In BEGIN WITH A FAILED BODY, winner of the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, poet and professor Natalie Graham considers the wounded self trapped between poverty and memory. By retrieving her past, her family and her community to bear witness with her, Graham’s debut collection is entrancing and profound. We are honored to present a conversation between the author and our associate poetry editor, Armine Iknadossian, who spoke with Graham about the #metoo movement, the ghosts in her poems and the Cave Canem prize.
Armine Iknadosdian: In relation to what is going on today on social media and beyond in terms of female bodies, how does BEGIN WITH A FAILED BODY fit into the feminist uprising rooted in Tarana Burke’s #metoo movement?
Natalie Graham: Recy Taylor recently died, so her story has been circulating on social media. She was abducted and raped in 1944 by six white men, one of many Black women whose attackers were never indicted. Your question makes me think of her and those six white mothers, how many knew? They all knew. The jury knew. Everyone knew. There’s a long history of protecting men who abuse and exploit women, and Tarana Burke is part of our endless campaign against predatory men. We need those voices. I’m grateful for those committed to standing up and appealing to a community that reflexively protects abusers. Many of the poems in BEGIN WITH A FAILED BODY feature people unable to find victory or voice and weary of searching. It’s what happens often when your body’s violation is so utterly mundane, or your body so valueless, that its violation doesn’t register to anyone as trauma. People who drag memories around in their mouths like vomit. These poems acknowledge that telling doesn’t always result in empowerment, triumph and justice.
AI: Kwame Dawes selected your book for the Cave Canem Prize and wrote the foreword. Dawes is a writer who delights in the music of poetry. One of his passions and inspirations is reggae. What is your musical passion? Is there a musical genre, song or artist whose cadence or style has inspired your verse?
NG: I’m always listening to music. I grew up singing in gospel and madrigal choirs and listening to rap. There’s a lot of gospel in this book and in some of the poems I’m writing now.
AI: The opening quote Dawes uses for his foreword is by Lorna Goodison. Tell us about Goodison’s quote “my wounds have healed into poems” from the perspective of your book.
NG: Some of my worst wounds … It’s hard to think of your worst wounds. Wounds mark us, sometimes leaving us more broken and no wiser, feeling ruined. The poems honor by bearing witness, just to survive is enough. Survival is exhausting and those who didn’t survive won’t be forgotten. So, that’s one part of it. The other part, what Goodison is talking about, is turning abuse into a thing you can feed on instead of the other way around. The idea that a wound can shake something unexpectedly loose and leave you with a different sort of power, a song more enduring than the body and its circumstances is certainly a core theme.
AI: In “The Florida Motel” you describe a “sexy adolescent in black spandex and yellow flip flops. You’ll find her sitting, bored on a slice of grass/like a dropped coin purse.” She is one of the ghosts in the poem. The final poem in the book references Ophelia’s tragic suicide. How do hauntings and spirits play out in your poems?
NG: Hauntings are a vibrant and persistent part of my work. A poem is a sort of ghost. One of my favorite words is palimpsest. The echo, the trace, nothing is ever entirely finished.
AI: “Judas Kiss” is one of my favorites because of the way you define the moment in such rich, mesmerizing detail. I can see some of these poems as snapshots or stills. Have you written fiction?
NG: Thank you. I love to hear what people’s favorite poems are and the reasons they are drawn to a particular one over another. I do write fiction, but I also enjoy reading poems that don’t worry over anything but creating a scene. I think it also comes from my deep admiration for photography. I’m perfectly happy without a narrative.
AI: Your book won the 2016 Cave Canem Prize for poetry. Cave Canem was founded by Toi Dericotte and Cornelius Eady in 1996 to remedy the under-representation and isolation of African-American poets in the literary landscape. The company you keep includes Indigo Moor, Vievee Francis, Natasha Trethewey (US Poet Laureate 2014-2015), Major Jackson, Traci K. Smith and F. Douglas Brown. How does it feel to be among this group? Has winning the award changed you as a writer?
NG: I was honored just to be selected as a Cave Canem fellow, so winning the book prize still feels like a dream. Winning the award has motivated me to encourage other writers and artists to continue to create and to continue myself.
Natalie J. Graham is a poet, writer and hip-hop scholar interested in the intersections of race, gender, class and geography. A native of Gainesville, Florida, Natalie earned her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Florida and completed her PhD in American Studies at Michigan State University as a University Distinguished Fellow. Her poems have appeared in Callaloo, New England Review, Valley Voices: A Literary Review and Southern Humanities Review, and her articles have appeared in The Journal of Popular Culture and Transition. She is a Cave Canem fellow and assistant professor of African American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. BEGIN WITH A FAILED BODY, her first full-length collection of poems, won the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize and is forthcoming from University of Georgia Press. To read selections of her work, please visit her website at www.nataliejgraham.com.