“I AM BEGGING: Let me be lonely but not invisible,” writes Natalie Diaz in “American Arithmetic.” This poem — like so much of Diaz’s extraordinary work — becomes a radical act of making visible through verse not only the poet, but many of the people whom America has tried to erase from the pages of its history. From her first book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, to her latest, Postcolonial Love Poem, Diaz’s poetry declares through a rich range of forms what it is to be Mojave and Mexican in today’s America, as well as what it is to be a sister, a lover, a friend, a poet, and the multitude of other identities Diaz, like so many of us, holds within her. At the same time, she requires her readers to interrogate the myths we grew up with as Americans, now that many of the questions surrounding race and oppression that have plagued the country’s past and present are becoming central to conversations about the future.
Diaz teaches creative writing at Arizona State University and is the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions, including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, a Lannan Literary fellowship, and a PEN/Civitella Ranieri Foundation Residency. Postcolonial Love Poem, her most recent collection, was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and was shortlisted last year for the Forward Prize for Best Collection and T. S. Eliot Prize, as well as longlisted for a National Book Award.
What follows is a conversation with Diaz about what brought her to poetry and how everything from basketball to her work recovering and revitalizing the Mojave language has informed her writing. Speaking from the reservation she grew up on in Fort Mohave, Arizona, Diaz also tells me about her relationship with water and the failures of the English language to contain the type of intimacy and vulnerability this connection entails.
NATASHA HAKIMI ZAPATA: In an interview with The Guardian, you say “poetry was an unlikely place for me to land … I mean, who says: ‘I’m going to be a poet when I grow up’?” So how did you first come to poetry?
NATALIE DIAZ: I came to poetry in many ways at different times — I just didn’t know it was poetry. I grew up with storytellers. My mother tells stories, and she read aloud to me a lot. I have a very large family and we grew up with less material things than most people, so a lot of the ways we interacted was telling one another stories or reading to one another. I think that was my first engagement with poetry in that it wasn’t necessarily reading poems, but I was learning about the kind of excitement and sensuality of speaking language out loud.
And then I read everything when I was young. I think that love of language and love of the physicality of language met with the physicalities and energy I found in basketball. It was strange for me to end up at poetry, not only because of the fact that poetry often exists as a kind of luxury in the United States, but it was lucky simply because I came to poetry from everything that was not poetry.
It’s interesting you mention basketball as a source of poetry in your life. It appears in your poems, and I know you’ve played professional basketball in Europe and in Asia. Can you elaborate more about the similarities or connections between basketball and writing poetry?
Learning to be in your body, learning the limitations of body, learning that the mind and the body are not separate — I think those are a few ways that for me feel entangled in relationship to basketball and poetry. Language for me is physical. It has a tangible energy that I was taught exists even when it leaves my body. However, I also feel it very much in my body — Mojaves, we talk with our hands; I’m an athlete still and I move around when I talk. There’s a way that poetry has never just been what arrives on the page or the page itself. Poetry for me has always been something about momentum, something that is very much out of time; basketball operates that way as well.
It’s about your body and space. It’s about your body pushing against other physical bodies of energy or sound. This is something I’ve said in the past, but basketball is a kind of futuristic game in that you’re always imagining what might happen next. So you’re several steps ahead of your actual self. That’s the way I engage poetry as well: I never know what the line has up ahead and I need to be able to, or willing to, or ready to imagine that.
Maybe the thing that has been the most important about basketball and poetry in my life and the life I’m leading right now is that there’s a certain level of practice and devotion you have to submit to or immerse yourself in.
In your latest book, Postcolonial Love Poem, in the poem “Top 10 Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball,” you write that “Creator gave us a choice” between writing “like an Indian god,” or having a “[sweet] jump shot.” I could see in poems like this one that for you basketball and writing are inextricable.
I think this must happen with most people. Each of us has a lexicon from our lives. I have a lexicon of the desert, so there’s a specific way that I write about it. I have a lexicon of being in a large family. I grew up on a reservation, which is another lexicon. It’s easy to treat your family in intimate ways, but my neighbors on the reservation were also my family, so I treat them in intimate ways. Even the rest of my community, whether I know them or not, or whether it’s their extended families or not, it’s still my community and my family. So I treat them, even when they are strangers, in an intimate way.
That’s very much like the lexicon of basketball in that you’re suddenly intimate with everybody on the court, right down to some of the things that are usually more private to us, like sweat or like anger or even defeat. For me, it seems easy to hold basketball and poetry side-by-side, and I think that other people do that, too. I’m thinking of Fady Joudah, who has a lexicon of medicine and healing and science that he brings to his work. Suddenly poetry and being a doctor aren’t very far apart. In some ways, it seems very natural to me that I would bring the lexicon of basketball, which for me is an intimacy with the body and ability to be vulnerable in it.
