David L. Ulin: Good evening, everybody. I'm David L. Ulin. I'm the books editor of Alta Journal. Welcome to the California Book Club. Tonight's California Book Club celebrant is Natalie Diaz. She and John Freeman will be talking about her Pulitzer prize winning collection of poetry, Postcolonial Love Poem. Before we get to the interview, I just want to do a little housekeeping. For those of you who don't yet know about California Book Club or Alta, Alta is a quarterly print journal with a pretty robust online component as well covering the arts, culture, literature, history of California and the West.
California Book Club is a monthly gathering. We have a committee that selects a book a month, California books, California writers, the writers come and talk with the California Book Club host, John Freeman. So thank you all for coming. And if you've been here before, thank you for coming back.
And if this is your first time, we hope to see you again. First, I want to introduce, or thank our partners. We couldn't do it without them. Our partners on the California Book Club include Book Passage, Books Inc, Book Soup, Bookshop.org, DIESEL: A Bookstore, The Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine and Vroman's Bookstore. I also want to let you all know that there is a sale for California Book Club members. For $50, you can get a year of Alta Journal, the California Book Club tote bag, which is this. Lovely tote bag, Velcro pockets, all the things you need. And one of our upcoming California Book Club books. It's a great deal. So watch tomorrow's thank you email for a link. And we have a ton of great coverage around tonight's author and book as we do around all of the books that we talk about in California Book Club. So please visit californiabookclub.com to read essays and excerpts all centered around Postcolonial Love Poem. And now, enough of me. Without further ado, let me turn it over to John Freeman, who will be talking to Natalie.
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John Freeman: Thank you so much, David. Hello, everybody. Happy Thursday. It's really nice to be back here with everyone. When we put together this book club, one of the things that we all did in our first conversation was throughout names of titles and writers that we all loved. And Natalie Diaz's first book came up right away, When My Brother Was an Aztec. I've given this book to probably more friends than I actually have, because some of them haven't given it back. And partly because it's such a beautiful book.
It has a stunning variety of forms from lyrics to abecedarians, has this wonderful long line in many of the poems, which you don't see managed as well as Natalie Diaz does. Plus it also foregrounds a sibling relationship. A sister who's trying to rescue her brother from an addiction that she can't stop. It's something that I think all sorts of readers have dealt with in one form or other trying to rescue a sibling or someone that you love from something you can't stop.
The book is exquisite, powerful. It's a personal and cultural mythology. And in the middle of it, there is an astonishing love poem, in the middle of this war that's going on in a household. That book was published almost nine years ago. I think in poetry circles, Natalie Diaz's second book was the... I don't know what to describe it as. It was the book that everyone was waiting for. Probably Natalie Diaz herself too.
And alas, it's here. I'm in London, so I have this beautiful UK edition. When My Brother Was an Aztec is a book about hunger in some ways, longing to be whole together with the family, to sit down at a meal and not have it go awry. This is a very thirsty book. It's a book about love, but it's also a book about a postcolonial condition of love as in, how do you write from colonized language towards another colonized body if you're in love with it from a colonized body?
What sort of metaphors can you even begin to use without suddenly being into a hall of mirrors of what it means to be a beloved or a lover? This is an exquisite collection of poems. As in Natalie's first book, it's funny. It's got wonderful bits of basketball, but it's also a clink in language and studying how you can use a colonized language to see around to some degree its condition or to see through it.
Natalie Diaz, it's a pleasure to have you here. Please join me on the California Book Club.
Natalie Diaz: Hi. Gracias for having me, John. [foreign language] Gracias also to David, and Blaze, and Beth. Are you at 1:00 AM right now, John?
Freeman: I'm always on California time.
Diaz: Yeah, okay. That was a good line. It's always my luck to be talking with you. I think what was really beautiful about joining the Alta community is it's very much the way I think that you've handled my book and my work. And so many of our books and works from Sweden to Italy, to these many other places, you've carried my work with such generosity.
So it's been great to join this Alta crew here and all of the different writers who are willing to engage the work and just made a real field of the work. So I appreciate that.
Freeman: Yeah. We've had some wonderful essays. Let's start in that collaboration. I think a lot of people think of poets as sitting on a mountain fastness, stroking their chin, thinking difficulty about language and love. But the end notes of this book are full of notes about collaboration from the poems you wrote back and forth as letters with [inaudible 00:14:05] to the places where you wrote some of these poems to the early readers. I guess I would like to talk to you about what collaboration means to you as a poet and how that came to be your way of thinking about writing because it's not always obvious.
Diaz: Yeah. Part of it, I think is built into me in many ways like a lexicon that maybe is pre-verbal and that I'm from a very large family. My parents had 11 kids and we were in a very small, small area, two-bedroom house. In some ways that is collaboration, whether or not I chose it. It's a collaboration that happens to you. I think, which again, built me toward basketball, living on a reservation where your neighbors, where your family, we were collectively responsible for a lot of our individual mistakes in some ways.
