Event Recap: Lexicons of the Body

Poet Natalie Diaz and CBC host John Freeman spoke about thirst, collaboration, erotic poems, and basketball in Postcolonial Love Poem, the California Book Club selection for February.

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Host John Freeman opened the latest California Book Club gathering—a discussion of poet Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem—with a comment on the collective perception of poets: “A lot of people think of poets as sitting on a mountain of vastness, stroking their chins.” He then contrasted this image with the collaborations found in the endnotes of the book. Some of the endnotes relate to her collaboration on a series of poems with her friend and fellow poet Ada Limón. Freeman asked what collaboration means to Diaz and how it came to be her way of thinking about writing.

Diaz explained that collaboration is built into her and that she’s from a large family of 11 kids who grew up in the small space of a two-bedroom house. She likened her experiences growing up to collaboration, noting, “Living on a reservation, where your neighbors were your family, we were collectively responsible for a lot of our individual mistakes in some ways.”

Remarking that she always feels as though she’s with folks when she comes to the page, she continued, “Collaboration, for me, is natural. It’s a way I think. I think better alongside or even mostly against. It’s like basketball. I need to press up against these wonders and these possibilities to understand how my own body exists or moves or bends or gives because of that. So to collaborate with other writers or artists, it feels natural to me, and it feels like I’m my best and my most—so much more than I would be if I were standing on my own.”

Referencing Diaz’s time as a point guard for Old Dominion University’s women’s basketball team, Freeman agreed, saying, “If any position on the court needs to see the whole court and the dynamics of motion of everyone, it has to be the point guard.” He then observed that when Diaz talks, she uses many of the images and metaphors that are braided throughout her work, and he asked her about thirst as an orienting metaphor in Postcolonial Love Poem.

Diaz commented, “Language, for me, is quite physical, so I feel like I’m always touching it or it’s moving me. And so, there are words that I carry, and I can feel myself sometimes letting words go, or other times holding them and refusing to, or just continuing to turn them over, almost like you want to disc the field of that word and see what grows errantly that you didn’t know was there, but also to tend what you think might be there. Thirst, just as a word itself, I think is so interesting. I think it’s from a verb that has to do with drying? And yet it is also a desire.”

Diaz read “From the Desire Field,” a poem in a series written to keep in touch with Limón and included in Postcolonial Love Poem. Freeman commented on the “omnidirectional nature of love in this book.” He said, “Typically, one of the things that makes sexual love hard to write about is its deeply specific nature, sometimes where you think, Oh my god, I have to watch the poet have sex now.

Freeman praised Diaz’s ability to “find all these different ways to write about erotic love that shake up language and create the feelings and the intensities of erotics, without the very tired images of it. That, to me, is one of the major breakthroughs of the book—is to read love poems that are deeply sensuous, that feel completely new.” Freeman wondered whether some of this breakthrough was because she addresses non-lovers, including friends like Limón, in the language of love.

After musing that everyone has their own “lexicon of the body,” based on their own experiences and sensualities, Diaz said, “I think, for me, the body is just naturally erotic. It’s definitely—it’s literally been beaten out of some of us. It’s been religioned out of us, but what a lucky—of all the things we could have been in, that our lives could have manifested in, to have these bodies...I can’t think of anything luckier than touch.… To be able to make a mark that someone else might see and find some sort of legibility about themselves—I don’t know. It’s kind of crazy. I don’t mean to take it sideways, but I think, for me, that’s part of how I think of the body. That this body can make a poem that still excites this body is pretty incredible. I think erotic exists in so many more places than we allow it to.”

Next month, the California Book Club’s selection is Karen Tei Yamashita’s epic novel I Hotel. Yamashita, Freeman, and a special guest will be in conversation on March 17 at 5 p.m. See you there!•

Anita Felicelli, Alta Journal’s California Book Club editor, is the author of the novel Chimerica and Love Songs for a Lost Continent, a short story collection.
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