Natasha Rao is a poet and educator from New Jersey. She was awarded the American Poetry Review / Honickman First Book Prize, for her debut collection Latitude, selected by Ada Limón in 2021. She is also the recipient of a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and was named a 2021 Gregory Djanikian Scholar.
Spatika Jayaram: Before we speak about the book, I thought I should tell you where I really found you as a poet. I was an applicant for Adroit’s Gregory Djanikian Scholars program and when I came across your winning poems, I really began a new stage of learning. I returned to your poems several times after and decided that I must have this book! What does it feel like coming back full circle?
Natasha Rao: When you reached out to me about doing this interview, “coming full circle” was my first thought! It’s been a crazy year in many ways, of course, but for me writing-wise—the book, some publications, and a couple of fellowships and prizes, all happened within a year, and all started with The Adroit Journal’s program—that was my first stroke of good fortune. From there, I had a very lucky year of things falling into place. It’s exciting to look back on what seemed like an insanely quick whirlwind, and I’m very happy to be here thinking back on it a year later—it’s really heartwarming!
SJ : One thing I found constantly evolving in your poems was a sense of safety and fearlessness that we have as children, and how that transforms when we age. You write, “Mother watches from a distance / as I move wildly, without fear” in “Old Growth,” and in “Light Years,” you say: “Those were the lightest years. If I go, so, too, does the feeling.” “Immigration” is a resounding end to the ten-part prose poem series, where you say, “Childhood is a civilization that fell.” I like to think of it as a double cocoon, where fear shapes us as we age and age brings forth different fears, both furthering different goals. What was your line of thinking behind these poems?
NR: I think you’re pretty spot on! A lot of other themes were unintentional, and people have pointed them out to me afterwards, but I think this was the big driving force in my poems and their starting place—comparing the current mindset of being an adult in the world and then thinking about the completely different way I inhabited the world when I was younger. In the book I think I touch on how place has to do with that as well. Like leaving the city and returning home to be with my family or visiting some grassy field where I spent time growing up—these have been some moments where I can feel the pull, feel myself returning to that fearless self in a familiar space.
A lot of writing poems for me has been trying to explore and interrogate that feeling—trying to figure out if there’s a way to get that sense of safety back and to live as an adult with that mentality. To question whether I can be brave and fearless or if those experiences are just going to keep getting farther and farther away. I certainly know people my age who still live boldly and remind me of the way I used to operate as a child. I think a lot of writing poems is trying to answer questions that I don’t know the answer to, ruminating on certain images, feelings, and then seeing where I arrive at the end. I’m glad you picked up on that, it’s definitely a big part of my thinking.
SJ: So, do you think you’ve figured it out?
NR: Haha, not yet I don’t think so. I think a lot of it is trying to recreate that sense of curiosity and discovery we have as kids and not being so hung up on things that could go wrong. For me, when I travel to a new place, I can kind of get back in that framework; when I get off the plane and am by myself, I can for a brief instant get back into the magical space where everything is new and I’m excited to learn, taking in new plants and landscapes and weather. Travel for me has been a way to return to that sense of wonder without the day-to-day muscle memory of normal life in my apartment. It’s probably the closest I’ve gotten to figuring that out.
SJ: In “Crocus,” nature and time loop about and laugh at us, as you speak of the urgency of “purpling” versus the patience in “blossoming.” I found parallels to Ada Limón’s “Instructions on Not Giving Up,” where she begins with “fuschia funnels.” Given that she wrote the Foreword to your book, how would you relate to her work?
NR: Oh, that’s such a nice parallel. I didn’t even think about that. I love that! She’s one of my all-time favorite poets. That’s also the reason why I submitted to this prize for this particular year—because I saw she was the judge. Her work has been informing my work for a long time, especially the way she writes about the environment intertwined with personal life. It’s something I’m drawn to doing naturally, and I feel like when I read her work, I’m unintentionally in conversation with it. So when I found that she picked my manuscript, I pretty much lost my mind. I was freaking out to think that she had read the work, let alone chosen it for the prize!
I think Ada Limón is doing something very exciting in terms of being a woman of color, writing about the environment, and also not placing herself in any kind of box to be pigeonholed in. Her writing is so contemporary and of the moment, and I think anyone could read it and find something to love. The way she uses language is something I aspire to do, as well—she uses beautiful lyrical language, and she’s simultaneously able to communicate with straightforward vocabulary. I’m a huge fan. When my editor sent me her introduction, I couldn’t stop bawling. It felt so validating that she fully saw what I was intending to do and was able to articulate it in a way that even I couldn’t have done for my own work.