So I think that's a part of it. I think also poetry itself, I do believe is a field of collaboration. I think, when you find the writers you love, they are alongside. You'll never let them go. Or they will never leave you maybe. I often find myself writing lines and I think sometimes I'll look at lines and I'll think, "What have I been reading and wonder how those lines have grown, or thorned or bloomed from some of these works?"
I've been reading Celan a lot. I came so late to Paul Celan. And my friend, Christian Campbell introduced their work to me in a much more immersive way because they're doing an event with us. So I just started reading, and reading, and spending time in letters. You can't help, but want more of language or you can't help, but show up differently to language after you read someone like Celan.
So I think already poetry is collaborative whether we realize it or not. I think to our detriment sometimes, we feel like we're coming to the page alone. I feel quite lucky and that I feel the very lonely. I mean, I'm lonely a lot. Little depressive, but lonely a lot. But I feel like I'm always with folks when I come to the page. And I think toward the people I love who are poets and who are writers. It's quite lucky to think that I'm writing things that they might read.
I mean, it's not different than basketball. Right? Roger Reeves used to always be like, "Yo, I could be your starting five. Who's your starting..." But I think that way a lot. So collaboration for me is it's natural. It's the way I think. I think better alongside or even mostly against. I'm one of those who it's like, "Let me just..." 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 was standing on my own.
Freeman: I'm going to repeat some of Natalie's biography throughout this interview. So forgive me, Natalie, for telling you things which you have already lived. And please correct me if I get it wrong.
Diaz: I hope you do it better than I did the first time.
Freeman: Well, I think we all feel that way about a lot of things. As Natalie was speaking, it's useful for those of you who don't know that she was a point guard playing basketball, growing up for Old Dominion. Their team went to the final four, your freshman year, and then the final 16, the following three years. And you played professional basketball. 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.
As you were speaking, I was so struck by the fact that you were using images and metaphors that are completely braided through all of your work, whether it's the idea of a field of space, the cosmological sense of language. You said the word lonely, which one of my favorite lines of... There's many of them in this book, Postcolonial Love Poem is "Let me be lonely, but please don't let me be invisible." I wanted to ask you about one metaphor that comes up in Postcolonial Love Poem, which is thirst.
We could talk about so many different words and that's what's so great about this book is it's braided so beautifully together. Snakes come up as it was pointed out in one of the essays. But thirst is something that I have not felt addressed in poetry and in love poetry in quite such a total away. I wonder if you can talk about that as an orienting metaphor for this collection. And if you found that it was something arising naturally, and you helped it along, or if it was something that you felt deliberately placed across the palms?
Diaz: Yeah, I talk and work and move a lot in lexicons. So, language for me is quite physical. So, I feel like I'm always like 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. It's almost like you want to disk 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. I mean thirst just as a word itself is I think it's so interesting. I think it's from like a verb that has to do with drying and yet it is also a desire. So, I always think which way does desire work?
Does it all only work against or does it work through? And so, breaking down the word itself but also, growing up in the desert I think there's a way that we have certain sensualities and it's easy to have these umbrellas sensualities. Sadness, loneliness, even something like hunger or thirst and if you've ever been thirsty or if you've ever been hungry, then you know and I know even my experiences with those have not been as drastic as others. But I think something that happens in the desert, if you're willing to look and by look I mean like with your body, it's a pretty brutal place as much as it is an abundant place. And one of its abundance is thirst and part of thirst implies satiation. Thirst, it's one of those funny places.
It's reminds me of the ecstatic, like you can almost plug it in. So, where does it happen? Is it happening in the body? Is it just outside? Is it that moment of desire that's because touch is going to come or you know water is going to come? And so for me, it's almost like an out of time but that place between where the body might yet be, but also the condition the body is in right now, it's almost a momentum. And then of course, there's all the politics that come with that, what it means to be of and in and with a river that is the most endangered river in the United States? Or to watch the ways that our country weaponizes water. Here, I'm close to the US Mexico border, I'm thinking of like [inaudible 00:23:02], I'm thinking of Palestine, I'm thinking of all of these different places and central and south America where water has been weaponized.
And I think for me, thirst as well it's something we all share and forget that we share or I feel that way personally. I think and it shows in the ways that we don't protect water. And so, I feel like thirst is a place where we're going to collectively arrive together and it's a place of possibility because I do think it's something that will ch change us. And maybe in very terrible ways, but thirst is a place we all might meet and become better alongside one another. So, there's a very intimate desires, which is sometimes just the physical survival of a body but sometimes it's desires in the more like sexual sense. But yeah, it's a place of sensual imagination I think and I can never quite pinpoint where it is even though I know the way I feel it in my body. But yeah, and then just back down to etymologically it's such a strange word to me that it means the dryness, but it also there's a promise or a dream of at least the wetness that might satiate it, so. Yeah.