We’re taught that our bodies have certain limitations and that separates right away our mind from our body. Whereas suddenly when you hold the body and the mind together, you’re boundless in some ways. Poetry is also that for me — it’s a beyond.
In talking about momentum and rhythm, I think also about how you use form in your work. In both of your books, you use couplets, tercets, prose poems, catalogs, among many other forms. How do you decide which form to use when writing a poem?
Some of it is about space, but it’s also about the language that I’m bringing and how it feels physically in my body, and also how it feels to speak it out in a physical way. We tend to let the page dominate what happens — even the fact that we have this 8.5-by-11-inch page that we tend to write on in our private writing before it makes it to a book. For me, it really is a combination of what is happening visually in a line. I don’t mean necessarily from left to right. I tend to see and sense things in the periphery. I think some of that is because I had played basketball all of my life, even from when I was young, so I learned to not just rely on my eyes for that sense. I think some of it is also having grown up in the desert and a certain kind of precarity where you always want to know what is around you. Sometimes what is around you is more important than what’s in front of you. So form for me is happening in a nonlinear way. When I read a page of poetry or prose, I am reading the line where my eyes are sliding across, but I’m also seeing all the other words happening on the page.
For me, where form is very interesting is that it allows a certain kind of multiplicity to happen. I’m also very interested in and invested in repetition, so a lot of those forms for me, like the list, I think about as a kind of momentum. Even if the list is accumulating what seem like different images or what seem like new images in some ways, it’s all connected etymologically.
In the other half of your earlier quote from that Guardian interview you say, “I grew up on a reservation and we had a boarding school where language was taken.” You’ve been working to help preserve and, in a sense, take back the Mojave language for some time now. How has that project informed your poetry?
As I was learning Mojave, I was also engaged in an archival research project trying to recover audio files, wax cylinders, ethnographers’ and linguists’ notes on our language beginning in the mid-1800s, and it was really interesting how many times I came across documents that said, Mojaves don’t have a way to say, “I love you.” That we didn’t express such emotions. We didn’t have such emotions.
Mojaves don’t have a phrase for “I love you,” but it is also because “I love you” is not our way of relating. We can say, “You are my eye,” or we can say, “I would die for you,” as intimacies and words of care and tenderness. In English, if you were to say, “I would die for you,” that’s a giant leap of vulnerability and emotion.
English can very barely carry that because it’s a different kind of danger. We’ve seen recently all of these people saying, “I will die for Liberty,” whereas to be able to say that to someone as an expression not of grandiosity, but of a kind of connection and care that moves beyond the utilitarian … One of the things that I believe makes poetry poetry is the very close attention that we give language and intention, which to me feels like a kind of touch. Even if we’re writing about something that’s painful or something that feels a little bit more like resistance or a love poem, the care and touch that we give each of those poems is similar.
That’s the way I learned language here among my elders. Language is tender even when it is angry because of that attention and touch. And the idea that utilitarian language is not boring language. It still can hold in it all of the possibilities and all of the emotion and care we have for one another. We separate art from utility all of the time, however, and I think that’s why poetry has been disallowed to so many people. We sometimes frame art as a gift that not everybody has, or as requiring a certain pedigree or a certain stamp of authenticity or achievement. Whereas I think art — which to me is again, this disruption of time and this attention to the body and to the bodies around you — is essential to our every day.
It feels really lucky that I was able to and I am still able to be in such close relationship with my elders. I live a very intergenerational life. That’s just the nature of my family and my people is that we are also a community within our family. Probably one of the things that impacted me the most about this work with language is that you know there’s the loss of language. That was really striking. It was an experience I’d never had because I thought I knew very clearly what it meant to win or lose. Sometimes you win a single word. Sometimes you win a single story. That shifted my entire relationship to poetry.
How do you see your second book, Postcolonial Love Poem, in line with When My Brother Was an Aztec, your first book?
There were nine years between my first book and my second book, so in many ways, I’ve learned language that can hold me better or that can hold more of me. There’s a kind of a leap or growth that happened there. And there was also just a lot of time to be with people who had read the book or to be part of a conversation of how the book existed well beyond me. I knew that I wanted to hold everybody in the book — a kind of love that I thought would be legible to a reader.
There were certain distances I closed. I tried hard to close the distance between, for example, the brother character and the speaker. I tried to keep the speaker in a certain kind of momentum that to me feels like vulnerability. And then there was a way that I demanded pleasure in this book in a way that the first book maybe couldn’t hold. Not just the pleasure of a lover, but the pleasure of land and water. To treat all of those things as bodies, as living things with their own desires and pleasures, and to try to find a way to place what we’ve come to know as the human or our flesh bodies within that.
One of the threads that I could pull from your first book into the second book is myth — Mojave, Greek, Biblical references, Aztec — but also the idea of the American mythology steeped in white supremacy that underpins the nation’s identity. What interests you about myth as a literary device?
