David Naimon: Good morning and welcome to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host. Today’s guest is Poet and Linguist Natalie Diaz. Diaz earned her undergraduate degree under MFA in Poetry at Old Dominion University. Diaz is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community and has worked with the last speakers of the Mojave language where she directed their language revitalization program. Diaz is also a former professional basketball player, point guard at Old Dominion, a team that made it to the NCAA Sweet 16 three times and the final four once during her tenure. She played professional basketball in Europe and Asia prior to pursuing her degree in poetry. Diaz is currently the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands at Arizona State University. She has also been an Ambassador for the University of Arizona’s Art for Justice project which commissions work from writers who are addressing the issue of mass incarceration. Natalie Diaz’s 2012 debut collection of poetry from Copper Canyon Press, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was a winner of the American Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award. Diaz’s writing has appeared everywhere from The New Yorker to ESPN. It has garnered a Pushcart Prize, the Narrative Prize for Poetry, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship otherwise known as The Genius Grant, a Lannan Literary Fellowship and a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellowship among many others. She’s also the editor of Bodies Built for Game: The Prairie Schooner Anthology of Contemporary Sports Writing which includes writing by Louise Erdrich, Hanif Abdurraqib, Terrance Hayes, Claudia Rankine, Roger Reeves, Fatimah Asghar and many others. Natalie Diaz is here today on Between The Covers for her much anticipated follow-up to When My Brother Was an Aztec, her latest poetry collection from Graywolf called Postcolonial Love Poem, a collection that is one of five finalists for the National Book Award for Poetry this year. Booklist in its starred review calls Postcolonial Love Poem, “A groundbreaking and unparalleled lyric work.” Poet and Editor John Freeman calls it a breakthrough collection and says, “In a world where nothing feels so conservative as a love poem, Diaz takes the form and smashes it to smithereens, building something all her own. A kind of love poem that can allow history and culture and the anguish of ancestors to flow through and around the poet as she addresses her beloved.” Emilia Phillips says in The New York Times Book Review, “Diaz’s collection is no doubt one of the most important poetry releases in years, one to applaud for its considerable demonstration of skill, its resistance to dominant perspectives and its light wrought of desire.” Finally, Louise Erdrich says, “With tenacious wit, ardor, and something I can only call magnificence, Diaz speaks of the consuming need we have for one another. This is a book for any time, but especially a book for this time. These days, and who knows for how long, we can only touch a trusted small number of people. Diaz brings depth and resonance to the fact that this has always been so. Be prepared to journey down a wild river.” Welcome to Between The Covers, Natalie Diaz.
Natalie Diaz: Gracias for having me and for that generous opening. It feels like now we’re here with other people so it doesn’t have to just be me here in front of you.
DN: Over the past 10 years, I’ve tried to never miss an opportunity to see you read. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about your readings and lectures is the way you often bring up a word that you distrust. A word that often, I think, comes with a lot of good will attached to it. One time it might be the word sustainability. Another time it might be truth or empathy or citizen so it seems like a good place to start our conversation by looking at the words and in the title of the collection. I wanted to start with your thoughts or what thoughts come to mind when you employ the words Postcolonial Love.
ND: I think a lot about postcolonial itself and of course love. Love is one given to us all very early. You should love this person or most importantly and detrimentally, you shouldn’t love this person. Both of these words for me are compelling because they are both so generic. I was told love but was never really told about its capaciousness or how I might exist in it. I knew it was something I should aspire to as a type of goodness. I also began to realize when I was disallowed from entering this kind of profane that it was love was inside the temple and I was perpetually outside the temple. Postcolonial is, again, the condition I think of language for many natives or many indigenous peoples is that we should be engaging with postcolonial decolonial in some way. I guess I have a great gift of poetry in that it gives me time to relocate myself or the people I love in the language. When I think about postcolonial, I don’t know that we know what it means because it shouldn’t mean something. It should be a series of acts or practices or a way that I encounter and move my body or the way that I encounter others and respect or honor their bodies in some way. For me, it came up tongue-in-cheek, to be honest. Because the Love Poem is a place that I wander in often and return to often. I guess what I find in the Love Poem is a place that’s not the future. It’s not the past. It’s not now. It’s a place that can’t be confined in that way because, in some ways, it’s the ecstatic. Is the ecstatic outside of the body? Is it inside the body? In some ways, the idea of the Love Poem to me is an energy much larger than I am like in some ways I think the energy of the world that has made itself that the literal world from cosmos to dirt to mountain. That, to me, feels very ecstatic. I guess setting those two things side by side happened because I was having a conversation and I don’t know who the conversation was with. It’s often with my friend Roger or my partner but we were talking about a poem and I was like, “Well, I guess all of my poems are postcolonial in some way,” and we were just laughing a little bit about that possibility. I guess that’s for me. That’s like the luck and the question of and the desire that language inspires in me or offers me is that words are just symbols and the real interaction I have with language is not that a word means something but what I might do in relationship to that word on my way toward it or in my misunderstanding of it or in the ways it was handed to me.
DN: I wanted to ask you about–
ND: Sorry. My answers are long.
DN: No, I love that answer.
ND: I’m a nightmare for it. [laughs]
DN: No. This is the place for long answers and you’ll see some long questions too. I wanted to ask you about love in relationship to a conversation you were recently in about translation and democracy where you talked about the sensuality of what we don’t or can’t know of the other and about your interest in what can’t or shouldn’t be translated. I wondered if you saw love in that light of a place where the unknowable doesn’t necessarily become known, doesn’t become translated but rather is welcome to coexist on its own terms.
ND: I really appreciate that question. I guess that question feels very generous to me because it’s a place I’m wandering in that space and trying to make sense of it or maybe not trying to make sense of it but trying to continue discovering in that space, in the space of that question. I’m going to bring in my partner and I’s relationship because this is a place where I’ve been thinking. I’m a poet. My book is out. All of these things are happening. There’s a way that I’ve realized that language, yes, it’s a part of me and it’s important to me but I’m having a really hard time just stepping in and talking about craft. It’s not that I’m not engaged in what is a line break but I’m only engaged in it in terms of how it catalyzes, energizes, or what the energy of a word or language can do in that respect. For me, when I think about poetry I guess what I’m thinking about is what is the language that’s meaningful for me. Some of it does go into my poetry yet the greater body of that language happens far outside of poetry. When I’m thinking about ideas of translation, I’m thinking a lot like many of us are about knowledge, what is knowledge, who determines the value of knowledge and once that value is determined, who then determines how it is disseminated and to whom it’s disseminated. The way knowledge exists I think it’s the very nature of the word, it’s a word I don’t trust. The very nature of the word implies that it can be extracted. It can be consumed. It can be again made sense of and it can be made to have value. We see that in a very different way than we’ve seen it before right now in the language of the political, the language of the public, or the language of Twitter. But when I’m thinking about these knowledges—and there are many indigenous artists who speak about this, Visual Artists, and who I spend a lot of time in their work and the ways they write about their work—but the importance of having a knowledge that I don’t have to translate and most importantly that can’t be translated, that, to me, is an intimacy that—maybe intimacy is not the right word—I guess, the basic ways I’m thinking about this is that because we live in America, because the power of Western structures of Democracy, of empire, of nation, and the government, all of these things, because they have created this system in which they decide what knowledge is based on if they can take it, like indigenous bodies of knowledge—so we have indigenous knowledge systems things like that—they’re so important to resist what is academic knowledge or these many centers of knowledge because they’re knowledges that can’t be taken and they can’t be taken because the people who try to extract them from the communities don’t understand them. Knowledge has this terrible power structure of “if I can take it from you then it’s valuable, but if I can’t then it doesn’t mean anything.” This is the way we’ve pushed so many knowledge out. This is why we don’t let indigenous peoples into certain conversations. This is why we don’t want queer, trans, non-binary, and non-gender conforming peoples in conversations. This is why we don’t want black farmers in conversations. It’s because the white system of knowledge that the Western system of knowledge couldn’t take it and do or make something of it to reiterate itself. For me, whatever questions I can form from that have been extremely important and the language that matters to me most right now is the language that my partner and I are making in our home. It’s not an easy language—my partner is black, I’m Indigenous and Latina or Mexican. We’re both queer. We’re out in the middle of this little desert town on my reservation—and that private language that we have in our home feels the most important to me. We’re both poets so there’s a certain way that we pull some of that language into our work in ways that we don’t. To me, we have a knowledge with each other that other people might not understand. Importantly, my partner knows experiences and knowledges that I will never understand. I have no desire to consume those things. We’ve moved away from that because knowledge is a product not knowledge is currency. Even now I’m in Academia and so there are certain things that must be translated to show my institution that I am accomplishing something or I am successful in something. What that means is we assume we can translate everything and that I can know everything like, “What are you doing?” “Well, okay. Tell me about that and now I know it.” I believe one of the things that’s missing and I believe that this is why returning to very old and indigenous relationships and knowledge is so important right now—and by indigenous I don’t just mean what we call native. I mean, any people who’ve had relationships with the land, who’ve learned from the land and who’ve been shaped by it in some way—is that what makes us who we are, are the knowledge that we can’t translate to somebody. It’s really difficult to protect those knowledges because of the society we live in yet those knowledges will be the ones that if anything saves us, whatever saving means to somebody, it will be those. It will be the fact that I do not know what it’s like to be a black queer woman which is a knowing my partner has, she does not know what it’s like to be a native a Mojave, Akimel O’odham, Mexican queer woman and that doesn’t mean we won’t build our own knowledges together but it’s important that we might not understand each other. I really believe in misunderstanding or not understanding. I think it’s one of the most natural states of our being and yet here we are together. Here we are and living in that tension and it really is that tension where we exist as a third or a fourth entity. It’s a really long answer but it also feels important to me in terms of the ideas of love and ecstasy. I do think love is a-not knowing. I think that it is the willingness, the ability or the luck of being in the space between what we know of one another and again very valuably what we don’t know about one another and yet can still be alongside.
