THE LETTERS WERE ONCE BODIES: A CONVERSATION WITH NATALIE DIAZ

Natalie Diaz was born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian community. She is the author of the poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec (2012). Her honors and awards include the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry, the Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from Bread Loaf, the Narrative Poetry Prize, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship.

Diaz lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she has worked with the last speakers of Mojave and directed a language revitalization program.

Noah Baldino is a queer trans poet and editor. Their poems can be found or soon found in Poetry, Indiana Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, and elsewhere.

NOAH BALDINO: The first thing that I wanted to talk about is that it feels like you’re having a kind of moment, or many moments: in your own personal work, with the MacArthur Fellowship, and with Post-Colonial Love Poem coming out soon. But I’m also really interested in your collaborations, and it seems like you’re involved in so many different things right now—you’re working with artists and architects, it was just announced that you’re an Arts for Justice ambassador, you have your LitHub curation, “New Poetry By Indigenous Women.” You’re having all these conversations, all these different things are happening, and we could probably talk about all those projects separately, but I’m wondering what the significance for you is in collaboration, and in having all these different bodies interacting in space together?

NATALIE DIAZ: Something writers are constantly worried about is the audience. We’re always asking, “Should we write to our audience, who is our audience, what do you think about the audience?” But, for me, writing is just an immediate collaboration. Immediately, if I’m putting something in text, there’s the expectation that it will be read. And sometimes it will just be read by a different version of myself. You know, if you’ve ever gone back through your notes—you ask yourself, “What was I even thinking?” or suddenly you notice how emotional you were, or how sad you were, and suddenly you realize, “Oh, I still feel emotional about these moments.” And so, that’s something I think about generally.

I was an athlete before I was a writer, and played a team sport, so basketball was definitely a way I learned my own self and learned my own space, and I learned a type of communication that was very physical and a kind of physicality that I’ve pressed onto text, as well. I think of language as kind of moving. It’s not necessarily font on the page, but something that’s happening beneath it, or around it. I was also born in a really big family. We had eleven kids, we have nine now, so the way I think is in groups. My partner does not. My partner is a twin, so they have this very kind of special one-on-one relationship and way of thinking.

NB: I’m a twin.

ND: So, this may be a disaster, then. But, with big groups, I like to talk things through. I have a group of friends that I’m in contact with every day on group text, because for me I need that. That’s the way I think, by pushing back off of things, or finding the gaps between things. And so, collaboration is just very natural to me. Of course, I need that solitary time and I am kind of that person who will sit on the couch and read all day, and I have anxiety so I get a little bit weird around a community of strangers. But, it’s also very much just the way I think and the way I move. Probably to a fault, I think.

Something I’ve thought a lot about, this year, is that I keep building these new things, which I love, and I keep building them and bringing in more and more people and I haven’t given myself in a very long time a stretch of time to just sit and be with my work and see what it could become in a much larger, deeper, space. And so, collaboration is really great; I also am thinking that a lot of the things I’ve built I’m ready to hand off to someone else, which, I think, is a nice way to do it. I guess I think in terms of: this is kind of the way my brain moves and works, so there are things firing constantly, even in between languages and images.

NB: I feel like you kind of see that, especially in When My Brother Was An Aztec, in the work itself where you have all of these literal bodies, as in characters (Betsy Ross, and Whitman, and Lorca, and the brother, and Barbie) and also in languages as bodies, in English, Spanish, Mojave, all interacting with each other in the space of the poem. I can see that connection. Do you see, then, the actual poem as a community space? Or what does community really mean in that sense? Or what is a poem?

ND: This is something I think we’re probably always interested in. I feel like it’s the question I ask myself every morning, “You’re a poet—what are you doing”? But it’s a real question for me! The world is a mess, my family is a mess, there are all these immediate things, and I’m a poet. It’s something I’m constantly asking. What can this love of mine do? Like really do? And I’ve been talking with my students about this all semester: Do we really believe in the power of language and story? How do you get beyond that space of performance? Because the beautiful thing about an MFA program is also one of the worst things about it, that you’re taught to perform to an audience. So, how do you get beyond that so that you are still a body connected to the work, in a way that you are willing to constantly risk for it? And I said risk right now, but I don’t really know what I mean because each time it’s a different kind of risk.

