Natalie Díaz is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. She is also the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. Díaz is also a well-decorated poet with a Pulitzer Prize for her most recent Postcolonial Love Poem, a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, and the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry (among many others). Our discussion of “My Brother at 3 am” from When my Brother was an Aztec has centered around form and language, two aspects of poetry which are of particular importance to the poet. We were also lucky enough to have Díaz read her poems “My Brother at 3 am,” “Why I Hate Raisins,” “Manhattan is a Lenape Word,” and “Run and Gun.”
Díaz’s work focuses on the function of identity intersectionality: linguistic intersectionality, identity and identity construction, and the impact of these ideas on the individual. Language preservation is another important part of the poet’s work. She mentioned that, prior to meeting with us, she had been working on an oral history project, recording Mojave songs. A woman of many languages, Díaz began by greeting us in Spanish, English, and Mojave. Like her poetry, Díaz spoke with a thoughtful and considered exactitude. One phrase repeated during our conversation was her genuine excitement that the questions posed to her provided a “generous place for me to think.” While the questions allowed Díaz this intellectual freedom, it also invited the listener to float through the ebb and flow of the conversation.
While we listened to Díaz talk about her work and process, we were also invited to look inward. “What would happen if every time you typed the word ‘I’, we asked who?” This statement was one of several rhetorical questions that Díaz invited us to consider during our conversation. The question of who is “I” is something that Díaz considers in her writing and personal life. The “I” of Díaz is multi-faceted, like all of us. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, a professor, a queer Latina, an award-winning poet, a former professional basketball player, a farmer, a language learner and educator, a mentee; the list goes on.
We were lucky to meet the poet, she proudly informed us, while she was at home on Mojave land. This set the tone for the intimacy of the conversation, and the feeling that we were sitting with Díaz, thus transcending the video conference. Díaz mentioned that while poetry can sometimes be labeled as stiff, it can be altered and shifted to better fit the needs of the poet. The pantoum form, for example, is defined by the Poetry Foundation as “a series of quatrains, with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain repeated as the first and third lines of the next.” Díaz finds that instead of feeling stuck, she uses the structure to search for lines of poetry that fit within the parameters. Repeating an intellectual task over and over again to create mental muscle memory may seem like an odd writing practice for a poet, until you remember that Díaz was also a professional basketball player. To paraphrase the poet, both creative outlets require the same drive, focus, and athleticism; the only difference is that one is easier on your knee cartilage.