DN: I love what you’re saying in relationship to my relationship to the cover of the book because it feels like the cover is the perfect embodiment of some of what you’re saying in the sense that “are you in the process of revealing your face on the cover or are you in the process of concealing your face on the cover?” Maybe both, maybe neither. Then the blurriness of your hand which maybe that’s making visible that space between us. The making of eye contact but also making visible the distance at the same time. I don’t know if that’s anything behind what this portrait is but it certainly is what I thought of and it doesn’t feel knowable. It feels like there are multiple answers or maybe no answers.
ND: I like what you said that it doesn’t feel knowable. The term that I’ve used lately—and I’m one of those people, I cycle through words because sometimes I find a word and it’s the change I needed. I spend time on that word and the word doesn’t change enough for me so then I have to find a new set of words—but right now a word that’s really important to me is unpinnable. I’ve referenced it a few times in conversations but the importance of being unpinnable especially for a person like me, and the photos on the book were part of a self-portrait project that I did—originally, I was asked to respond—respond, reply and react, those are always awful words when you’re asking an Indigenous person like, “Can you please respond to this or react to this?”—but it was Edward Curtis’s some large number of an anniversary of their work in the Pacific Northwest and they were very thoughtful in bringing Indigenous voices to respond to that. Edward Curtis had taken photos of Mojaves. In fact, one of the most famous photos which I’ve recently seen in books that are not about Mojaves, they called her Moha or sometimes Moo. They basically got her name wrong. It was not her name. It was her clan name. The clan name was Ma. This picture of this young girl and then, of course, many other natives. But as people know Edward Curtis would often dress you in other people’s regalia or other people’s “artifacts” and then they were required to stand still to be pinned down by his projection of what he wanted people to know of what he thought of Natives. Of course, it was like, “I’m trying to capture this moment so that as we move forward we don’t lose this moment,” and that’s the typical American way of thinking about Natives. We’re always a footnote even so much modern contemporary literature is. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a line such as this that says, “And our native brothers and sisters” or “And we’re on unseated territory” or “And we’re on stolen land” as if that acknowledges us in any way, and really by doing that, that’s saying we don’t exist. We exist only in that past. So when I was interacting with those photos—one, I wouldn’t even say I’m a budding photographer. I love images. I love reading about photography. I’ve never taken any training or course with this—but what I wanted to do with these photos is to be unknown, like you’re saying, to be unpinnable. One of the goals was that how can I take some of what is normally a marker of being Indigenous? Even the bangs, I feel like if someone wants you to know that they’re Indigenous, they’ll cut their bangs real blunt or something because we often do that. In every one of the photos, I wore an “artifact”. My tribe does bead work so I was wearing the collars or the bracelets with our Mojave colors in them. In the photos, what I was trying to do was if there was a focus on anything, I wanted it to be just on that artifact in recognition of “that’s an artifact, I am not,” and so how do I stay beyond that? He also has a lot of photos where it seemed as if he was trying to put the women in a position of being coy so maybe they had a slight smile on their face. For me, the way I set up the cameras, I wanted to make sure my body was in motion and that the image was very clearly unable to capture that motion to defy again or disallow some of the photos. I think you’re exactly right in terms of thinking about it as the unknowable. I didn’t want there to be a projection able to be made where someone could say, “This is what I think of Indigenous peoples” or “This is what I think of Natives.”
DN: Let me ask you another language-specific question in the sense that often when you’re giving public readings and talks, you begin with some words in Mojave and then you follow those words with Spanish, and then we hear words in English. Yet the poetry itself is inverted in this sense. Most of the words are in English. There are occasional words in Spanish, and very rarely, almost never, are there words in Mojave. I wondered if this decision not to employ Mojave words in the context of the poems themselves is related in some way to allowing the unknowable or allowing the untranslatable through withholding the words.
ND: Mojave is still very physical to me. It’s still very much my land and my home, and some of that is for traumatic reasons. There aren’t many people who I can speak with. If I want to speak in Mojave, I talk with my teacher. He wants to speak in Mojave. The number of people he can speak with is not high. Even my “fluency or ability” which we don’t usually talk about in Indigenous revitalization, because if there was any measure, it is the measure that says America and other nations or empires tried to wipe us off the face of the Earth and the first thing they did was steal our ways of speaking to and of one another. That’s the only measure, so to come in and think about who can speak, who speaks well, and who speaks fluently is the least important and it’s someone else’s measurement on us. One example, my teacher, his name is Ahmoch Chumee Mahakev or Hubert McCord and he is our last bird singer. He’s one of my best friends. He’s funny. We’re an unlikely relationship and we’re also perfect together and he’s also my relative. But one day, I came in and he was telling me, “Hey, you’ve come so far. I remember when you showed up and you barely knew anything the first day and we’ve been together for years.” He’s like, “Yeah. If you look over there,” and he pointed in one direction and he’s like, “Look over there and remember, way over there, that’s when you didn’t know anything. And now, you’re right here and look how far you’ve come” and he was just pointing toward nothing. So I had this probably beam in my face and a little bit of confidence and that old basketball feeling where like, “Okay. I’m winning in some way,” and then he pointed in the other direction and he’s like, “And now look how far you have to go.” [laughter] He’s like, “You don’t know nothing.” This is a funny phrase that I’ve heard many times, where an elder—Hubert has never been rough with me in that way—but some of my elders, this is the way they say it too. It will give you a feeling of what I feel when I hear it but they’ll say, “You don’t know nothing,” and the way that they say that you feel it. [laughter] You feel the emptiness of what you do not know in your body and in your mind. Mojave, for me, it has a place. It’s a place of love. It’s a place of pain. It’s a place of extreme desire and weight. It’s a place of energy I think. For me, the language that feels almost like pure energy is the Mojave language because it’s definitely been filtered through colonialism, this country—and not just here, there are Indigenous languages all over like Africa is full of Indigenous languages, Russia and all of these places—it’s been filtered in those ways but it hasn’t been filtered with some of the greed, performance, and selfishness I think that other languages have, English in particular. It exists in a different way like when we speak about nouns, there are also things we can do, when we speak about a place, we’re speaking about what has happened there. Everything is so physical that it’s just a reminder that I’m a body connected to this body that is language which has come up from this land which is a body. It’s difficult to bring it on the page. When I do bring it on the page, it’s because it’s the only thing. It’s because there is no English to carry it. In the second book in Postcolonial Love Poem, The First Water Is the Body is the place where I feel like I’ve given my readers one of the most powerful words I know in Aha-Makav and [inaudible 0:35:15] in just saying Inyech ‘Aha Makavch ithuum, I feel like I’ve given my readers a gift in that which is to hear—and not me.,I don’t even mean me because in some ways there’s a speaker in the book—but to hear someone say, “This is who I am,” and it’s not about I as an ego or I as a flesh body but it’s I as a being. I feel it every time I say it and every time I read it. Then the other piece where I said—maybe something that other Mojaves might think to not say—but I said my name in Mojave which I don’t often say to people in person but that was in the poem Snake-Light where I come out and say what my name is and I say what it means, and that name is from my great-grandmother. I don’t feel any betrayal there but what I feel is that I’m slowly learning, not how to make Mojave exist in English, but to give Mojave a place within this other language that it can’t be touched.
DN: It makes me think a little bit of a conversation I had with the Poet Mary-Kim Arnold and we were talking about a quote by your fellow National Book Award finalist, Don Mee Choi, where she is talking about how Korean and English are not transnationally equal if– Oh, yeah, that’s such an amazing book.
ND: I have Don Mee’s book here and I spent so much time on it.
DN: Yes, and with South Korea being a neo colony of the US for 70 years, it’s impossible for the two languages or the two sides of a hybrid identity to be relating to each other in equal ways. It feels like the ritual that you do before each reading is reminding us of that. You start with Mojave, you then go to Spanish, then you go to English but the subsequent talk is going to just be in English and that is not by accident, that’s a product of power and erasure and reminds us again of the way these languages are in relationship to each other. Before we hear some poems, I just wanted to stay on this notion one more beat around love in relationship to empathy. It’s something that you said—I remember you saying a long time ago but I was unable to find it so I don’t know if my memory is totally off so I might be saying this incorrectly—it made me think of how empathy is usually put forth as an inherent good, that the ability to know and to understand the other is something to strive for. But another way to look at empathy, which feels related to your model of translation is that, unlike sympathy, empathy is presumptuous. It presumes that we could know the other. In this talk that you gave, at least in my memory of this talk you gave, you were talking about empathy as a hunting technique from Scandinavia as a way to intuit and know the moves of your prey. In a sense, a technique of a predator—and I don’t know if I’m getting that right, does it provoke any recollection on your part?
