A Taste, a Touch, a Want

Victoria Adukwei Bulley interviews Natalie Diaz in a time of lockdown

VAB: I’d love to begin by asking you this: what is a poem?

ND: A poem is like a hand – the hand is never what it is, and in many ways is defined by what it is not. The hand is the hand in part because it is surrounded by touch, and so becomes touch. A poem is one of myriad ways language touches. One way I think about touch is that it exists outside of time and outside of the self. Physics says we never actually touch, and what we sense as touch is the repulsion of electromagnetic fields. Touch, then, is a sense across the field, or a sense while crossing that field – a physical or emotional experience of the space between self and other, even if the other is the self (if I had my hand held in my own hand, for example). Isn’t this also how a poem moves?

VAB: Absolutely. I love the way you’ve put this. What you’ve said is also illuminating because, reading through Postcolonial Love Poem, we again and again encounter hands – as an image, but also as an idea; a site of potential. What’s fascinating right now, as so many of us live in quarantined lockdown, is how much more collectively aware we are of our need for closeness: our need to be touched or held. We are being reminded of the richness of the body’s physical being – even that of strangers. Hands are so central to that. To touch is to hope, or to risk, or to test, in some way. It is always to reach out for, and, hopefully rarely, to breach. And so I agree that this is exactly how a poem moves, or how poems work, especially when they are at their most vital.

I’m also fascinated by what you mean when you speak about time – how touch exists outside of it. Can you say more about that?

ND: I believe a poem is a moment of/in language that exists out of time, in another space of our being or awareness, a space compelled by sensation (the many ways of touch) and possibility (the infinite touches/ touching that will possibly occur), rather than being governed by any mastery of intellectual order. The Western idea of time is a necessary pressure point for me because as a Native I exist outside of time – I’m now, of course, and also part of a future that is made of the past, or a past that demands the future. To be outside of time is a way of being unpinnable, and so it is dangerous. As are poems. They refuse to be pinned down. The poem is a happening, neither the verb nor the action, but the energy that might yet become action.

VAB: One of my favourite poems in your collection is ‘American Arithmetic’. It immediately came to mind at your mention of not being pinned down – a phrase which always sparks images, for me, of museum collections and the colonial violences held within them. It contains the words ‘I am trying my best not to become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out.’ In its entirety, it’s a poem of invisibility, genocide and the cruel racial mathematics of the nation state. At its zenith, however, is an incredible moment of what feels to me like evasion, liberation, or total sensual escape – into pleasure, once again accessed through touch. That moment when the speaker ends by saying ‘I disappear completely’. It’s the one disappearance in the poem that happens not through the mechanics of the state, but through love and the agency of the otherwise colonised body.

ND: I am tired of my body always being in opposition. I don’t want to know my joy as a resistance. I want my joy or my pleasure to be itself, to be part of the conditions of my life, not just the context I carve out to survive the American condition of my body.

What does it mean that my body is a marker of what has been or needs to be erased? Can I use that same body to subvert that erasure? Where do I go when I am struck by desire?

In the line, ‘Let’s say I am only a hand – and when I slip my hand beneath the shirt of my lover I disappear completely,’ am I invisible, either subversively or inevitably, or am I demanding an unexpected or disruptive visibility? We are always reorganising our bodies and the energies of our bodies in this world. Which body do I need right now to survive, and does it require hiding or fighting? Which body do I need right now in relationship to a particular pleasure – and was this pleasure colonised into me or is it the natural state of possibility or a memory of myself from before the colony?

This relationship to body, my own and others, is also my relationship to the page – how to not be conquered by it. The poem can obliterate the page in that the page is an inadequate body incapable of controlling the poem’s language, because the poem’s language is not font but touch.

I’m interested in your relationship to poetry, language and the body. How do you think of the poem outside of the eye or the ear?

VABThe poem’s language is not font but touch – yes! I say yes here not simply because I agree but because of the way your response opens up avenues for me to answer your question. This is to say that, for me, the English language – the one language I am fluent in and understand fully – often does feel locked into the page, and therefore ceases to have a certain life energy. My foundational relationship to language, however, is purely based in sound: I relate to Ga, the language of my heritage, as music spoken by my parents. Of course, Ga can be written and read, but for me it is alive insofar as it is spoken. And, as we know, what we call sound is actually vibration, which is movement, which is what is happening to us – or what we are doing – when we feel, or touch, or, if we are so able, hear. In this sense, entirely, yes: poetry and language are inseparable from the body,
at least for me. All that varies momentarily is how the body oscillates between transmission and reception. But always, the body has its own poem.

You once mentioned on a podcast – VS by the Poetry Foundation – how the storytelling experiences of your childhood went on for days on end. Could you say more about your formative encounters with language and story?

ND: Everything is a story. A letter, a word – each an estimation of a lived experience, a dream, a desire. The story happens in the transmission, in the telling. Not the words the telling is made of, but in the space between the telling and what I feel, what you feel, in what we will feel long from now when the story is our only way back to this moment, or the way we leap forward into another moment. Poems are always already happening in the future, even as they happen now. And the future is what happens just before the past. I dream only what I or my people have already known. To tell a story is to already be in the midst of a story.

Mojaves have song cycles, some of which can last four nights long. In these songs, the words are not the song, but rather the night becomes the song, the relationship between the gourd as an instrument being thrown to make music and the ground it grew from, the river that fed that ground, the space between the stars and the cinders from the fire, the beginning where those songs came from and the future those songs move us toward. That’s how I’ve been shaped when it comes to language – the words themselves are not the body, but the body’s technology, the body’s desire to be carried to another body.

