I Want to Make White Folks Uncomfortable | A Conversation with Natalie Giarratano

In this interview, Rilee Oien talks with the poet Natalie Giarratano about Big Thicket Blues. Giarratano, who won the 2013 Liam Rector First Book Prize in Poetry, Leaving Clean, lives in Colorado with her partner, daughter, and dog.  This conversation covers a number of topics, from specific poems in the book, to the poet’s childhood in Texas, to racism and white privilege, to how the experience of being half deaf ties into the interiority of reading and writing. The two also discuss what the contemporary poets influence her work, what it was like to assemble these poems into this collection, and what readers will take away from the book—particularly a “tempering” of the anger and confusion that attends so many of the unjust aspects of society “into a productive uncomfortableness.”

Oien: Your childhood comes up a lot in some of the early poems, in particular “Big Thicket Blues,” and we can see the transformation that takes place as you grow into understanding the racism of your town, and even your mother. Can you tell me about that?

Giarratano: Well, this is my second book, and if you think my childhood shows up a lot in this one, you should see the first one. Ha! That said, even though my Texas childhood shows up, it is much less about me in this second book than previously. This time I’m examining with, yeah, a specific Southern lens, but by the time I had written the poem “Big Thicket Blues,” I absolutely had realized that the kind of racism and sexism and classism I had experienced was not a Southern crisis but an American one. The Big Thicket is an actual wild place, and so is this broken country that I love so much. We have been so lied to, through our white privilege, led into thinking that there is a villain and they have dark skin. But look who the terrorists are in this country. Mostly white men who have probably been under the yoke of toxic masculinity. I say that without excusing them for their violences in any way. But I know men like that. We all do. And my mother is also under that yoke.

Oien: Did you notice a shift in culture when you moved away from Texas? If so, how did this influence the “landing” among readers of your poetry?

Giarratano: When I was teaching students while working on my MA at the University of North Texas, there was a diverse student body. A keenly uneven one in the academic sense. I often worked with persons of color who were clearly behind their white peers, at least in the formulating of an argument in writing, which is what I was teaching in freshman composition. When I moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, for more graduate school and teaching, my students were mostly white, and I found this jarring. Even though I grew up in a mostly white area, I had already forgotten that these places exist and do so all over the States. It was the first reminder to me that racism (even by segregation) was not something to lose by changing locations but through education. I tried, when I had the green light to do so, to offer up readings and perspectives to my white students with the hope of opening eyes.

Oien: In the set of three poems titled “The Translations,” you talk about your experience with hearing loss and being “half deaf but not disabled.” Your poems have a musicality to them that I think is most wholly expressed in this section. Can you tell me about how your experiences with hearing the way you hear things has shaped the rhythm with which you write poetry?

Giarratano: I’ve been partially deaf since infancy, and I think it is one of the things that made me turn inward, turn to reading first, and then to writing when I was about 11. Being social is awkward for me because of the hearing loss, so of course having some sort of retreat was a gift. That I could enter worlds and imagine it all so clearly (and not rely on often faulty hearing) made that facet of my life important at a young age. As far as shaping the rhythm, I think that is more about “inner” ear. It’s about listening to a lot of different kinds of music and having an understanding, not that I could ever explain it, of what sounds pleasing to the ear and why it can have such a profound effect. I think this is something that developed over time for me due to the amount of reading in general and later on of poetry that I made an important part of my education, as a poet and as a human being.

Oien: Your poem “To Tinnitus” has a beginning that is very concrete and clearly about what you’re experiencing in terms of sound, then leaves readers with the image of a girl with fur in her teeth. Tell me about that. What brought this specific image of the “gorilla suit and girl” into the poem for you?

Giarratano: For some reason, I find my still-existing tinnitus amusing. I’ve always had the “bad ear” and then, just a few years ago, I got the flu, then an ear infection. Even though I was on top of it all, I still suffered hearing loss in the “good ear,” which brought on the tinnitus. It seemed farcical to me, like the old black and white silent films in which there is always a damsel in distress. I wanted to invert that trope, though, and take over the narrative in that particular poem.

