by Samantha Futhey
Natalie Diaz grew up 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 Community. After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia for several years, she completed an MFA in poetry and fiction from Old Dominion University in 2007. She currently lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, and directs a language revitalization program at Fort Mojave, her home reservation. There she works with the last Elder speakers of the Mojave language. When My Brother Was an Aztec, published in 2012 by Copper Canyon Press, is her first poetry collection.
This interview was conducted at Iowa State University’s Memorial Union, during the Wilderness Symposium, a series of lectures sponsored by ISU’s Creative Writing and Environment MFA program. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Futhey: I read in your bio that you used to play basketball professionally, which I find fascinating. After that whole experience, what made you decide to go back to writing, or did you start writing at Old Dominion and come back to it after your basketball career?
Diaz: I’ve always liked to read and write, but I never read poetry. I was training at Old Dominion to continue to play basketball — I had a contract to play in another country, and I was ready to go. I blew my knee out during one of my practices, and I had to do rehab. There’s an expedited rehab process, but I decided to just take the full six months. A few of my undergrad professors who I’d kept in touch with were teaching in the creative writing department at Old Dominion and let me enroll without being a part of the program yet, which was very generous of them. I mean, it wasn’t free, of course; they weren’t that generous (Laughs). So I took a bunch of workshops and I decided that I liked it. I think had I not been injured, and maybe had I not been injured there, I might not have given myself the time ever to see if I wanted to be a writer.
F: Why does poetry attract you?
D: You know, I don’t know. I also write fiction, but I fell into poetry — maybe because some of the physical rhythms are similar to basketball. I didn’t see it at the time, but now that I can look back in retrospect, I feel like my poetry mirrors some of the rhythms of basketball — or maybe the way I played basketball. Sometimes it’s very fast paced, and it’s accumulating, and there’s a lot of momentum and momentum switches.
Poetry still feels very physical to me, because you’re trying to be concise, and every word counts. It’s like on the court: You don’t just go out there and run around like crazy. Spacing is important, and that’s how my lines feel to me. I can see the rhythm and spacing of them, whereas with fiction, I don’t feel that as much, because there is more space. Maybe it’s more like soccer — heck of a lot bigger field for sure (Laughs). But I’ve been thinking about basketball and my poetry a lot, partly because people have mentioned it to me, that they see some of the connections between the two, the momentum and rhythms of it.
F: I’d certainly agree to that. In, When My Brother Was an Aztec your poetry collection that came out a few years ago, you employ such stunning use of image. The images were unexpected in their development and created fast-paced rhythms (as in first lines of “When My Brother Was an Aztec”: “He thought he was/ Huitzilopochtli, a god, half-man half-hummingbird. My parents/ at his feet, wrecked honeysuckles, he lowered his swordlike mouth,/ gorged on them, draining color until their eyebrows whitened”). Can you describe your creative process while you were writing that collection of poems?
D: With any writing, whether it’s poetry or fiction, I start with an image. So I start very small. One, because my mind is a little bit wild: It’s very noisy, and I get excited about every little thing. Every word is a rabbit hole for me, so I can get very far from where I need to be. I try to focus on a single image, and one of the things I try to do is break it. So whatever that image is —whatever it is I’m seeing or trying to figure out how I feel about — I try to break it into as many pieces as possible.
Entomology is really important to me. The history of the word, the mythology of that word, where it comes from, how it’s been used before in other literatures… I try to figure out what the image means to me instead of letting it mean what it’s already meant to other people. I have this faith that if I can find a way to make that image or word new to me again, brand new, it will be brand new to my reader as well. I don’t mean brand new as in I feel I have to be fantastical and do back flips, but emotionally, which is sometimes difficult with poems like “When My Brother was an Aztec.” It’s about my brother, and for me, I could never write about my brother. I would never be able to tell you how I feel about him, but if I can create an image to hold or smash or cage the emotions I’m feeling, then that’s what I pour all my emotional energy into. And then I don’t have to be sentimental, then I don’t have to write about my brother, because now I’m creating an image. I think that’s what my readers feel, because again no one’s been to my house or my reservation, but they are still able to come to those images or the narratives the images built and feel something. Most importantly, it becomes theirs not mine anymore. That’s what I notice when I have conversations with people about it. They feel like they know me or that I know them, and none of that is true, except the emotional truth is there on the page. I think the images are what let people access that.
