined. Trethewey, who had been in declining health in recent months, appeared to have been injured in a fall, Shinn said.
Known to close friends as Rick, Trethewey built a career as a poet that included appearances in Poetry and Atlantic Monthly magazines and five published poetry collections. His “Evening Knowledge” was the second-place winner of the 1990 Virginia Prize for Poetry.
For a while, he volunteered at the Roanoke City Jail, teaching creative writing. He said then that growing up in a rough neighborhood helped him relate to the men who took his class. “I think writing is a way of looking at your own experiences and coming to grips with them,” he told a Roanoke Times reporter in 1996.
He joined the faculty of Hollins College, now Hollins University, in 1984, and became a longtime fixture in the school’s celebrated graduate program in creative writing. His daughter was one of his students there.
On Facebook, Hollins students and faculty have been sharing excerpts from his poems, which Shinn called “the perfect manifestation of his shining, aching soul.”
Jeanne Larsen, director of the Jackson Center for Creative Writing at Hollins, described Trethewey as “a fine, strong poet, devoted to the very real power of words to shape our lives. He was dedicated to social justice and to keeping literature alive in our minds and hearts.”
Larsen shared a line from one of his poems in expressing her loss: “Uncanny, here in the dark, this merely human life.”
“Eric Trethewey was a poet of unusual honesty, clarity, and integrity,” wrote fellow faculty member Richard Dillard, who writes under the name R.H.W. Dillard. “I am so glad that he lived to see his daughter Natasha become Poet Laureate of the United States. He was so very proud of her in all ways.”
Natasha Trethewey’s success put her family’s dramatic story in the national spotlight.
A native of Nova Scotia, Canada, Eric Trethewey met social worker Gwendolyn Turnbough while they were both college students in Kentucky. She was black, he was white, and it was illegal for them to marry. They wed in Cincinnati and returned to the South, eventually moving to Mississippi, which also barred interracial marriage. Eric Trethewey said in interviews that the Ku Klux Klan once burned a cross on their lawn.
They divorced when Natasha was a child. Her mother moved to Atlanta, her father to New Orleans. During long car rides, he would challenge her to pass the time by writing poetry, an exercise that set her on the path to her own career.
“When she was a little girl, even in grammar school, she was writing poems, winning awards, getting published,” her father said in 2012.
A big, lantern-jawed, athletic man, Trethewey resumed amateur boxing, a sport he first took up in Canada, and continued his collegiate studies. He earned a doctorate from Tulane University and taught there before coming to Roanoke.
In 1985, when Natasha Trethewey was a freshman at the University of Georgia, her mother was shot and killed by her second ex-husband. She used poetry to cope with her loss.
“When you’re wounded in some deep place, the pain has to go somewhere and frequently it goes into writing,” Eric Trethewey said in a 2012 interview. He could just as easily have been talking about himself. He had remained friends with Turnbough and wrote powerful, moving poems about her.
Natasha Trethewey became a professor of creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, won a Pulitzer in 2007 for her poetry collection “Native Guard,” and in 2012 was selected by the Library of Congress as U.S. poet laureate, a position she held for two years.
As her career grew, she and her father gave readings together. They chose poems that dealt with the same topics. “We both are firmly agreed that poems ought to make sense, they ought to be lyrical, they ought to be intellectually accessible and emotionally moving to the reader,” he said in an interview. Though poems on personal topics could be uncomfortable to hear, they both tried to make their poems “as true as possible.”
“I hope everyone who knew him, or wishes they had known him, will track down some piece of his writing and read it,” Larsen wrote. “There’s solace, and there’s great good energy, in the poems, stories, and essays he has left for us.”
There will be a memorial service 4 p.m. Saturday in Ballator Gallery at Hollins, Shinn said, to celebrate “his tough, exhilarating, meaningful life.”