Freeman: So, you grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village Needles on the bank of the Colorado River, which is the river that you're referring to that you grew up around. And I've spent a lot of time near the Russian River in Sacramento and others. And when you live near a body of water, it changes every day and that mutability is thrilling and alive. It feels alive in a way that when you say the word water, it doesn't necessarily always capture the fact that it is a presence in your life. And one of the things that this book breaks down is the idea that you are separate from landscape to some degree. And in particular, there's a line in this book that "my body is a river" and that's not a metaphor. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit through that, the politics of that statement, what that means? But either, being from where you're from or the erotics of it as well.
Diaz: Yeah, that's a lucky question John. And I mean you must also have these experiences. Because you travel so much, I think of the places you travel and what water means in those places, what land means in those places. And then language, right? I feel like if anyone knows some of what I'm trying to express in language, it would be you in that like the way the language is shaped by the land and the water and what that means of people's relationality and all of these different places that you move. And then the fact that you're off and carrying poetry into those places. I think in some ways, that feels maybe one of the closest conversations I've been in about something like this. Metaphor, I think sometimes we it's metaphor and simile, one thing is like an other.
And I mean, something that feels important to me is that it is all of one. And so, metaphor to me is I don't want to say necessarily a vehicle because I think it nails us to a craft that I try hard to just skirt the outside of. But I think it really is about sensuality and sensuality is in some ways the imagination. I love trying to just in my own body think as I'm imagining something where is that happening? It's the whole thirst relationship, like where is it happening in me? And in some ways it's really lucky that I grew up in this place that has this very particular relationship to the river and to land and where we speak of one and the other the same way we might speak of each other.
And so, you learn care in a different way and I think you learn maybe both the immensity of your life and also the smallness of it. And there's a phrase that I talk about or I use a lot because I feel like I only understand it in some ways right now. And I know as I get older, I'll understand it more. But the idea of being of consequence, I think in some ways that might be how a metaphor operates for some folks on the page. But to understand that the language I use the words I say, even a poem, like everything I do is of consequence to what is around me. As much as others and their actions are of consequence to me and whether that's the river or the land.
And to me, we say the word relationality a lot. It's almost like a buzzword these days, but I think there's something of a desire there to learn to be alongside. And poetry is one of the few places where I can bring that, not even an explanation but where I can try to seed what it might mean for me along the way. Poetry is a selfish of a place for me. I don't think selfishness is a bad thing. If you don't think about who it affects, I think then it becomes a bad thing. And I don't mean to imply I'm not also selfish in a way that I sometimes forget to think of others around me, but I think poetry is a place for me to set that desire to figure out what is this if it's not a metaphor because it's one thing to grow up hearing, like to say our name is to say the river is carried in the middle of our body.
So, I'm carrying it. I am responsible for it. I'm of consequence to it. It is of consequence to me. So, if that seems something that's difficult for someone who's not raised in my language lexicon to understand, might you understand then what it could possibly mean to me if that river is gone. And it is a very thing that I was raised of and I believe my body is of it, my belief system is shaped around it. And so, I think maybe too that's why I say I know some of the works you've done and some of the places you move and I feel like there are certain precarious there that are beyond natural resources, but it's about the practices in which you engage the place and how you've built your life there and what your life becomes a beauty or sorrow in relationship to those lands and waters. So, I think I didn't quite answer the question, but it is making me think a lot. So, pardon if I went-
Freeman: Not at all. No, I love your dedication because you use the word towards rather than to when you dedicate the book. I'm writing this book towards and I feel like the way that you speak and to some degree, the way that some of these more lyric essay like poems move is towards spaces and towards opening up and enlarging places where definitions might be shutting down. Both your possibility to exist or people's possibility to themselves exist within complex landscapes and complex identities and truths. I wonder if you could read a poem now from the book, so that we could hear it because the sonics of the book are so gorgeous and add a whole other layer that I think we can't even begin to describe, except for just hearing it.
Diaz: Yeah, I'm going to read from the desire field. You had mentioned Ada. So, this poem was written with and toward my friend, my friend Ada alongside her.
There were these letters we were sending back and forth to one another, I think as a way to not write poems, but to be in touch because we were both moving. So, moving around so much, it was not hard to keep track of one another. Of course text is easy, but it was I think it was hard to locate ourselves in relationship to one another and that felt important for us during that time. And I think this goes a little bit toward thinking about lexicon and how to not make a simile a metaphor, but to actually think of language as making us more possible or more capacious to withstand. In this case for me it's anxiety.
So, from the desire field. I don't call it sleep anymore. I'll risk losing something new instead like you lost your rosen moon, shook it loose. But sometimes when I get my horns in a thing, a wonder, a grief or a line of her, it is a sticky and ruined fruit to unfasten from, despite my trembling. Let me call my anxiety, desire then. Let me call it a garden. Maybe this is what Lorca meant when he said "verde que te quiero verde" because when this shade of night comes, I am a field of it, of any worry ready to flower in my chest. My mind in the dark is una bestia, unfocused, hot. And if not yoked to exhaustion beneath the hip and plow of my lover, then I am another night wandering the desire field bewildered in its low green glow, belling the meadow between midnight and morning. Insomnia is like spring that way, surprising and mini pedaled.
