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MacArthur 'Genius' Poet Natalie Diaz Tackles Issues Facing Native Americans


The 2018 MacArthur genius grants were awarded last week, and we've been spending some time on the program with a few of the recipients. Today, we'll hear from poet Natalie Diaz. Raised on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation in California, her work draws on her Mojave and Latinx heritage. Diaz has also been doing work to preserve the Mojave language. First of all, congratulations. Felicitaciones are in order.

NATALIE DIAZ: Yeah. It's been pretty lucky (laughter).

MERAJI: Natalie Diaz is not one to brag. She told me that when she picked up the phone and heard the news that she was one of the 25 people given a $625,000 genius grant, her brain refused to believe it.

DIAZ: I don't know. I'm kind of a pessimist. So I start thinking, like, how did I earn this? What did I do to deserve this?

MERAJI: Well, she published a critically acclaimed poetry collection in 2012 called "When My Brother Was an Aztec." The poems are intimate and personal and address problems indigenous communities face in this country - poverty, addiction and deep family trauma.

Did you bring any poems with you?

DIAZ: Yeah...

MERAJI: Not to put you on the spot, But I would love to hear one...

DIAZ: No, I did.


DIAZ: I'll just - I'll read this poem. This - it's a poem called "These Hands, If Not Gods." So a lot of my new work is love poems. (Reading) These hands, if not Gods. Haven't they moved - like rivers, like glory, like light - over the seven days of your body? And wasn't that good, them at your hips? Isn't this what God felt when he pressed together the first Beloved - everything. Fever. Vapor. Atman. Pulsus. Finally...

I don't think America expects brown women, queer women, you know, to speak about desire, to consider the autonomy of desire - you know? - and, God forbid, a word like pleasure. And so, for me, these poems feel really important to give myself a voice and a place where I'm more possible. And one of the ways I'm more possible is that I allow myself, you know, these types of tendernesses and loves.

(Reading) These hands, if not God's, then why when you have come to me and I have returned you to that from which you came - bright mud, mineral salt - why, then, do you whisper O, my Hecatonchire, my Centimani, my hundred-handed one?

MERAJI: In that poem, you've managed to incorporate all of who you are. I feel like I heard all of that in that poem. You're indigenous. You're Latinx. You're queer. Is all your work like that? Are you able to bring all of those selves into your work, or do you feel, sometimes, where you have to choose one or the other?

DIAZ: It's lucky. I have this freedom. It's a freedom where I don't have to worry about my audience. A lot of the way I've come to poetry is - has been the way that I existed in basketball.

MERAJI: And we didn't say that you were a former professional basketball player.

DIAZ: Yeah. That was like my first job. And so, for me, it's - you know, like, I don't know that there's a place where I've been more possible than on a basketball court. I can be everything I was, and it was also a place beyond what I was. So, you know, basketball's a game of futurity - is one of the ways I think about it. You're always two steps ahead. You're always, you know, moving with this kind of momentum or pushing back against a momentum. And poetry, to me, feels a lot like that. I feel tension, and I feel pressure. And I feel excitement. And, you know, it's - luckily, I'm able to find this new space of the page, where I can question and wonder about all of the things that I'm wondering in regard to language.

MERAJI: Your work is in English. And where does that fit, for you, in thinking about language and where you fit and how you belong?

DIAZ: In a way, it's the language I know best and I trust least. You can't hide from language. Like, in every word, the violence that that language has carried or the violence that language has enacted is carried in that word. That is, one of the powers of poetry is that I can use Spanish when that's the word I feel in my body. I can use Mojave language here when I feel it, you know? To be able to call myself who I am in Mojave is for me to call myself into existence in a way, whereas for me to say Native American, you know - which we all say for clarity's sake. But for me to say Native American, in a way, I'm already erasing myself, you know? Because what I am is something that is, yes, part of this America but also something else, something more, something that America hasn't quite been able to consume fully.


MERAJI: That was poet and MacArthur genius Natalie Diaz. And we should note - the MacArthur Foundation is one of NPR's financial supporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREKITES SONG, "AUTUMN STORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.