Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem was awarded the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for a distinguished volume of original verse by an American author. The winning work was heralded by Pulitzer as “A collection of tender, heart-wrenching and defiant poems that explore what it means to love and to be love in an America beset by conflict.”
To celebrate this achievement, we’re reprinting this interview with the author, originally posted in April 2020.
Native Americans account for just 0.8 percent of the population of the United States. Yet according to four decades’ worth of data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost 2 percent of people killed by police are Native American. Per capita, Native Americans are more likely to be killed by police than any other race. “O, mine efficient country,” the poet Natalie Diaz writes:
We are Americans, and we are less than 1 percent
of Americans. We do a better job of dying
by police than we do existing.
Diaz, who is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, grew up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She came to poetry by way of basketball, which took her to Old Dominion University on a full athletic scholarship. On rehab for an injured knee, Diaz attended some creative writing workshops, and after several years of playing professional basketball overseas, she returned to Old Dominion to complete an MFA. Her debut poetry collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), won an American Book Award, and her work has received many other honors since, including a MacArthur Fellowship.
In her latest collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, Diaz offers a blazing entreaty against the violence of the state and the erasure of Indigenous bodies. “I am begging,” she writes, “Let me be lonely but not invisible.” Published by Graywolf Press in March, Postcolonial Love Poem is an act of exultant subversion and transformation: Diaz cultivates a landscape where lyricism blossoms and love uproots and outgrows colonial notions of who counts.
Following the publication of Postcolonial Love Poem, Diaz spoke to Public Seminar editor Evangeline Riddiford Graham about returning to the body, the wonders of Mojave language, and meeting loneliness with love.
Evangeline Riddiford Graham: Your poem “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word” was written during a one-night residency in Manhattan’s Ace Hotel. The narrator warns us that the facts of the poem’s creation aren’t easy:
I’m the only Native American
on the 8th floor of this hotel or any,
looking out any window
of a turn-of-a-century building
What was it like, the night you spent writing this poem?
Natalie Diaz: I like writing at the Ace Hotel—they tend to have good food and drinks, and the rooms are laid out well for working, even in a small space. I stay there a lot. This poem became a spark on a night that began at the bar—the residency came with a hundred-dollar bar tab. I met up there with some of my New York A-team: Rachel Eliza and Aisha Moon. We had a few drinks, and most likely ended our hang out by telling stories about our families or how we imagined we might be when we are old. I think that night we were talking about sitting on a porch drinking root beers, and which brands were our favorite.
We laugh a lot when we are together. Later, after they’d slipped off into their separate pockets of the night, my lover at the time—who is now my wife—came by. I remember telling her about a coyote people had seen wandering the streets. I remember telling her I’d been wishing nobody messed with him, that he got away—that he must have come down into these city streets and thought, What has happened to this place, to this people?
There was a moment in that conversation I remember sharply—I felt alone in the way that only America can make you feel alone. Even with my lover there with me, I was a kind of lonely that maybe we never escape, never recover from. It struck me: I was doing everything I was supposed to be doing—writing, feeding myself, on a fellowship at Princeton, being successful. Somewhere in that maze of thoughts, I realized I didn’t want to chase American success or American goodness. Partly because I realized I couldn’t achieve it—it would always be out of my reach as long as I was who I was. I decided to stop fighting for who I would never be to America and instead to fight for who I was, who I might be beyond and beneath and behind this country—to fight for a different “good” I was made of, a “goodness” I wanted to make for others. One of the ways I could do that immediately and physically in that moment was in loving. The poem is a record of the questions I began asking that night, as well as of the love that was made.
Riddiford Graham: In the same poem, you describe the evening as a “green night”—a shade for a lover to move through. The phrase echoes the riff on Federico García Lorca’s verde que te quiero verde from a few pages earlier, in your poem “From the Desire Field.” The “low green glow” you conjure there colors many of the most rapturous moments of Postcolonial Love Poem, such as “the quivering green music of animals” in “Wolf OR-7” and the “emerald tigers” burning in the beloved’s throat in “Grief Work.” How did green arrive in this collection?
Diaz: In Mojave, our word for green is also our word for blue. Havasuu. To say “Havasuuk” can mean “it is green,” or it can mean “a greening.” Green is a verb. It can happen. It does happen. It is life. Our word for the season of spring is also the thing spring does. Long before Neruda wrote the lines “Quiero hacer contigo lo que la primavera hace con los cerezos,” and long before Lorca wrote the lines “Verde que te quiero verde. Verde viento. Verdes ramas,” the Mojave language held those possibilities. The language was dreamed for us to arrive at the wonders of the world and our life in, for and because of, the world.