The kick and leap of gold grasshoppers at my brow. I am struck in the witched hours of want. I want her green live. Her inside me in a green hour I can't stop, green vein and her throat, green wing and my mouth, green thorn in my eye. I want her like a river goes bending green, moving green, moving. Fast as that, this is how it happens, soy una sonámbula. And even though you said today you felt better and it is so late in this poem, is it okay to be clear to say "I don't feel good"? To ask you to tell me a story about the sweet grass you planted and tell it again or again, until I can smell its sweet smoke leave this thrashed field and be smooth.
And that was a really lucky poem. In a way like I think people felt like my first book had some of the most, I think people used like the word vulnerable or the most forthright poems because the brother is so close to my real life brother. But this was the first poem that I engaged my own anxiety in a head on sort of way, in a way I never had before. Of course still using the image and some of the same moves that I often make with language. But it was the first time where I wrote about anxiety. And I think some of that happened because of this 'collaboration' or because I was writing to someone who I loved and who I knew loved me and that love was quite particular.
And so, it allowed me to one, use a language I would use with any beloved. But this poem cracked that open and helped me think and pressure myself and really try to invite myself to treat everybody in the book as I beloved. And so, with Ada being a friend, I wanted to use language that I might use with my lover, that I might use with my mother and to see how tender I could be, which showed me also the tenderness I could have with myself, which is something that was harder to do in the first book for example. So, yeah I know you didn't ask me to talk about it. It just popped into-
Freeman: Well I'm so glad you brought this up because the omnidirectional nature of love in this book creates a very charged field of language and possibilities because you're asking yourself as the poet in many different scenarios, why can't I see this as an act of love? And across the book, as you're writing about landscape, you're writing about landscape in the language of love and you're writing about a lover's body and the language of landscape. And so, I guess I wanted to ask you about well, writing about erotic love in that way because typically I think one of the thing that I think that it makes sexual love hard to write about it, is it deeply specific nature sometimes where you think oh my God, I have to watch the poet have sex now. And amazingly never happens.
Diaz: You're reading like this.
Freeman: Well, yeah. And I think what's so powerful about the book is you 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. And I guess 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. And I wonder did some of that come because you were addressing non lovers in the language of love? Did some of it come because you just compressed and rewrote the poems a lot, so that it scrubbed out any possible real life details or?
Diaz: I'll never tell. No, well I mean I think some of it does, as you're saying the landscape, it is quite something to feel so close. So, I'm in Phoenix now. So, I'm on [inaudible 00:39:05] Lands. It's one of my homelands, but I grew up at Fort Mojave. So, if I look north, I see our creation mountain. If I look south out my door, I see the place we go, hobbies go when they leave this flesh body life and move into another. So, I mean it's something, right? Because I mean there are so many stories. I mean the Bible is what are we made of? Like a rib and spit or something? Rib, spit, some dirt. But I mean to think that's the place where you're made, we were made of clay, life breathed into us. And so, to not imagine the body as still of that. So, I think there's a mixture between that relationship to land and water and also just the lexicon I have. We all have a lexicon of body, sometimes it's one of like shame. Sometimes it's one of medicine.
God, we all have so many lexicons of crisis or emergency of the body. I also have a very different lexicon of the body because I played basketball, because I grew up in such a small square footage with a bunch of people. And so the body to me has always been many things, but never a body of shame, definitely a body of injury. I've written about this before, and it's in my first book. My great-grandmother was one of my best friends and she was a double amputee, and I feel like I learned to love a body through her body, and she had no legs. And so to touch her hip, to give her, her insulin shots, to rub her legs when she had phantom pain. And to think like she's asking me, and I don't want to tell her no, I don't know what to do. And so I would just rub the sheets and I was little then, and I didn't even talk with my mother about it until I was like 12 or 14. And so it was something I felt like was this intimacy between me and my great-grandmother.
And so I think there's something about just ... it feels very lucky to me to know my body in these ways. To know that a body can be so broken and it has nothing to do with beauty for me. It's maybe more like the miracle of it or the luck that whatever it is that dreams me at night or that I can imagine of something or that connects me to other people, that it could be in this body.
I was recently at the Merwin Conservancy. And so staying in William's place. And I mean, I'm sure most folks here know William passed a few years ago. But to stay just in the middle of this forest like a true palm forest, or I don't know, forest garden, but every window is framed so that it's this beautiful, almost like this moving painting. And I don't know if I should say this or not, but I will. So we did a golden teacher mushrooms there also. So there was a ... One day, I was like, "Wow." I'm watching these palms. And to think ... to watch the way they move and to learn of ... Well, I didn't learn the words themselves, but to learn of and to read them and to hear them said all of the different words in the Hawaiian language that talk about the way the palms move and to think like, "This is why I have this body. That palm tree came first. And however I happened, whoever imagined me, the whatever way you believe that the body began or happened, I can't help but think like, are those hands? Are those lungs?"
I am trying my best to do what these things do and to watch them move together. It was almost like they were breathing for me. And not just with the golden teachers. I mean, it was every day that they were that. But I think for me, I think the body is just naturally erotic. I think it's definitely been ... I mean, 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.
And I know we have many different sensualities and I know bodies get sick and they are injured and wounded. And yet ... I mean, I can't think of anything luckier than touch, like what a crazy thing, or even like the ... I think a lot about the art we do, because I think sometimes we don't think of writing as like an art per se, but to think about the tools we use. For some of us, that's a pin for people who have different sensualities, they are maybe making marks on the page differently or with different technologies, but 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 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. So I think erotic exists in so many more places than we allow it to. If you hold a ... Like my mom, we hold hands a lot in my family, but that feels erotic to me. I'm never more alive than when my mom's holding my hand. I'm never more myself. Suddenly, you're like this had to be what the hand is for. Whereas I'm holding my lover's hand, it's like this is what ... Could the hand have been meant for anything else? Or like small things. We touch our faces or we talk with our hands. And again, I know we all have different bodies and different sensualities with them. So I don't mean to over focus on the hands. However, for me, that is one of my main sensual engagements with the world is through my hands.
Freeman: Yeah. The ability to touch things is a miraculous thing. I mean, we could have not had that ability. And I want to talk a little bit about color, because this book is saturated with lots of color. And one of the listeners has brought up the fact that the color green is used throughout the book. And it's so difficult to define what a color is, but it does do amazing work on the page and that it opens this field of experience and emotion. And I wonder if you can talk about using color in this book in particular, if you had a idea of what to do or if it just emerges naturally.
Diaz: Yeah. Well, I mean, green is so magical, right? You write about green like the parks, the archipelago of green, all the photos you take over the parks. Right? I mean, I think for me green is several things. And poetry green is very much Lorca, but I think color is also very much Borges. I think we think of Borges as more in terms of his fictions. I love his poetry though. I think it's complex as hell, but I just love spend time there. I think even Celan, the black. But also for me, because I live in the desert and I think some of your folks that are especially based in CA and depending on how far out you get from the city, color is not what they told us, right? There's the primary colors and then there's color.
And then also that we know color is about motion. It's not really the thing itself. It's, again, our sensuality or relationship to whatever it is we think we are seeing. It's almost like color is almost a thing you absorb, right? I think we're absorbing it with our eyes. Through our eyes, it's happening in our bodies. And then there's science that says our skin can sense color, which I just think is so beautiful.
But for me, the green of course is very Lorca, because I don't know ... I mean, and John, I don't know what you think about this. I talk with my friends a lot about this. And Tomás Morín and I have talked about this for a long time. But [foreign language 00:48:31] I don't think that will ever be translated. Green, I want you green is I feel like so far from what ... It's like the impossible. It's like putting words together that are almost nonsensical because back to the whole Francis Bacon thing where it's how like can I make this thing in the most irrational way. That just like ... I'm saying ecstatic, but I think lately I need ecstatic to do more. So I'm using that as a currency of maybe ease of understanding, but in the desert, and I mean, I mentioned the last poem, or no, I didn't. But the title poem, there are wildflowers in my desert, which take up to 20 years to bloom, like Californians know that. That's one of your sensualities.
And it's even beyond us. It's a way that we know time and the patience that ... beyond patience, right? That it's outside of time, but here in my desert, if it rains within an hour, you watch what the land does with the water. And it's one of the most unbelievable things that ... the greening happens. And you think this is how any human body learned what to do was from this non-human life. And to watch what happens in our desert with a non-human life and how they move, how they ... It's like yep, here we go. Charge. Everything comes, everything happens. And I think for me, the desert keeps you ... I mean, it keeps you alert of course, in so many ways, but it also keeps you attentive and intentionally attentive, because you're always reading for water. You're reading the sky. And from more traditional things.
There's a certain way when the clouds hit our sky that my elders are like this something bad is happening, versus like something ... And that means among us, like an energy. Where I live, you can see storms coming from two or three miles away. And then we get like the Santa Annas, the seasons of wind, things like that. But those greens for sure ... But I love color. And it was one of my earlier relationships with language was color. I read every book on color I could find in the library, some of the early ... early books where people were trying to name all of the colors, and I love going into paint stores and looking ... I mean, I don't know. Color for me is it's such a verb of a thing. And it shows the impossibility and maybe all the things we don't know yet about what it is we're sensing with color.