What’s so strange to me, and compelling, is that if I write a poem, the poem is the least of what has happened. The poem is there, and I know the poem in some ways can be a catalyst, or it can be the inciter or the spark, but really everything that’s happening around it is so much bigger than the poem. And that’s what language is. For me, that’s why the physicality of language is so important—because, I think: it’s never the poem. And that’s something that’s hard to realize, and that’s why I’m very much into Walter Ong and Ocularcentrism, because of that moment where we began to preface vision over all the other senses. And so, even for us, when you put a poem on a page, something different happens. It becomes font—that’s the thing we’re all looking at. But, really, font and the way we spell or write, those are just symbols for this kind of energy and physicality and touch that keeps happening. I’m just really interested in that.

I guess that idea of community, for me, is that it’s never just the poem. I was asked this, in a way, on a TV interview, where you can’t quite hide your face. But the person, an elder poet, asked me (and not in an open kind of way) what made me think I was in conversation with Borges, and Lorca, and Whitman, as if I shouldn’t be. That was really interesting to me, and it intrigued me because the language that was in their bodies, even, came from someplace else. That, to me, is part of the community. You cannot get away from the fact that language is communal. As you make it, it’s carrying your body somewhere. It’s carrying your body to another body, to a group of bodies, or to your own body at another time, when suddenly your body is engaged in some way, some physical way.

NB: Thinking about physicality and touch reminds me of your recent collaboration with Ada Limón, in “Envelopes of Air” where you say, “How is it that we know what we are?/If not by the air/between any hand and its want—touch.” The idea of that particular collaboration, or even the envelope carrying the air, a carrying which is touch, so that the poem itself is a vessel for touch, feels so much about love and friendship. So, I wonder if the thing that’s outside the poem for you has to do with the actual interactions between bodies that love and physical touch and pleasure are.

ND: I think definitely. I’m very compelled by the idea of touch and what that is. And I think that language is a type of touch. And, in terms of physics—any physics people in the house?

Good, because I’ve only stolen this small piece from physics. But, if you put your hands together and touch your fingertips together—just humor me! [The entire audience takes their left and right hands and touches them together, holding them there while Diaz continues speaking]

So, you can feel that. If your hands are clammy, maybe it feels a little sticky, or maybe it’s smooth, but this actually isn’t touch. This is just our interpretation. It’s a repulsion that’s really happening. So, the electromagnetic field that’s surrounding this hand is being repelled by the electromagnetic field that surrounds this other hand.

So, what we feel here? Our hands are not touching. It’s actual repulsion. When I read that, I was just struck. There’s also this incredible book that I’ve been hammering on to people for years. It’s called The Eyes of The Skin, by a Finnish architect, Juhani Pallasmaa. It’s a beautiful little book. I’ve pulled so much from it, and I’ve used a variation of that in a line in a poem. And one of the things he talks about is a study that says that skin can sense color, which, I think, is amazing. We can read color. Our bodies read everything, I think, as a kind of text, and touch is the way we do that. We’re either touching something or we’re not.

That, I think, is very connected to the way I grew up. I was an athlete my whole life, so I know my body by the way I was able to push back against other bodies. I know touch so well because we were sometimes 16 people in a 2-bedroom house, so touch can be many things. Touch is also love. There are many ways that I love people and things, so I think, in a way, one of the ways I think about touch, and community, and poets, is this way of: How can I treat every body like the body of the beloved? That is something that began towards the end of writing When My Brother Was An Aztec and it’s the main core of Post-Colonial Love Poem. It’s the idea of saying that love is not at all what we thought it was, the way touch is not at all what we thought it was. They’re simply our ways of moving around one another and knowing who we are in relation to one another.

NB: Just thinking about prioritizing touch over looking. In When My Brother Was An Aztec, I’m interested in is the way in which it seems like the speaker is lateral to the brother, for a long time, and everything is more oriented towards the parents. For a while, I thought of it as a kind of witness, but then I thought that it’s not witness, because witness often, dangerously, absolves the I which isn’t working the same way as the book at all. But it really seemed to me to be this lateral movement of being next to the brother, beside, looking at the parents, and being in a touchable proximity to the brother’s harm, rather than witnessing or anything like that. That proximity feels to me like a prioritizing of touch, as well. I was wondering if you could talk about how you envisioned the relationship between the family, and the brother and the speaker.

