Tuesday, March 5, 2013

An Interview with Natalie Diaz: Part 2

Last summer, Blast Furnace published Part 1 of a two-part interview with poet Natalie Diaz regarding her writing process and her first full-length collection of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec. Following is Part 2 of the interview, wherein Natalie discussed more about her critically-acclaimed book.

Would you tell a bit about your family? Were the arts/writing and the like recognized as talents and encouraged in your household and if so, how were you encouraged to pursue them?

I have four brothers and four sisters. I am third in line, which means I had to babysit. We got two channels on our t.v. The reception was such that we thought it was snowing every place but where we lived, even in the cartoons. My brother and I used to take turns swinging on the antenna or holding it while the rest of the kids watched. At night, instead of t.v., we often sat around telling ghost stories (my mom’s are still the scariest, because they are the most real) or listening to my dad’s stories, which are fantastical and funny. 

When you write personal poems, such as the title poem of this manuscript, what is it like to release them into the world for public viewing?

The place these “personal” poems come from is usually a locked place, locked even from myself. The writing helps me to access the little monsters inside me in a way that makes sense of them, even partial sense. It is a release of sorts. Imagine how a zoo might feel if it let loose all of its tigers. I bet it would sigh a little. That zoo might even feel good before it realized, Oh, shit, they’re out running the streets. They’re wild and scary. And beautiful. And mine. That’s how it feels to write the poems about my brother. Ultimately, I have the urge to corral the monsters back into the cage, but it’s always too late. And too late can be just the right time. 

Blast Furnace has a favorite line in that poem: "It said a lot about my parents, or parents' hearts." Did you arrive easily at the line or no? Do you have favorite lines to your poems?

That line is important to the title poem and to me. It is a line that tries to express what I feel when I see my parents dealing with my brother. Their relentless forgiveness—they are so much better than I am at that. Lines like the one you cited above are lines I work for—lines that express emotion without being too “sentimental.” If I hadn’t worked hard to find the images of the sacrifice in the poem, the line would have been a sappy “wah, wah” kind of line. So, I work hard at the images the lines carry—sometimes they are not easy images to find, but sometimes they come at me hot and fast. A few lines that I feel really express some of the experience of this brother are: “If he’s wearing knives for eyes. If he has dressed for a day of the dead parade. Three piece skeleton suit. Cummerbund of ribs…” These lines say more about how it feels to watch my brother than any “feeling” words can. 

To touch briefly on just a couple of other poems in your book...Talk about the dividers within each line in "Hand-Me-Down Halloween." When did this become intentional for the poem, and what led to this decision?

When the poem was building in me, it was building in a disjointed way. It was moving quickly and jerkily. The lines came short, then long, then short. The forward slashes helped me to show the brokenness of the experience. The poem reads fine without those slashes, and it also reads with the text within the slashes removed. I hope it makes the readers a little uncomfortable at first, but that the narrative takes over and carries them through.

"The Red Blues" is rich in intriguing metaphors for menstruation: phoenix, torerra, car wrecks, war... In particular, the reliance on a language other than English to say it. Could you describe your experience--frustrating or otherwise--with the limitations of a language as your wrote it?

I call this poem my cramps poem. I wrote it in misery. I just focused on the word “red,” and tried to dismantle it the way the pain was dismantling me that day. I hammered at the word. I broke it down to all the words it was and was not. The limitations are what created the poem. The poem, the word “red,” the pain, they all became what they were not, and so, they became more than they had been, and eventually, what they truly meant to me.

In writing the personal, what are the elements of the process that serve as tell-tale signs you are in the right rhythm, on the right track in making it work?

Many of my poems that deal with my brother or life where I live are narrative poems. However, they are not always smooth poems. This experience is one that keeps me at war with myself—I miss my brother and I am tired of my brother; I am afraid for my brother and I am afraid of my brother; I love my brother and I hate my brother. The rhythms I move toward are often disjointed, jumpy, fast, furious even. People like when poems are “tight” or “controlled,” but I don’t aim for those kinds of poems because they do not in any way reflect my life or experience. The critique I get most often is that I have gone too far with an image or have added one too many descriptions, and I think that means I am on the right track. Many of the experiences I write from are too much, are unbearable, make me want to say, Stop, no more. And this applies to my brother, my family, my rez, my community, my desert, my loves, etc. My poems reflect the rhythm of my life. I’m not a middle-aged academic white poet, so I will not dress my poems in that guy’s clothes or make them dance to his music.

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