Artist of the Week Natalie Fraser ’24 on Reading Amateur Poetry

The first sentence I ever uttered to Natalie Fraser ’24 was “Great job in Moco!” after her killer Mixed Company acapella performance last spring. She naturally commanded the stage, just as she does in our Poetry Workshop with English Professor Betsy Bolton. Her capacity to lead discussions is impressive, so understandably, I couldn’t wait for our interview. 

Natalie immediately subverted my expectations. I usually treat my artists to free coffee as a token of appreciation, but I found myself in her apartment sipping Earl Grey tea, as she asked me questions – truly top-tier hospitality. Finally, after chatting up a storm, I asked Natalie how she began writing poetry. 

“I went to a public high school and I was lucky to have an English teacher, Mr. Vano, with a master’s in poetry, and he had us compose poetry anthologies. Our class would read tons of authors, and then choose ten poems that were our  favorites after five months of reading.”

Natalie continued, “At the same time, I was doing live poetry recitation with the Poetry Out Loud initiative. High schoolers will recite poetry and compete, and I did it all the way up to the state level. I traveled to our state capitol, so I feel like I was doing everything but actually writing. I was making anthologies, reciting, and basically spending a lot of time around it.” 

Given that she has never previously written poetry, I was curious about what made her finally pull the trigger. Natalie responded, “Part of what got me to take the [Poetry Workshop] was having really close friends who took it last year. They started to completely change how they saw themselves as artists. And I’m ready to do that for myself. I’ve written in longer form for a while, so it was a new format but also one that I knew as a reader.”

In our workshop, we read our poems to the group before receiving feedback. Notably, Natalie pays close attention to her inflection. Her words spring off the page with fervor, with some phrases softer than others. It becomes almost like sheet music, open to interpretation by the reader. In combination with her vocal training and recitation skills, she provides an enriching experience for her listeners. 

So, I was curious about what Natalie wanted to convey in her tone and how she knows whether or not a poem is finished. 

“I think a really great poem is about capturing indescribable feelings. All my favorite poems convey emotions deeply and they’ve managed to convey that to me,” she replied. 

“I know a poem is done if it has accomplished its goal, or if I’ve figured out some truth by the end. For example, I really liked the Lady Lazarus poem I wrote last week because I was thinking about how women are expected to be merciful, forgiving, and peaceful in a way that men aren’t.”

Moreover, Natalie’s brutal imagery is so visceral that it makes us feel complicit in the crime: we are striking the doe, watching her bleed in fleshy, humanlike misery. “I think a lot of my poems include weird uses of [or foci on] the body. A lot of that comes from my medical anthropology major,” Natalie revealed. 

She continued, “We talk about the body all the time. [And my inspiration springs] from the idea that you can never take your physical body for granted. It shapes how you move through the world, but also how the world is acting in your body.”

I admired how Natalie described interacting with the body: you are your experiences, family, home, and self. These aspects aren’t necessarily separate from the physical either. Instead, they shape you aesthetically and emotionally. On that note, I asked Natalie about how she feels her identity impacts her poetry.

“I love Alaska so much. The environment I grew up in was amazing because of its Alaska Native influence in the life of friends and family— indigeneity is just so alive there. When you grow up in Alaska elementary schools, you hear Alaska Native folktales as part of common language. Also, imagery of the land was so prominent. Especially since I’ll go for 40-mile hikes and be up in the mountains for sixteen hours,” she responded.

Natalie added, “Alaska is diverse in many, many amazing ways, but just not specifically for Thai or Chinese identities. I was the only Thai person I knew other than my mom. I think that college was one of the first places I felt like I could be Thai Chinese and have cultural space for that. So I enjoy writing poetry about that.” Suitably, Natalie spoke about being Thai Chinese in her ghazal, “芒果人”:


Agong hocks mucus into a tray shaped like a mango,

and tells me China was once gripped by the cult of the mango.

On a restless spring day in 1968, protestors threw sticks, stones, and sulfuric acid

Red guards broke them up with worse. Mao thanked them with a box of mango.

From his hands to the hands of the Worker Peasant Thought team

the revolution passed. In the streets, they handed out gleaming propaganda mango

Posters on every corner, Agong says. He’d never seen a mango before, much less

revolutionary mango, working-class mango, Mao’s love for the people mango.

In Fulin, they tried a dentist for slander, paraded the man through town,

And shot him in the head. For the crime of comparing a sweet potato to a mango.

My mother knocks on the doorway–interrupting his story–carrying two plates.

In our Bangkok townhome, we feast on sticky rice and mango.

On Yaowarat road, I pick up a box of roasted chestnuts for Agong

Placing them in the altar to our ancestors, I notice a wax-covered mango.

Mao Zedong died the most powerful man in China: a living god.

The People still venerate his body, preserved in formaldehyde like a mango.

Agong waters his mango tree every morning, pollinates every flower with a paintbrush

The tree will live longer than he does. It’s funny how far revolution makes a man go.

Natalie elaborated, “I acknowledge the privilege that having a white dad brings and gives me, but I don’t think I have a lesser claim to some cultural heritage. That’s part of the project of writing Thai Chinese poetry, but also the history of non-white people having their poetry widely disseminated is so recent. I love receiving those poems when I read them, so I want to be part of that.”

I love how the meaning of “芒果人” deepens over several reads. It not only provides history in its personified repetition, but it also invites readers to look into the translation of the title, to delve into the references, and to understand mangoes from a radically different perspective. Often, footnotes put too much responsibility on the poet to explain. The readers should feel compelled to look into the translation themselves, and “芒果人” gives enough explanation and leaves ample room for further analysis. 

As our interview wrapped up and we took our final swigs of our fabulous tea, I asked Natalie if she had any final thoughts on poetry. 

“I want more people to read more amateur poetry. I want to lift up and encourage people to read each other’s poetry as friends, or as Swarthmore community members. I love that we have The Review and Small Craft Warnings. I strongly believe that everyone deserves to create art and it doesn’t matter if you’re doing that in a confident way, or if you’re in the process of learning.” 

Natalie continued, “Similarly, it’s been such a treasure to have an artistic community and space in our poetry workshop where people enjoy reading each other’s poetry generously. My last thought is for our community: create more spaces for sharing to happen. I think it’s a really wonderful thing [we can provide] for each other.”

Simply put, I couldn’t end the article better myself. If you’d like to hear Natalie live, come to our poetry reading on Monday, May 6 at 4 p.m. in the Scheuer room.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading