Ways to Become Unpinnable: Talking with Natalie Diaz
You might have an image of who Natalie Diaz is in your head. I saw her as an indigenous poet with a powerfully multicultural, queer voice. Her poems express complex images, including the torture of watching her brother’s addiction, her family’s struggle with societal pressures, and her culture disappearing. My image of Diaz came from three places: her debut poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), from conferences and events where I heard her speak with a brilliant command of language, and from the internet, where I puzzled together her history. But after speaking with her myself, Diaz redefined how I saw her. In our interview, she addressed how identity can be used, “as a thing to pin us down and hold us still. It’s not that I don’t understand what identity means or how it functions, but I am imagining ways to become unpinnable.”
Diaz’s long-awaited and much-anticipated second collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, just released yesterday from Graywolf Press, is the unpinning of self. In her poetry, informed by Fort Mojave, the reservation on which she grew up, Diaz examines a world that’s been complicit in the erasure of her people, a world of which she is part and a world for which she has mixed feelings. The language Diaz uses faithfully lifts up every image she brings to the reader, so we can see them from every side. Each image is truth, and as we read each poem, we are forced to decide how we relate. Are we the colonizer or the colonized? Are we both? The language corrals us into a place where we’re forced to examine our selves and our place in this world.
Natalie Diaz earned a BA from Old Dominion University, where she received a full athletic scholarship, and played professional basketball. She came back to Old Dominion to earn an MFA, as well as 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. In 2018, Diaz won the MacArthur Fellowship to write poetry and work with the last speakers of the Mojave language to direct a revitalization program.
The questions I asked Natalie in this interview were informed by my view of her, but her answers reveal a truer, deeper self. She addresses the power of language, the freedom found in basketball, and why poetry is still the way she loves the people closest to her.
The Rumpus: Language seems to be a big player in this collection. Even the title, Postcolonial Love Poem, is a play on words. Since our literary understanding of postcolonial criticism involves the analysis of power and political structures between the colonizers and the colonized, there’s a back and forth here. There are twists and boomerangs: “I was built by wage. So I wage love and worse—” For effect, words have multiple meanings. Do you want to speak to this?
Natalie Diaz: A word is everything it is now and all the things it has ever been, neither of which cancels out what the word might yet become. Human language operates like humans—it is one of our most physical and emotional technologies. Language is violent, it is touch, it is always a mere wish at meaning. Language is not my body, rather it is an estimation or an intimation of my body, of what my body hopes of itself, of how my body is related to you and your body, to all non-human bodies. It also moves and shifts—what I intend of a word, phrase, or line ultimately abandons me and becomes loyal to the reader instead, becomes the reader’s own creation.
One way of thinking toward the phrase “postcolonial love poem” is that I recognize its impossibility, especially in the English language—in my experience as an impossibility, I’ve learned that there are ways I can reorganize certain energies, language among them, to make me highly possible. Language is often the first thing the colonizer takes, language and land, because language is our body in a dangerous communication. What happens—not “what does it mean,” but what happens—if I dare invoke pleasure on a public page with this body? What happens if I place a word like “Love” next to a word like “Postcolonial”? They are not separate but each dependent on the other—both are out of time, as I have been taught I am. I am everything a body like mine has ever been, too—clay, a dream, a river, my ancestors, an absence, a missing, a war party, a touch, a wish, a joy, a story—and who I am now meets those things somewhere in the stream, in the happening. Within that movement of time and energy, some painful, some grief-stricken and emptying, I must also be worthy and capable of pleasure, of desire, of what is profane as well as what is within the temple or hopefully at a place beyond the temple, as a return to myself, because my people come from before the temple.
Rumpus: The titular poem, “Postcolonial Love Poem” speaks of identity (American, Mojave, lover, etc.) How do the rhythmic language and references to the natural world hold it all together?