ND: Can you go back through that last part again where we move into thinking about the idea of the predator.
DN: If we think of the general culture, translating something or having empathy for something are considered good and they’re both predicated on this idea of coming to know something as being both possible and a good in its own right. I was thinking about your notion of translation and also potentially of love allowing for the space of not knowing, and maybe even the sensuality of love and desire coming from that space not being bridged. Then this talk that you gave where you were skeptical of empathy of the notion of knowing someone else’s different experience. I believe you were talking about it originating as a way to hunt, to imagine yourself into the thought processes of prey so that you could anticipate them and catch them. I don’t know if that’s true. Is that true?
ND: I don’t know the prey part but I definitely feel that way about translation and some of this goes back to knowledge. There’s a knowledge that’s just for me and not for you. There’s a knowledge that’s just for my partner and I and not for others. There’s a knowledge that is just for Mojaves and not for others and you have those knowledges also. But there’s a language that is maybe pre-verbal or maybe incapable of being verbal. To me that’s the most important thing. We have been taught that we can make meaning or make sense of everything like how many times we’ve said it here like, “Does that make sense? Do I make sense?” I talk with my students about this. I’m like, “I don’t know if it makes sense. It doesn’t have to but if this is where you’re trying to make sense,” again, trying to make sense, “if this is where you’re trying to figure out the question, trying to understand what is outside the question adjacent to the question, then that’s all that matters.” It’s really tough with my students to let them know that the poem is just the smallest part of what you’re wondering, of what that experience is. I don’t believe in empathy and some people really bucket that idea. They get frustrated with it, which I also think is interesting but that’s sideways from here. I don’t believe I should ever deny—I don’t even have the power to deny—but I don’t feel the need to have an argument about a word someone needs for themselves or a concept someone needs in order for them to feel their being who they need to be or how they need to be. I guess the question I have, and this does relate to love, is where is the action? I feel like I have a body—and when I say a body, a flesh body—that has a power that I don’t even understand to act and to interact. Some of that I think was intentionally meant for the Earth, for what made me, and then everything else is naturally in relationship to other beings and other life, whether it’s my river or the plant. For me, a place I think a lot about is for the stranger. What does that mean for the stranger to treat the stranger as a beloved, and sometimes we pretend that English is the action, that language is the action. I believe language is physical. I believe language is beyond us but the thing I’m most interested in is what is human action. Why that’s important is because I think human is a very problematic word. From Sylvia Wynter to one of my best friends Roger Reeves is constantly pressing on this idea of, “What do we mean by human? Who can even be human and who would want to be a human?” I think a lot about that relationship. I don’t believe empathy is possible and yet the fact that it’s not possible is, to me, the most possible. The most possible scenario. I have no idea what it feels like to be someone else. You might have lost your mother and I might have lost my mother but I have no idea what you feel like. I know what I feel like and that might inspire me to have certain ways of caring or even avoiding but it’s not the same feeling and it doesn’t need to be. For me, the fact that I can be next to someone and not need to pretend I can be in their shoes, that’s what life is. That to me is the ecstatic. I’ve written a little bit about this and had talks about this, but if there really was such a thing as empathy we couldn’t f*cking stand it. Because what is happening right now in the world—and we keep saying like kids in cages but it’s worse than that—the ways that we are holding people in detention, men and women and children, the ways that we’re pushing them through one of the worst corridors in the desert and right now in the desert, the temperature is shifting. You might think it’s a relief for them—and I’m talking about people crossing the US-Mexico border who are not all Mexicans, who are not all Central and South Americans, many of whom are East Asian—but an amazing portion that most people don’t know or a large percentage that most people don’t know about are coming from Africa. My partner does work with No More Deaths and also visits some of the detention centers and because my partner is black and there are very few black people who do this, she’s always set up with the black women and people from Haiti, Cameroon, and some of the things that they’ve been through. The fact that we do that, and that’s happening right now, even though it’s not the heat that will kill them right now, it will be hypothermia or it will be some unimaginable violence that happens to them. That’s happening right now as I’m sitting here having a conversation with you and yet I made a good coffee. I’m drinking clean water. If there really was empathy, I wouldn’t be able to take it. My mind would buckle beneath the things I “know” but can’t embody in that knowing. I also feel like I don’t know where empathy ends or begins. I have the same problem with the idea of a witness. For me, when I think about what empathy is, this is one lens of the way I think about it, is me seeing or hearing about something that’s happened to someone and being able to imagine how I would feel if it happened to me. It has nothing to do with them. People are getting bombs dropped on them right now. Who knows how many American drones right now are moving toward autonomous death or bringing entire family homes to rubble in the tribal areas outside Pakistan and what’s happening in Gaza right now? Because I can’t imagine it happening to me, here we are. I guess the thing is the only thing that feels at stake in empathy is that it has not happened to me.
ND: I struggle with that a little bit. I’ve been doing some work around this and I have a friend who’s doing work around this in a different area. A while back, I did some work at Vera List Center on freedom of speech, the idea of freedom of speech and I don’t think it’s a valiant thing. I don’t think it’s all right, I actually think it’s more harmful than good the ways we’ve set up freedom of speech. I say that also understanding that I can speak and not be persecuted for it in ways that other people are, but we were talking about the book Beloved and we were talking about the character Sixo. When they first introduced Sixo into the story or when he first appears, they’re talking about him being gentle and they say that’s when he was still speaking English then but he stopped speaking English because there was no future in it. I don’t take that in a very literal way but, to me, I’m really thinking about that because of all of our buzzwords, I don’t know what a liberal is, I don’t know what empathy is, and all of these allyship—and it doesn’t mean that they aren’t useful for people. It just means that, for me, I can’t find the action in them and I’m in a space where I am trying to figure out what I can do with the life. I’m not saying that I want to save the world but sometimes the smallest gesture—and I don’t know what they are sometimes but I’m searching for them and poetry is one of those—I think of them as touch. It’s one way I touch my life. It’s lucky that there’s evidence or there’s a reply back that the things I do touch other people’s lives but that, to me, feels like the lucky part. I spin around in some of those things and again it’s not that I feel like I know something about them. It’s quite the opposite. It feels like I want a different knowing than the one that’s in my head that says, “Oh yeah. I know how you feel,” because I don’t know that I ever will.
DN: If you’re willing I’d love to hear the opening poem Postcolonial Love Poem. The poem that’s set apart from the others between the epigraphs by Joy Harjo and Mahmoud Darwish and then after that, if you are amenable, the American Arithmetic.
ND: Both of the epigraphs are quotes on either side of the poem are two writers who’ve been extremely important to me and also just language that when I came across it, I knew at once how language also fails but then I also knew that language is one of our desires to live. I’m just going to read those quotes and then I’ll read the poem. The epigraph that opens the book is from Joy Harjo’s Conflict Resolution For Holy Beings which is just a book that I come back to again and again.
“I am singing a song that can only be born after losing a country,” Joy Harjo.
Mahmoud Darwish—thinking about indigeneity, and Palestine, and Gaza, and just some of the work Darwish has done—Journal of an Ordinary Grief and In the Presence of Absence, Fady Joudah translated The Butterfly’s Burden—it’s language beyond language.
“We admitted that we were human beings and melted for love in this desert,” Mahmoud Darwish.
[Natalie Diaz reads Postcolonial Love Poem]
That, of course, was where Postcolonial Love Poem came from, realizing that I could probably never write a poem that wasn’t postcolonial. You might hear some buzzing going by. I live in the desert so all of these people—they mostly drive dune buggies versus vehicles. [laughter]
DN: I don’t hear it too bad.
ND: Their trucks are gigantic. We call them Jeepers Creepers from that scary movie. I’ll read American Arithmetic and I don’t know if we’ll talk about this but I was just struck by statistics. The fact that natives exist largely as statistics and what I mean by that is we’re barely considered how many times have we seen in the New York Times or large media, I think people had to fight for us to be represented in COVID even though it struck us so bad and there were a lot of journalists who were fighting for that. With this poem, it was just part of me demanding something beyond a statistic or trying to think, trying to recognize the story of the statistic, or the statistic is not us, the statistic is what America has put on us as a stamp in some ways. I was in a conversation where someone was talking about statistics can never be emotional.
