Poet Natalie Diaz recalls wandering around the house one morning in early October, walking circles around her coffee table. She’d just turned 40 years old, and she got the phone call of a lifetime. It was a representative for the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, who quickly went from wishing Diaz a happy birthday to saying she had been awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. “I didn’t have a lot to say,” Diaz says. “A part of me was in a place of disbelief.”
Most people call the fellowships "genius grants." Typically, they’re awarded each year to 20 to 30 “extraordinary and creative individuals” in diverse fields. There’s no requirement about how the $625,000 prize, paid out over a five-year period, should be spent. Diaz is one of 25 recipients this year. Others include artist and curator Julie Ault, violinist and social justice advocate Vijay Gupta, and playwright Dominique Morisseau.
Diaz is as associate professor in the Department of English at ASU, where she’s co-presenting a Borderlands Poetry conversation and reading with North Carolina-based poet Eduardo Corral on Monday, November 19. It’s part of something called archiTEXTS, a program she created to foster collaborations between people who embrace poetry, literature, and story.
This is Diaz’s third year at ASU, where she’s taught spring classes since 2016. But it’s her first fall at the university.
Born in Needles, California, on the Mohave reservation, Diaz is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Community. “ASU is sitting atop Akimel O’odham land,” she says. “I’m Akimel O’odham and Mohave.” She’s enjoying being closer to home, and living within the desert. “We always say the way you dream is very connected to where you are.”
Her first collection of poems, titled When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published in 2012. A second book titled Post-Colonial Love Poem, is due out in 2020.
Diaz perhaps gained her first inspirations from stories told to her as a child.
“My dad told stories of what happened to him in Vietnam, and things they have seen in the desert,” she says. “My mom was always telling ghost stories.” Diaz recalls reading early, at just 3 years old, and being struck by the pictures and stories in a big book of Norse mythology. “It felt important because I began to question what was history and what was myth.” That’s when she realized that imagination could be more accurate than some of the history people have claimed was fact.
“It’s only been a few years since I have been able to say I’m a poet,” Diaz says. “Back home on the reservation, it doesn’t have much currency. Back home they know me for playing basketball.” Often, Diaz likens physical movement to language. “Like basketball, the way I read the world is very physical. Like basketball, poetry has a kind of physicality. It’s futurism, moving towards something.”
There’s another reason physicality infuses Diaz’s work – growing up in a big family where 11 people shared two bedrooms. “The body wasn’t a thing of shame,” she says. “In the Mohave language there are no bad words, even about the body.”
Diaz’s work also reflects her own identity.
“As an indigenous person and a Latina person, I’m considered half immigrant and half Native. How am I supposed to exist, and think about my existence, when I grew up on a reservation knowing it was intended to oppress or disappear my people?” It’s a question raised by Diaz, who recognizes she’s not alone in that experience. “I intersect with other groups of people who’ve had experiences of being saddled with that.”
Diaz questions existing power structures as well. “Especially living in Arizona, some people think that with enough power and money they can enact a law and it will become a thing, like drawing a border so people who’ve been living here for thousands of years are no longer welcome here.”
She identifies not only as indigenous and Latinx, but also as queer. “To say I’m queer feels like solidarity. I love the people I love. I try to love all the people I love in the same ways. I can love a partner, lover, friend, or family in the same complex way,” she says. “I write a lot of love poems, more than queer poems. I write to say that I am alive and I have the right to autonomous pleasure.”
Diaz counts several people as significant influences.
“Hubert McCord, my elder, holds an elevated space, a space with respect and responsibility,” she says. Like McCord, Diaz is working to preserve the Mohave language. She’s also got great respect for several indigenous poets at ASU, including Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, Alberto Rios, and Sandra Cisneros. “I come from an incredible line of writers, in a space they have created, that I can move in.”
Recently, Diaz has been creating work that elevates the importance of water. Last summer, she curated an exhibition called “Words for Water: Stories and Songs of Strength by Native Women” for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. The show featured poets, writers, and musicians exploring environmental and cultural justice.
Diaz notes that American poetry is still young, and says it has great potential.
“In many countries, revolutions have been fueled or started by poetry. Some had to write entire poems on sheets of toilet paper or sneak poetry out of prison in the bottom of a shoe.” Diaz cites poets Federico Garcia Lorca and Miguel Hernández, both victims of the Spanish Revolution, and says American poetry is capable of much more.
“I hope people begin to realize the real power it could have.”
Borderlands Poetry: A Conversation and Reading with Eduardo C. Corral. 6:30 p.m. Monday, November 19. Pima Auditorium, Memorial Union, ASU, 301 East Orange Street, Tempe. Free admission. Visit the ASU Virginia G. Piper Writing Center website.
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