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Omotara James releases her debut poetry collection: 'Song of My Softening'

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The body is an unmarked grave. With this bold, evocative declaration, poet Omotara James opens her debut book, "Song Of My Softening." She's the daughter of Nigerian and Trinidadian immigrants born in Britain and raised mainly in the United States. Tender, beautiful, stark, painful - these are just a few words that come to mind when reading this collection. James is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, a Lambda Literary fellow, and she joins me now to talk about her collection of poems. Omotara James, welcome to the program.

OMOTARA JAMES: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: I want to start with the title, "Song Of My Softening." And the way the book is structured. It feels a bit like a journey through your life, from adolescence, as a Black queer woman. Is that what it is? It feels almost journal-like in moments.

JAMES: It is definitely a reflection of how I respond to the world through the lens of my understanding, through my life experiences. But what the work of the book is is to transform my experiences into art. And when I titled the book "Song Of My Softening," that's because it takes a lot more strength to be vulnerable than it does to be hard.

FADEL: Yeah.

JAMES: It takes courage, and the poem lends itself to softness because the poem begins in the body, "Song of My Softening" is a love song to interiority and to anyone who has faced the challenges of life and done their best.

FADEL: I love that. It's harder to be vulnerable than it is to be hard. That's so true. And there is a lot of pain in the poetry, but like you said, triumph and celebration. I'm thinking of some of your poems, like "Morbid Subtraction," where you take kind of what many people would think of as an insult, and you flip it on its head. If you could talk about exploring the words that way and that poem in particular.

JAMES: Yeah. You know, so much of my book is about working with what you have, and so much of what I have been dealt has been love, but also, it's been violation. It's been a lot of prejudice. When it comes to fatness, it's something that we don't really see in art and media rendered by the person who is fat. Fat people are usually objectified. We are pathologized, problematized, and really, we have so much value to add to the world. So what I aim to do is to show and render the truth of my experience in a way that speaks back to the oppression of the experience.

FADEL: Do you have the book with you by any chance?

JAMES: Oh, I do.

FADEL: OK, great. I was wondering if you could read "Heaven Be A Sturdy Chair."

JAMES: Yes. (Reading) Heaven be a sturdy chair. When I show up to the reading, it's not to talk to you. I'm cruising for stability. A pound of fat is three times larger than muscle. Fat demands space, describes it. Fat belts a show tune, plus an R&B, plus a ballad at karaoke. My fat never goes home alone. Think about your last moment of pleasure. Multiply it by three.

FADEL: I mean, in this poem, fat is the hero, and I love it. Was this a declaration?

JAMES: An it's a declaration of not allowing someone else's definition of you be the gesture of your life. Before I can think about what it means to be fat, I need to explore how it feels. And that's what I use language and breath in my poetry to do. And then I can proclaim it. Also, I wanted to say that the truth about living in a body that there's all this pejorative chatter around...

FADEL: Yeah.

JAMES: ...Is that shame is a real part of the experience. One of my favorite poetry teachers, Jericho Brown, says something about shame that I've never forgotten, which is when we engage with shame, we are believing the lies that people tell us about ourselves. And there is nothing more worth the risk of telling your story than to eradicate that shame, to speak back to it and begin to claim radical love.

FADEL: It's like a big therapy session. I mean, really. I mean, 'cause I think so many people are going to be listening to you, and I'm listening to you and reading the poetry and having my own moments of reclamation, you know? I mean, as a woman, as somebody who grows up not skinny in a world that tells you you need to be small; you need to look this way; you need to be lighter; you need to be - I just - how did you get to a point where you said, OK, radical reclamation; I'm writing it all down; I'm sharing it all?

JAMES: The way I got to it was through the work of the poets who have come before me. When I write in my poem "Bodies Like Oceans," I say, I clawed my way out of your clean love. And what I mean by that is I had to imagine a future in which I could exist and in which I could be free. Poetry has been a tool of my own liberation because it was modeled to me that way through exemplar poets - exemplar Black poets, exemplar queer poets. And that is the discourse that exists between my poems and theirs.

FADEL: Omotara James, congratulations on your book, and thank you for that message.

JAMES: Thank you so much. It's been an honor.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FADEL: That was Omotara James. Her poetry collection is called "Song Of My Softening." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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