[Natalie Diaz reads a poem called American Arithmetic]
DN: We’re talking today to the poet Natalie Diaz about her latest collection of poetry from Graywolf, Postcolonial Love Poem. I did want to talk about the statistics in American Arithmetic. The notion that, this is probably news to most people, that there’s no other group that is killed more frequently than Native Americans by police. I’ve been thinking about that if we look at black pain and injustice, it is made very visible as a spectacle and how white mass murderers are arrested without being harmed, the media censoring the corpses of white bodies and the bodies coming home from our wars of any color. But at any time, I can watch videos of any number of unarmed black men and women killed by the police and even if I haven’t wanted to see those videos or photos, I’ve likely had them put in front of me—a knee on a neck, a grieving mother, undone and in distress. In a recent conversation with Imani Perry and [Casey Lehmann, Casey Lehmann 1:00:25] called it the titillation that people get from the spectacle of black pain and Saidiya Hartman describes the consumption not just of black pain but of black social life as something vampiric. But the positioning of Native Americans in the American discourse seems to be one of having no position. For instance, Multnomah County where Portland is, is the ninth largest urban Native American population in the United States, and there are 28 native organizations in the Portland area, and yet I suspect most Portlanders wouldn’t think of or know of a native presence in the city, whatsoever. More to the point of your poem, crimes against natives don’t even make the news. They’re non-events. The epidemic of disappeared and murdered native women in 1980, 9% of female homicide victims were indigenous which is already wildly disproportionately high but that increased to 24% by 2015. Or that in Canada, the homicide rate of indigenous women is six times higher than the national average. But the epidemic is largely unknown that most people probably can’t name a single person by name, a single murdered indigenous woman by name like they can Trayvon Martin, or Michael Brown, or Breonna Taylor. I wonder, given how much we’ve talked about the ways others can’t be known or understood when it comes to translation or love, if you could speak to this other phenomenon, the American Arithmetic, of this poem which doesn’t seem to put the indigenous experience in the equation to begin with.
ND: This is exactly the way America wanted it. It was erased in order to take the land. In some ways, it makes perfect mathematical sense of how America became itself. The same terrible mathematics that created and maintained chattel slavery for so long. To me, one of the true losses is the offed separation of what this empire has done to anyone outside the recognizable and familiarity with a flesh body of power. Our reservations, for example, were also the sites of Japanese-American incarceration, horrendous conditions and ways that they were treated. Thinking about this, the state of Chinese migrants or Chinese-Americans and what they were put through—imprisonment—thinking about the beginning when the missions came and what happened to men, and women, and children of sexual abuse and even a forced labor or enslavement that didn’t last because we also didn’t last. To me, this is what America wants. They want us to keep reestablishing what is the beginning and this goes back to when I was talking about footnotes. Let’s just think about land because that’s how most people think of natives, we’ll just join them right now with that lens. There’s about 370 million indigenous people around the world and we are responsible for holding tenure over lands that are 85% of the world’s biodiversity, but people do not realize because they don’t have to because they are engaged as well in what is occupation and what is displacement and what is that straightforwardly land theft. It’s not enough to say, “I’m on occupied territory,” because that’s not what land is about. It’s about relationships. It’s not simply about whether we were brought here because we wanted to be or whether we arrived here because of something that’s horrendous and inexplicable. There’s no word I can put on the system of enslavement in America and how that has not stopped. It has just reorganized itself throughout time, or what’s happening right now with what we call refugee or migration. Migrations have always happened for terrible reasons, for natural reasons, and what we reduce indigeneity to is land, it’s pipelines, and they polluted their water. What’s happening to natives with water, we’re seeing happen in Flint, Michigan. That’s connected, and until we make that connection, nothing will change, until we connect what’s happening to natives—meaning indigenous peoples in the Americas—to what’s happening in Palestine or Gaza, to what’s happening to black men and women in the United States, in the Americas, again in general, until we connect what is indigenous in terms of land to what is indigenous in terms of diasporic or dispersed people who are also black—in America, we have this tendency that black only means one thing, we do the same thing with natives. Native only means one thing. We’re all from different lands and languages—to me, that invisibility is to our own detriment. It’s a poison. America came in, literally, sometimes poisoned, destroying crops, destroying seed banks. We were out in our desert from one of our sister reservations and we were out looking at some of the seeds in the desert that people might not notice were there but that we once subsisted off of. But knowing just that troops came through and burned those seed caches and then they grazed it so that they were gone. These are small things that are large things. That is such a striking point you’ve made about not knowing the names of people. The fact that there is no count for murdered missing black women in the United States, there is no count for murdered missing indigenous women in the United States, that is connected. What’s happening to women in Ciudad Juárez, that is connected. For me, some of why that’s disconnected is because American scholarship has to do more. It’s not enough to study it and to speak amongst one another about these things without considering what that information is and that that information exists in communities already. What does it mean to, if it’s a type of extraction a lot of times, when we take this and we write papers and things about it. I am always struck by Saidiya’s work and [Casey’s 01:08:57] work, among other people. I’m thinking that Black Death is a titillation. Titillation is a good word because I would push it to ecstatic. There’s the white ecstatic and we once pretended to tie that to Christianity and thinking of St. Therese and all of these things. But the white ecstatic is very much tied to the lives, deaths, and diminishments of who is outside that structure. Whether it is those trying to cross the border, or whether it is indigenous peoples on their lands right now. My friend, Nic Galanin, he’s a visual artist and he recently did a piece on John T. Williams, who was a carver, and from the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation. He was gunned down by a policeman in Seattle because—we know the stories of because and the because—but he’s a carver. He had a carving knife in his hand coming from doing what he does. The list of names goes on but the fact that that never makes the news.
ND: The things that happen on my reservation, people would never hear it, and that’s what I meant by the statistic. In some ways it’s stark. They say we’re 0.8%-1.8% of the population, it shifts depending on which I was looking. I pulled those numbers from DOJ reports. Just realizing all of the ways that we are disconnected and dislocated from those connections, which is why I think indigeneity is a key to what I call constellating all of us. A constellation it’s not saying we’re all the same but what it is, it’s noticing, it’s being attentive to the space between those things. It’s also being willing to imagine the different ways those things exist in relationship. Something I think about, and now I’m starting to go into some of my own theories of existence, but we talk a lot about intersectionality which we all can agree that’s a very important concept and we’ve also watched how a lot of white feminists have destroyed or morphed or tried to destroy, because it still exists as what it is for people. In an indigenous way of thinking, we would go beyond intersectionality. Intersectionality sometimes the way white people have expressed it or talked about it to me is they think we all rolled up to an intersection and we’re like, “No, you go first. No, you go first.”
DN: Right. [laughs]
ND: Thinking about the ways we aren’t willing sometimes to state how complicit we are in that power structure, I think sometimes intersectionality is being a negotiation of that power. Who should give it up? Who should seed it ? Who should step into the center of it? Whereas, some of the ways we think—and I’m not speaking for all indigenous peoples—but thinking about relationality is, it’s understanding that your autonomy means nothing and can’t exist if it’s not in relation to who is around you. A lot of that is just being on the res. I grew up and my next-door neighbor was my uncle and the person across the cul-de-sac for me was my auntie and that your neighbors are your family and your community is your family. Yes, some of us were cousins, aunties, or grandmothers but that’s not the relationality we mean. We mean that my actions are in some ways a part of my community’s actions. It doesn’t mean that’s always in unity or in some harmony but that my actions also affect them. In some ways, that’s what’s missing about what is the indigenous experience. We’re starting to see it, more present, Standing Rock was a big part of that. What people are starting to realize with the pipelines is a large part of that. I don’t even mean this necessarily as a complaint but the relationships I have right now in conversation and in imagination are very much collective imaginations. I talk about them and I try to build them as what I call imaginative trusts and it’s bringing in what is indigenous, what is indigenous diasporic, and trying to create these spaces or conversations where I can exist as a native and be recognized as a native, someone else can exist in all of the ways that their relationships are. I don’t just mean identity but genealogies like, “Where have you come from? How did you arrive here?” It’s not even necessarily about how you arrived here but now that you’re here, how do we arrive to place? Then now that you’re here, how do I receive and how do we receive one another in this place? It truly is a practice that I’m still learning.
DN: Could we hear Manhattan is a Lenape Word?
[Natalie Diaz reads a poem called Manhattan is a Lenape Word]
DN: We’re talking today to the Poet, Natalie Diaz about her latest collection of poetry from Graywolf, Postcolonial Love Poem.
ND: Something I wanted to add because I was talking about the white ecstatic and that’s something I think about, especially in relation to what the quotes that you narrated, of Saidiya’s and [Casey’s 1:18:50]. What I mean by the white ecstatic is it does two things, it’s twofold. In one respect, it’s nostalgic so that they can look back and recognize the power they have in that. In another way, it allows them to escape, having any complicity in it. It’s the same way of thinking about all of the different ways of black death that they’ve invented and imagined. Even the ways they think about indigeneity and the idea of the Wild West. It’s like how they can step into our bodies through music or through dance, how can they step into that body? One of the ways that they believe they can and that’s behind it, is that they believe they have conquered. They don’t want to step into the bodies they have not conquered. For them, it’s this crazy psyche which is that once nostalgia for that and a return to their power in that relationship. It’s this sick way of stepping outside their “guilt” or complicity or that they still have stakes in that power. For me, that’s what I mean by the idea of the white ecstatic and how it relates to each one of us, whether it’s having been descendants of a slavery, or people of enslavement, or Chinese Americans, or Vietnam, for example. There’s something about that I knew I wasn’t clear before but that’s one of the ways I think about relating to some of what they’ve said.
DN: It somehow feels connected maybe to that predatory notion of empathy also.