SJ: So, my next question is probably my most pressing one. So many of your poems here address the Indian side of you. The references to “rickshaws,” the “Madras summers.” You’ve extensively explored the belongingness of being born to Indian immigrants. I find that when India reveals itself across the pages, it sometimes hides because it must. How does belonging to a brown community lend perspective? And what are the things you’d relate to in India today, as someone who hasn’t grown up here?
NR: So I didn’t have an idea in mind while I constructed this book; it was just poems that had accrued over the years from as far back as 2016. As I came to put the manuscript together, I found that although I hadn’t set out to write poems about my Indian origin or my parents’ experience, that was a thread that kept surfacing. So it’s exactly like what you said: India is there; sometimes it hides under the surface.
I was writing these poems from how I operate in the world, how I see myself, and how others see me. I grew up in New Jersey in a very white area, and I didn’t have any sort of Indian community here other than my family. A lot of the poems about belonging and race and about my parents’ experience came into existence because I’m fixated on my family unit and on my parents’ stories, which I think are amazing. And they’re not going to write a book and tell their own stories, so I wanted to honor their voices in some small way. As far as what I relate to in India today, every time I’ve been here and visited my family, I love it. It’s a place where I can experience that instantaneous letting go of fear and inhibition, like what I was describing earlier.
Though of course the feeling is mixed: on the one hand, I feel intense belonging where everything feels alive in a way I’m drawn to, and in ways I don’t experience in New York City, where I live. On the other hand, I can understand Tamil but can’t speak it. I have an American accent and different cultural references, and it’s intensely evident I have not grown up in India. This kind of push and pull has been interesting to explore. So in writing any poems about my background, I haven’t sought to try and speak to some greater experience of “Indian-ness.” I can only speak to my own authentic experience.
SJ: That’s lovely to hear. Speaking of Tamil, you must’ve heard of Tishani Doshi, in whose poems you’ll always find Madras. Her newest collection is A God at the Door, and she describes hope in some interesting ways. In one, she describes it as “a noose around my neck” and in another she calls it “a booby trap.” Your poems, even at their most melancholy points, continue to bear hope. It rests in the corner like the gecko on the wall. How do you carry yourself away from writing about the many sad avenues of modern life, towards the ways out?
NR: That’s a great question. I love the gecko on the wall! Mostly, I try to write the kind of poem that I would want to read. Lately things are so bleak, and I turn to poetry to get away from that and remind myself of things that delight and inspire, which make me excited to still be a person in the world. That’s often why I decide to read poetry—I’m looking for reminders of goodness, whether that be beauty or love or joy, or any kind of intense emotion that makes you glad to be able to feel it. And I think, when I’m writing in that stage when I feel low, those poems don’t feel like something anybody would want to read. I like to ask, what is this bringing to anyone who’d read it? I’d like for my poems to have people relate to them, but personally I don’t feel I have anything new to add to the feeling of despair. Even if it’s a bit dark, I still want there to be some part of the poem that’s a reminder of light, because as a reader that’s what I want. I’m not explicitly thinking about audience when I write.
I know that even for myself, if I don’t find any light when I look up, it’s not going to be a good poem. The starting point for my poems is usually a memory or a line—if I have an anchor, it’s typically a moment with brightness around it even if everything else is dark.
SJ: Now, moving on to the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about “Latitude.” In this poem, I saw a young girl going out and feeling the world’s edges. How did that come about?
NR: When I was putting the manuscript together, it felt like several jumbled poems lacking any throughline. I already had the first piece of “Latitude,” which I had written a while back as a standalone poem. I wrote it while I was on a flight, looking out the window at the ocean and thinking about how I used to be obsessed with the color blue. It just came very quickly in that prose form when I was on the plane. I have a specific notebook I use for notes when I’m traveling, which is where the initial “Latitude” section was drafted. When it came time to assemble the book, I was thinking of a theme to tie it all together, and I thought, “What if I just wrote a bunch more of those ‘Latitude’ like poems with my notes?”
I hadn’t anticipated it would be the title for my book, but I wanted that idea of journeying and traveling for the overall theme, to show how I can be a different version of myself in different places, in different times. And when I started thinking more in depth about the word “latitude” itself, I began thinking about distance, the idea of distance between the self and an imagined version of the self, and also the concept of “latitude” as a scope for freedom, as in how much latitude I can grant myself. I wrote the rest of the sections very quickly, looking through notes I had written on flights—I love sitting by the window seat and writing in the sunlight. The prose form lent itself well because I had already written all these notes in complete sentences, and I had so much to work with. At the time, I was also rereading Anne Carson’s Short Talks which is in her book, Plainwater. I decided to reread that after thinking I’d like to write a lot of these little blocks of poems. I think the “Latitude” section was the most fun to write, process-wise. I had a deadline for my manuscript and had an idea and all the notes for it, and it came together very quickly. The only tricky part was the ending; it took me a while to come to that image of being in line at immigration.
SJ: That ending was really resounding! What really stood out for me was how there was also this sense that these poems were reflecting our innate spirit of fallibility. Is fallibility something in our spirits? And do you think we can use metaphors to work our way towards acceptance?
NR: I was asking myself that same question and trying to come to an answer. Does everybody experience this feeling? Is there something to do about it? A lot of the poems grapple with the idea of an ideal version of myself versus who I actually am. My thesis advisor Catherine Barnett said something during one of our sessions which really struck me. “The voice is distinct because this speaker acknowledges that she has done something wrong but there’s no apology, she’s just going to keep going.” In hearing that I started thinking more about the parts of myself I’m not proud of and actions that could’ve gone differently, and how much of that to lament versus how much to accept as innate fallibility. For me, writing the poems is a way to admit that fallibility, and perhaps is my way of asking the reader, “Here’s what I’ve done, what do you think about it?” Not as a challenge, but more as a way of presenting my own vulnerabilities and flaws, because if I can’t write about that feeling, I don’t know what else to do with it, where to put it.
SJ: I also notice you address concepts of reincarnation and giving back to nature. How do those things fit in for you—do you have a gardening practice?
NR : Yes! In college I studied environmental science and literary arts. For a long time I thought I was going to do something agricultural. I love being outside and working with my hands. In undergrad, I worked on this urban farm for a long time, and in my parents’ house in New Jersey, we have a backyard where I grow sunflowers, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash. Even in my apartment, I try to fill the space with plants I’ve grown from seed, and I love having my hands in the dirt and watching things grow. That sort of unintentionally found its way into the work, as I’ve always been fixated on transformation, cycles, and natural systems. Ecosystems are fascinating to me at all different levels. Especially when so much seems to be falling apart, it feels reassuring to know that natural cycles remain a constant.
I’m currently sitting in the house where I grew up, and just outside at this time of year, the cherry blossoms start to bud. No matter what happens, I know that if I were to come back here 10 years from now (hopefully, if climate change isn’t a factor), there’s a comfort in knowing that would still be happening.
SJ : So what made you not go into environmental science?
NR: I always had amazing writing teachers throughout my academic career who inspired and encouraged me to pursue writing. Obviously studying other disciplines is helpful and has informed my writing a lot. I really pull from my environmental science background because I’m thinking about ecosystems very much. But the idea that I should keep writing was reinforced by my teachers, who would encourage me to submit to places. I’m very grateful to them because otherwise I wouldn’t have thought of this as a viable path. Their guidance and support made it pretty straightforward to get here. And I’m glad, because I do have an innate feeling that I’m doing the thing I should be doing, while still pursuing my passion for the environment in other ways.
SJ : You’ve explored the complexity of child-parent relationships. I read your lines, “Mother and daughter in asymmetrical embrace,” and thought it was a really brave thing to do, because you’re putting things out there, things that other writers and I have definitely felt while navigating our parental relationships but haven’t found the words for.
NR : The poems about my parents are maybe the ones that came from the deepest source; there’s such a well of feeling there. Usually when I write, I’ll start with an image or phrase, but for most of the poems about my parents, they came out of a really intense feeling. I was nervous when the book came out because I hadn’t shown them many of the poems, but they were so supportive and proud which made me happy that I could be honest in that way. I mean there is a fictive distance and not everything is me as the speaker, and I’m grateful they were able to understand that. I know that at the heart of my relationship with my parents is a place of deep love between all of us, and an attempt to understand one another. In my MFA, where we had to produce a lot of poems rapidly, in some weeks I genuinely wouldn’t know what to write about, and I found myself returning to my parents because there’s so much depth there, so much to say. Probably even when I’m an old woman, I’ll still be writing about my parents.