This is how poetry feels to me: I want to live. I can only live in relationship to you, to all the other living things. When I read a poem, I can see the lines, of course, but I can also see these constellations of words and images that zigzag and leap all over the page, like traces of connectivity. The white space is as present and active as the text. So the poem and its language happen all over, all at once – when I’m hearing or speaking a poem as well as when I’m reading a poem. This simultaneity of language and energy used to make poetry difficult for me to engage with until I learned I didn’t have to pin poetry down. Once I learned that poetry is a lot like basketball, it became a place I could exist, a thing I knew would make me better. I think we must all have our own different physical and textural relationships with our works, and with poetry in general. Mine just happens to exist this way. What does the page of poetry look like to you, not only with your eye, but what does it look like sensually, or how does it exist as a shape or structure?

VAB: Often I feel like the page is something I have to dig and scrape words out of. It’s a very visual process, but one that feels physical – like what I imagine sculpting or pottery to be like. I try to make the poem on the page a representation of whatever sensation, memory, or question lies at its core, and I also like to leave a little scaffolding in sometimes – as asides, or via parentheses. I don’t mind being caught in the act of talking to myself. Either way, the writing becomes easier for me when I remember that what is on the page is only an artefact: a result of the process of gazing or feeling. It might be a kind of resultant likeness, if I’m lucky, but not the gazed at or felt thing itself.

Speaking of basketball, you once played professionally. What relationship exists for you between sport and writing? I’m thinking also about your work editing Bodies Built for Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2019) – the relation of the body in sports to the wider politics of the nation state. I’m thinking too about the word game, how it simultaneously suggests a playful lightness while being fatally evocative of hunting, or being hunted…

ND: Having come from a life in sport, basketball in particular, I have a different lexicon and sensuality of the body. I am intimate with my body, the ways it has failed me or I have failed it, as well as the ways it has been triumphant or victorious and has allowed me to be. I have known my body to be impossible only to then have experienced its possibility. To be on the brink of failure or exhaustion and then to continue, to thrive even. I grew up playing ball on the rez, and it was my way of controlling my own angers and rages and reorganising them into joys. Sometimes freedom is not what we imagine it to be, a wide open sky or empty horizon – sometimes, in my experience, it is a small moment I carve out of America where I can breathe, no matter if I’m winning or losing, and where I can win even when I have lost.

Athletics have always been a means of control – whether it is the athlete controlling their body or the Nation or State controlling the athlete and the crowd. Patriotism is not far from fandom. The word fandom is kin to the word fanatic which is kin to the word for temple. Sport is a type of religion, whether you are on the field, pitch or court, or whether you are in the stands. It has order, ritual, it requires practice and sacrifice, it has its own lexicon. It is often likened to a battle or a war. Hitler used sport to engage youth and turn them into soldiers. Sport brings out the worst in us, even if we are able to reorganise its energy and turn it into a focused pursuit of success.

I don’t carry myself in the same ways I used to as an athlete – there is a side of me that was required to compete that I don’t need in my life anymore, that I don’t want. It was a strange shift that when I quit playing basketball I quit competing. I’m one of the least competitive people you might meet, but I have also never lost the gear that will shift me back into that person, should I need to be her again. It’s a lucky lexicon of the body to have, a different sensuality, a different set of possibilities and outcomes.

VABPostcolonial Love Poem is full of land and longing. Steadfast at its core is the living, breathing, loving body, marked by colonialism and theft but defiantly abundant; moved by ecstatic desire and survival, nonetheless. Can you talk about the place that pleasure occupies in this book?

ND: Lately, I am thinking that I must be one of Earth’s pleasures; we all must be. The same way a cottonwood thick with flowers and bees must be a pleasure, the way a river shifting banks of silt must be a pleasure, the way a sandstorm must be a pleasure. Pleasures can be or are dangerous, and I don’t mean dangerous in a value-judgment way. Pleasures are dangerous because they can make you whole, they exist somewhere between where you are and the other side of where you’re going, and they can exist without being surveilled. Our nations try hard to surveil pleasure, to regulate it, to castigate it, to deny it, to dole it out. On the surface pleasure might seem like it’s a reaching toward something ahead of us – a taste, a touch, a want, an almost-there or not-yet – but I wonder if pleasure isn’t a return to our pasts, to when we were all that we ever were. I’m wondering what you believe you are made from, and how that affects your ways of pleasure – can you tell me about it? [Mojaves] believe we were made from clay and river. I am also Catholic. Considering both of those belief systems, I have a very physical and wild idea of pleasure as well as an almost grotesque and dangerous idea of pleasure. Pleasure isn’t the same as enjoyment, at least I don’t consider pleasure enjoyment – pleasure cannot be satisfied by enjoyment. Enjoyment is frivolous, maybe. Pleasure is a lot like poetry – the ability to find the time that is out of time and yet full in your body. The ecstatic. Beyond the body and so fully body, the body as energy rather than a border of flesh. Like language, maybe.

Victoria Adukwei Bulley is a poet, writer and filmmaker. She is the winner of a 2018 Eric Gregory Award, and the recipient of a 2019 Technē doctoral scholarship for practice-based research in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Natalie Diaz is Mojave and Akimel O’odham. She is a MacArthur Fellow, Lannan Literary Fellow, and United States Artists Ford Fellow. She directs the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands at Arizona State University. She wrote Postcolonial Love Poem, which will be published by Faber in September.