ND: I love thinking of things laterally. Simultaneity or multiplicity.

NB: Instead of hierarchy.

ND: Yeah! In a lot of ways, I hid in my first book. I’m very image-driven. When I think of numbers, I can’t deal with them, but if I see them in shapes and colors, I can handle anything. What’s really strange is that I’m really good at long division. If you’ve ever played that game where there are all these shapes and you have to put the timer on and fit them in the thing before it all pops out? Maybe that’s an old school game, but it has all these cutout shapes and they’re yellow and it’s this weird board and you press it down and then the timer’s going and then you have to put all these shapes into their shapes, and if you don’t get it in time it pops up and you have to start all over.

Those shapes are one way that can correlate to the way I see numbers, so I’m very image-driven, very texture and touch, so a lot of times when I’m writing I’m touching my hands and imagining touching things. But, I think, in a way, I did really hide behind the image in my poems. That hiding is what protected me and made me able to go to those places, the interior places, which, I think, is actually how every story works. We have all of these stories, and they’re never to explain the inexplicable, they’re simply to give you some sort of new relationship to them, and maybe even power, or a kind of autonomy in a situation when maybe you’ve had none.

You know, we have Zeus because “What is lightning” and “What is thunder.” We don’t know, but if I can tell you a story, somehow I am no longer the smallest thing in relation to it. I am somehow within that energy cycle. The really honest truth about it is: that was the best way that I could love my brother at that time, was through those tellings. I needed those images to love him because I couldn’t love my real brother. I feel like I have new ways of loving him, and poetry is one of them. It’s also a way I think I love myself a lot better. I think we don’t often think about that. I don’t even mean in the sense of writing an emotional poem—what are the dirty words they say, “confessional poem” or “autobiographical poem”—I just mean to let myself enact the energy in my body, whether that’s sadness or imagination or curiosity.

For me, the image is another way of telling a thing, and in the book, you know, I, Natalie, am very close to the I in the book, in most of those poems. But that’s not me. Because I couldn’t show you. Because I don’t even know some of what was in me. My real brother’s name is Richie, and he’s not in the book, either. I mean, you see that I have to create an Aztec God, I have to create a black magic magician, or Jesus—I have to create all of these things because I was so far from my real life brother that I needed those to be able to hold him. It was another way of touch. I couldn’t touch him in real life, but I could touch him, hold him, even if it was simply with language and attention, for that amount of time.

NB: Do you think you see the new book, Post-Colonial Love Poem, as a movement towards autonomy, then? How are you thinking about love, and is it aligned with autonomy, or interrogating it?

ND: In relation to the brother, the I is in the room with the brother in most of the poems. Which is very different, but when I wrote these I had gone back to my reservation, so I was seeing my brother daily. And so, that love is very different. And I feel like the way the speaker loves the brother is much more blatant and open, and with less question. It’s maybe and also I love him, versus, maybe, placing us in a space of unknowing, like you were saying—the observing I is an I that doesn’t have to truly love. Which is why I have a huge problem with witness: I’m not convinced. I want it to do something else.

And, in terms of love in general: I know that love is nothing that I have been told. I’m just constantly amazed by the love my parents have given me when I know they didn’t receive that. I’m amazed at how I have become me in the context or conditions of where I’ve come from. Autonomy is something I’m really in deep inquiry about. What does it mean? For me, pleasure is a big part of autonomy. The autonomy of pleasure has been denied to most women, but definitely women of color, queer women, queer people, any of us who have been othered in any way, whether it’s class or gender, nationhood—we have been denied pleasure, and it’s been dictated for us. You’re okay to be the object of somebody else’s pleasure, but what does it mean for me to be a queer Indigenous Latinx woman and say I want and I desire?

Something that’s interesting to me about this—and maybe I’m leaping too far—is how comfortable we are with certain types of queerness, and how uncomfortable we are with others. So, for example, in the first book, I have a poem called “I Watch Her Eat The Apple” which people are like “Oh, that’s great, because we don’t have to think about her queerness,” or, “Oh, wait, maybe it’s about a woman maybe it’s not?” I can see in readings when the audience realizes, “Oh shit, she’s talking about a woman and she’s a woman.” You can watch it hit people’s bodies. But this next book, Post-Colonial Love Poem, of course it’s a play on words—there is no Post-Colonial. What could that mean? What kind of love poem can a Native person make? But there’s a lot of physicality in it.