Diaz: Identity is one of those little traps, a trap we all keep in our pocket and in our mouths, placing it before others or stepping in it ourselves. Because we know it has currency out there in this nation we beg to be whole in. In your first question I spoke toward, I listed all the things I was—I turned myself into a context. Context pretends to know what we are and what we have done, so it can predict how we might act. But what about the conditions? This nation doesn’t want us to be whole, and so identity becomes this weapon used against us. I mean, I own a Certificate of Indian Blood, which certifies the blood in my body is Indian blood.
I’m dumbfounded lately when I catch myself using the word PoC or WoC—it’s so engrained in me I don’t always catch myself, or worse, I’m willing to use it for the sake of clarity in institutional settings. What a terrible condition we are in, in which we call each other by this least part of who we are and who our people are. Identity tends to be used as a thing to pin us down and hold us still. It’s not that I don’t understand what identity means or how it functions, but I am imagining ways to become unpinnable. My partner and I come home from our days and we never look at each other and think, you are a queer Black woman and I am a queer Mojave, Akimel O’odham, Mexican, LatinX woman. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk about what it means to be us, of our experiences as who we each are in this world as well as who we are together. It’s striking that many of us do not use these markers (PoC, WoC) in our communities or families. I use them most with people outside of my intimate world. I don’t yet know what more to think beyond this, but as someone who knows how to lose a language as well as how to fight for one, I think we can do a lot better at touching one another in language than these terms.
Rumpus: There are ingredients and materials you use to create this first poem that reappear throughout the collection: snakes, scorpions, hands, light, neck, copper, stones, memory, thighs, blood, hips, etc. These images are used in both romantic and poisonous ways. Why or how does this poem inform the whole collection?
Diaz: I don’t intend for any one poem to be a key to any other, but they are all in relation. They all were built from my image system, my way of constellating languages and images. For the last few years, I have been intentional and practiced about leaning fully into my own lexicon—into words and images and bodies and physicalities that are emotional to me, that have a risk to me. The risk is my life, my land, my hour, my pleasure, my ecstatic grief, my lover and her possibility, my failure at language. What luck to imagine being able to live in my lexicon like it’s a house, like it’s the cul de sac I grew up in on Fort Mojave, a return and a leap simultaneously. “Repetition,” some might say, but I’d like to imagine the appearance of these word as “beginning again.” I want to let language be what it is, an energy that is new each time it is uttered, or each time it fires the brain toward “meaning” or “lack of meaning,” each time it rings the bones in the ear.
Rumpus: In the poem “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” your reference to the American indie rock band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (“Don’t stray… They don’t love you like I love you” from Maps) seems playful at first, a nod to pop culture, almost calling out Beyoncé, etc… but the words blossom into seriousness, with heavier meaning: “Maps are ghosts: white and / layered with people and places I see through.” Do these references infer that even pop culture in the US is complacent in erasure of people?
Diaz: This was my version of sampling and not a calling out of Beyoncé. There is often music in my poems, lines here and there, a rhythm, a soundtrack of sorts. I grew up with music always climbing out open windows and doors on my rez, blooming from my mom’s radio or this large Frankensteined stereo we had, made of all different pieces. I grew up with cakewalks and my neighbor-cousin singing bird songs in the carport until 2 a.m. I suppose all of my poems are samples of other songs, stories, and poems, other things already sung, spoken, dreamed, or imagined. In regard to the last part of the question, we might say that everything in this country is complacent in the erasure of people.
Rumpus: I love how basketball remains in your work, and cultural appropriation of sport—the rules and regulations that the US claims whites invented—is exposed. “Skin Light” (a free verse poem), “The Mustangs” and “Run ‘n’ Gun” (prose poems), and “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball” (a list poem) incorporate different forms. Why did you choose these forms? How important are the twists in language here? How does basketball figure into colonialism?
Diaz: Always basketball, because basketball is one of the ways I was made. It is a Native sport that the United States of America claims to have invented but which has been around, as most things have, in other forms, for hundreds of years. It was a game of gods and mortals.
