Poet Of The Week

Natalie Diaz

     September 2–8, 2013

Natalie Diaz grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. After playing professional basketball in Europe and Asia for several years, she completed her MFA in poetry and fiction at Old Dominion University. She has been awarded the Bread Loaf 2012 Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry, the 2012 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Literature Fellowship, a 2012 Lannan Residency and the 2012 Lannan Literary Fellowship. Her first book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, was published in June 2012 by Copper Canyon Press. The winner of a 2013 Pushcart Prize, Diaz currently lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, and directs a language revitalization program at Fort Mojave, her home reservation. There she works and teaches with the last Elder speakers of the Mojave language.

My Brother At 3 A.M.

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps
when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.
     O God, he said, O God.
          He wants to kill me, Mom

When Mom unlocked and opened the front door
at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.
     He wants to kill me, he told her,
          looking over his shoulder.

3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,
What’s going on? she asked, Who wants to kill you?
     He looked over his shoulder.
     The devil does. Look at him, over there.

She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?
The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.
     The devil, look at him, over there.
          He pointed to the corner house.

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.
Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
     My brother pointed to the corner house.
          His lips flickered with sores.

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.
O God, I can see the tail, he said, O God, look.
     Mom winced at the sores on his lips.
          It’s sticking out from behind the house.

O God, see the tail, he said, Look at the goddamned tail.
He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.
     Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.
          O God, O God, she said.

–From When My Brother Was an Aztec, Copper Canyon Press, 2012.

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This poem was built from a phone call with my mother. She told me about opening the door one night to find my brother there, on the porch, trembling, thinking an evil spirit was chasing him. For days, I could not rid myself of the images that I created while she told me this story. I didn’t know what to do with them. I didn’t know what they meant. I thought this poem was going to be about me, about my feelings about my brother. I caged up my images with the pantoum form. The repetition and meditation on some of what was pacing in my head helped push this poem down the page. What I realized was that this poem was not about me, maybe not even about my brother; rather it was about how I felt about my mother and what she was dealing with, what my brother was putting her through.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a short story collection, a second book of poems and a Mojave language dictionary.

What’s a good day for you?

A good day for me: I wake up without feeling like morning is a giant ship wrecked into my chest. Some sweet person makes me coffee. I learn a new story or set of words in Mojave. I win against the sad afternoon. I read a good poem. I drive through the desert. I drink a good bottle of wine. I say my prayers. I go to bed.

So you don’t live in Brooklyn. Where’s home for you? What’s it like being a poet there? As Jay Z might ask, Can you live?

I live in the Mohave Valley. I think Jay Z wouldn’t make it long in my desert, although “Bonnie & Clyde” is on my workout mix. It was 126 degrees here for a week this summer. Being a poet in 126 degrees is like being anything else in 126 degrees. You sweat when you do it.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I stayed in Brooklyn for a little over two months in March-May, 2013. I wandered back and forth between Bed-Stuy and Prospect Heights. I ate too many doughnuts from Dough. Had too many pancakes with bananas and Chantilly cream at Cheryl’s. Ate too much salty vegan food at V-Spot. Had too much of everything at Sud and Chavela’s. Brooklyn is like a giant restaurant for me. A really expensive one where you tip 20% no matter how awful the service is.

Favorite Brooklyn bookstore(s)?

Unnameable Books because it amazes me how anybody can find anything in there and because I sat through a reading in the back and watched a shiny worm ribbon in and out of the night and the rocks for about an hour. And once, I bought Carl Phillips’ book Silverchest and a few others there and walked across the street to Pequeña, where I had so many margaritas that I forgot my books in the booth when I left. Maybe I forgot my whole life in that booth. So, the night of the shiny worm ribbon reading at Unnameable, I walked to Pequeña’s afterward, and my books were still there!

Favorite places to read and write in Brooklyn?

I loved going to Jane’s Carousel in DUMBO. I love carousels. Beneath the bridge. By the water. I’m still fascinated by a photo of the carousel lit up and surrounded by water during Hurricane Sandy (I drove from Detroit to Brooklyn during that hurricane because the flights were grounded). I’ve tried to write about that carousel.

Favorite places to go in Brooklyn not involving reading or writing?

Pinkberry. Every Pinkberry in Brooklyn. I’ve been to all of them.

Favorite Brooklyn poet(s), dead and/or alive?

There’s a rack of Brooklyn Poets, but I’ll list the first couple names I come across with a quick scan of my bookshelf (which is coded not by area code, so I’ll be missing quite a few): Lynn Melnick. Pat Rosal. Brenda Shaughnessy. Cynthia Cruz. Dorothea Lasky. Maybe instead of “reservation” or “not reservation,” I’ll organize my books by borough for the next time.

Last awesome book(s)/poem(s) you read?

Gabi Calvocoressi’s book The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart and Keetje Kuipers’s poem “A Beautiful Night for the Rodeo.”

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate sandia,
And what I crack green and hand carve red you should drink
     the sweet of
For every dark seed spit from me as good a dark seed sliding
     down into the belly of

If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.

She: Brooklyn

She’s a red ball—I can’t dodger.
She’s more job when she’s off, but most jack

when she’s better. And when she is done she goes father.

She: hands round my wrists. She: Show me what’s in your pen?
I unzip the “p,” slip off the “n.” She: O, It’s no small “e.” It’s Biggie.

And since all nights are midnights and Mass in Brooklyn,
prays she: Take or be take, rob or be rob,
I’m too full with gods and with love.
I want to see god, to see what comes out, so to her I go and goes in.

Why Brooklyn?