By Yvonne Su
Orange County became home to its first-ever poet laureates this summer, but they would say that poetry has lived here. It just needs a more visible home.
In August, LibroMobile Arts Cooperative, in partnership with OC Public Libraries and the National Youth Poet Laureate Program, appointed Natalie J. Graham as the O.C. poet laureate and Tina Mai as the youth poet laureate.
Graham is an associate professor of African American studies at California State University, Fullerton. She studies hip-hop, and what drew her to Fullerton was its inclusion of Black poetics in the curriculum. Graham sees her roles as an academic and a poet as complementary. “I always want to embed poetry in the work that I do,” she said.
“Begin With a Failed Body,” Graham’s first book and winner of the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, is about home in the sense of the frail bodies people live in and the generations rooted in the South. And when she thinks about a home where poetry will thrive, she thinks of “being recognized, being seen, being appreciated, being known.
“One of the things I love about spaces where I'm comfortable is that I'm able to rise, I'm able to meet a challenge when I’m at home,” the poet said.
The idea of finding a home for poetry in O.C. resonates with both Graham and Mai. “A lot of the poets that I know are in L.A., southwest San Bernardino County, so when I think about where people actually live, even if they work or do programming in Orange County, a lot of them don't live here,” Graham said.
“Home for me is not necessarily a place because I’ve moved to so many different areas. But it’s more like a feeling of knowing the community around you [is] there for you,” Tina Mai said.
“Home for me is not necessarily a place because I’ve moved to so many different areas. But it’s more like a feeling of knowing the community around you [is] there for you,” Mai said.
Mai, a junior at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, writes about her family’s heritage and also issues around immigration and gender rights based on current events. “Poetry is a really interesting way to explore what’s going on in the real world and portray my own thoughts,” she said.
The young writer, whose first language was Cantonese, began writing poetry in sixth grade. “I had this really inspiring teacher who did an after school writing program with me,” Mai said. She had written fantasy stories before, but fell in love with poetry “because it’s such a unique form of expression that’s sort of different [from] all other types of prose.”
One of her recent pieces is called “Challenger,” based on youth having the power to speak out about their beliefs. “When you’re younger, you don’t really get as much of a voice. I was really drawn to the idea of being able to speak up now to avoid problems in the future,” Mai said.
She learned about opportunities to submit her writing in late middle school and has now been recognized in Bow Seat and Atlanta Review, among others. “Publication is possible, even if you're a younger age, and it's not just for, like, really accomplished poets with PhDs and three published books,” Mai said.
Both poet laureates recognize the barriers to getting known as a poet in O.C. Mai identified the shortage of mentorship and platform as barriers for youth poets. “In English class, they don’t really tell you about getting published as a poet,” she said. There are youth poets creating their own literary magazines, and one of her goals is to connect them to other people whose voices are usually marginalized, like people of color, women and immigrants.
“We have amazing museums, we have great performing arts centers, but there needs to be more literal space that supports literary arts,” Natalie J. Graham said.
For Graham, the scarcity of space and funding presents a barrier. “We have amazing museums, we have great performing arts centers, but there needs to be more literal space that supports literary arts,” she said. She’s excited about “the possibility to make O.C. a home for poetry, where people don't feel like they have to go out.” Graham’s vision is to “have these events that people can kind of connect around.”
In addition to space, funding would allow “programming that reaches out to high schoolers so they’ll understand that you can do poetry, and even college students who need to have a bridge to professional spaces of performance and activity,” Graham said.
She sees the distinction between “stage and page poetry,” and the need for spaces for both. “You have performance poets who do spoken word. And you have page pets who write sonnets. So we need spaces that speak to and create bridges among different types of poets,” Graham said.
To Graham, poetry is conversation.
“I think that when we celebrate poetry, we celebrate people,” she said. Although people don’t need a poem “the same way they need food and water,” poetry is valuable in the way that it is a “call for conversation and connection.”
At the inaugural reading on August 28 in front of LibroMobile, Graham described her vision of how O.C. might celebrate poetry. At many festivals, poets might get up and read poems, but they don’t have a conversation with each other or with the audience, unless there is a Q&A.
As the inaugural poet laureate, Graham pictures a party instead: “A poetry mixer, where people do some poetry activity: make a poem together, talk about a poem that’s not there,” she said. At this party, people would celebrate poetry alongside other kinds of art, like culinary arts. Like any party, this one would be full of conversations.
Because to Graham, we celebrate poetry by celebrating people. The program she plans as a poet laureate would bring people together; now, poetry will be at the center of it.
Yvonne is a writer and organizer from Irvine, Ca. She joined LibroMobile as a contributor to LM Voices in 2020. She enjoys working on zines, making graphics, and planning virtual events. She currently works as a copy editor.
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