Poetry and The Wild Self: Moving Particles with Natalie Diaz
Catching up with Natalie Diaz, poet and author of When My Brother Was An Aztec (Copper Canyon, 2012), is a little like joining juggling pins mid-air. It’s about patience and timing; it’s about faith and fluidity. Between writing her second book as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, teaching in the Mojave Valley at the Institute of American Indian Arts Low-Residency MFA program, and directing a Mojave language revitalization program, she travels a lot.
She wanted to do something different for this interview, something unconventional. As 12th Street was going online only this year, it seemed appropriate to do as many unconventional things as possible.
We’d tossed around a few ideas, one being a game of one-on-one basketball, a question after each shot. Natalie Diaz is a 5’11”pro basketball star, who has done tours of Europe and Asia. I am a 5’2” middle aged high school drop out who has done punk rock band tours in a van. We settled on a tarot reading. Questions drive an interview, but with a tarot reading there’s no way of knowing what the questions will be before the interview.
We caught up in a hotel bar in Los Angeles during this year’s AWP writer’s conference. A couple of Martinis and a cheese plate later, I turned on my voice recorder.
NATALIE DIAZ: Those cards are pretty, that guy looks like my uncle.
12TH STREET: This deck is called The Secret Dakini Oracle. The cards are collages based on Eastern Tantric traditions. You’re going to shuffle and you’re going to think about something specific or nothing at all it’s really up to you.
DIAZ: I don’t have to tell you do I?
STREET: No! Don’t tell me. The only thing I ask you to do is try to tune out all of this (the crowds all around in the hotel bar) and just go inward.
DIAZ: Is it ok to touch all those pictures?
DIAZ: ‘Cause I don’t know how to shuffle.
STREET: Don’t worry about it, just do whatever you want to do.
DIAZ: What is the image here?
STREET: It’s the sky, the galaxy.
DIAZ: Which part?
STREET: I don’t know that’s a really good question. So the spread I’m going to do is called the Celtic Cross. I do this one because it’s the only one I know how to do.
DIAZ: Just do it.
STREET: Alright. So this is where you are right now.
DIAZ: The Scarlet Woman?
DIAZ: Is that because I’m native, red skin?
STREET: No it’s because you’re highly sexually charged.
DIAZ: (laughing) That is so not true.
STREET: Or you’re having feelings—you’re feeling potent sexually.
DIAZ: Potent? Does that mean I’m contagious?
DIAZ: But what does potent mean? People always say that when they talk about sex. Potent…I think it’s a mismatch.
STREET: Really? I think potent means fat, spiritually.
DIAZ: I’ll have to get back to you on potent.
STREET: It’s an essence thing? I think being potent is not bad.
DIAZ: Like potential?
STREET: I think strong, like a strong spirit would be potent, like a potent brew.
DIAZ: That’s a pretty card.
STREET: It’s number three in the regular tarot, the Empress, and The Empress stands for the total manifestation of woman. In the old Christian decks that meant: the mother, someone who was fruitful, someone who embodies all the qualities of woman. But I like this deck because it brings in other ideas too—like all the sexuality. Just what it is to be a woman and everything that that encompasses, whether it be fruitfulness or whether it just be sexual power. Femininity, not like in some classic role sense, but what it is to be a woman..
DIAZ: Good ‘cause I have boots on.
STREET: And they’re really cool looking, too. Let it be known that Natalie is wearing wingtips.
DIAZ: No! Wolverines.
STREET: They’re stylin’. The next card is what you’re crossed with and that means…
DIAZ: Oh shit.
STREET: …what is influencing you whether it’s a challenge or whether it’s a benefit. This card in the tarot is Tower.
DIAZ: It says Holocaust!
STREET: Yeah it’s a big deal. It’s a big event of what can, from the outside, seem like total destruction. But inwardly some things just have to fall apart so the better and newer can come into play.
DIAZ: We knew from the start, things fall apart.
STREET: It’s not a bad thing; it’s rough to go through a transition, and that’s what this is about. If shit’s not built right, it’s just gonna fall apart—and it has to in order for what really needs to happen to occur. We just can’t help it, we hold onto to shit way past it’s …
DIAZ: It’s expiration date.
STREET: …way past when it’s useful to the point when holding on is holding us back. Sometimes we don’t have the smarts to let go. So life will do that for us.
DIAZ: That’s the Holocaust?
DIAZ: They could have picked a better word for that.
STREET: Or you could think of it as the Tower of Babel, you know that was a big train wreck. Anyway whatever started out as a good idea and then became a bad idea—that’s what has to come apart.