Myth is just another way of telling a story. Myth also has a relationship to the limits of knowledge and the importance of imagination. And that imagination is a kind of knowledge. I think we sometimes make a binary of truths: truth or myth. However, I don’t think that is the structure. I’m not sure what truth is, how truth exists. In most respects, it’s only valuable in terms of the law, which is supremely flawed. Something that feels compelling to me is that myth very clearly outlines the limits of knowledge, the boundaries of it. In some ways it seems as if we find the limit of knowledge or truth, and then we allow the imagination to overcome our inability to know. But I think those things are the same. I think the imagination is an important knowledge because it’s a confluence or a convergence of our memories — whether we lived them or inherited them. It’s also all of the languages that we know in our mouth, or that are also somewhere handed down in the ways our bodies know how to work. Myth is also allowed to be story in a way that other forms I think are not.
Something I love about the way myth exists in our current and limited ways of understanding is that we sometimes let myth do what it wants — it’s as if we aren’t demanding truth of it. Then because of that, it’s allowed to be closer to whatever we think truth is. For me, myth is also a way to de-center the ideas of American goodness. It allows us to acknowledge that America is a myth.
For me, one of the most striking poems in your book is “exhibits from The American Water Museum,” which captures the violence performed against bodies of water — and bodies that are made of and depend on water. Can you tell me about how this poem took shape?
It’s something I imagine in physical space. It was interesting to put it on paper to try to allow it to move into a poetic form. There are ways I’ve been collecting in text, in my mind, or in language, these small exhibits and images. Moving back to the desert I think was a big part of how the museum developed in my mind. I think my relationship with the river is just very different from many people’s relationship to it; it’s something that exists outside of the English cosmology or the English idea of relationship which requires that something has to be a metaphor or simile. It’s hard to explain how all of these different knowledge systems or all of these different imaginings are happening at the same time for me. I was raised Catholic. I was raised Mojave. I was raised in this desert which has this incredible river running through it. I was raised in certain kinds of loss of language, of water, of autonomy.
Some of this came about because of the extractive nature of our country’s relationship to land and water. It also came as my relationship with my river outside of my community also grew. People don’t quite understand what I mean when I talk about the relationship of the river to my body and to my way of thinking. Those things always had to be surreal and magical realism or metaphor. In some ways, that was also a part of the relationship with that poem and developing it. The idea of love and desire and finding a way to manifest the river as a being — as having a physical body, as having a kind of autonomy — felt important.
It’s really curious that we think of museums as centers of culture, especially because the museum could never hold the cultures and the people. Trying and knowing I would fail at holding something like a river or a being in a museum space, [I imagined the poem] as a way to disrupt both sides of the structure. I was thinking of the museum as an institutional structure — very colonial, very capitalistic, very much an iteration of government — and then also trying to show or introduce people to the fact that there is a different order of power which is like the natural state of our world in which we [humans] are inconsequential.
Water is also one of the main weapons by which our nations hurt us or put us under attack. The idea of war through waters is happening all over right now. The Colorado River is such a part of the very being that I am and it’s one of the most endangered rivers in the world. Knowing that it is going to be gone, [I think] about what that might mean about who I am, what that means to me, what my country is telling me, what it is imagining for my future, which is that I don’t have one.
Several poems from “Envelopes of Air,” the exchange of poem-letters between you and Ada Limón published in The New Yorker, appear in Postcolonial Love Poem. You’ve talked about writing and reading poetry as a selfish act. What was it like to write these poems knowing that they had a specific recipient or reader?
It was such a joy and a luck that it didn’t feel necessarily like poetry. I don’t think selfishness is bad; selfishness is natural. Maybe my idea of selfishness is different from others, but I think selfishness is in some ways related to the ways I learned autonomy in relationship to family and community. [Writing “Envelopes of Air”] allowed me to step outside of that. It was a really important part of me developing the ways I’m engaging desire because I love Ada and I wanted to have the same attention to language toward her that I would have when I’m writing a love poem about a lover, or when I’m writing about when I’m trying to hold my brother in tenderness while also not looking away from some of the uglier and more violent happenings, or the same way that I want to care for and tend to my land and my water.
It was a really incredible part of who I’m becoming as a poet. Something that really struck me in the past is that it might seem that I have been the most vulnerable in moments of writing about my brother — meaning the brother who appears in the poem but who is very much related to my real-life brother and brothers. However, there was a certain personal kind of vulnerability [in these poems]. For example, the first time I engaged the condition of my anxiety was in a poem-letter to Ada. There’s something about that. I didn’t have the audience, I had a friend — someone I loved — on the other end with whom I could share this gift of caring for language in this way. I treated it as writing to a lover. I treated it as writing to a friend, to [someone] whom I might love in the future.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata is an award-winning journalist and university lecturer.