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Orange County’s first-ever pair of poet laureates make their debut

Dr. Natalie J. Graham has been appointed as Orange County's first-ever poet laureate.
Dr. Natalie J. Graham has been appointed as Orange County’s first-ever poet laureate. She is a poet and a professor of African American Studies at Cal State Fullerton.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Above the din of cumbias and a nearby vegan food fest, Dr. Natalie J. Graham’s poetic cadence soothed the crowd that gathered last month in downtown Santa Ana to hear her read. Seated in front of LibroMobile’s garage entrance, she began with works of other poets before turning to poems of her own.

In the middle of “The Watcher, Visiting Hours,” a poem about prison, Graham drew a metaphor out with her words about pregnancy and an orange, which is also the namesake crop of the county she now works and lives in.

I say think of what an orange can be,
not just food
but the seed inside the seed, like God.

Rot too. You say, it can rot, too
Rot is always gathering in its patches.

The audience latched onto every word and the space between them.

Graham ended her reading with a selection from Juan Felipe Herrera, a former poet laureate of both California and the United States. The invocation proved fitting. Graham’s appearance that afternoon at LibroMobile also served as a public introduction for a distinction of her own as Orange County’s first-ever poet laureate.

In April, LibroMobile teamed with Orange County Public Libraries for the inaugural program, which also included the appointment of a youth poet laureate. Graham, chair of the African American Studies department at Cal State Fullerton, saw a solicitation for applications on social media and submitted her work.

A panel of judges based their decision this summer equally on account of poetry and social engagement. Graham, a Buena Park resident, was announced as O.C. poet laureate last month alongside Tina Mai, a 16-year-old writer from Newport Beach, as O.C. youth poet laureate.

Both will serve one-year terms.

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“I always credit my first introduction to poetry to my mom,” said Graham. “She wrote poems for folks for their birthday or to celebrate their anniversaries. She considered herself a writer so the way she communicated her thanks, gratitude and joy was through poetry.”

Graham grew up in Gainesville, Fla. As a young girl, she recalled watching an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” about journaling every day and did just that. Later on, Graham’s reverence for verses led to an academic interest in hip-hop and Black poetics. Her dissertation was on rapper Lil’ Wayne.

When applying for professor positions, Cal State Fullerton stood out for its longstanding inclusion of hip-hop culture in the curriculum. She moved to O.C. in 2013 and became an associate professor of African American Studies at the university. Graham later wrote “Begin With a Failed Body,” a collection of poems rooted in the South and concerned with concepts of history, trauma and frailty.

The book, her first, won the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, which is dedicated to Black poets.

As poet laureate, she’ll be doing more readings across the county at libraries, museums and cultural centers as will Mai, her youthful colleague.

Poet Tina Mai at the Noguchi Gardens in Costa Mesa. Mai is the newly appointed O.C. youth poet laureate.
Poet Tina Mai at the Noguchi Gardens in Costa Mesa. Mai is the newly appointed O.C. youth poet laureate. She’s a 16-year-old writer from Newport Beach.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“I found poetry to be a really unique way of expressing my family’s history, heritage and culture,” said Mai, a Chinese immigrant. “In addition to being able to share more of a youth perspective, I also really want to work on a lot of community projects.”

The emerging wordsmith has earned recognition for her writing from the Library of Congress and the Poetry Society of the U.K. The O.C. youth poet laureate appointment is an honor much closer to home.

“I’m really excited to be able to read in front of newer audiences and people I’ve never met before,” said Mai. “I hope that they’ll enjoy my work.”

Like most teens, Mai is uncertain about what she wants to do with the rest of her life but is confident that poetry will always accompany her along the way.

Graham and Mai met briefly for the first time last month after accepting their appointments and reunited again for the reading at LibroMobile. Both express admiration for each other and look forward to the year to come.

Amid the upheaval of the pandemic, the mission of poetry and its local laureates may be more important than ever.

“The intent of a poem is to slow us down,” said Graham. “It causes us to meditate on a line, not even a sentence. It allows us to explore connections that aren’t readily apparent. Poetry provides an opportunity for us to think more slowly and outside of a lot of the structures that we’re used to working inside of.”

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