What’s crowning you is Slay the Ego number twelve, this position is your hopes and your dreams what you are aspiring to. You kind of want to cut through all the obstacles you want to face your obstacles and you want to gain ascendency over your obstacles, that’s really your goal you want to get past or get through other things that are getting you down.
The next position is what your foundation is, this is where your feet are; the crown is your head. So your feet position is the Living Goddess number eight.
DIAZ: Living Goddess? That sounds good.
STREET: It has to do with a higher position in the world, a higher calling, a position of responsibility.
DIAZ: Even though it’s at the feet?
STREET: That’s your foundation. It doesn’t mean it’s at your feet like it’s less important. It just means your feet are grounded in something as amazing as a higher purpose. It has to do with higher ideals and purposes larger than yourself.
The reading goes on for six more cards and ends with The Wheel of Great Time.
When we resume, Natalie picks the cards that appeal to her the most for the interview. My questions are based around the ideas these cards discuss.
Natalie picks number 5 Ganesh The Lord Of Obstacles
STREET: What do you feel are your greatest obstacles? Do you have any demons? How is that fight going? What scares you?
DIAZ: Can I say white people?
STREET: (laughing) For the demon part?
DIAZ: For all of it!
STREET: What do you feel your greatest obstacles are and what are your biggest challenges as a writer?
DIAZ: I think what I most get challenged by right now are the two different spaces of poetry in my work. There’s the place where I write—the reason why poetry is important to me, why I come to it—and there’s all the stuff that is the other side of poetry. I won’t find anything of what I love about poetry in some of those places. So it’s very interesting to me that there is a space of competition in poetry. That’s very strange to me.
I think for so many people poetry has become part of living a good life. Poetry is one of the ways I can live well. I don’t think I can live as well without poetry, just like I don’t think I can live well without my family, without the kinds of faith I have. I don’t know if I can live well without a connection to my land or my people. Poetry has become one of those things. I couldn’t live well without basketball for a long time, and so one of the big challenges for me right now is trying to keep poetry in that space. Poetry is part of a way of surviving, which might sound too big or dramatic or hyperbolic, but it’s not. Poetry is the reason why I’m me and not my brother.
Survival is not a game, but competition is a game. I know competition in so many ways. In games, you learn to play so you can win. Poetry isn’t a place for that. Right now the landscape of poetry is changing so much, but it’s also becoming something very fast and competitive—and I don’t love that part of it.
I’ve found some very beautiful things in New York, but what I’ve realized is the pace of New York— everybody trying to keep up with everybody else, trying to get in the good graces of everybody else —means we stop saying things we thought were true. So when someone does something really fucked up that maybe has something to do with your race or your ethnicity, or your gender, your sexuality— when somebody does something like that, in New York you’re not allowed to say anything about it because you have to say first “well he’s a nice guy” or you have to say “well, but I really like him.” Where I come from when you fuck up, someone tells you so you don’t fuck up again, you know? So like one, you don’t hurt yourself, and two, so you don’t hurt somebody else.
But what I’m learning is right now the rhythm of poetry doesn’t feel like I have a place in it. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about. Where can I go to find poetry again the way I’ve always needed it, the way I need it now? I know a lot of my good friends are thinking the same thing. Where’s my next place? Where can I go to be the best me, the best poet, the best fucking human being, you know? And I guess that’s a little bit existential, but it’s a big worry of my life. It’s something that stresses me out— it’s something I don’t want. I’m trying to figure that out, and some of the big collaborations and projects that I’ve started have been to try to find that again and build communities where we can find poetry again that is very raw, very real.
STREET: Maybe that’s what this part is about (motioning to the tower/holocaust card): just trying to tear down the house. Is poetry like a spiritual sustenance that’s being exploited?
DIAZ: Yeah, and I think it’s more than sustenance. It becomes a part of your body— like poetry is the way I am well, how could it not be? There’s a reason why I get up and go to the gym to shoot [basketball] every morning. That’s a part of what makes me my best self, my wild self— and poetry is that also, it’s the reason why I read it why I try to come to the page to write it.
I think sustenance is something that implies I take something from the outside and it moves through me and nourishes me, but it’s more then that: It’s part of me. I don’t know who I am or how I would get to where I am without it, and so it’s right next to basketball, it’s right next to family, it’s right next to love which is strange for me to actually say that and think about it in that way because I don’t think I knew that, I’ve never articulated that.
STREET: That was going to be one of my questions to you—if we were going to do a basketball part of this interview, which I’m sad to say I don’t think we’re going to have time for, because I was actually looking forward to tripping you or distracting you or doing whatever I could do to get the ball from you. But I was going to ask you: What is that connection between poetry and basketball?
DIAZ: Yeah I think it’s that, for me [the connection]…I think it’s the body. I know they probably seem very different, but they’re not, when you think of how the word is built through the body it’s kind of amazing. Yeah, I don’t think it’s very different from making love or, say, pushing your body to its limits in athletic competition.