ND: Yeah, and witness. Now I can connect to that idea of the predatory in relationship to empathy and witness because it’s almost like going into a department store or wherever people shop and you can pick out an outfit that is a projection of how you want to be seen. Thinking that’s what empathy is, in a lot of ways, that’s one way of looking at it. There’s something about that in that, how do I construct the different ways that I would like to be seen. It’s the same extractive nature. It’s the same extraction that’s happened across time—to come in and extract the land—and then it’s a never-ending extraction. Once you become that predator, once you engage in that hunt for prey, it doesn’t end unless you’re willing to stop and look at everything that you have done and take an account of what that means for what you might do next. They took the land, that wasn’t enough; they take the water, that’s not enough. They have to take uranium, they have to take coal. It just doesn’t end. It’s the same way thinking about the laborers that they tried to take from Africans and black Americans today are still being extracted from in that way just with a different method.
DN: Yeah. It makes me think a little bit of my conversation with Joe Sacco, who’s latest book, Paying the Land, is about the Dene people of the Northwest territories of Canada. It seems the extraction goes farther, not only is this cutting off through Christianity and residential schools of knowledge of living on the land of transmission of knowledge across generations of language being passed down through generations and then the extraction of resources.
ND: If I can say something, I think Sacco’s book is extractive.
DN: You do?
ND: I do. That dip in, and to me, that’s an example of empathy, but being dressed in it.
ND: It doesn’t mean that only natives can tell those stories, and I think the importance is for many people to know about one another’s histories and stories, but there was just something about that book, that to me, felt like that extraction. One of the ways I’ll say that is because relationality is all the difference. Some of that information in there, I do think is important and needs to be out. It felt like drive-by [life] through writing. It’s also been hailed as through the lens of empathy. That’s a book I wrestled with quite a bit.
DN: The reason I brought it up was more from the perspective of when we’re talking about extraction, the interesting part about it which also came up in my conversation with Jake Skeets is about how the destruction of a culture and the transmission of knowledge and the only opportunities available within a corporate capitalist extractive system become resource extractive jobs, so that we find native peoples prominent in coal, or here in the Northwest, in timber, or in the Northwest territories, in fracking and oil. It feels that it goes so that extractive, or we would call it predatory relationship, goes all the way into the interior of what are the options for someone to make a livelihood. I don’t know if there’s a wide ecstatic in seeing a native population being tethered to a resource extractive occupation. But I didn’t know if you had any thoughts about that.
ND: Definitely. I teach in the academy. That’s one of the most extractive structures of knowledge. I struggle with it a lot. What does it mean to be a part of the academy which recognizes itself as a center of knowledge and which decides which knowledges are valued, who receives them. From the beginning of “history,” there have been stories of which of our indigenous leaders—and I’m saying our very broadly, or capitulated, it’s probably not the right word because I want to be careful of recognizing what choice means in America and what goodness becomes. For example here at Fort Mojave, we still have a lot of our land. I can look at my creation now and it no longer belongs to us. They want to turn it into a park or something which is the park service is another racket. But I look there, I see where the Fort was, which we no longer own where the Fort was, which became the boarding school. However, we had a sub-chief who decided to take the government’s offer which split our tribe. They moved down river to what is now Parker, Arizona or it’s called the CRIT (Colorado River Indian Tribes) because they thought they were going by themselves to become another space for Mojaves but they also moved in Chemehuevi, Dineh, or people from Navajo Nation, Hopi. Of course, it’s also the site of the Poston Concentration Camp or one of the Japanese-American carceral sites. That’s maybe an early example of when someone made a decision that they thought would be better in some way—maybe for them, maybe for their entire community. In terms of this, I think about what we’ve learned of what is goodness or what is success and how those are just traps. I don’t think I will ever be successful in America because there’s someone else’s measures of success and I will always be other and outside of that. My brother for example, the brother I wrote about who becomes the brother, my real life brother, becomes the brother in some of my work, is that he didn’t have that system of success. The choices he was given he made and I can look at them from the outside and say that was the wrong choice but it’s not the wrong choice because it was never mine to make. I think a lot about what it means that I’m me and he’s him. It wasn’t simply because suddenly I came to a crossroads. It’s like, Natalie you can do this or you can do this. It wasn’t that and in some ways, the mistakes my brother made or what we call mistakes or the choices he made ahead of me, in some ways, were very protective of me because I had a different path because of those choices. It’s not the same analogy but I want to complicate that analogy because a lot of this, we can equate it now to greed and money but this began with these ideas of goodness. How could you be a good Indian while you were being occupied by a government? You got in line, you walked the line. If you weren’t, you were punished. You were punished with starvation. That is also very much ingrained in us. If you wanted to eat, you did what they asked. If you didn’t want to eat, you suffered and starved. For me, that’s still happening today. Sovereignty is such a problematic word in Indian country or in an indigenous country. It’s a word that a lot of our young people are struggling with and pushing back against and yet sovereignty for our older generations is what keeps us visible in US law. But we do have to question what is sovereignty and we’re seeing it now more publicly. It’s always been happening privately on reservations but if the government wants to, they’d do it. We saw this very much in the public eye at standing rock and immediately after some of those pipelines went in, they had environmental disasters right behind it. There were many people in the Navajo Nation who did not want those large mining companies and mines to come in from uranium to coal and yet they did and then you survive. It’s a complicated process of living under occupation.
DN: I want to take what you’re saying now and connect it to something I recently listened to. I attended a virtual event for Seattle Arts & Lectures between Douglas Kearney and Claudia Rankine, and they got on the topic of Afro-pessimism. Claudia Rankine, while she agreed that today black Americans are still not viewed as fully human, she believed also, contrary to Afro-pessimism, that we couldn’t step outside the system, that black people had to pretend otherwise about the black situation. Still vote, still elect black congressmen, still step into roles like Poet Laureate of the United States, still participate within the system while acknowledging that the system doesn’t want their participation. Often when I’ve seen you talk, you often tell stories that evoke these conundrums, these circular puzzles or traps of living under occupation, as you say. For instance, in your talk with Nikky Finney, you mentioned the experience of visiting your sister in prison—how the bathroom in the waiting room was a complete disaster with tissue and paper towels and everything all over the floor. And that after you went in and cleaned it up to give the place a little island of dignity, the guards would just go back in and turn it all upside down again, that the bathroom, being that way, was by design. In a similar vein, you’ve talked about how the money you’ve received from the Ford Foundation as a poet is money that’s from the prison and carceral system. But the anecdote I wanted to maybe focus on in this relationship was one of your talks at Tin House Writer’s Workshop. You were talking about this sense of the inescapable around the Colorado River and how the system of water rights is asserted through how much water you consume or in another way to look at how much water you waste. You can’t demonstrate your water rights through the conservation or preservation of the water. Tribal nations along the Colorado River, if they wanted to keep their rights, would flood golf courses with water to keep the water access. The Colorado River runs through many of the poems in Postcolonial Love Poem. I was hoping we could take this notion of living under occupation and talk about land, and water in relationship to body, and being because you very explicitly say that when you say, “I carry a river or the first water is the body,” that you aren’t being metaphorical or conveying a mythos, but instead asserting an equivalency. That’s an important aspect of this collection that I would love for us to not skip over.
ND: Perhaps, one of the terms that we should open this with is the idea of the human, to not be fully human, and many of us talk about that but that is the problem is what is the human. In some ways, America can have their f*cking idea of the human. I will never succeed to it. It’s built into the language for me not to succeed in it. In some ways, it’s important for me to recognize that, and then also understand that there is the space outside of the human that I occupy. Referring back to that line about “this is not a metaphor”, that’s something I know and believe. It’s also very difficult to practice that in America. When I’m thinking again about critiquing what is participation, and the question, “Is there a difference between participation and complicity? Can you participate and not be a part of it? Can you participate and not be complicit in it?” The question that’s most important for me is the one I have to ask myself within that which is, “What am I comfortable enough to reject of humanity?” because that’s going to be very uncomfortable. We’re in this pandemic situation right now. We’re starting to, maybe not ask those questions but move toward them or to imagine what some of that language is, because I do think a lot about the census, I think a lot about voting. Those deserve more critique and there has to be more nuanced ways of discussing those things because what we’ve done is said it’s this or it’s that and that’s what the American blueprint has banked on us doing. We are citizens or not, in order to be a citizen, I have to participate in these things. I don’t know that we do. I don’t know that a small move of walking into that bathroom of the prison and seeing what a disaster it was, that bathroom was in that state because those people at the prison have a definition of what is human and they wanted me to know, they wanted every other person visiting to know, we were not succeeding as that human. When I picked that up and wiped the counters and the mirror, it wasn’t because I wanted them to know I was human. It was because I wanted me in that moment to be able to enter into a space with my sister and have not just dignity but care for myself. I deserved more in that small space of a bathroom, maybe the smallest spaces of our lives, a bathroom, it’s a thing we do, a very utilitarian flesh body thing—we go to the bathroom, we wash our hands—But it was important for me outside of that system, outside of what is humanity, to know that my own body deserved a certain care so that when I entered into that space with my sister, I was also capable of offering it to her. I’m saying this all not imagining for one second that it’s going to be easy for us to do what we’re going to need to do. And there have been plenty of people who, throughout time, have done it. I think of Assata Shakur. She’s done it and was forced into it in a way. In some ways, I don’t know how I will make my choices about when to not participate or how to not participate. For me, the question though that is difficult is how will I not be complicit.