I have a good friend named Rickey Laurentiis, and he and I have had this long email conversation, spinning back and forth about what kind of sexuality, or autonomous sexuality, is permitted by the academy. So, to say: “her hands when she is inside me.” Suddenly, that’s too far. That’s called explicit. I just wrote a review about Eileen Myles’ book Evolution and it just struck me—and Eileen has this privilege of whiteness, but—it struck me that Eileen’s work is still so diminished because it’s constantly called profane, it’s called explicit, restless. Ben Lerner in The Paris Review called it “without manners,” and to me that’s such a ridiculous way of looking at queerness because one of the powers of Eileen’s work is that it’s very queer and very trans.

I actually think that curiosity and imagination, by necessity, are queer and trans. You can’t have polarization or binaries within imagination or curiosity. They are at once, and simultaneous, and multiple, and possible. And so, that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the work that I’m doing now: taking pleasure—yes, in the body, so in terms of sexuality, but also that it moves way beyond sexuality, pleasure does. Like Borges says, it’s not the apple that’s sweet, but it’s your palette that makes the apple sweet. The apple isn’t sweet until you bite it. It’s your body that makes that happen.

NB: Thinking about the way in which Eileen Myles is often being misread, or not read on their own terms. [Sycamore Review Managing Editor] Jenn Loyd was telling me about the workshop that you’re doing right now, as a different kind of workshop model. Most of us are in a traditional workshop model, and have maybe never experienced anything like that. But–

[A baby in the room starts crying. The audience laughs. Noah and Natalie ask the parents about the baby’s name]

ND: I just heard it [the baby’s name] said for the first time, which is why I couldn’t remember it. She’s very beautiful. She’s very long. She’s only 7 months, but she’s like [Natalie brings her hands a baby-length apart] this long.

NB: Babies…

ND: Babies!

NB: Do you think that what you’re trying to do with that workshop is trying to get to a place where someone’s work can be read on their own terms? Is it helping move away from misreadings like the misreading of Myles?

ND: Definitely. My colleagues are upset! Which is fine. The Warren Wilson and Iowa Writers’ Workshop models are so freaking old. That guy was from the CIA, come on! And they’re partly interrogations, in a way. So, the workshop was called anti- workshop, and at the last minute I changed it to ante-. And I’m very 90s, so I like to put things in brackets, so it’s like [ante]workshop. But, I hate workshop. Half the time your students aren’t engaged because they’re usually only engaged when they’re talking. And they come in having to know something about things you don’t even know yet. And so, for me, it’s not just about having it read on those terms but trying to build.

How can I create a space where we really experience language and experience poetry? And I steal from everybody. I was telling Jenn Loyd earlier about Ingrid Rojas Conteras, who wrote Fruit of the Drunken Tree, a really beautiful novel that takes place in Bogotá and is based off real pieces from her life and, of course, a lot of imagination. I met Ingrid many years ago at BreadLoaf Writers’ Conference and in a very drunken, late night conversation, she was telling me about what her idea for this book is, and it took many years to watch it become what it is. It just feels lucky that we get to share so many things. But, she was telling me about a workshop she did at Columbia College in Chicago and they never workshopped. I would come in and it would be my day to workshop, and I would have my work here, but instead of giving it to you and reading it, I would tell that story. I would tell the story—not out of memorization or recitation—but I would tell you what this was about. The story of it.

And, suddenly, I’m engaged with your body, which is back to aurality and why aurality is so important. In many of our cultures—in Indigenous cultures—aurality is how you learn your body. You learn your body by the way it feels about something, not by what your eyes dictate that you should know. So, it becomes all about physicality. And she was able to read the bodies in the room as she was telling this, as any storyteller does, like “Oh, I lost them,” or “Oh, I see something in that face,” or “Oh, they made notes.” So, you start to see your work as this physicality. It’s an energy. Language is an energy.

So many things in my body right now are moving and pushing and working hard and pushing sound out that is really nothing until it hits those little bones in your ears. Stirrup, hammer, anvil. And those push it to a different center, and there’s meaning, or knowing—or wondering, at least. But, you know, we do a lot of different things. And I have trans students in class, I have deaf students, students who want to write in Spanish. And they can in my class. You can do anything. We don’t do cold readings. You read it to us a few times first, and that’s our experience of it. And maybe two weeks later you would bring in copies of it. We do a lot with artwork, a lot of drawing and stuff.

