Q&A with Natasha Rao, author of Latitude

Natasha Rao is the author of Latitude (Copper Canyon Press, 2021). Her poem “For my Brother” was previously published in The Offing. Q&A conducted by Gauri Awasthi, Associate Editor.

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Gauri Awasthi: The first poem in your collection, “Old Growth,” seems to stem from a page from a family album. You give us this intimate portrait of characters that will continue to recur in the collection — the mother, father and brother. At the same time, you also give us pieces of the speaker’s psyche regarding where she’s placed with nostalgia and safety, ultimately opening us to the world with dragonflies, goldfish and birds. Was this poem an obvious first poem in your collection? This might be the chicken or the egg question, but at what point in the making of this book did this piece come about as it is?

Natasha Rao: I love your observation about the family album. That’s a nice way to think of the poem. It felt like I was flipping through a mental catalog of early memories while drafting, so it definitely contains that snapshot quality. As far as which came first — when I wrote the poem, I wasn’t thinking about it in relation to a larger manuscript or where it might stand in a body of work. But once I had a stack of poems and it came time to assemble a manuscript, “Old Growth” struck me as the unmistakable opening of the collection for the exact reasons you point out.

GA: Throughout the collection, there is this embedded guilt and shame in the speaker, especially for their desires. In your poem, “Abecedarian on Shame,” the speaker says, “I keep offering the soft meat of myself / to people I meet on the internet, save the stinging / quills for those who love me.”

And in the poem “In the New Year,” the speaker says, “Perhaps I am lacking in something substantial/ like iron, or virtue.” I related to many of those vulnerable moments, but it also spoke to me about the sexual and gendered politics of shame. Could you speak to that, if so?

​​NR: Many of the poems in the collection deal with guilt and shame because, for me, those are often the emotions that spur a poem and make me feel I need to write. When I experience something embarrassing or shameful I tend to dwell on it and continue turning it over in my mind until I’m able to write about it, which acts as a kind of catharsis. Not that those feelings dissipate when the poem is written, but it at least feels like some kind of productive acknowledgement on my part. And yes, I think you’re absolutely correct that much of that shame is tied up in various societal expectations. Growing up, I always had the underlying sense that there was something verboten about wanton sexual desire, which I think has a lot to do with gendered politics. More than that, though, I wanted to explore the idea of self-implication that’s adjacent to guilt and shame. In many of the poems, the speaker admits to wrongdoing and then endures the guilt/shame with a kind of resolution. I think a fascinating and complicated emotional space exists in that overlap of remorse and responsibility.

GA: There is a deep sense of wanting to transform or redemption. Besides the poem, “In my next life let me be a tomato,” the speaker transforms into different animals in almost every poem, or you’ve chosen to draw at least one simile to the speaker’s body or psyche. I felt that the speaker sought a new version of the afterlife in every poem, even when the title doesn’t explicitly say so.

​​NR: Yes transformations happen throughout the book, though funnily enough, that wasn’t something I realized until it was pointed out to me. I think part of why I turn to poetry as a medium is that such transformation is possible in a compressed space. A poem is a place where the speaker can truly metamorphose into something else — can actually become a tomato, or a kinder version of oneself — and I’ve always been attracted to that kind of alchemical ability. So even though I wasn’t making a cognizant decision to include transformations as a theme, it makes sense that such changes are happening throughout many of my poems.

GA: In so many of your poems, I found an Indian American child speaker seeking to belong while they are fully aware of not being accepted, either into their birth country or their own body. For instance, in “Love Letters,” the specific part where the speaker says, “On TV at the Bee I see Anisha (wow), Rohan (wow),  Srinidhi (wow) as though they are an extension of myself.” Or in “Latitude X,”,where the speaker says, “Immigration… Childhood was a civilization that fell.” How complicated was it to write from the perspective of a child?

​​NR: It was actually not terribly difficult to occasionally write from a child’s perspective — since I was thinking a lot about childhood while writing the collection, I found myself able to slip quite easily back into former versions of myself. A lot of formative experiences, like the moment of watching the Spelling Bee that you mention, left such a strong imprint on me that to revisit them felt natural. I like to think that all the younger versions of myself still exist inside me, nested like Russian dolls, so to re-enter a certain period just takes a bit of delving through certain memories. Smells, songs, and images can all also conjure up past feelings and reawaken those previous selves.

GA: Out of the many soft and haunting animals that build the world of your collection, the image of the fish in your poem, “For a Blue Page,” where the speaker says, “I lay these memories, like a fish, / on the cutting board” along with the stunning cover image by Georgina Taylor stuck with me. What centred your choice of the cover?

​​NR: Soft and haunting animals — oh, I love that! The process of finding a cover was exciting, albeit challenging, because it wasn’t something I had really considered at all. In compiling my manuscript I was focusing solely on the poems, and neglected any thought of things like the cover art, epigraphs, backmatter, etc. For the cover, I knew I wanted some kind of soft illustration, like a watercolor, to convey the sense of longing and memory present in much of the book. I went through and made a note of images that appeared frequently: things like tomatoes, moths, fish. Then I spent a lot of time on Instagram looking for images that might fit, and was lucky to stumble across Georgina Taylor’s work. The tight precision of her paintings combined with the whimsical style of painting felt exactly right.

GA: Your book won the 2021 APR/Honickman First Book Prize and was selected by Poet Laureate Ada Limón. Could you speak to that experience? Any advice for poets writing their first books and submitting to contests?

​​NR: It has been such an incredible experience! Ada Limón is one of my greatest influences and I have long loved her work — to have the manuscript chosen by her, and to read the introduction she wrote, was one of the most dizzying, thrilling, memorable moments of my life. I also feel very lucky to be in the lineage of Honickman Prize winners, many of whom are among my favorite poets. I didn’t know what to expect in the whirlwind that accompanies publishing a debut collection, but I continue to be impressed with the generosity of everyone involved in the process. As far as advice, I would say that if there is a judge who you feel your work is particularly in conversation with (as I felt mine was with Ada’s work), definitely submit to the contest they’re judging. And some advice I was given, which I’ve carried with me, is to not get too hung up on the cycle of prizes and contests, to know that so much of it is luck, and to remember that the most important thing at the heart of all of this is the making of the poems. So don’t worry too much about all the noise, and devote most of your energy to the poems, which will speak for themselves.

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For my Brother

heads touched, our
dreams were related
by blood.