Riddiford Graham: Pain and pleasure are tightly intertwined throughout Postcolonial Love Poem. Anxiety is rendered as desire; “grief work” is something done with a lover. In confronting the violent myth of America, the narrator refuses the erasure of her body—her Indigenous, Latinx, queer, female body—and finds defiance in her own ecstasy and desire. What does the love poem offer, as a site for postcolonial critique?
Diaz: The love poem is maybe at war with the colonial State, while also being an anti-technology that is far more advanced than and out of reach of the colonial State’s technologies. It is a return to the body, and so also a return to the land toward a different way of being. To respect the body is to respect who and what the body has come from, their gift of it to us, even in pain. The body is what holds the energy I am, and what lets me tell of how I love others. The love poem is that telling on the page.
Riddiford Graham: Reading Postcolonial Love Poem is an exercise in intimacy—and in immersion. In several poems, the narrator herself describes the sensation being “pulled under” and surfacing “better than good,” while a number of poems take water as their subject. How would you describe the role of water in this collection?
Diaz: I am river. As my Elder Hubert says, “We are the river. It is in us. And it is us.” The gift of working with him, of spending these years learning beside him … there are no words for. My dad used to have this old Chevy that had a low cruising gear in it—none of the boys I dated in high school could master that gear. Maybe that’s why I stopped dating men. Jajaja. But it’s like that, it’s another gear, one that pulls you out of this fast unintentional American rhythm. It’s not slow, it’s just out of time. My river is as wild and dangerous as any river, even though it’s been dammed 19 times across its length. Water is the first story I have ever been. When the Creator’s staff pressed into the clay and let the river loose, that is when we began. To invoke water is to remember myself, how small I am, what I have been, what I might do.
ERG: “I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself,” you write in “American Arithmetic,” and you expand on this challenge in “Like Church”:
… But it’s hard, isn’t it? Not to perform
what they say about our sadness, when we are
always so sad. It is real work to not perform
These lines reminded me of an observation from your first collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec: “It gets old, / having your heart ripped out, / being opened up that way.” In writing this book, how did you find relief from the exhaustion of heartbreak—both the act of expressing it and the pressure to do so without becoming a performance for the white gaze?
Diaz: I think I’m done trying to solve my heartbreak, done trying to escape it. It is my companion, maybe. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t wear me down sometimes. It does. It breaks me. I’m just not afraid of breaking anymore. I’m willing to break again and again. Breaking doesn’t mean I can’t be whole. Breaking means I can be different, maybe even new.
Riddiford Graham: I’d like to end, as Postcolonial Love Poem does, with gracias. In an interview with Hilton Als in 2019, you discussed how there is no use for the word thank you in Mojave, but you, personally, sometimes do say gracias. As this collection proves many times over, the choices we make in language are everything—they dictate how we tell our stories. Could you share a little more about your approach to the language of gratitude?
Diaz: First, it is easy to be grateful when in conversation with Hilton. He is generous and loving.
Right now, we are in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also, my mother has a diabetic bone infection. I rushed home to the reservation when her body went septic last week. She is fighting to keep her foot. Our small town and reservation clinic don’t have the proper medical services, like many small, poor areas in this country. Because of the coronavirus, I am bringing her in every day for an intravenous infusion of medicines. We can’t get home health care, even though she has three forms of insurance, so the doctor taught me how to do wound care for her at home. I get queasy at the sight of blood.
But as I stood there, over the doctor as she performed the debridement and showed me the wound, which is a terrible opening, I began to build the language I needed in that moment. It is a language that I still need as I care for my mother: this body is a gift, this wonderful body, this wound is one language of the body, the wound is my mother’s body’s question, and now it is my turn to answer it, to care for it with my body, I will touch it the same way I touch the text in a book every day, I am grateful for it, for this invitation to fight against it, it is my enemy and also my companion, I am lucky grateful for my own strong body, I am lucky to fight for my mother, grateful also to remember what my own body can offer, I deserve to offer this to who I love, I can clean this wound like singing, I will tend to it, I will ask her wound to bloom itself into my mother’s healed body.
Natalie Diaz is the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University and the author of Postcolonial Love Poem and When My Brother Was an Aztec. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe.
Evangeline Riddiford is an editor at Public Seminar.