DN: Also, this troubling of the word human I connect to, because it feels also connected to your skepticism of goodness because if we think of the word inhumane, which means somebody’s bad and that being humane is being good, it feels like there’s a whole lot baked into the dynamic of human versus nonhuman that isn’t very examined that’s just assumed.
ND: And that there is anything like goodness. I know what it means to break the law. I know what it means to add incorrectly. But in Mojave culture, and I’ve talked a little bit about this, but we had one of our most powerful beings, Pach Karawhe, who, our mountain was crooked. It’s our creation mountain, it’s got these beautiful boulder granites that from a distance from here, if I look out the door, north I see it and it looks a zigzag but as you get closer you realize there are these incredible boulder granites but the mountain looks slightly shifted. He was our most powerful being. He tried to move it, got it almost straight, and then dropped it. For us, that means that there’s no such thing as goodness. If there is anything, it’s the fact simply that we were born Mojave. We’re beyond goodness. We were born Mojave and there’s a strength and a power in it, and we will make mistakes. You make a mistake, what happens next? You try to do the next thing that has a different energy or you try to reorganize what that energy is. That to me, is one of the larger questions about what is goodness, and American goodness is for nobody. It’s meant for us and them, what is done for us in terms of violence, the way that America has created these—not just America, and again, it’s westernism—but it’s created many categories of violence as if violence is not a natural condition and then we have this wild way of thinking about peacefulness, like peaceful protest that somehow is not connected to defending oneself. We’re in a state where brown, black, queer, trans, and all of these other people, people in general, are not allowed to defend themselves. They have to be peaceful and get beaten down in the street. It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also have power. It doesn’t mean there’s anything—I have no critique of folks who, that’s the way they want to act. I also have a right to defend myself. I think something that’s crazy for people is my partner and I own guns. We have every right to, whether that’s to hunt or whether it’s to defend ourselves. I think that we’ve held ourselves to this idea of goodness, that in order for us to be good, we have to be passive, submissive, not speak back, not pressure the system. We have to understand, well, justice will occur. Well, we just need to talk about it some more. Well, just bring me to a place of understanding, make a good case for it. It’s like, “No, we want to live.” If you want to live, life is such that you will fight for that life no matter what you have to do. This is a terrible analogy, the same way you put an animal in a trap, and it will leave its leg behind to get out of that trap which is a violent thing. I think too, just about the very violence of any kind of life, to watch a plant push up through the ground in the desert, and to watch it incrementally try to live. We say grow and we pretend growth has nothing to do with life, but to burst a leaf, to drag whatever water you can from this desert, and burst out with a leaf, that’s a kind of violence.
DN: In Chinese medicine, the word for the energy of a seedling that’s pushing through frozen ground is the same word for anger. It’s also the sound of shouting, like the way something so soft and tender can make its way through something that’s completely hard, and get to the surface.
ND: Yeah. That’s in us. Anger is the emotion I trust the most. What I mean by that is, for me, anger requires so much of my attention, that I am most sensual in those moments of anger. It doesn’t mean I lose my mind in it, but that’s most important, to lose my mind in it, to not have my mind pretending it knows more than what my body in that moment is sensual to what’s happening. For me, that’s something that is very much American Empire, what we might call White Supremacy, but that’s also becoming a generic thing that I’m really worried about. But Western culture has tried so hard to dislocate us from our different sensualities which are anger, which are violence. As much as those violences and angers also teach us about what is tender, what is touch.
DN: Yeah. Something that you evoke really well in Postcolonial Love Poem is the connection between body and land, or breaking down the distinction between human and non-human. I wanted to ask you more about, where words fit into this, where language fits into this connection between body and earth? Because you say in American Water Museum, “You cannot drink poetry.” In one of your Tin House talks, you talked about how, when you’re away from home, you’re sought after as a poet, and that your poetry has a certain currency in the world at large, but then when you return home to the reservation, people aren’t as impressed at all with the poetry in, and of itself. They want to know what the poetry does, what tangible actions it has. You said, you were talking about how to put your poetry more into the world, into action beyond the page. I guess I wanted to hear about that. I know there were eight years between your two collections, I don’t know if there’s something manifest in your second collection that reflects that or if it’s something not in the collection itself, but some other activities around your poems that relate to this question of not being able to drink poetry.
ND: I was in a conversation, in a Graywolf event, with Kevin Young, Roy Guzman, and Khaled Mattawa. Khaled was thinking about the pleasure, that poetry is a pleasure. I would agree with that if that feels so hierarchical. I’m granting this as knowledge. But when Khaled was framing this conversation that poetry was a pleasure, it began with Kevin quoting Seamus Heaney who had said that poetry is a home. I had said, “I don’t know that poetry is a home. I believe it is one pathway home, either to return me to home or to carry me to a home that doesn’t exist yet.” I’m thinking about what language is. It was a gift from our creator. It’s amazing that we have different languages, and how it’s so difficult for us to understand that there is no hierarchical language. The fact that people around this world have their own language—I guess speech is what I’m talking about—speech is just impossible for me to understand. I realize it’s a gift, it’s luck. I also realize that it’s very physical, it’s another kind of touch. This is an example I’ve used before, I feel like I just finished a really large grant, that’s why I’m in example mode. [laughter] I think I should give an example like five times in this. [laughter]
DN: I didn’t notice. [laughs]
ND: It’s not in my lexicon, it feels so exciting. But something I would like to share, this is not an example, [laughter] this is something I would like to share. We talked a little bit about this in relation to language. I was leading a language conversation between our elders and other adult learners which is often an extremely tense, emotional space, because we have these groups, these generations of adults who were very intentionally cut off from the language. Then we have these elders who had to watch that happened and who now are in a position where they have something that they desperately need to give to these generations, and there are many chasms that keep that from happening. Adult and elder learning engagements are really emotional. We had an adult learner who was just fed up in this conversation, he’s like, “Listen, I just need to be able to tell my son that I love him, he was eight years old.” Our elders said, “We don’t have a word for love, there’s no word for love.” She was getting increasingly emotional. She’s like, “Well, we have to be able to say something, it can’t just be that we don’t have love.” Of course, we know the sentiment or whatever the emotional condition of that is. Finally, one of the elders, her aunt, said, “Well, what is it you want to tell him?” The learner had no words. She held her chest, she made some gestures like where her son might be standing next to her, where there was nobody there, and like back to her chest. She was crying, because she’d reached a point where she felt failed by language, she felt like a failure in some ways to this language, she felt it was challenging what it means to be Mojave, and who we are. When she breaks down, our elders do what they do, because they’re not old people, they’re beyond that, they’re an energy that is who we are. Among the few that were there, they were like, “Okay, we know what that means, you want to say, I would die for you.” “You want to say you are my eye.” “You want to say, I’m going to be stingy with you. Of course, we have words for that.” It was an interesting moment, thinking about language and what it does. It was almost like a terrible meeting, but good things came from it. But everybody left with this additional wound in them. Later that evening, this adult learner came to my mom’s house—I was staying with my mom at that point. I would drive to Phoenix, then come back and forth—I was staying at my mother’s house, and so this woman came by, she’s like, “Hey, do you think I can talk to your mom?” I was like, “Of course, but my mom can tell you if she can talk to you or not.” She came in, and she talked with my mom. She told my mom, in a way that she wouldn’t tell my elders, because she’s a little closer in age to my mom, she said, “You know, Bernadette, my father never told me he loved me,” and she said, “My mother never told me she loved me, and I don’t want my son to grow up like that.” Her father died of a heart attack. She’s like, “Even when he was getting wheeled into the emergency room, we were there by his bedside as they were pushing him up until the room where we couldn’t follow him through, I kept telling him I loved him, and he still never said it back.” My mom said, “My parents never told me they loved me,” and she said, “But did he have any response like he said nothing?” My mom was like, “Well maybe, he couldn’t say because he was sick.” And she’s like, “No, he was speaking, he just didn’t tell me he loved me back. He just kept squeezing my hands, my wrist, and my arm.” So my mom said, “That’s how they tell us they love us.” Because our language had been lost, we didn’t have that word with us yet. My mom was explaining that’s what her mother did, and her grandmother, they pressed the body. That was something beyond any word that could hold that. The next day, we went to my elders. I went to my teacher, Hubert. I was asking him about that. He said, “I haven’t heard that word in a long time, but it’s Kavanaam, it’s the way we press the body when you’re sick, when you’re a baby.” There was a moment in that, so we were able to bring Kavanaam back into our language, because it had been missing for I don’t know how long. But just that notion that speech is only one language, I guess. If language is technology, speech is only one way of it. Print is only one way of it. It’s not the body itself, it’s an estimation of the body, it’s a wish of the body, it’s the possibility of the body, it’s the thing the body has done, but doesn’t mean it defines the body. For me, there’s something about that power, that our people know that speech can’t carry everything, and so to hold the body, to hold the hand, to press it, to feel it beneath you, to remind it that you’re there, you’re touching it, and holding it, for me, that’s one of the atmospheres of language that I have been brought into, and raised with I think. When I think of poetry, I always want to be very attentive that I don’t lean too much into the performance of it. I don’t even mean reading, because if I read poems sometimes about the brother, I can feel my brother in a way that I can barely stand up there, like it’s all I can do to perform it. I don’t know what it would mean to break in it. Recently, I read a new essay, I almost let myself feel ashamed about it because I had to stop twice in the middle of it. I think something that was really interesting about that is right now, in this time of pandemic, I’m not up in front of the room with a bunch of people in it, so that performance has been stripped down in a way that I find myself so much more emotional in front of a computer screen.
