Natasha Oladokun is a poet, but she didn’t grow up reading much poetry. She wasn’t really aware contemporary poets existed or that poetry was a legitimate academic pursuit.
She went into the University of Virginia as a psychology major, thinking she would be a behavioral therapist. But instead, she found herself drawn to English. When she spotted one of her roommates marking up a poem for a workshop, Oladokun had no idea what she was doing.
“She explained and I laughed, I was like, OK, so you have academic classes, quote unquote, for poetry. OK sure, that’s so crazy. I had no idea that was even possible,” she said. “My understanding as far as people who were still writing anything that sounded or seemed familiar to poetry to me was mostly performance poetry ... seeing it in an academic context was just completely foreign.”
After she discovered the concept of a Master of Fine Arts degree, she earned one at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. Now she’s the inaugural First Wave Poetry Fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her work has been published in places like the Kenyon Review, American Poetry Review and Harvard Review Online.
The Cap Times sat down to talk with Oladokun about her experience teaching First Wave students, the interplay between prayer and poems, and her thoughts on the relationship between her poetry skills and her viral tweets. (“Why do people run from the rain but yet dance in the shower?” one Twitter user asked. Oladokun re-tweeted with one word: “Consent.” It has been liked 237,000 times.)
Can you look back at anything from your childhood and see, “Oh, that’s like a little poet growing up,” or did your interest in poetry really come out of nowhere?
I was always a big, big reader as a child. I would say in grade school between the ages of fifth grade through middle school, it was not unusual for me to read like 150 books a year. Punishment for me was my parents taking away my library card, that was more effective than anything else.
You were a model child!
I was just a dork. (Laughs.) A dork that had a lot of friends, but a dork nonetheless. I just read constantly. Part of the reason my eyes are so bad now is because I read by flashlight. I did that for years.
You recently tweeted: “Of all the suffocatingly white cities I’ve spent time in, none more than Portland, Oregon & Madison, Wisconsin serve as more viscerally relentless reminders that ‘diversity’ is for the benefit of white people and white consumption.’’ Growing up outside the Midwest and then experiencing the Midwest, what was that transition like for you?
It was sort of like more of the same, just the flavor was slightly different, but not in any way that’s fundamentally meaningful, I would say. So where I was living in Roanoke and Charlottesville ... those were cities that were profoundly segregated like most of the U.S. (In Charlottesville) there’s this downtown area called the downtown mall and it’s very cute and has lots of expensive restaurants and shopping … and literally there’s a set of train tracks, like an actual set of train tracks that divides that part from the public housing. And you can see it visibly. Like each side can see the other.
When I was first here I joked that Madison felt like a gentrified city if there had been black people to push out. Then I found out that after a couple months of living here like, “Oh no, there used to be people here, like Willy Street was the black neighborhood here,” and that shocked me, but then also didn’t shock me at all. All of that is a way of saying that cities manifest themselves in different ways because they’re just different places, but the fundamental problems or illness of the country may carry over more or less in the same way, at least in my experience.
You’ve talked about relationship between prayer and poetry — how has that changed as you’ve gone on in your career?
Christianity is my faith tradition. In an unexpected way, studying poetry really changed my relationship to how I was thinking about prayer, because there is something incredibly mysterious about the process of writing poems. Like I don’t really fully understand what happens inside of me when it does happen. And it felt really similar to moments of prayer where I felt something that changed inside of me, so the distinction between the two really began to blur.
As I began to write more explicitly against the Trump campaign and what it was saying and began to write more vocally in support of Black Lives Matter — which to me just didn’t seem like a contestable issue, it just seemed like something that should be obvious to everyone — it broke a lot of relationships that I had from college people that I was close to. We sort of fell out in this very quiet, but permanent way.
All of the visible trappings of my faith that I had relied on as indicators of my spiritual strength fell through … I didn’t really have a church that I felt comfortable or safe in. My closest friends from college that had been spiritual supports, as long as we weren’t actually talking about race or anything like that. My relationships with them were fraying, so all I had at that point was me and God. … I then had to confront all the things that I had been running away from in terms of how I understood God, which was that when I closed my eyes and thought of God, I saw a white man.
Poetry, I think, became this way of me re-entering the way that I understand God. One of the most beautiful passages of scripture is the first chapter of the Gospel of John that describes Jesus as the incarnation of God as the “word becomes flesh.” And that is literally what poetry is, is our words take on this body.
You’re the inaugural First Wave Poetry Fellow — what has that been like and what has been most meaningful or enjoyable about that?
Well, getting to work with the students is my favorite part. First Wave has an amazing crew of students that go through the program. They all come in with this kind of incredible enthusiastic joy and also seriousness about the work that made my job so much easier because I didn’t have to do the work of persuading them that poems matter.
So the workshop that I taught last semester (was) called “Weaponizing Tenderness,” and it was looking at love poems as an act of political protest. We looked at poems by Gwendolyn Brooks and her poem Riot towards the beginning of the semester, looking at it as kind of an archetype.
It’s in three parts, and in the first two parts, she’s describing one of the riots that happened in Chicago at the time and it’s just teeming, it’s full of all these historical references, and like the world is kind of exploding in the first two sections of the poem. And the final third section is this very, very quiet love poem. The scene in the poem is these two lovers who’re parting in the morning, and it’s just very quiet and deeply erotic and beautiful.
When that poem was (first) anthologized (in The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks), editors chopped off the final section because they didn’t think it was important. But it was really the thing that anchored the entire poem together — that the world can literally be falling apart, and we can be in the middle of an apocalypse, but there’s still quietness, there’s still tenderness, there’s still love happening in the middle of all of that.
Does that show up in your own work as well?
It does a lot. … That theme has been emerging in the manuscript that I’m working on right now. The world is literally falling apart as it has been for a long time. I can only imagine how people felt during World War I. … I can only imagine what it feels like for black people in the South during the Civil War — like the world is literally crumbling apart, and we might come out of it one side or the other. And that feeling because it’s a deeply human one, is not new, but it always feels entirely fresh and unprecedented, I’m sure, for every generation that faces it.
Do you think that something about being a poet makes you a funny person? I ask that for two reasons: one is your tweet about how you think the most interesting poems follow the guiding principles of a joke, and you’ve also had some very funny viral tweets.
I don’t know. I feel like only my dumb tweets go viral. I drop some heat on my timeline but that gets like 12 likes, and I’m like well, you don’t love me! (Laughs.) I went through drafts and y’all do not love me!
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because the structure of a joke I really do believe is the perfect literary form. When you’re telling a joke you need four basic components, you need just enough backstory, not too much or you’re going to lose your audience. You need the problem and the setup. And then you get the turn and then you get like the punch line. I think that poems often, or at least the poems I’m most interested in, follow those four principles to a certain degree. … If the poem is successful, there’s some kind of surprise, something that was surprising to the poet hopefully when they were writing it, and therefore surprising for the audience.
When I first started writing poems … a lot of my poems were sillier and I’d like to invite more room for silliness in my poems right now. I’ve been writing a lot of sad and serious stuff and I would like to open that up. But so far, I think most of my sense of humor has come out in essays or in prose or through Twitter. Twitter, even though it’s a garbage pile much of the time, there’s something really elegant about the form of it. … If you really want a tweet to go viral or to pop off, chances are you need to say what you need to say in the first tweet.