F: You mentioned your brother, and a lot of the poems in that collection talk about serious issues: reservation life, poverty, drug addiction. I also noticed your use of form. There’s the pantoum in “My Brother at 3 am” and the abecedarian, which has one of my favorite titles of the whole collection (“Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation”). How do you use form? Was that a deliberate choice to use a structured form in order to talk about some of the more serious aspects of the book?
D: I used to hate form when I was in my MFA program. Every time I’d have an assignment, I would just go blank. I was rebelling against it — I would not write it, and everything would shut down. My very first form poem was the abecedarian, and I wrote that because my instructor Gloria told me in class, “I’ve never read any good narrative abecedarians. I haven’t read any good narratives poems in that form.” And that was my challenge to it.
I’ve always needed a way to break form, and that’s never the way it’s given to you. It’s, “This is what you have to do.” So when she gave it to me with this off-handed challenge, it was almost like she was saying this needed to be broken, so that let me into it. I think form is important to me, especially because of certain emotions, because we don’t even understand them. I think the whole point of writing poetry is to figure out what we feel or why we feel that way. I always saw form as a cage, but what I realized is in the boundaries of it, you don’t have anything to worry about. This is as far as you can go on either side. And there was a freedom in that, so I found a lot of freedom in form to go places I wouldn’t normally have gone.
“My Brother at 3 am” is a pantoum. I had a conversation with my mother, and it was bothering me for months, and I didn’t know how to access it or what to do with it. And writing for me is the way I access a lot of things. But I couldn’t access this thing my mother had recounted to me while I was away. So what I did was I read Cecilia Woloch’s “Bareback Pantoum,” and I felt something comforting in the rhythm of it. So I sat down and took two images — my mother opening a door and my brother crying on the front steps in the middle of the night — and I pushed them and pushed them and pushed them. I tried to bring in dialog, snippets of what my mother told me on the phone, and by the time I got into the second page, the poem started. I didn’t have to worry, because I was so focused on the repetition that I got to disconnect from some of the filters we normally have. Form frees us. The filter is already there the boundaries are already there, so now I can relax, I don’t have to worry. I can’t go too far and I’m going to go at least this far. So form for me — especially triolet, pantoum, the ghazal, that repetition — makes me discover new things.
F: When I’m trying to write in form, it takes me a long time to figure out how exactly to approach it. As I was reading poems from this collection, I wondered how long it took you to write the book. Did some poems take longer to write, to process, or were others just immediate?
D: I’m a really hard worker, and I do a ton of revision. For example, I don’t believe in writer’s block, because I don’t have to write a poem. I know I can work with it, and I know there’s something in there, maybe just a simple word I can pull from it. I do a lot of free writing. I always have a notebook. I write a lot. Even if I don’t have time, I trust I can sketch out enough of a poem, so when I get an idea or impulse, I stop and write down as much as I can and go from there.
In my MFA, I started writing my first real poems in my third year. It took me that long. My program was three years, and also I was not a writer, was not a poet, had not been reading poetry. But finally, my third year, I wrote things that surprised me, so I knew they were something. And I just continued to write after my MFA. It was 2007 when I started writing real poems, and then I continued in 2008 and 2009. I was writing for three years. But even when I had the book ready, three months before press, I completely revised all of them.
In my next collection, I have poems I tried writing in my MFA program. I just finished a couple of them, and they feel good to me, but it’s taken me since 2007. I always thought it was crazy when old white guys would say, “Oh I wrote this poem for seven years,” and I was like, “What? You’re crazy! You have anything else to do?” But now that I’m treating myself as a writer, I notice my growth a lot more, and I’m a lot more patient.
