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Natalie Diaz, Taking Over the Game

About a thousand years ago, when I was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin, I took several classes with the poet Ronald Wallace. In one of the workshops, we discussed the poems of Ted Kooser. This was before Kooser was widely known (remember: it was a thousand years ago), but Ron had read his work and wanted to share it with us. I still remember the ending to “So This Is Nebraska”: “You feel like stopping the car / and dancing around on the road. You wave / instead and leave your hand out gliding / larklike over the wheat, over the houses.” Larklike! Such a lovely figure. Lovely to say, lovely to picture.

In my own workshop this week, we focused on figurative language. We read poems by Yusef Komunyakaa and Catherine Wing, and we read Natalie Diaz’s brilliant first book, When My Brother Was an Aztec. Diaz is fluent, as best I can tell, in several languages, including the language of metaphor. Here’s a sampling of lines from her book:

My parents watched from the window, / crying over their house turned zoo, their son who was / now a rusted cage.

The Arizona highway sailed across the desert— / a gray battleship drawing a black wake, / halting at the foot of the orange mesa, / unwilling to go around.

The world has tired of tears. / We weep owls now. They live longer.

It will occur to you / your brother is a beat-down, dubbed Bruce Lee— / his words do not match his mouth, which is moving / faster and faster. You have the fastest / brother alive.

Diaz visited Ann Arbor this week, accompanied by Michael Wiegers, her editor at Copper Canyon Press. In the Q & A that preceded her reading yesterday, she talked about her interest in images, particularly images that “allow violence and tenderness to be there together.” She told the assembled graduate students to “lean into [their] obsessions” and to “add, add, add” to their poems before cutting anything. And she told the story of how she came to Copper Canyon’s attention: Ted Kooser had heard her read and asked to see some of her work, which he then passed on to the press. It made perfect sense to me: Kooser, a genius with figures, had recognized a fellow genius, and he wanted to share the work—just as Ron Wallace shared Kooser’s work with his students a millennium ago.

At Diaz’s reading, she offered selections from her book and from a planned second collection. (The new poems, which include “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball,” “These Hands, If Not Gods,” and “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips,” are funny and joyful and absolutely terrific.) She also told a joke and played some Lionel Ritchie. She recently won a Hodder Fellowship, so she’ll be moving to Princeton soon for a year of “studious leisure” (in the words of the fellowship’s eponymous sponsor). So: more to come, from Diaz. At the afternoon Q & A, Executive Editor Wiegers discussed Copper Canyon’s desire to build relationships with its authors. He said he wanted Diaz’s “next six books.” I want to read them.