As an undergraduate, I mastered the art of buying used textbooks online, so there was no reason to visit my campus bookstore. And yet, I made the trip at the start of every term because I wanted to know which books the poetry instructors were assigning. This is how I encountered Natalie Diaz’s debut collection of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec. I can’t remember which professor assigned this wonderful book, but what I do remember is that after thumbing through a couple of pages, I was spellbound. In the very first poem, the title poem of the collection, Diaz’s language is rhythmic and the images are beautifully surreal. Together, these qualities become hands uncovering her personal history. As the book progresses, we dance with Diaz’s memories of her meth-addicted brother, family relationships, and cultural mythology to the music of anger, frustration, humor, and affection.
Needless to say, I bought a copy of Diaz’s book that day. In fact, I now have two copies. In the time between buying the first and second, I had the opportunity to hear her read once at California State University, San Bernardino, and again alongside Dean Young and Lucia Perillo at this year’s AWP Conference in Seattle. When I took on the task of procuring an interview for the 30th issue of Blue Mesa Review, my first thought was of Natalie Diaz. I reached out to Diaz and she graciously agreed to the interview. Over the last month or so, we’ve corresponded via email and talked about things that range from her poetry to advice for upcoming poets. She has been kind, comforting, and inspiring. The following is taken from that correspondence.
Blue Mesa Review: I’ve had the chance to hear you read from your fantastic book a couple of times now. At the AWP reading, it was said that you have a new collection coming out in 2015. Is this new book with Copper Canyon Press?
Natalie Diaz: I am working on a second book, which will come out with Copper Canyon. They are a press I believe in, and I trust the relationship I have built with them.
BMR: Is the process for writing this new book any different from your process for When My Brother Was an Aztec?
ND: The book is written in much of the same way my first book was written—I’m still at a point in my writing where I am interested in images and the emotions and stories that an image can carry. I am still fascinated by language, though this book examines language in a different way, especially since I have this experience of working with my native language. I’m still using poems to explore and reel from the experience of my brother. However, I feel like this book is more tender than the first book. The love poems that make up most of the final section of my first book have evolved into a new type of love poem that carries most of this new book. Just as with the first book, I have let myself be fascinated by the power of poems to let me feel, witness, question, wonder, pray, and all the other powers they give me.
BMR: I’m interested in what you said about the love theme carrying over into the next collection. I like this idea of books of poetry being connected. It’s as if they are a continuous extension of life. Can collections of poems be interconnected? Or should they be? Do you want them to be? I guess the real question is, how much control over that does the poet have?
ND: I think the poems from collection to collection are connected—they reveal growth, or the evolution of ideas, the 180-degree turnaround of ideas, the manifestation of what has been lost or discovered since the previous collection, etc. In this new book, the poet writing the poems has changed, so naturally, the speakers in my poems have changed. I feel like this new book has a different type of tenderness in it, not one that cancels out violence and anger, but a tenderness that exists with violence and anger, or because of them. There are many love poems, so many that I feel every poem in the collection is a love poem, maybe not always about the beloved, but definitely always about the love we should offer one another. I am shaping the book, but I am not trying to force myself to write about things I am not ready to write about or things I have not earned the understanding of.
BMR: During the Q&A portion of your reading at Cal State, an audience member asked how hard it was for you to produce the poems for When My Brother Was an Aztec because they reveal so much about the dynamics of family, drug addiction, and cultural identities. They are truthful. Could you shed some light on that process for our readers?
ND: I have always given myself the permission to write whatever is in me to write, to surprise even myself on the page about my own feelings, my powerlessness, my choices, my compassion, my anger. I do use a more critical eye after I write the poems, essays, or stories—to decide if I am comfortable with sharing the work. I trust myself. I trust the values that I was raised with, the values I received from my community, family, and upbringing—that I will know what I can tell. I also trust myself when something makes me pause or tells me, “No, not this line.” Maybe what I trust the most is that I don’t have any indictments or judgments, but I have stories and memories, imaginations, fears and hopes about this world that deserve to be explored.