A lot of my friends, contemporaries like James Arthur, Tomas Morraine, Roger Reeves — people my age who I’ve been getting to know the last few years — have books that took five years to produce, and in those five years they’ve grown, and they’ve grown within those poems. Sometimes a poem will happen a little more quickly, but my guess is that when I put this final manuscript together for the next book, I’ll tweak everything. That being said, lately I don’t mind reading poems when they’re really new. I might read some this evening. They’ve been around for three or four months, but I know I’ll change the heck out of them. My process can be very long.
F: You mentioned that you have another book coming out, so I was wondering what other projects you have going on. What are you most interested in exploring at this point in your writing?
D: My new book is slated for the end of 2015, but I have the option of saying I’m not ready if I want to.
I think the third half of “When My Brother Was An Aztec” moves towards this new book. I think a lot of people read my first book chronologically, so they assume the third half — poems about love or war — is where my work has been growing towards. But I wrote all those poems around the same time.
A lot of my poems now are looking at home, my reservation, but in a very different way. There’s a lot more about my language work, about the layers of language I’ve been working with. And I’m writing at home — before, I was writing about home away from home, so that’s completely different. There are still brother poems (people have had a lot of strange comments about that, like, “You’re still writing brother poems?”). But I’m just going to write what I have to write. Still, it’s very different. I noticed that in my first book, I was often not in the poems, or if I was, it was a very small “i.” But in the poems I’m writing now, the “i” and the brother are largely the only two people in the poems. One reason this is the case is because I’m home, but also I’m thirty-five and so I’m much older now, and my relationship with my brother is complex, and same with my family. I’ve changed in the way I see his change it and the way I feel about it.
The new book is tentatively titled “Native American Berserk.” But I don’t know that the book is wildly different. I didn’t all-of-the sudden switch to writing nature poems, yet it’s an older speaker now.
That wasn’t a very straightforward answer (Laughs).
F: No, no that was great answer! Finally, what advice would you give to new writers or people who struggle to find their place in writing?
D: This is kind of lame, but read. I remember when Sherman Alexie came and spoke at my school — this was the first time I’d met him — and asked everyone in the audience, “Who are you reading? Who are you’re writers?” And most people had no answer. You can read anything you want, but you have to know your writers. And if you don’t know your writers, you’re probably not reading enough. Borges — that’s my guy. I go back to him again and again. Or Lorca, or Yehuda Amichai. I go back to them all the time. Those are mine. And they are all threaded through my books.
I think another piece of good advice is to be patient. It seems like everybody’s scrambling to be published or be known, but the best advice I got was that you only get one shot at a first book. And you only get one shot at a second book. So you have to be patient. I’m very patient — too patient. My press had to ask me if I wanted to put out another book, because I’m not publishing-crazy. I do think it’s important, of course. I keep trying to tell my students: Be patient, give your poem a chance to be what it is, what it wants to be.
Those two are really big points. Also, don’t put pressure on yourself to write. A mentor of mine once explained to me that our lives are in so much flux, the hardest part about writing is always trying to relearn whatever rhythm you need so that you can write within that. Just understand that you have to continually adapt and find new ways to write, because we hear other people’s stories and we say, “Oh they get up at 4:30 every morning!” That’s completely unrealistic for me. There is no way. I do like to get up early sometimes to write. I make my students do it once a week, so they can see the difference in their minds. We call it the “War Cry Writing Group,” and every Wednesday at 4:30 everyone gets up and does that. But anyway, I think it’s really important that we take the pressure off, because writing should never be pressured. I always tell my students that, because they get so pressured they don’t write, and then they have writer’s block. How can you have writer’s block? This whole world needs to be written or rewritten.
So. Read. Be patient. And trust your language. You read journals where so many people are trying to write like everybody else. So you read a poem, and there’s that one line where you’re like, “ugh,” and everyone else is like, “ugh,” but you don’t know what the poem meant, and you walk away from the poem without carrying any of it with you. I think this could be because people aren’t relying on their own language. You could write anything, but if your images don’t mean anything to you, they’re not going mean anything to me. Trusting the words you know are meaningful to you, trusting your own lexicon, is really important. Otherwise, everyone is writing “shadow,” “ash.” I’ve been to so many readings and festivals over the last year, and it never fails — anytime anyone says the word “ash,” everybody in the audience goes “ugh.” And I just think, now, that’s not language.