DN: I think too.
ND: It’s me. And again, I’m getting sideways as I often do going sideways on this conversation, but to me that’s such an important relationship because when settlers, linguists, and ethnographers first came to Mojave, they did their little lexical vocabulary list and elicited things, they asked us, they asked my ancestors, “How do you say love?” and they didn’t have a word for it which was very natural. They tried to explain the concept to them, they had no word for it. So the ways they wrote about us is that we didn’t experience it, that we didn’t feel it. It makes sense to me that you have these white ethnographers who’ve come in. We’ve already had the cavalry through, we’ve already had the military through, these ethnographers come in, and are trying to tell us something that is about tenderness and care. [laughter] I would bet that we couldn’t even imagine those people felt whatever it was they thought they were telling us about. That’s a little bit of a constellation I carry with me constantly about language, about its physicality, where it comes from, and what poetry is. In poetry, as much as I’m a very tiny part in whatever energy is of the world, I feel like the land imagined me. The land imagined a flesh person, it imagined it from its clay, from dirt. What an imagination. We’ve been told, our creator also gave us language. I feel that was the creator’s way of giving us an imagination, so that we might make, and I feel like we’ve made beautiful things, and we’ve also made very horrible things.
DN: When I was thinking in preparing for the interview about this question of what poetry does and doesn’t do, you as a poet out in the world, and you as a poet back at home, I came across this quote by a Mexican Poet Heriberto Yépez. It was actually tweeted by Natalie Scenters-Zapico. I don’t even know this is a question, but I just thought this quote was so great, and I wanted to read it and see if you have any thoughts. “Viewing poetry in a time of crisis doesn’t help put an end to the crisis, it only helps to make poetry (again) a possible solution, a praxis that can really mean something good for the culture it belongs to.” He also says, “Viewing poetry in a time of crisis puts the emphasis on the time of crisis, erases the fact that the institution of poetry is part of the crisis, that poetry is in a crisis itself. Times of crisis help poetry hide its own crisis. I think instead of thinking how poetry can help in a time of crisis, think how poetry has collaborated for the production of a crisis, how that production of a crisis makes a culture risk itself and thus having to strengthen the strategies to perpetuate itself using the institution of crisis as an excuse. To make poetry a possible measure. To make ourselves forget we live in cultures that are dying, cultures that want to kill.”
ND: First of all, his book is incredible. I don’t know if you’ve read Transnational Battle Field.
DN: I haven’t.
ND: I think this is from the Transnational Battle Field. This is where he moves so it might be from something else. But I have a quote that I have a picture of, I’m trying to find it, I’m just looking through my phone. I just took a screenshot. My students and I have read him. About me: In English, I am possessed by the most powerful Revolutionary force in the world today: The Anti-American spirit. But I am written and I write in English. I too sing America’s shit.” Especially that idea of wanting to kill, [laughs] I think he’s talking about something deeper. That American poetry is not strong enough for. I want to say that first, because I think the questions that he’s asking are about everything. They’re about our lands, our lives, and our languages. I see the critique of American poetry, poetry itself. I guess what that opens up, I had this conversation with my students when we’re reading, we read it with Spring and All, William Carlos Williams, Spring and All which I think is another incredible critique. We’re always arguing about what critique means. I have always thought critique is attention too. I think the way I write poems about the brother is because I love him, and because it is love that not only compels me to look, to touch with my eyes or my words, but it’s also one that I very intentionally do so that I remember I love him. So I think the critique of American poetry is really important. I think it’s really easy to say American poetry is vibrant, it is all of these things. It’s also very much Twitter, if we let it be. I’m trying to take time with the piece you read. I’m also thinking about his book in general. I guess, one of the important stakes he places before us or reminds us about is that anything we love and anything we do, we also must question it in terms of our intentions and in terms of our capacities to understand it. A big question is, how do we not waste it? I guess that’s the thing that a lot of us are thinking right now at this time. It’s a time of reset if we want it to be even if we don’t know how to do it. For example, abolition is on everybody’s minds, even though a lot of people can’t imagine it, however it has been imagined, and it is being done. At the same time, if we’re going to look only at what is “the mainstream”, of course we’re not going to find it there. You can’t perform abolition. There are a million conversations happening about it that do feel performative like racial justice right now. We’ve talked a lot about how many schools are out there. I think there was a “Racial Justice” panel at my school that had a thousand and some digital visitors. Then they did that, they marked the box that’s very close to empathy which is racial awareness then they move on. To me, there are some power structures of course that are pressuring, but I think for me, what I felt a lot is the return to myself of what do I think poetry does, what is my investment in it versus what do I think it offers outside of myself. I can probably be more succinct looking through this end. American poetry is many things, many wonderful, lucky, beautiful things. It also creates a condition for our egos to be the only thing present sometimes. Something I try really hard to fight is how can I be in a room without having to be the center of it, but to let language de-center it in a certain way. How do I not let poetry be a currency of celebrity, of performance, of outrage, of fast time. How can I let it be something that feels like a disruption of what I thought I could do, so that I might find what I didn’t even know I could do. This is maybe an example of that, I know I’m doing a poor job of addressing this, I think some of it is because Transnational Battle Field and some of their works are saying the thing, that not many of us have been afraid to say, that we hadn’t dislocated ourselves enough that we could possibly say it, because you love a thousand likes, you like to know people are reading your work. But what’s been really beautiful about this moment and this virtual world—and there are so many problems with the virtual world. We don’t often think about what the levels of extraction are for us to have this technology or that when we throw our technologies away, they go to Ghana, and poison everybody who has to take them apart—but yeah, I think there’s something about this virtual space that holds us accountable to ourselves [laughs] at how we engage, like you cannot f*cking perform in this space. [laughter] I’ve seen virtual performances, I’ve watched my friends do this. My partner does performative art, and has done this. But I’m sitting in a room by myself, in some ways, I realize the discomfort I have in a lot of moments or I feel like, “You know what, Natalie, quit pretending you know something.” There’s a certain care I want to have with language in this space that feels really, really important to me. I guess for me—and this is what Transnational Battle Field and that quote do to me—I just want to be careful, and I don’t mean careful as in not making a mistake, but I want to be careful in recognizing that language can be very dangerous. That not being attentive to language can be very dangerous. That if I can come to it with a kind of intention, and I can treat it like a practice versus a product or a task that I have to do, if I can be who I am with you here and who I am on the page, the way I am with my partner or the way I move through a day in all its difficulty or ease or joy or worry, that’s what I want poetry to be to me. I want it to be another way of touch, like I say touching myself or someone I love or someone I don’t know. That’s really hard because it’s also what I do. It’s also in some ways, my job. I think that’s also one of the reasons why the ways you’re having these conversations—because my partner really loves the show and is always listening to it, and asking me about things. In fact, she and I were with Joe Sacco, we were really going at it. [laughter]—but how do we create that space that we believe is the reason why we came to poetry. How do we keep the space in between me writing, and what it meant, then where the poem ends up happening in font or book or text? How do we keep that space in between? Which is unknown, which is fallibility of language, fallibility of imagination, and also the complete possibility of it. I guess if anything, thinking of the quote you read, thinking of the larger work of Transnational Battle Field, I think that’s what it is doing. It’s saying, “Don’t make this easy ever.” I don’t mean take for granted, but don’t assume this is what success is. In some way, that was a straightforward critique of poetry as the institution, then of course what it is.
DN: I want to return to and end with love, and a discussion of love to circle back to the beginning. You’ve said, “It’s possible any word is a myth. A small myth. A large myth. A word is never what it is, but a desire for the thing to be, either for understanding or for want or for remembering.” In your first collection, you use myth as a way to engage with your brother who at one point is Icarus, in another point he’s Judas, and many times he’s an Aztec god. But your first collection ends with poems to an unnamed beloved which seems to be more of the focus of Postcolonial Love Poem. Yes, your brother returns, and yes there are poems that were part of a letter correspondence with the Poet Ada Limon, but often you’re addressing the beloved without the beloved being named. I want to read a couple of things you’ve said about love, and see if they spark any thoughts for you. The first is, “The love poem is maybe at war with the colonial State,” the second is, “A dangerous way of thinking lately is that we love as resistance. I understand that, but I refuse to let my love be only that. I am not loving against America or even in spite of it. I am loving because I was made to love, love was made for me,” and the third quote is, “In order for me to be possible, I have to create conditions in which love is always possible.”
ND: Love huh. [laughter]
DN: The word that has no Mojave word.
ND: Yeah. I use the word love a lot. I know it’s something poetically, at least when I was younger, people were always telling me, “What do you mean by love?”