Oien: In “Until the Bees,” you say “but time isn’t what squeezing. It’s these bodies that are next to each other, minds apart…” Tell me a little bit about that. Were bees your inspiration behind this poem, or are they an image that you’ve chosen to allow readers into the heart of your message?

Giarratano: I began with the bees, which were starting to be reported as in a critical state. But a poem takes the writer where it wants to go, and I follow. It’s about relationships, with other humans, with the bees. It is not surprising what humans have done, but it is tragic.

Oien: What did you want readers to take away from this book? Did you want/expect readers of different ethnicities, geographic regions, ages, or sexes to take away different things?

Giarratano: I wanted to make people uncomfortable, especially white folks. One of the most effective and compelling ways of writing about and critiquing white privilege—the lack of awareness some experience with it, the violence that too often accompanies it, from the murder of black boys and men to the threats of violence from white people who do not know a way out of their racist history—for me has been of tempering that anger or confusion into a productive uncomfortableness that readers might try to understand through the contemporary poem. In some ways, I feel as though the long poem allows me to do this in a way that is most effective for my subject matter. I guess ultimately with this book, by attempting to strike down my own mythologies, by showing the repercussions of public and private violences, I hope to make readers look inward. I want to be a better ally. I want to write about these subjects even if I’m ashamed of what I will learn about myself and my history. But we have to move beyond the shame to be productive.

Oien: “The Translations” might be my favorite pieces from this book. Which are/is your favorite and why?

Giarratano: Hmmm, “Big Thicket Blues” and “Songs from Terezin” were the most difficult to write, so are the most dear to me. But as far as the ones I enjoy the most, I’d say “Asena, the Gray Wolf, to Tu Kueh after Many Years” and “New Coyote.” I was really drawn to animals in my poetry during the writing of this book, and I feel as though between these two, and maybe “To All the Sheep on Conic Hill, Balmaha,” they are most representative of my animal loving feminist heart. A lot of people call my poetry difficult or dark, but there is love and hope there, too. That’s kind of what the blues is for me. A love of living through, having been through and coming out the other side forever changed. Alive enough to write the song or the poem. The wolf and the coyote are changing/have changed just within the worlds of the short poems. If they can evolve, whether mythical or real, so can I. So can we. I have to believe that, and those poems help me believe on some level.

Oien: Who did you read when you were developing your poet’s voice and poetics? What books would you recommend to a young poet just beginning to find his or her niche in poetry?

Giarratano: Early on when I was still trying to find a voice, or a way in, I read a lot of Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg, and Walt Whitman. I owe them a great deal, especially when I think of how terrible my “political” poetry was 20 years ago. They were my first teachers—they showed me streets and bedrooms and joy and anger. But it wasn’t until I began really studying living poets, poets not that much older than me, that I really saw a way in. For me those poets are my writing and my music teachers and, whenever I’m feeling stuck, I find them again: Lynda Hull; Yusef Komunyakaa; Jericho Brown; C.D. Wright; Li-Young Lee; Ada Limon; Pablo Neruda; Eduardo Corral; Sharon Olds. That’s my best advice. Read living or contemporary poets. The canon is important to study, but it’s problematic (very white, male). Read the diverse voices, including the young voices, writing about the world closest to the one we know. If you’re looking for poets even younger than 40-something-ish, check out Chen Chen, Kaveh Akbar, Abigail Chabitnoy, Natalie Eilbert, Eloisa Amezcua, Ocean Vuong, and Morgan Parker just to start.

Oien: What is the most difficult part of drafting a book like this?

Giarratano: The most difficult part besides the actual writing is probably deciding what stays, what goes, and how to order everything. When you’re writing poems, you often don’t have a unifying theme or “project” in mind. So how does this all work together? I have often been told to put the strongest material in the front and back ends of the book. In the case of Big Thicket Blues, I also had all of these bracketed fragments, which were inserted after the rest of the book was organized, as a way to bring more attention to certain things I was trying to convey in the poems around the bracketed vignettes. I’m not a prolific writer, so while a handful of poems were cut along the way (through my edits and my publisher’s edits), there was not a ton of wiggle room in cutting poems. I imagine other poets have a harder time deciding what to keep and what to cut than I do.

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