Yeah. So I think a lot about it. That's a long answer to the question or wonder. But I feel like color is one of the most violent and disruptive. And by that, I don't think violent and disruptive have to be horrible things. But they're happening maybe I'll say which feels ... Yeah, it always draws me to it.
Freeman: I love that poem "Skin-Light", because it feels like it's an attempt to formalize the issue that you're talking about, which is, how do you describe the world? Maybe if I put these two words together, it will get closer. And the whole poem is attempt to get closer and closer. And it ends up creating this amazingly musical sonic quality to the language, which achieves the feeling internally of the color. But if you look at the words themselves, they've left meaning behind and they're in some other trance like state. And I think that's just so, so amazingly well done. I would ask you to read it, but it's probably a little bit ... It's about three pages. Do you have another poem you could read us?
Diaz: Yeah, I have a few short ones. I mean, there's another light poem too I could read.
Freeman: I also love that one of your hyphens is lake-glint, which ... Why do the paint stores not have lake-glint?
Diaz: I know.
Freeman: I do my library in lake-glint.
Diaz: Along line, I was thinking a lot about how light moves and again, back with touch. And I think something that I realized early on is like that the way that I let the love poem come back into everything, or I imagine the movement and then ... I mean, there was a way I almost seek refuge in the poems in the possibility of love, but this is ... I'll read this again about light. This is a Marfa poem. You know, Marfa. And yeah. So I tried to put as much light as I could into the book.
If I should come upon your house lonely in the West Texas desert, I will swing my lasso of headlights across your front porch, let it drop like a rope of knotted light at your feet. While I put the car in park, you will tie and tighten the loop of light around your waist and I will be there with the other end wrap three times around my hips, horned with loneliness. Reel me in across the glow throbbing sea of green thread, bluestem prickly poppy, the white and fluorescence of yucca bells up the dust-lit stairs into your arms. If you say to me, "This is not your new house, but I am your new home." I will enter the door of your throat, hang my last lariat in the hallway, build my altar of best books on your bedside table. Turn the lamp on and off, on and off, on and off, I will lie down on in you.
Eat my meals at the red table of your heart. Eat steaming bowl will be just right. I will eat it all up. Break all your chairs to pieces. If I try running off into the deep-purling scrub brush, you will remind me there is nowhere to go if you are already here. And pat your hand on your lap lighted by the topazion lux of the moon through the window, say, "Here, love, sit here." When I do, I will say, "And here I still am. Until then, where are you? What is your address? I am hurting." I am riding the night on a full tank of gas and my headlights are reaching out for something.
I always think of that line, build my altar of best books on your bedside table. Because I think that's the curse of dating any writer/reader is you suddenly realize, "Hmm, they're a little too comfortable, like suddenly that table ...
One's a guest table on the other side of your bed and suddenly all their books are there.
Freeman: Yeah, it's not the toothbrush. It's the book pile.
Diaz: For sure. You know you're doomed then. That's love is the pile.
Freeman: Oh, I love that poem so much. Because it does so many different things at once, but it also sometimes occasionally sounds like a country Western song in a-
Diaz: I felt that. Well, I used to ride that road. That's one of the things I did, because in Marfa, they give you the Prius to cruise. So I would just ride up and down and there's, what, two channels out there. And so I would just listen and then they have a ... all the houses have a Leonard Cohen greatest hits and oh shoot, they have a couple Woody Guthrie, a couple others, but I would just play those CDs and just drive. And I was just watching the rails like in the moonlight. And so I think in some ways, maybe now country songs aren't written that way, but that's how I would imagine the old ones having been written.
Freeman: I feel like the best country Western songs and I'm not a necessarily a fan of the genre, but they produce a lonesome feeling that when you have it, it's not ... Lonely and lonesome to me are different things. Lonesome is a comforting loneliness. Whereas lonely is something that you want to abate to some degree, but a lonesome feeling while you're alone in a car driving can be a nice thing. I wanted to ask you, poetry is made over time alone usually, but sometimes in dialogue with other poets or sometimes even writing directly to them. And you've written very beautifully about how your body was built by basketball and how you're so grateful to basketball for what it made you as a person.
I think of basketball as a very repetitious activity, like in order to get good at it ... in order to shoot a free throw, you have to go to a gym by yourself sometimes and just sit there and pick up your brick shots and go and shoot them with if you can. And I wonder that kind of experience though all those hours of doing the same thing over and over again, to some degree alone, what that's made you as a writer in terms of your capacity for repetition or tedium or aloneness.
