Natalie Diaz on Writing Poetry as a Body
From the Thresholds Podcast, Hosted by Jordan Kisner
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Natalie Diaz, author of the new poetry collection Postcolonial Love Poem, discusses relating to her body as an athlete, how she conceives of her anxiety, and what we’re talking about when we talk about poetry. (Including guest appearances from her two chatty African grey parrots.)
From the interview:
Natalie Diaz: I definitely believe in the power of language and the power of poetry. Poetry’s one of many ways of language, and it’s one of many ways, I think, of sensuality in the body. I do struggle a little bit with the ways that we pretend poetry is not a natural condition. There’s been a lot of conversation that poetry is not a luxury. And I think originally, no, it wasn’t. But right now, I think it definitely is. There are ways that my elders speak and practice their lives that would be poetry in any other place, except they’ve never heard of that. That’s their natural condition, which is intentionality, which is an appreciation for the body because of what it does in relationship to the land.
It’s kind of amazing to wake up and think—if we look north from where I’m at, so at my front door, our creation mountain is there. You can see it. To wake up in the morning and be like, my body was made there from this earth I’m walking on. So suddenly your body is very different and how your body is relating. The way we were taught is that language is just one energy of the body. It’s one way of imagining the body being carried to another body. But it’s not the body. And it doesn’t mean the stakes aren’t high and the stakes can’t affect the body. But, yeah, I think language is very much capable because—or if—the body follows it. Right? Isn’t that the commitment or promise we’re making, is that the language I’m showing you is in some way the promise of my body arriving to be in conversation with you. Somewhere, our bodies are affecting one another. Like we three sitting here in this room. And in some ways, this is no different than if we were in person, because our language is still happening, in a different kind of physicality.
I think as well, coming from a place where our language is a dying language, or it’s been called a dying language—once you put that tag on things, it really changes what is language for you. And also having worked with my elders and watching them come to realizations about what might never be recovered or what might be lost forever, or not having the language to offer, when they know that’s the only way they can carry some of the bodies from before to our younger people.
I guess I have a really complicated relationship right now. It’s been compounded during this time, where I’ve had time to to return to my private practice of language. In some ways, the language that’s most important to me right now—I have a book out, I have these things happening, and that’s actually not the language that’s most important to me. It’s the language my partner and I have together. Like, how do we build a language right now so that we can both walk out of the house and exist? What does that mean?
And in some ways, that is poetry, right? That’s the practice of poetry, or the way I’ve imagined the practice of poetry. In the same ways that you’re so—not careful, but intentional about language. To be able to imagine it as a body that you’re touching as you’re working on it or writing it. And then to also know the different flesh bodies it connects you to. That was a messy answer, but I think language and poetry have a lot of capability and possibility. And it’s also sometimes disappointing to see what we do with it. We draw so many lines around it.
This episode is brought to you by: Betterhelp. Get 10% off your first month by visiting betterhelp.com/thresholds; What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron, now available wherever you get books from Catapult; and, Luster by Raven Leilani, now available from FSG.
Natalie Diaz is the author of the poetry collection When My Brother Was an Aztec. She has received many honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a USA Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship. She teaches at Arizona State University.