Language feels very physical, we try to pretend like we trap it on the page with text, so we try to pretend it’s only text. It’s not like there’s the word of text that’s in some ink, that’s not what language is. We’re sitting here talking, and so many muscles of my body are working— and there’s air, and I’m pushing, I’m building, and I’m pressurizing and I’m pushing it. And you can’t even see it. I fling it out into the air, and then you take it into your ear, and it’s this kind of vibration like I’m actually moving atoms. I’m moving particles and then they start moving particles and then they go into your ear and then they vibrate those three bones in your ear: the hammer, the anvil, the stirrup. They vibrate those so it’s physical for you too. I think it’s kind of amazing even if I just don’t say it out loud, even if I’m reading a word on a page. A lot of the same pieces of my brain are triggering, as if I were to say that word out loud, and it feels very much like basketball to me, feels very physical, very body, I can push myself beyond where I thought I could push myself through that, like basketball. Basketball feels like a very lucky space.
STREET: A space where you’re completely in the moment, as well?
DIAZ: Yeah it’s very now, in some ways I think we think we’re like conception. It’s also like it’s happening way ahead of us, like we’re constantly chasing language almost like we’re constantly chasing the body. I feel like I am experiencing what we are experiencing right now, but my body already has and my consciousness is chasing to catch up. I think that’s kind of what’s amazing for me: As I’m pushing these words out there’s a very now about it like the energy of it, but then my consciousness is happening afterward. Of course I don’t have a gage for that timeline or how to break down those times, but it’s incredible.
STREET: I forget which poem has a line that, “language is a cemetery”?
DIAZ: Yeah, I think it’s “Cloud Watching.”
STREET: So it’s the words on the page that are the thoughts after the fact?
DIAZ: Yeah I feel like that’s how it is, and strangely enough what is text if not these types of markers that have already happened?
STREET: Like a headstone to your thoughts?
DIAZ: Yeah they’re not that different, I mean we wrote it and it’s there, it’s already a memory in some ways—which is kind of remarkable and magical.
STREET: Well there is magic in poetry where you read a line and you’re transported to a place and transported to an idea that exists in the mind of the writer.
DIAZ: So it wasn’t actually reading the line, it was language that did that, like the symbols of it are just like the facts. You can see a line of text written like ink, but they’re actually like little cracks that something’s pouring through them, light.
STREET: So it happens between what is stated?
DIAZ: I think it’s happening with what’s not; like within the negative. I write it down of course but that’s not what it is or what’s happening, it’s as close as I can get to it, and then in all that space between what I wrote down and pretended to know and what you read which is not what I wrote. There’s this paradoxical space where the imagination happens. I mean in some ways that’s where the life happens, this interpretation, your best effort at interpretation because the next day it will be something totally different, like we could pull these cards again and it wouldn’t even be the same
STREET: Yeah it would be another idea.
DIAZ: It will be all Holocaust.
STREET: Can I ask you to pick one more card?
DIAZ: I want that one Cremation Ground (number 7 relation in the tarot: The Chariot, position: hopes and fears)
STREET: This idea is very closely related to this idea (Ganesh Lord of Obstacles, number 5, position: hopes and dreams) but this position is what you’re hoping and you’re fearing.
DIAZ: Is that the elephant god (pointing to Ganesh)? That’s pretty cool in the middle of the spider web like that.
STREET: Ok well the question is kind of along the same lines, what are you trying to develop in your writing, and what do you struggle with?
DIAZ: I think the struggle is to stay in my pace, like that’s why I want to exist as a poet and then I can manage the other things outside of that.
STREET: Any ideas of how to stay in that space and how to access that space?
DIAZ: I think I have found something that will work for me: I just need to write all the things that I have in me, so like right now I’m finishing my second book but I’m also writing a collection of essays and all these different things like that. That’s just what I need to be doing instead of pretending I’m a poet only; that’s not how my head works so, I mean I was built in this certain type of chaos, and that’s how I think I get to operate.
STREET: Do you have a discipline? Do you have a writing practice?
DIAZ: Well, I just start. I mean I like to read before I do any writing, but I don’t really have practices anymore. I’m just kind of willing to go and do work anywhere for what I feel is waiting for me. And I think that’s a little bit more my style: just to let myself be other things all at once. Sometimes they are very smooth together, sometimes they bump in against each other, and sometimes they overlap. I mean I’m pretty lucky, but also part of my writing practice is having conversations and that’s the way I was built my brain fires when there’s constant stimulation in conversation, like when I am writing my best and discovering new things it’s often when I’m having conversations with friends about writing and about ideas.