Diaz: Yeah. I mean, you have more than one brother, right? Or just-
Diaz: Yeah. So I feel like you know this. I feel that's also why you get some of the humor in my work is because I think you ... I always ... because brothers. There's no one who will break your heart, but also crack you up like brothers. But I think basketball is ... So I imagine you all played some games or whether they were like sports or other things where like for me, my family like I was really close with my little brother. And so we would be out playing games, but you would've thought there were 10 people. It's almost like you bring your ghost friends. And especially on the court, Dwayne Betts and I talk about this a lot, because Earl the Pearl was his. He talks about finding this sports encyclopedia in the library and he learned about Earl the Pearl. And so pretty soon he was trying like Earl the Pearl's move out in the court with his friends, he writes really beautifully about it. But when you're out on the court by yourself, you're kind of not. Yeah, there's a repetition, which is very much like sensual. So it's am I feeling? Do I feel the ball in my hand? Or do I hear it? Like you can't tell. Is it touch? Is it resounding? And it's all of these things.
Whether you're on like a really nice wooden court, which was rare for us growing up. But also like the chain link, the thud of like a cheap rim and like the concrete, and the black top being broken, never knowing where the ball would go. But and I would stay out till dark and I would be up before anyone else to try to beat the heat. But I was by myself, but not there are all these imaginary people there. Because it's like who are you making this move from? Like, oh. And then you're cheering yourself. You're like shooting a fade away, and you're sitting there oh, like cheering yourself and there's nobody there. And so I think there's something about that.
There's a poem I've been trying to write, but maybe there's a reason why I can't write it, and maybe it should stay this beautiful thing. When we come to New York, we stay with a good friend of ours in Harlem. And there're some kids that live at the corner. I mean, Harlem still has its neighborhoods, which feels good to me. New York is hard for me, but when I find like little neighborhoods, they feel normal.
But there're these little kids who play and we haven't been in a couple years. So they are probably moving through their teens now, but like you hear them playing at night and they're "Oh, pass the ball. Oh, blocked you. Oh three, LeBron James." Like they'll bring Kobe Bryan and Michael Jordan back. And they don't have a ball. They're out there in the street with no ball playing. And I try not to like creep on them, but when we look through the window and you can see them, because they're a couple brownstone down. But you see them and they're like moving around and it's like they're dancing because there's no ball. And it's one of the most like amazing things I think I've ever seen. And maybe that's why it should never be ruined by me writing about it.
But, yeah I think there's something about that. And about like what repetition can mean. When I do talks about repetition, I always show the Allen Iverson clip, where he's talking about practice. He's like "Come on, man, we're talking about practice. You're talking about practice." Like, I'm supposed to be the franchise player and talking about practice. And it can be a joke except that he's going on about practice. Because of course he had trouble with the NBA, as much as they extracted from him and they also tried to like crush him in some ways. But what's so powerful to me and you can look up on YouTube, anybody who doesn't know the clip I'm talking about. I think he says practice like 29 times, at least in the edited clip. But he lost a friend, a very good friend, not long before that. And so it was really a moment of grief. And to watch him be in that, like that's what the repetition was.
It was almost like a [inaudible 01:03:43]. Or it's about all the other ways that we ritualize how to move through grief. Like for us, we dunked under the river four times. But it's four times and move around the coffin four times. Like, I mean everything has a repetition. And so I think a lot about that. Yeah. About what that means to put the body through repetition and also like that the body somehow becomes multiple in some ways. Especially when you're out on the court and when you're a kid. I've seen my little brothers like throw the ball up and down like my nieces and nephews. But like throw the ball up and run and catch it and touchdown, like they're the quarterback and the receiver. And so there's such an imagination in sport and athletics. And I feel so lucky because I really do think they're very like futuristically momentous makings of the imagination. But yeah, again, super long answer, but I appreciate the question because it reminded me of those kids out there in the street, just I mean, going at it and winning. Like they win out there, and there's no ball. So it's kind of amazing.
Freeman: Yeah. I think there's a lot of people in a comment que who are saying, "Please, please write that poem."
Diaz: Yeah. It might be best just left like that.
Freeman: I know. It's so hard when you see something that's... It highlights what a poem is trying to do, which is sometimes to meet the beauty and perfectness of the world. There's a question in the comment, about your poem, "Wolf OR-7", which is about so much more than the wolf. And the question is, had you done much learning about that wolf, OR-93 before writing the poem? And how do you get into something like that versus something like the poem that you're slightly touching the mirror just talking? Which is, "The Top 10 Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball", which has one of my favorite appearances in a poem of a sky hook.
Diaz: I think the sky hook thing is true. Although I've met so many natives who are like, "We make sky hooks." But yeah, I mean before OR-7 I was... I wouldn't say I was obsessed with it, but I mean, it was a story and it was such an interesting story. A complex and problematic story, because the story was told through its collar, that we could track it and the watching this line. And then, I mean I still don't know how I feel about this. But, then like when it found a mate, they set up all these trail cameras and things and like just how terrible, right? Like the paparazzi, these biologists paparazzi or something. But I mean, and now they're protected. My partner was just telling me that some protections passed. I haven't been on the news very much intentionally. Except seeing if Ben Simmons was getting traded or not, that is the one thing I checked on. I mean, now I can rest, that Ben Simmons finally fucking got traded. I was like when is this going to happen? Pardon in my language.
