Natalie J. Graham

Natalie Graham is a Ph.D, poet and hip hop scholar interested in the intersections of race, gender, class and geography. She is an associate professor at Cal State Fullerton. 




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A native of Gainesville, Florida, Natalie earned her M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Florida and completed her Ph.D. in American Studies at Michigan State University as a University Distinguished Fellow. Her poems have appeared in CallalooNew England ReviewValley 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. 

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Poems that consider body a site of revelation, this collection of poems begins rooted in the landscape of the U.S. South as it voices singular lives carved out of immediate and historical trauma. While these poems dwell in the body, often meditating on its frailty and desire, they also question the weight that literary, historical, and religious icons are expected to bear and the shadows they cast. The vast scope of the poems arcs from a pig farmer's funeral to the paintings of Georges de la Tour and Toni Morrison's Beloved. With an ear tuned to the lift and lilt of speech, they wring song from sorrow and plant in every dirge a seed of jubilation. Rich in clarity and decisive in her attention to image, Natalie J. Graham writes resonant, lush poetry. Begin with a Failed Body was chosen by Kwame Dawes for the 2016 Cave Canem Poetry Prize.


Graham’s intellectual tentacles are long, and her imagination is generous. She is constantly searching for something to pull into the body, to feed the body. Her verse is terse, marked by technical compaction, and yet it is simultaneously grandly encompassing and voracious in its interests. 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, but this claim of ‘newness’ seems almost trite, as there is nothing ‘new’―at least not in the sense we might apply it to a novice’s work―about the authority, wisdom, and daring we find in these poems. — Kwame Dawes


Select Work

Leaping Fire in Princeville Park; Poetry Northwest, Feb 2018.

Underneath There is a Wound; LitHub, November 2017.

From “Cracks in the Concrete: Policing Lil Wayne’s Masculinity and the Feminizing Metaphor” Journal of Popular Culture

Reconsidering Lil Wayne as a parody in tandem with his moments of gender illegibility and journalists’ descriptions of him, emphasizes neutralization of radical potential through the act of reading rap music as authentic and “hypermasculine.”

This embrace of parody, performing his rap personas even to the point of caricature and contradiction (i.e., when feminizing metaphors simultaneously contradict and reaffirm hegemonic masculinity), reveals the potential subversive nature of Lil Wayne as a black cultural icon. Lil Wayne destabilizes black masculinity by highlighting ambivalence with pun. He assures his listeners that passive consumption of ‘normal’ bodies and authentic narratives will not be possible with his newest music, revealing the instability of text, body, and gender. As Kyra Gaunt writes, “Although the system of gender identification always appears coherent and fixed, especially in mainstream hip hop, it is in fact highly unstable and is only made stable though generalizations about gender roles” (176). Parody and pun uniquely destabilize these norms.

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From “What Slaves We Are: narrative, trauma, and power in Kendrick Lamar’s roots” Transition Magazine


To Pimp a Butterfly was black on purpose, and journalists noticed. Critic Clover Hope’s description of the album’s blackness as “overwhelming” was cited liberally by other music and culture critics, including Slate writer, Carl Wilson, who wondered how white listeners should approach said blackness. Lamar chafed in a Hot 97 radio interview at people’s mistaking the soul of his first single off the CD for pop, saying “that’s sophisticated gangsta shit.” He not only called it “black. Not pop,” but underscored the necessity for listeners, especially youth, to recognize it as such. Lamar rejects the cultural appropriation ushered in by postracial imaginaries, including the appropriation of trauma, which ironically Roots forecasts. Throughout his work Lamar references black filmic, musical, and pop culture voices to create new, kaleidoscopic narratives of black urban possibility. He references Roots and slavery in “King Kunta,” “Vanity Slaves,” and “Vanity Slave Pt 2” to question and revise the enduring ideals that Kunta Kinte and slave caricatures represent.

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