BMR: I really like the notion that a poet can give herself or himself permission to write. How hard was it for you to give yourself—maybe to continue to give yourself—permission to explore truth through writing poetry? Were there any obstacles? Any reoccurring obstacles?
ND: There are always the obstacles of truth. Truth is not an easy thing to pin down, and it touches each of us in a different way. To find an emotional truth in a poem sometimes feels like exhaling something, but that same truth might make readers feel like holding their breath. As we all know, writing about the emotional truths in families is always tenuous. Even when all nine of my brothers and sisters are gathered at my parents’ house and we are reminiscing about a specific moment we were all a part of, we all have a different story. The beautiful thing is that in my family we have learned the value of a story, so even if our own version is different, we understand the importance of being allowed to tell it, the importance of having it heard. Some days when I read poems that have “my brother” in them, that space deep in the back of my throat, so deep it feels like it might be where my brain begins, that space burns in a way that makes it hard to concentrate on the language or image of my poem. When that happens I usually have a more difficult time reading. Friends say I read more quietly on those days—that I don’t use my body as much. The main obstacle, the most important one, I think, is that poems can make you feel in a way that real life sometimes won’t let you feel or protects you from feeling. Poems can hurt you. But they can also let an unbeautiful thing be beautiful, and we deserve that.
BMR: Referring back to the Cal State reading, you told of your mother’s reaction to some of the recalled moments in the book. You had explained that your mother was upset because she felt you didn’t accurately tell the stories, but you had insisted that they were true. When reading your work, it seems as though there is a poetic truth that captures the actual memory and the emotional memory. Do you mind entertaining my assumption?
ND: I believe in multiple, simultaneous truths. Maybe this is the direct result of being raised in a multicultural family. Or maybe this is the way things should be. Maybe this is the truth. When I write a poem, I am not writing directly about my brother or my community. Instead, I am writing about the images that are meaningful and emotional to me and using the words that are meaningful and emotional to me. This creates a distance that lets me express what is inside, in my thoughts and in my worries. Emotional truth is the truth I am most concerned with.
BMR: I really love this idea of creating space to explore one’s identity through the emotional truth. In writing a poem, is it hard to remain in that created space?
ND: For me, when I write a poem, I am in a special place. The creative space is pretty amazing. It is all electricity and energy. I sweat. My body is fully engaged. I move my hands in the air like I am actually building the words and images right there in front of me. I find myself reaching out for words, like they can be twisted from some invisible branch. That space is hard to get to when you don’t give yourself time to get to it. And then, for my process, there is the real “work” space of revision and research. This is the space that I am more in control of—the creative space is just a lucky place where I do my best to stay in the chariot. This workspace is like a puzzle—a language puzzle, an image puzzle, a story puzzle—and though it is hard work, I love it. I think it is similar to basketball, to practicing basketball, to making a new move smooth, to trying to beat your time on a sprint, to seeing a new play click, a screen set at the right time, a roll to the basket, a perfect pass and the ball just waiting there for you to move into its energy and flip it up to the rim.
BMR: For those who aren’t familiar, you’ve been working with the elders of the Fort Mojave Reservation in an effort to preserve the native language. You’ve talked about it with urgency, but that urgency has been coupled with stories of the elders approaching the task with some humor. I was wondering if you could share some insight into the role of humor, both in the task of language preservation and in writing poetry.
ND: Humor is important in my culture. I think people who have suffered the most are often the most humorous. Humor is a survival mechanism. Humor is the thing that allows you to say, I still love you, or I am still here, or this will not kill me, even in moments of pain, discomfort, or despair.
BMR: That’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard. It seems there is so much to suffer for in the world, both good and bad. Will humor always have a place in your poetry?
ND: Humor is one of the things that makes me, me. It is how I reckon with the world and the things that happen in it. It is as important to me as prayer, or reading, or drinking good wine.
BMR: OK, so I want to switch it up a little bit and ask a few lighthearted questions. If you could sit and listen to a reading by any two poets, dead or alive, who would they be?
