MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Natalie Diaz, who is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, is the author of the 2012 collection When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon) and the new Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf), which reinvents narratives of desire while exploring the history of violence against Native Americans.
What role do poets play in their communities?
The days of pretending language is not political are behind us, and have never existed for some us. It’s lucky to write poetry. It’s a gift, but I see us getting lazy, slow, losing edges that might keep us prepared to question the status quo, to lift up our poetry and urge it off the page, usher it to join the true warriors and activists in the streets. Applause is not love. You can’t stand in front of the tanks on Twitter and pretend that is an action. These are unpopular opinions, but I think being unpopular right now means you’re on the right track.
You direct a language revitalization program with speakers of Mojave. How has this shaped your approach to language and writing?
I think of language differently because of my work and have a different understanding of its energy and physicality, its power. A poem is just one way of carrying language for a moment, but the poem is never the end goal. Language is one of our greatest technologies, the thing that makes stories that our ancestors gave us so that we might survive. I don’t think I could exist in this current poetry moment without having the Mojave language and my teacher ‘Amat Chumiich Mahakyev, who is also my family, one of my best friends, with me. Because I write primarily in the English language, it always feels dangerous to me—that I must work against English even as I’m writing in it—so I never take it for granted, nor do I trust it. It’s not humility I mean, but it’s an understanding that I’m not the center.
What was on your mind as you shaped this book?
I was asking questions about my own body first, what it deserves, what it might offer, and bodies of language, land, and water, bodies not human but living. I tried hard to hold any body, every body, as if it were a beloved—even the hardest bodies to hold, like the brother, like a country. I thought about my great-grandmother’s body, my first body of love and the first I lost. She was a double amputee, and I only ever knew her without legs. I used to help take care of her, and she said I was her legs. I was told her body was broken, but she was the most beautiful person I knew, so through her I learned a different kind of love—a more capable and possible love. And I learned not to believe too much in “beauty.”