In her newest collection of poems, Begin With a Failed Body, Graham is ditching “happily ever after.”
If I’m really being honest, one of the things that sucks the most about just being a person in this world is the sheer amount of B.S. that goes on. How much “make believe” can one person take, you know? With Photoshop, fake news, Tinder, spin doctors–and every other version of pretense that we have to sift through daily trying to figure out what’s actually true, there’s nothing more gratifying than someone getting to the core of what feels real. That’s why I got so excited about Natalie Graham’s Begin With a Failed Body, winner of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize. It’s full of tough, disfigured realities–however imagined. The Gainesville, Florida-native crafts storytelling from a deeply human perspective, one that trades “happily ever after” for the dark crevices of human struggle. We sat down to chat about posting up at your local Waffle House to write, Audrey Hepburn as poetic inspiration, and counteracting (the insane daily barrage of) political dehumanization by doubling down on poetry.
If you think back to the first time you ever wrote a poem, what was inspiring you then to write?
I can remember in middle school when I was around 12, being tasked to write a poem. I wrote about a red, rough mountain from the flattest state in the union [Florida]. For some reason, I was drawn to the idea of writing about places I’ve never been. It showed me I could travel in the imagination.
There’s a musicality in a lot of your poems, sort of a rhythmic, bluesy feel. Talk about how music has influenced your work.
You know, it’s what I loved about putting this collection together—I noticed things in the way I navigate and see the world that are just in me. I’d never recognized how pervasive they are in the way that I describe things and think of memories. For example, when I think back to a moment, often that moment has a soundtrack. So when I think of people, I often think of lyrics. I grew up in the Baptist church as part of this sunshine choir for a long time. My mom played a lot of gospel music, but also Willie Nelson and old country as well. At every moment in my past, I think I connect to history musically. Those are the touchstones of place for me. Also in graduate school, so much of my work was invested in hip-hop culture, so I think of hip-hop and the language that comes out of it as poetry. It really is the way I navigate the present and past.
Speaking of ghosts, I also loved the poem “Fairy Tale” and the way that you use Audrey Hepburn alongside the sort of make believe farce of Hollywood—both things that are so strongly rooted in the American canon—as a contrast to the more lived realities of the American story, which are so rarely afforded a spotlight. It sparks this conversation about American identity. Talk about why you chose Audrey Hepburn as a central figure in this piece and what was going on for you when you wrote it.
Well, I had a lot of friends who were Haitian in college, so I was interested in trying to tell their story or think about how absent their story is from mainstream culture—even now. But more broadly, it was about trying to figure out where anybody fits in in the world. The two movies that I watched the most in high school were Scarface and My Fair Lady, so there was this strange weaving together of identity, these things I really connected with on some level that are in conversation with each other. My Fair Lady especially was such a big part of my memory. I would watch it religiously because it’s also this story about code switching: saying the right thing to the right people as a way to access another world. That is so close to my reality, so those images are easily recalled. I think of that even while I’m in a space with other people. I’m interested in the way things exist together in spaces that are unexpected or not acknowledged. That was part of it, too.
On some level, I think you draw on that idea of splicing unexpected conversations again in “Cinderella Sends Her Godmother Away.” Like “Fair Tale,” you turn the fairy tale motif on its head by rewriting the ending; Cinderella rejects the interjection of magic and the “happily ever after.” There’s a resignation to the experience of being cast out that I think echoes the title of this collection, Begin with a Failed Body. I want to say that this is also commentary on the American experience for many people of color, that they don’t get the magical, happy ending that fairy tales normalize.
That’s a hard poem for me to read and think about because in some ways it’s really about what happens when you can’t win, or when winning means completely becoming something different, or how much choice we have in what we can become. I think the narrator in saying, “I’m not playing this game; I refuse to engage at all. I’m not going to try to transform myself into something that can be accepted.” It’s about defining the self and saying, “Whatever I am, I choose. If that means I fail, I fail. If I’m accepted, I’m accepted—but either way, I choose.” Even though I think it’s been read as depressing because it’s saying, “I choose to be a monster and to not win,” there’s still an empowering element in the choice itself. But honestly, it’s a hard poem for even me to figure out. She’s refusing to participate, but at the same time she’s going against this idea that we have full control over who we are. It’s a contradictory vision of agency where on one hand, we don’t get to choose who we are or what we do, and on the other hand, whatever frame we’re in, we always have a choice. Even if that choice is between two terrible options, we still choose between them.
I think a lot about this poem and I think the core of it is me trying to acknowledge that sometimes people make choices that don’t align with what others might perceive as the better life for them because of the hurt they carry from the past or just… their humanity. Their unique, unrepeatable humanity. I think that poem is about the humanity that’s in all of us, that leads us to make choices that don’t really make sense. There’s a line in the poem, “All names are curses” about how everything’s a trap. You see these narratives over and over of people who have “made it,” and then they look around and realize there is no fairy tale ending for any of us—that’s a truth about humanity. Everything we hope for, all the things we want, there’s still disillusion and disappointment at the pinnacle. In that way, even if she could fit in, that’s a trap, too—that’s also what she’s saying.
“Ophelia by Water” is another poem that draws on the canon, this time Shakespeare. I love the way you flesh out Ophelia’s character, something I think Shakespeare actually fails to do in Hamlet. Talk about why Ophelia was a powerful figure for you to look at.
I entered poetry through Shakespeare. I distinctly remember being in the library looking up the sonnets. In high school, we had to read all of the comedies, so I read a lot of Shakespeare. Of all the characters he’s written, I’ve been drawn to the women, particularly Ophelia, because I feel like there’s so much mystery around her character. And I’ve wondered—what if she wasn’t insane? What if she didn’t kill herself? It’s mysterious, the way men were able to ruin her with an offhanded moment. So went back to read through and figure out what else might have happene—what was she performing, what was she thinking, how was she tortured and traumatized by those moments? There’s also a great painting of her looking into the water, maybe meditating or thinking through ideas, so I was thinking about the moment in that snapshot as well. How was this a moment of despair but also choice? Looking into the future and thinking, “This is the despair I can expect,” or about this other choice [of suicide], which is a terrible choice to make.
If you had to create an image to symbolize your relationship to poetry, what would it be?
The first thing I think of is something like a shadow because my poems almost always relate to some other poet or artist. I’m always shadowing the work of others and thinking about how they inform or are in conversation with my work. Yeah, the image of a shadow or something changing, reflecting…
How has being a WOC during this administration affected or influenced you as a writer?
It’s exhausting. I’ve felt more urgency to write and create, and I’ve felt more determined not to write from a reactive stance so that my poetry isn’t defined by the horror. I mean, we wake every day to something that you can’t even process. Sustaining myself as an artist during this time has motivated me the most. It’s impossible to process and protest in the work directly because there’s a new tragedy every day. This administration carries a really powerful message against humanity, the value of people. So much of it is just anti-human worth. That’s the thing I want to write against without being defined by. It’s made me think a lot about what I want to build, and how to refocus people on the value of others, the humanity of others.