Natalie Diaz has some experience in attracting a crowd. She used to travel Europe and Asia as a pro-basketball player before returning to the states to pursue an MFA in poetry and fiction. It’s Thursday night, at a local community college in Albuquerque, and Diaz has come to read from her amazing and lauded new poetry collection, My Brother Was an Aztec. When she gets up to the mic, I can’t help but think of her former basketball career, as tall and vibrant as she is. Later, she talks about the connection between playing and poetry, how both allow her to deal with tough things in a physical, sweaty way. And the poems she reads emerge from her body with an almost physical impact—significant words are repeated until they ring in your head, forms become successful plays that deliver the listener to some epiphany.
Stylistically, she writes in many territories. Her narratives are clear, lovely and distressing, often concerning her family—one brother, a meth addict, and the ensuing tremors felt by the rest. The beauty about a reading, and a reader like Diaz, are the insights and details revealed about the work, how forms box her in structurally, and allow her free range with content. She reveals that her favorite form is the triolet or pantoum, but sonnets seem like they’re for white people. She explores images, colors, sensations lyrically, and in one poem, “I Watch Her Eat an Apple,” she transforms the everyday experience:
The apple pulses like a red bird in her hand—
she is setting the red bird free,
but the red bird will not go,
so she pulls it to her face as if to tell it a secret.
I think the whole audience wants an apple after she disclosed this poem.
After her reading, to which one student told her that he initially came for the extra credit, but ended up finding the whole experience “awesome,” she signs books and talks to audience members. I am impressed with how she engages with each, taking time to ask questions and autograph the book with more than one sentence! Seriously, this is a generosity I have not witnessed much before. This is a writer who wants her readers, her audience; to share in what she’s experiencing, the world and all it’s dark humors.