DN: I know you say the word “hand” a lot also, but the word that leapt out to me that I noticed repeating itself a lot was “hip.”
ND: The hip, love, desire, I think the ways I’ve learned love—and I’ve mentioned this before, my great grandmother was the first person I lost in a way that I knew what loss was. Yes lost, absent, she was gone. I remember walking into her room the next day, her literal physical absence, to see her not in her bed, to see her sheets folded. What I knew in that moment, yes I knew she was gone, yes I knew she was absent, then I also knew something more of myself. To me, that is what love and loss are. We’ve been taught to not be selfish, but I think any life has to be selfish, not in the ways that we’ve heard about selfishness, as in you’re not thinking about someone else but, shouldn’t I be selfish if I want to live? In America, you have to be so f*cking selfish to make it through any day, to be yourself in a day, to come from the reservation—which is where I’m at now, it’s where I’m talking to you from. For me, to get through a day here, I have to be very selfish. Some of that is a reminder of many things, that I am loved, that I can love. For me, the reason why I’m bringing her up is because she was the first person who taught me that I did love, and I learned it when she was gone. It’s not that I didn’t feel things like it, but when she was gone, my body understood what love was. So love in that way was not her literal absence, but it was the way that my body suddenly knew what absence was, and that was love. That and thinking about desire which I feel like I very much learned from her, from the ways I took care of her, and the ways I tended to her, the ways I touched her—because she was a double amputee, she required insulin shots, she had wounds. We had to be very careful with small things like giving her a cup, she had this giant blue cup with a little plastic straw—just watching the way, sometimes I missed her mouth, and her mouth would try to find that, that was desire. I’ve talked about this before, but she would ask me to rub her legs which were not there, I did it for her. I didn’t question her. I didn’t understand it. But I don’t know that there was a truer touch than me touching what was not there, of her legs for her, because they ached, so for me to rummage my hands, to move my hands in those sheets where nothing was. So the hip is the primary doorway for me, of desire, and that I felt desire beyond any desire, beyond any love, like sexual or platonic there with my great grandmother, touching her hip, learning to bathe her. Those images are the foundational images, it’s as foundational as my river, my desert. I think about that, if I could touch everybody I touch, the ways that I touched her with such, not carefulness, but care in ways that I still remember, thinking about some of those touches, what they were was me existing. That’s something I think a lot about love. We pretend we can offer it and we pretend it’s ours to give. It’s not that those things don’t happen, but for me, I guess the wonder about it is that it’s the way I exist. The ways I touch people is the way I exist. It doesn’t mean I don’t cause people pain or have not or cause people pleasure or not, it just means that’s the kind of love I’m imagining. For example, it’s not different from the ways I say that I am one of my desert’s pleasures. That when our creator made us, he created something that was full of energy, and that was a pleasure for the creator. We weren’t imagined of nothing. We were built of clay that already existed. We were built of clay and water. So think of this like reorganizations of energy, that love is something like that, the conversation I had with Ada, I wanted to speak to Ada the way I feel about Ada. What I feel about Ada, it’s not different from the way I feel about my lover, my partner. Those feelings are the same, except we have learned to define the touches of those as different. There’s a way that I’ve tried to always move backward toward what I became through my relationship with my great-grandmother and what a generosity that was to care for her right before the pandemic started. This is similar, because you had mentioned love against the colonial states. My grandmother was sick with diabetes, that’s what killed her, that’s what put her in that bed. I never knew her when she had legs. But my mother, right before the pandemic, we came back to my reservation in February because my mother had a diabetic ulcer, it went into her bone, her body went septic, so she had a bone infection, her body went septic. They were thinking they might have to amputate her leg. She was scared. Everybody was worried. The pandemic was setting in. So we came back to tend to her. I remember my body, it’s something that will never leave me the same way some of my moments with my great grandmother will never leave me. We were there. We have a very poor health care system so we couldn’t get anybody to come to the house. They were trying to, at that point, tell me I couldn’t be in the room. There’s a time when other people have been outside the window to make sure things are going well. My mother, in some ways, native’s hobbies, we were taught enough not to ask questions so often. She just let them do without critiquing them or asking for what she needed. But we wanted to bring her home. The nurse was like, “You have to learn the debridement, I’m going to teach you how to clean this wound.” Debridement is very violent, like it’s cutting. But I remember being there and thinking about that, then having to do that for the first time to my mother. I was saying this over and over again, and I mentioned it just in a written interview once, what I had to tell myself the whole time that I was doing this is that, “This is lucky, this is one way I’m loving my mother.” Again, when I think of being against the colonial state like natives have diabetes for a reason, my mother had shitty healthcare for a reason, my great-grandmother had shitty healthcare for a reason. They were very quick like, “We’ll just cut your mom’s leg off.” It was like, “No, I’m in a fight for my mother.” But as that was happening, it was like I had to tell myself, “You have language, this is what you do, it has power. This is more important than any poetry or poem you might write, but use it right now.” I had to tell myself as I was doing that like, “This is lucky, this is my mother’s body, this is me touching her, this is something I can offer her, and her body is offering me this. This disease wants to live like anything else wants to live, the same way I want to live, and the same way my mother wants to live, and the same that I want her to live.” I imagine myself even talking to the wound like, “Here you are, here I am, and now I’m touching you. This is an energy we share, we’re doing this together, and I’m going to let you go.” Those are the moments that say poetry is a lucky, lucky place I’ve been able to arrive at, and even luckier that I’ve been received there, like small things to large things, being able to meet you through poetry, and being able to meet those people. Some of my best friends, I’ve met through poetry. Then there’s the lucky ways of just knowing my books in conversation with people, it means something to people. It’s important for me to remember also that it’s just one way, it’s one lucky way I can move through a day, that I could tend to my mother. In some ways, it was not a great poem, but the way that I touched her, that was poetry, it’s the same way I craft something on a page. For me, those are the moments when I don’t have to, yes, I’m using English, but I don’t have to do this against America. I don’t have to prove myself to America. That’s hard to do. Sometimes I engage it, but for me, that painful moment which for me, again, was very selfish, because I can’t imagine losing my mother, then I didn’t want her to be in pain, but that’s a moment where I realize again, sometimes for the first time, just to return myself to it, we do find joy against these things. I grew up on a reservation, I know what it means to live despite. Then I also realized the importance of not subscribing to going through this nation to be happy. I guess that’s some of what I’m thinking about when we were talking about participation. I mean, yes this is a nation, I do think there are other iterations of ways we can live together, not as even one, but very differently to live together. So the ways I’m trying to build my poems right now or to use poetry to help me think is that I’m not asking the state for permission. I’m not asking for the state to see me or to love me or to tell me that I’m good. Some of that involves trying to build spaces or offer spaces or find spaces where that happens. Poetry sometimes is that. Then as Yépez has said that sometimes it’s not that. I’ve gone a little sideways with that, but I guess that’s always one of my big questions with it. Our natural conditions were pleasure. Our natural conditions were pleasure, care, and tenderness—and not without violence, I think violence has always been here. I think violence is many different things—yet now that we are here under these different occupations, I don’t think, for example, democracy is my savior. I don’t know that democracy has a place for me. Fred Moten talks about this, we learn, we adapt, we learn to move within it which maybe, sometimes feels subversive to us, and other times doesn’t. But I want to find ways to move in language and outside of those things without pretending that I could ever be their version of what they think life is, which is a human. Again, as I said before, I don’t know what I’m willing to sacrifice for that to happen. That’s I guess the big pandemic question for me the rest of the time.
DN: Could we go out with one of your letter poems to Ada Limon, From the Desire Field, then also a poem that Rachel Eliza Griffiths suggests which is also a love poem despite its title Grief Work.
ND: These poems with Ada were the first poems where I actually addressed my anxiety, partly because I was speaking to a beloved, not an audience or not even a page.
[Natalie Diaz reads a poem called From the Desire Field]
Then this poem in some ways is very like Rachel Eliza, I call her Eliza. Rachel Eliza is very much in this poem, and we begin in talking about grief, the grief she suffers, the grief she carries with the loss of her mother. Just thinking about love, what love and desire are in the midst of hope, trying to hold grief with somebody.
[Natalie Diaz reads a poem called Grief Work]
DN: Thank you so much for being on the show today, Natalie.
ND: No, gracias for having me, for the time, and generosity to just wonder alongside you.
DN: Yeah. I could have done two more hours. I know we’re going like it’s already a marathon, [laughs] but we’ll have to save it for another visit.
ND: This is my elder Mojave time, so yeah, [laughter] I hope it’s not too difficult to edit me here and there.
DN: No, it’s actually more difficult to skip over so many questions that I’ll leave unasked for today and imagine a future encounter together.
ND: Yeah for sure. Again, gracias, David. I really appreciate, and way outside of me, this is such a wonderful field that you’ve offered, that we all have the luck to move in and just listen. It feels like a whole different time that you’ve altered for us, I appreciate that. I’m wishing you and your beloved love and health. We’ll talk soon.
DN: We were talking today to the Poet Natalie Diaz, the author of Postcolonial Love Poem from Graywolf. You’ve been listening to Between The Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.