A Conversation with Natalie Diaz
BY ABIGAIL MCFEE
Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. Her first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published by Copper Canyon Press, and her second book, Postcolonial Love Poem, will be published by Graywolf Press in March 2020. She is a 2018 MacArthur Fellow, as well as a Lannan Literary Fellow and a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow. She was awarded the Princeton Holmes National Poetry Prize and a Hodder Fellowship. She is a member of the Board of Trustees for the United States Artists, where she is an alumni of the Ford Fellowship. Diaz is Director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University and 2018 MacArthur Fellow.
Abigail McFee, Interviewer: My first exposure to two of the poems in this collection came in a recording of your craft talk at Tin House called “Building the Emotional Image.” In that talk, you assert that the task of a writer is to take the images most familiar to them—their obsessions—and then break them, rewriting from the pieces. What were some of the obsessions that had to be broken and remade as you built this collection?
Natalie Diaz, Poet: That craft talk feels like a long time ago now, but it is a foundational set of wonders for me—the emotional image and what it is made of, how it moves, how it moves backward and forward in time. I had to find a way to merge image and emotion. I needed the image to be more than what was seen. I needed the image to be also private and intimate. Something like touch. You can see someone touch someone else, but you can’t know how it feels to them. One of the earliest images of obsession for me was the image of “hips.” I’ve talked about this in other places, but I was very close with my great grandmother, who was a double amputee. I only ever knew her from her bed, but I had a single picture of her sitting in a chair, with legs. She was one of my first best friends and the first woman I ever loved—when I say love what I mean is how love sometimes exists in reflex or in a convex way. When I lost her, I was old enough to feel that loss, and so old enough to understand an outline of love that I had never experienced before. Love is also what is not there, as much as it is what is there.
AM: How did the writing of Postcolonial Love Poem feel different from your first collection?
ND: The book is different, but writing it didn’t “feel” different. I did have an intention to write about love—the myriad myriads of love. But the book is still being referred to as a book about violence against Natives, so maybe I didn’t do enough work to interrupt peoples’ projections of what/who/how Natives are and are not.
AM: These poems traverse both violence and tenderness, often inverting one into the other. A knife becomes a way of passing light into the belly. In the poem “Catching Copper,” you write, “My brothers kiss their bullet… My brothers’ bullet kisses them back.” And near the end of the poem “Cranes, Mafiosos, and a Polaroid Camera,” you question, “[A]nd is there a difference / between aperture and wound.” If an aperture is an opening in a camera through which light travels, can a wound be an opening in the body through which light travels?
ND: Maybe a wound is a way of seeing into someone. Or maybe it is an opening into the person who inflicted the wound. I don’t need the wounds to disappear, but I want to give them the possibility to flower or tu’aachk, as we might say in Mojave. I can’t deny my wounds, those I’ve gathered across my own body and mind, as well as those I have inflicted on others’ bodies and minds. I can try to imagine a condition in which the wound will bloom, meaning a place beyond the wound. Yes, my brother’s knife and also light, also a thing that moves and moves and outruns my “knowing.” The energy is not disappeared but reorganized.
AM: This collection represents the body in its most ecstatic, desiring form. I felt while reading that I was likewise witnessing language in its most ecstatic form: “We touch the ball of light / to one another—: split bodies, desire-knocked / and stroked bright.” That line comes from the poem “Skin-Light,” which pushes language to its edges in a way that is incredibly pleasurable to the ear. It also makes use of unique punctuation throughout (—:). The em dash and colon become a sort of pictograph, seeming to represent the body (among other images). Could you speak about the possibilities of language on the graphic level?
ND: I imagine the letters across the page as moving, as body, as animal, as beings. Ink is made of body. (Orlando White’s Bone Light is a book that deals with a type of visualization of language.) Letters were once physical things, bodies. The ox body, then the ox head = A. The fish. An eye. A house. The page is physical, it is a body asking something of my body, and I answer it with bodies.
The em dash and colon is something I first felt and saw in James Baldwin’s work. It opened a space behind the words, a deep space that made the page and its language enacted or moving. A space that also felt private and physical, a kind of touch that I as a reader can’t quite invade. Reading can be a kind of invasion. We the readers always want to “know” things so end up projecting ourselves all over the text. But this punctuation—: it doesn’t let you. It holds you back, away, and somewhere in that expanse of time, the length of the colon and em dash, or maybe forever, you can’t know what the connection was, what the author needed to both hold together and separate at once, to make both frozen in time and catapulted out of time.
AM: One of my favorite poems, “The First Water Is the Body,” begins: “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States—also, it is a part of my body.” As the sequenced poem progresses, it explores the act of translation, interrogates white people’s dismissal of “what threatens [them]…as myth,” and catalogues the exploitation and destruction of bodies of water. Could you speak about the process of writing that poem?
ND: This was a lucky space to write toward because it allowed me to share some of the ways I think and struggle to maintain thinking about land and water, my language, the ways I have been taught to survive, and what those teachings have helped me learn and learn.
AM: You wield the manifold capacities of words on the page—sonically, visually, semantically. There’s a great deal of language play that goes on. I was struck by the double meaning of “wound” in “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word”: “Even a watch must be wound. / How can a century or a heart turn / if nobody asks, Where have all / the natives gone?” What role did double meanings and multiple readings play in your rendering of this collection?
ND: I think I don’t think about double so much as simultaneous. In Mojave, the word for time is the same word for watch, sun, day, east, bright, etc. And time is one way to wound a people. Natives are still held to the Doctrine of Discovery by our Supreme Court, which is an absurdity of time. I think and feel in images, which makes me able to do some things well and many things poorly. However, this way of imaging, which is the only way I know how to be, lets things be all the things they are—it defies static meaning.
AM: The innate musicality of your lyric poems finds a parallel in poems that incorporate song lyrics—I’m thinking of “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” and “Like Church.” Another poem makes intentional use of the singsong storybook language from “The Three Little Bears.” I wonder if you could speak about that—borrowed language and how it enters your poetic landscape.
ND: It could be said that all language is borrowed. These languages and words are on their way to somewhere by way of me. They’ve been in so many other minds and mouths before mine. I am always in the middle of many languages and stories. Which is maybe how we all are—and also how I was made, in that I have a very large family and we were always talking, fighting, telling, laughing, crying at once. I don’t know if I can exist alone and not in the midst or middle or tangle of others’ stories and songs.
AM: You write such powerful poems about the beloved, and as the title suggests, love poems are central to the work of this collection. Do you think a love poem is ultimately about the self or the beloved? Or is it about something else entirely?
ND: I’ve been told so many stories about myself, about my family, about the people I love—maybe the love poem is my own version of our story, of who and what and how we are. We are all the ways and conditions of love, some easy, some difficult, yet still love and still becoming what love is not yet but must be so that we can exist.