Natalie Graham is Orange County’s first poet laureate not just because of her evocative and widely appreciated poetry, but because of her fervent belief that her work, and the work of all artists, needs to interact with its community.

What Is a Poet Laureate?

According to Merriam-Webster, a poet laureate is “one regarded by a country or region as its most eminent or representative poet.”  The poet laureate of the United States (currently Native American Joy Harjo) is expected to “raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry.” Each poet who serves as poet laureate is expected to bring their own philosophy, emphases and interests to the position.

“Since I moved here eight years ago, so much of the work that I’ve done involved going into communities and creating spaces for poetry and other art forms like painting and photography,” said Graham, associate professor and department chair of Cal State Fullerton’s African American studies department. “I really like the idea of integrating art. It’s really exciting for me to have this platform.”

The position of poet laureate was created by LibroMobile Arts Cooperative in partnership with Orange County Public Libraries and the National Youth Poet Laureate Program. The Aug. 28 announcement of Graham’s appointment also named Tina Mai, 16, of Newport Beach as Orange County’s youth poet laureate. Graham and Mai were selected by a panel of judges that included author and LibroMobile founder Sarah Rafael García, OCPL librarians and Orange County-based community advocates.

Graham’s community-oriented approach seems well suited to the purposes and philosophy of the program. “The goals of the (poet laureate) program are to inspire residents through transformative community engagement and the positive impact of poetry; provide opportunities to engage in literary arts and write or perform poetry; bring poetry to a variety of settings in the community; and ultimately support a civic and literary leader for generations to come,” said a statement from Orange County Public Libraries in April announcing the creation of the position.

“Natalie and Tina were chosen not only because of their polished, timely and necessary poetic voice, but because their work elevates the intersection between artistic excellence and social justice in a region that is 60% people of color … where most literary and arts institutions do not reflect the majority,” Garcia said in a statement announcing the selection.

So far, there are only a few announced events on Graham’s poet laureate calendar during the year that she serves in the role. More will follow as Graham decides where to focus her time and energy. She appreciates that she and Mai were encouraged to define their activities to a large extent.

“When we first sat down and talked to Sarah, she wanted to know what our vision was,” Graham said. “She wanted to know what we wanted to do and how she could help that and really be a bridge to feeding these ideas. So she’s absolutely supportive of the laureates coming up with their vision and really doing something different and unique.”

Upcoming Events for Orange County’s Poet Laureate

OCT. 16, 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.: Natalie Graham will co-lead a storytelling and painting workshop at the Riverside Art Museum with artist Keya Vance, in partnership with The Inlandia Institute.

OCT. 23, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.: Graham will be writing poems in response to art at the Craft Contemporary Museum in Los Angeles. She will read those poems alongside other poets.

Graham was born in Gainesville, Florida, and poetry was an intimate part of her daily life as a child. “Just to communicate with poetry was something that felt normal and appropriate in my household. And growing up in the Black church, there was a lot of performance and opportunities for memorizing poems. Poetry and the arts were really central to my background and faith.”

Graham earned her M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Florida and her doctorate in American studies at Michigan State University. Her poems have been published in “Callaloo,” “New England Review,” “Valley Voices: A Literary Review” and  “Southern Humanities Review.”

Graham’s book, “Begin with a Failed Body,” published by University of Georgia Press, was awarded the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. “Her verse is terse, marked by technical compaction, and yet it is simultaneously grandly encompassing and voracious in its interests,” wrote respected Ghanaian poet Kwame Dawes. “In her we have a poet acutely sensitive to the ways of the body, its betrayals, its pleasures, and its unknowable selves. She is an exciting new voice.”

Like many younger artists, Graham has been influenced by the culture and language of hip-hop. It’s one of the reasons she was attracted to Cal State Fullerton.

“My dissertation was on Lil Wayne. I studied Black music and performance and hip-hop. And so, coming to a department that already had a course in hip-hop culture was really thrilling for me. I was so excited to see that there was already an understanding of the value of hip-hop culture. That to me was a real draw.”

Graham has started thinking about activities she’d like to try in the next year, and she’s looking to push some traditional boundaries.

“I haven’t been requested to (read a poem) on the occasion of an event, or to write a poem about a city or something like that. But I do want to visit some of the museums and cultural centers around Orange County and write in response to the artwork and exhibits.”

Graham said that it’s easy to feel marginalized in Orange County, where about 2.1% of residents are Black. But she was drawn here nonetheless, thanks largely to the strengths of Cal State Fullerton’s program.

“One of the things that I love about the African American studies department (is that) it is housed inside of an ethnic studies major. And so we’ve had great collaboration with Asian American studies, great collaboration with Chicano studies. Those (connections) have been vital to feeling grounded and rooted and seen and understood in Orange County.”

Read a selection of Natalie Graham’s poems, courtesy of Connotation Press.

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.

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