Something I’m really interested in is how much more our bodies open when we’re using our hands. I think of our hands as these seats of desire, in a way. Are my hands carrying out my desires or do my hands have their own desires? And our hands are so important! Of course, I’m talking in a little bit of an ableist way, because some people have a different relationship to hands, but hands are very involved in a lot of writing and art. How can we treat that as a happening? So many of you are writing now, and you have no connection to your hand—except that you do, you’re just not physically aware. Even right now. Whatever your writing utensil is, pick it up. [Everyone in the room picks up their utensil] Press on it. Run the length of it, you’re making art.

All the letters you’re using right now were once bodies. The letters were once bodies! The body of a house, the body of a fish, the body of an ox. And somehow we got so far away from that, that we just jot shit down and type, and type, and where are our bodies in all of that? So, part of it is bringing our bodies back, which is very uncomfortable. Some of my students are like “I don’t want this. I don’t feel good having this all so connected to my body.” Which is also okay.

But we do a lot of different things. We project the poems really big, so when you see your poem huge on a wall, like on the side of a building, you’re like, “Oh god. What does it mean to me now? What does it feel like?” Or, to just cover the walls with big paper and give people really beautiful brushes—I love really beautiful paint brushes—and India ink. What does it mean for you to write your poem? There’s a really beautiful book called Calamities by Renee Gladman, and in it she talks about having started writing—because Renee blurs writing as drawing, and drawing as writing—but, she took a bunch of Gail Scott sentences, a Canadian writer, and began writing them on her wall. And just began writing them, and writing them, and writing them. And, suddenly, her body was involved. But all these other things started to open up.

So, sometimes my students do that—they write their entire poem right there, on a giant piece of paper. And you have a different relationship to it. Poems are real odd. They really are. And you’ve probably heard a lot of people say this: the occasion of poetry is almost an absurdity. It’s a complete disruption in your day. You can’t use poetry at the grocery store. There are so many ways we move through the world that would not let poetry enter—unless we, of course, labored to make that happen. But it is! It’s absurd, and it’s odd, and it’s strange, and I feel like the more we can keep those conditions present when we’re experiencing them or talking about them, the better chance I have not of knowing what they meant but that my peer in the room at that time—because I believe we’re peers in a workshop—has a chance to learn more about their poems. We draw maps, we do a bunch of stuff. Anything that pops into my head.

We had a chef come in and create a meal, and she told us a story. She’s this incredible chef in Phoenix. She told the story of the meal. Part of that story was that her father was a panadero. He made bread, that’s what he did for his life. Part of it was about the ingredients and where they came from. Part of it was how the recipe once was one way, but she tweaked it and it became this way. There are so many through-lines, and that’s just one way of looking at a poem.

But, suddenly, we realize “Ante-” is just saying that before we had these workshops we still found a way to engage with one another’s art and one another’s stories. And we had all of these ways of speaking to each other about the work that we were doing. I’m really interested in those ways. And the students now get to dictate how they want the workshop done. I don’t like workshop. I don’t like the fixing nature of it. I don’t like that in order to be a good workshopper you should come in knowing something about somebody’s work and telling them something about it.

NB: It feels, instead, based on care. That feels like the best way I can think of to learn how care for each other better and be with each other. To treat all bodies like the body of the beloved.

ND: And if we treated it more like a living thing, which it is, like—they just took the baby out of the room, but imagine if we all brought in a baby to workshop, and workshop was just like, you put the baby on the table. You wouldn’t be like Oh, nope, their ears are too big. That’s all hyperbolic, but—

NB: Well, no! We all looked at the baby when it made that noise! And were just, simply, like Oh my gosh, it’s a baby!

ND: Yeah! And you have some feeling about the baby. Like I want or Oh god, or Don’t want, or Incredible, or even The future, or We need the baby. There’s all kinds of things that we experienced, and they happen between feeling and knowing. I don’t know what that space looks like, but I’m interested in trying to find it for my students, because I need it for myself.

NB: Thank you so much for being with us, Natalie.

ND: Thank you all for having me.

from Issue 30.2


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