I believe sports figures into colonialism in the US—what does not? Sport or athletics have always been a mechanism of control and patriotism throughout the world. Sports and the Hitler Youth. The Olympics. Mascots. Visiting the White House for winning a championship. We sing the National Anthem before games, which I still find strange. I had to get permission in college to not put my hand over my heart and sing along—instead, I said a quieter thing to myself, with my hands held behind my back or in front of me. One of the most striking ways the game figures into colonialism is that I knew very early that basketball would be the thing to get me off my reservation, and I wanted to get off badly.
Rumpus: “Like Church” is a sacred and romantic poem—formal in form—that shows the majesty of love and a lover. How does the line “You think / my Creator had heard of the word Natalie? Ha! / When he first made me he called me Snake—” involve the Creator as part of this love? Is the promise that “the afterlife would be reversed” about redemption? If so, can you elaborate on this?
Diaz: I suppose since I am writing in the English language, my words and lines will always be dragged through a Western lens. But I think English is also capable of being bent and shaped in my mouth, with my intentions. When I think and feel in Mojave, I don’t need something like redemption. There is no metaphor for what I am saying about the place we go after this body’s life. Our afterlife is reversed. There are watermelons there waiting for my arrival. And the Creator is always a part of what is greater than what I think I understand love as. We do not have an idea of goodness in Mojave because we were made Mojave. We are already “good.” Mistakes or errors, we are Mojave. That being said, I am also Catholic. However, it is not the Catholicism that most people would recognize. It’s rezzed out. It’s jalopy.
Rumpus: Your poem “Wolf OR-7” speaks of a collared and tracked wolf that left his pack and became the first wolf in California since 1927, when the last known wolf was killed for government bounty. There is an equally romantic and heartbreaking line that says, “In me a pack of wolves appeared and disappeared / over the hill of my heart.” The lone wolf separated from the pack—returning to home: “I confuse instinct for desire…” Is this wolf a figure you relate to? Why did the wolf’s movement have such a hold on you? Out of this, how did such beauty come forth?
Diaz: I think Natives must be very careful in saying they relate to wolves—otherwise we risk being spirit-animaled or people showing up to our next reading wearing t-shirts with airbrushed wolves howling at a rising moon. I was affected, wounded a little, when I first heard of this wolf. I was drawn into his story. Without knowing it, I began rooting for him, wishing toward him and his future. I returned to the websites again and again. This wolf shaped questions in me—of displacement, of being the last of who you are, of wanting to find others like you, of the idea of relationship and connection in a country that was created by severing you from your land and people and language. The bounty placed on the wolves then, the bounty placed on pumas and coyotes now, was not different from the bounty placed on Natives. In fact, that sentiment is still reality—the language that accompanied the bounty for a dead Native is still present in our Declaration of Independence.
Rumpus: “Snake Light” is a peek into your life as a poet—your process exposed for us to see. You have beautiful, bleeding lines in here: “The devotional fervor-work of revision” and “The body leaving itself for itself,” for example. Do you think being a poet is a labor of love?
Diaz: Poetry is one way I love myself and my beloveds, and it could also be a way I love strangers. To risk my everyday pleasure of language—pleasure at times being more intimate than grief and anger. Or maybe not more—nothing is more. Maybe I mean also. Who is allowed to talk about pleasure? Who pleasures? Who is pleasured? How can pleasure be resistance? We’ve seen it time and again in our many ancestors, in their music, their dances, their games, their touches, their teasing, their fucking, their love-making, their dreaming and storytelling, their lexicon-making, their art… Revision is a pleasure, and a luck. It is like playing basketball. Being out of time. Being nothing but momentum. Malleable yet strong. Shifting yet ready to spring or leap. It is spacing, it is up and down the page, being two or three steps ahead of yourself. It is being willing to lose. And to live in that failure. Which is another way of experiencing language.
Photograph of Natalie Diaz courtesy of Natalie Diaz.