ND: I would love to hear Yehuda Amichai read in Hebrew (and to understand it). It is a pity that I can only read him in English. And I’d love to hear Borges read or just talk. I love tracking down his lectures and readings—the asides and things he said in between are what interest me most.
BMR: What three books should we be checking out right now?
ND: I am reading [Valerie Mejer’s] Rain of the Future right now, which I love. The Unknown University by Bolaño. Also, Yiannis Ritsos and Cesare Pavese collections. I was staying at a friend’s house the other night and took his copy of Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems down from the shelf and opened to these lines: “(the honey in the lion, the honey / in woman…” and so I’m going to go to the library to try to check out that book.
BMR: Libraries. They seem to be a quickly fading resource. Do you prefer hard-copy books or electronic versions? When I go on trips, I always seem to be bringing a separate bag for the books I want to read or buy. I think my poor back wishes I read more electronic versions.
ND: I’m like you. I am a soldier for real books. Even when reading. I have most of my poems memorized, and I think it is wonderful when great poets, like my friend James Arthur, recite their poetry from memory. But there is a marriage of poem and texture for me that I need—I need to press my fingers into a page when I read a poem. I am finicky about my books. I don’t like to break the bindings on them. (My sweetheart destroys books, so I am learning to be a little easier about the don’t-break-the-binding rule.) But what is always visible in my books are the places, the small lines or indentations, where my fingers have pressed into the pages. I love to touch the words on the page. I like to feel the paper of a book. E-books make my eyes itchy.
BMR: If we opened your iTunes, what would be your most-played song this month?
ND: I’ve been listening to a Reggaeton station and Neil Diamond a lot this month. Too much, probably. I’m in a strange singing phase of my life right now. I find myself humming or waking up singing. Friends will point out that I am humming (which my father does a lot) or singing at times when I am not even aware myself that I am doing it. For instance, the other day I didn’t realize that I had been singing “Here Comes the Rain Again” by the Eurythmics until my partner joined in for the chorus. It’s a little shameful. I’m going to have to get a handle on it.
BMR: Any chance we’ll get a Natalie Diaz album in 2015?
ND: Oh, man. I love to sing. Even in mass. I have been trying to find a good mass in Brooklyn, meaning one with good music. But sometimes we Catholics can be boring in the hymn department. My favorite Sunday song is “No Other Argument.” My favorite church, for the people and the music, is Bible Way Holiness Church in Chesapeake, Virginia.
BMR: Do you play any instruments?
ND: I used to have to play my brother’s keyboard at tribal funerals for my great-grandmother’s friends when they passed. I played “How Great Thou Art” so many times. Even for my own great-grandmother’s funeral. That was the one time I didn’t mind playing it. I played it hard.
BMR: There is just one more topic I’d like to cover. What advice can you give to poets who are trying to get a first book published?
ND: I don’t know what advice I have that will help any poets trying to get a first book published. My advice is to be patient, but I think if you are trying to get a first book published, you probably feel like you are already being patient or you might be running out of patience. But what I mean is, it is important where you publish your first book—you only get one first book. And I don’t mean a giant or well-known publishing house, but I mean a publisher whom you trust because the people there believe in your work and want to hold your book. It’s hard to trust someone with your work in that way, because it is the thing you have built, and regardless of whether you want to say it is “autobiographical” or not, your life, vulnerabilities, desires, and body are in that book. You will touch and know nothing in the world the way you will have touched and known the poems in your book. It is a pretty incredible thing.
BMR: I think that’s some great advice! It seems there are small independent presses and journals popping up everywhere. I guess in my mind that translates to more options. We just need to find the one that will care for our work as much as we do.
ND: Yes. Think of Terrance Hayes, now a MacArthur genius. His first book, Muscular Music, came out with Tia Chucha, a passionate small press. It worked out pretty well for him and his poetry.
Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. 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 in 2012. Her poems have received the Narrative Prize for Poetry and appeared in Best American Poetry and the annual Pushcart Prize collection. She is the recipient of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, the 2014 Holmes National Poetry Prize, and a USA Ford Fellowship in Literature.