But yeah, with the Wolf OR-7, I was thinking a lot about it. And I was thinking so much about, because this happens to mountain lions, like Marfa, for example. It even happens in my desert with coyotes and they're of such importance to our stories. But they kill the sheep, and so they put bounties on them. And they dispose of them in such terrible ways. And I don't need to be gruesome. I think we're in a gruesome enough time. But they just don't treat their bodies as if they were lives.
But yeah, this Wolf I mean... And also that I just think it's strange to me because I feel like sometimes like the world is too hard. And I have as down a moment, I think as... But it's almost as if like I've been pitted against this country in such a way that I'll fight through a day, no matter what, for better and worse. Right. Like, I think I've had to teach myself, you can break a little bit. Like it's okay to break and you probably should because nothing should withstand some of these things that happen. Right. But I think about just... Because I think we think of life as living, but it's something else and the way it moves and the way it demands. Yeah. I mean, I can't explain it.
But like that wolf, how far it traveled and the desire it had. And I talk in a moment of I confuse instinct for desire. And isn't that what it is? And I think this is what you're saying, right. Like, to be alone. To be lonely or loneliness. Who are we, if not someone who is of something larger, right? Like, and this is very, very, very indigenous is my autonomy only matters in relationship to who is around me. To a larger community or collective, which is why I think I landed in poetry. I think poetry as a practice is quite indigenous, like it's a connector. It's a reason why it's one of the oldest things we have, whether we called it poetry in our indigenous communities, or not. At least not in the old days, but the first days. Right. But that wolf was just something.
Freeman: Are you still working on language preservation?
Diaz: Yeah. Right now we're working on songs. I'm working on songs with one of my elders and my teacher's name is Hubert. And we are working on a 235 song cycle right now. And like really, really, really lucky we have, I think, 77 songs left. So there's a great guy who lives down in Tucson named David Finster, who I actually met in [crosstalk 01:10:47] filmmaker. Yeah. Does works with PPS here. But he came down and helped me, and it's just a really sweet, sweet person generous. Made my elder Hubert feel at home. But we're documenting them like in an archival sense, but also trying to create the possibility of making some sort of documentary on it. And Hubert's 97, and knows he wants these songs out. But I'm still doing in that work. And it's just been so hard with, COVID trying to be careful and yeah.
And in some ways, it reminds you of why we don't have the language to begin with. Because there have been so many, I mean, we wouldn't have called them pandemics at the time, but things that moved through our res. So we've had a really hard time at home and... Yeah. I feel like right now, I'm just finally... And I know there are some of you out there probably in similar situations, where just like coming up out of like loss and like learning to carry it now versus sitting in it only. Or maybe sometimes still finding myself sitting in it, but also like learning to move into it. But yeah, so that work has been slowed a little bit. But in March we're going back out, we're going to try to finish those songs. So it'll be the first time that we've heard them all together.
Freeman: Oh, that's fantastic.
Diaz: Pretty incredible.
Freeman: I read this book when it came out and I obviously read it again recently. And then before we talked today. And it feels different reading it now after two years of the pandemic. Because I think everyone has different cycles, whether you've been indoors or not, lockdown, or sick or not, or lost people or not. And I feel like we're surfacing out of some different periods. And a book like this makes that well, makes it more possible in a sense, because it puts us back into the body just by virtue of what you're asking of us. Speaking of which, I should put you back into your night. I heard a drag racer going in the background. I know the fast and the furious is coming to-
Freeman: The neighborhood.
Diaz: It's probably one of my students.
Freeman: Somehow when I hear that sound, I'm happy. Like for me, someone like really opening up the fourth barrel on a carburetor from a far distance.
Freeman: It is like a plain whistle guitar. It's like one of the best sounds ever.
Diaz: Yeah. I saw a car the other day with glass packs, which I mean I'd only seen things at home. And I was wow, I didn't know they still had those, but also that some young kid put glass backs on. It was like a Nova. It was incredible. It was the loudest thing. But yeah, surprisingly beautiful and joyous at the same time
Freeman: As Novas can be.
Diaz: They knew when they named it, they were onto something.
Freeman: Oh. Well, it's been such a pleasure talking. Thank you everyone for coming. I think at this point, David's going to come back on and tell you where to go, to send this link on to other people, Natalie.
Diaz: Gracias, John always. I always looked forward to the next time I get to run into you.
Freeman: Yeah. Same.
Ulin: So big thanks to Natalie and John for this really astonishing conversation. And I wanted to give a shout out to a number of friends and poets I saw in the chat. It was a real community, felt like a real community event. This interview was recorded and we'll be up @californiabookclub.com, so you can look for it. Next month's book is Karen Tei Yamashita novel, I Hotel, that will be on March 17th. In the meantime, a reminder for the sale on Alta membership for California book club members @altaonline.com/tote. Please participate in a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event and stay safe everybody and healthy, and we will see you next month. Take care, everyone.•