Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week, Sundress author féi hernandez reads Natalie Diaz for us while reflecting beautifully how it feels to experience, write, read, and become poetry. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose to read Natalie Diaz for Lyric Essentials?
féi hernandez: When I finished reading Natalie Diaz’ “When My Brother was an Aztec” I had an otherworldly impulse to turn back to the title page and two inches beneath the title write: “Natalie Diaz is God and I’m dead in her heaven.” I went to my room from the living room and put my sneakers on and went out for a run, I wanted to fly. With the statement I wrote didn’t mean to aggrandize or over sensationalize a fellow spell casting poet, nor do I not see the God in myself or in other writers that have changed me like Danez Smith or Patricia Smith or Ocean Vuong, but it was heavenly to find a place to rest, one where I could always be safe and be clearly seen. Every poem struck my bones like precise lightning, electrifying my spirit to write. I had finally found tracks that could teach me to be a better hunter and simultaneously prey. Natalie Diaz unfurls, demystifies a lot of the usually tangled or overgeneralized notions of identity, which is what my work is determined to do. Specificity. Through Natalie Diaz’ work I felt closer to my ancestors, I felt my voice more capable of bringing them to life through my written word. Every poet, new and old, needs to experience the work of Natalie Diaz.
EH: What connection do you have to the particular poems that you chose to read?
fh: “Blood-Light” reminded me of internal and external turmoil I’ve experienced with my own family and interestingly, with myself. I am “brother” to myself in this poem as much as I am the narrator whose words/ alacranes, “In them is what stings in me – / it brings my brother to the ground,” in this case “brother” is my family. The way light and darkness works in this piece reminds me of the flick-of-the-light combustion that erupts in these moments of contention where, “The only light left is in the scorpions – / there is a small light left in the knife too.” This flash of war happens in 14 couplets. Couplets: love, family, ties, commitment, and togetherness all amidst the falling apart, the violence, the hurt. The last couplet destroys me: “One way to open a body to the stars, with a knife. / One way to love a sister, help her bleed light.”
As for “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” all I will state are two very long things: 1. Aside from the title taking up its well deserved smarts and space, the first line sets up the poem perfectly: “ Angels don’t come to the reservation.” 2. The dichotomy of the reservation/ native land and the outsider, intrusive Anglican colonizers are pit against against each other over and over. For example: Saint Gabriel and Gabe, an Indian who stays in the reservation after a POWOW who “Sure he had wings, / jailbird that he was. He flies around in stolen cars. / Wherever he stops, / kids grow like gourds from women’s bellies.” What matters here is Gabe, his life, and not some “white god”/ angel who was part of the history of destruction bestowed upon the world, but in this case the reservation. My favorite line of the poem is “You better hope you never see angels on the rez. If you do, / they’ll be marching you off to / Zion or Oklahoma, or some other hell they’ve mapped out / for us.” Clearly tying this all back to violent histories in the United States and warning their people to avoid any “angels,” the colonizers they are. This poem specifically grounds me in the work I aspire to create which can capture the historical tensions not just in content, but in the decisions I make in the writing, like foiling concepts and characters and what they represent.
EH: Diaz’ has said that myth, to her, is—in contrast to written histories—“the truest of truths.” You too, write about myth and identity, particular to your nonbinary, non-white, radical immigrant experience. Can you speak to your relationship with myth and truth in this vein?
fh: The spiritual blends right in with myth. I grew up with so many stories that were supposed to instill fear in me like La Llorona, or highway spirits, or tales of the devil, but to me they felt the closest to my own truth: being trans, non-binary, being a childhood arrival from Chihuahua, México, growing up in Inglewood, Spanish my first tongue, and being displaced from so much: first the land and people I was born from (Pi’ma, Tarahumara, and trans-Atlantic ancestors), a nationalistic identity of Mexicanness, and being loudly queer growing up in the hood. I am La Llorona, wailing for all that’s been lost even if it’s been from my own volition. I am the devil: misunderstood, demonized, ostracized, a snake. I am a highway spirit begging someone to take me home, wherever that is. My truth is the biggest folklorist, makeshift truth for many people that may not understand how I’m “trans” if I have a full beard and my transition doesn’t look like the trans that’s traditionally accepted as demonizable. I agree with Natalie Diaz that the truest of truths are the stories, myths, left behind. I am, in that way, made of things that can fly, are magical and glow in the dark, things that can transmutate, disappear and appear, and I’ve never been more close to the truth of life. Myths are my favorite dance and where most of my ancestor-unearthing work with my family has begun.
EH: Lastly, your debut poetry collection from Sundress, Hood Criatura was recently released. Is there
anything else you are working on right now (in relation to that book or not) that you’d like to share with readers?
fh: I am currently working on a book of illustrations that will follow the chronological trajectory of Hood Criatura (Sundress Publications, 2020)! I’m really excited to bring to life my poems visually!
I am also working on a book of personal essays and my second full length poetry manuscript, but
shhhhhh, don’t tell anyone!
Natalie Diaz is a queer, Mojave poet, activist, and educator, born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012) and Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020). She has earned several accolades, including the 2018 MacArthur Foundation Fellow, a Lannan Literary Fellow, a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellow, a Bread Loaf Fellowship, the Holmes National Poetry Prize, a Hodder Fellowship, a PEN/Civitella Ranieri Foundation Residency, as well as being awarded a US Artists Ford Fellowship. She is an enrolled member in the Gila River Indian Tribe and currently teaches at the Arizona State University Creative Writing Program.
Purchase When My Brother Was an Aztec by Natalie Diaz, from Copper Canyon Press.
Read a recent interview with Diaz from PEN America.
Watch this reading and conversation with Diaz about “Postcolonial Love Poem” from The Greene Space.
féi hernandez (they/them) was born in Chihuahua, México and raised in Inglewood, CA. They are a trans non-binary visual artist, writer, and healer. féi is the author of Hood Criatura, published by Sundress Publications, 2020. Their writing has been featured in Poetry, Oxford Review of Books, Frontier, NPR’s Code Switch, Immigrant Report, Nonbinary: Memoirs of Gender and Identity (Columbia University Press, 2019), Hayden’s Ferry Review Issue 64, BreakBeat Poets Volume 4: LatiNEXT, and PANK Magazine. féi is a certified Reiki and Akashic Records practitioner who utilizes a decolonial approach to ancestral energetic healing. They collect Pokémon plushies. féi is the Board President of Gender Justice Los Angeles and is a Co-Founder of the ING Fellowship.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and advocates for media literacy and digital citizenship. She is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society and the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at: http://ericahoffmeister.com/