Rules of Verse: The Practice of Poetry

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Natalie Diaz explores the power of language and images in her work.

natalie diaz
Deanna Dent/ASU Now

I come from a community of storytellers. I grew up with stories about our land and water, about the strange and reality-defying occurrences of my desert—discovering the night heaving in sleep on a moonstruck sand dune; hearing an owl call out to you to “come closer and look”; a 127-degree day; a rock that weeps when its creator dies. Before there was poetry, there was our Mojave language. When we say our name in Mojave, we say, “The river runs through my body.” When we say the Mojave word for “sex,” we refer to “what the hummingbird does to the flower.” Poetry is one of many lucky recognitions of that intimacy with language and the many bodies language carries. When I write or read poetry, I recognize it—as a home, as a place of pain and intention, and as a way to practice my life. Poetry is where I recognize myself. I started writing poetry because it was what was waiting for me, a gift to arrive at. I’m still arriving at it; it’s still always just up ahead.

This article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

Poetry creates the conditions in which any wound can bloom, where words are everything they’ve been and all that they might yet be. These are the conditions I am also looking to find or create in the world in order to exist. I’m writing from a country that assumed I would have no voice that does not iterate and replicate its power. Poetry is not a hobby; it is a practice, a way I live best. Poetry lets me out of time in that I can remember my country’s violence and yet not be the sum of it.

I waited eight years between my first book and my second, which is unusual in current American poetry time. It’s not that I am patient, because I am rather anxious, especially with what I love. And I feel always urgent and a little dangerous when I write, the danger of knowing myself. The work on this book was different in some ways because I am different, but it is also the same in many ways because I have a foundational relationship with language and image. My images were built in the desert, along a wild but endangered river, on a reservation that was where we were meant to die and not to live, where I have learned that to love a brother sometimes means you must fight him. And yet in this book, I demanded a different visibility, one that makes my nation uncomfortable—my speakers refused to be defined by their wounds and would instead sow them and reap light from them. In these poems, my rage and anxiety are sisters of my desire and pleasure.

Pandemics are dangerous because of the threats to our health and also because of the ways our governments move beneath their cover, as if in the camouflage of a giant dust storm. When we come out of this, I hope all the books we’ve shared will return us to the old language we need to begin and to continue. Poetry is one of the ways I love myself best, in memory and imagination. If anything, I wish these poems to be a way for a reader to return to themselves and their beloveds, knowing how capable we are of love, how deserving of receiving and offering it. Not a lazy love, not a sweet love, but the rigorous love, the love that makes us dangerous.

I still have so much to learn about poetry, but I think this James Baldwin quote, from a 1984 interview with the Paris Review, is in relationship to how I think about my own landscape of poetry. Baldwin said: “I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac.”•

This essay is adapted from a conversation with the Forward Arts Foundation that took place on August 4, 2020.

Graywolf Press


Graywolf Press

Natalie Diaz’s first poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press), was published in 2012.
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