Natalie Diaz, 5’11, played point guard in NCAA March Madness for four years at Old Dominion University, a storied women’s college program. Diaz reached the NCAA finals as a freshman in 1997 and to the Sweet Sixteen the other three years. After college, Diaz played professional basketball for several years in Europe and Asia. Writing got her full attention after a career-ending knee injury during an unlucky, no-look practice pass in 2004. Diaz returned to ODU for a MFA in poetry and fiction. In early April, the week of the NCAA championships, Copper Canyon Press will publish Diaz’s first book of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec.
Diaz, 33, is a Mojave and Pima tribe member and the director of a language revitalization program on her home reservation, Fort Mojave on the Colorado River in Arizona. Which means she is the point guard and coach for transmitting the Mojave language from the last four fluent Elder speakers (two in their 90s) to rising elders, the youngest in day care and all ages in between. Diaz credits her college basketball scholarship to opening many possibilities in her life, including writing.
The first half of the interview is with Diaz, poet and fiction writer. The second half is a Q&A with two Diaz poems, Two Things You Need Balls To Do: A Miscellany From a Former Professional Basketball Player Turned Poet and Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball. Game goes to overtime with your comments.
CW: What’s basketball got to do with what you do now?
ND: Basketball is my core. It made me who I am.
ND: Basketball gives you a mental and a physical strength to navigate things. You discover the body in a new way. You learn the body’s limits and then you learn you can push further. It opened up a part of me that I wouldn’t have accessed otherwise. It shows in my writing; the physical world that’s how I know how to situate myself.
CW: Your role as the head learner-teacher strikes me as requiring very complex coaching and teamwork. You are racing against time to keep a language alive and growing. What’s the most rewarding?
ND: With the elders, we’ve learned to read each other and trust each other. Like basketball, it’s the same goal of supporting each other and pushing each other until you just become one mind. Like being a point guard.
CW: You say you’re in love with the sound of dribbling a basketball on a wooden floor. Does that relate to your writing?
ND: There is a kind of music in it. Is it the touch or the sound of it? You’re just so connected to it. It’s like a line of poetry when I know it’s the best I can do. Right now I’m pretending I’m dribbling the basketball.
CW: Your basketball coming of age was coming off the bench your freshman year in the regional finals for seven key points and five rebounds, including the one that clinched the victory that sent ODU to the Final Four. Do you have a writing equivalent?
ND: The final year of the MFA, I started writing – and reading – in a more focused way. And the next year I won the Nimrod International Journal poetry prize. (The journal’s Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize came with publication, a $2000 prize and an all-expense paid reading.)
CW: What do you hope readers will carry away from your first book of poetry, When My Brother Was an Aztec?
ND: These poems weave together a cultural and personal mythology from numerous threads of identity. They struggle with the violence of brothers, reservation, body, hunger, and other types of love. At the core, a sister fights for or against a brother on crystal meth, and everyone from Antigone, Houdini, Huitzilopochtli, and Jesus are invoked and invited to hash it out at the dinner table. These poems illuminate dark corners of the heart, revealing teeth, tails, a million pinto beans, chiming and hands beneath a red dress, and Custer in an ambulance, reducing the violence to beauty or hilarity, to something bearable.
2nd Half: Q&A with two Diaz poems
CW: Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball was written in November for a basketball fund-raiser to endow a scholarship for a Native American MFA candidate at the University of Idaho. What are the top two reasons?
ND poem: 1.The same reason we are good in bed.
2.Because a long time ago, Creator gave us a choice: You can write like an Indian god, or you can have a jump shot sweeter than a 44 ounce can of commodity grape juice—one or the other.
CW: Why is basketball popular on reservations?
ND poem: 10. Really, though, all Indians are good at basketball because a basketball has never been just a basketball—it has always been a full moon in this terminal darkness, the one taillight in Jimmy Jack Tall Can’s gray Granada cutting along the back roads on a beer run, the Creator’s heart that Coyote stole from the funeral pyre cursing him to walk alone through every coral dusk. It has always been a fat gourd we sing to, the left breast of a Mojave woman three Budweisers into Saturday night. It will always be a slick, bright bullet we can sling from the 3-point arc with 5 seconds left on a clock in the year 1492, and as it rips down through the net, our enemies will fall to their wounded knees, with torn ACLs.
CW: You’ve described your sentences as hungry lines. What do you mean by hungry?
ND poem: 8. On the court is the one place we will never be hungry—that net is emptiness we can fill up all day long.
Questions for Two Things You Need Balls To Do: A Miscellany From a Former Professional Basketball Player Turned Poet, published in Southeast Review
CW: What’s a foul in writing?
ND poem: Traveling: (a) in poetry is encouraged, (b) in basketball will land you on the bench.
Fouls = Rejection Letters BUT in poetry, you don’t have to keep track of the # you accumulate, which is a good thing for some of us. (In the event there is a rejection letter limit, please, I’d rather not know.)
CW: Can the basketball court be compared to the blank page?
ND poem: Buzzer-beaters and miracle shots are non-existent in poetry—every poem I’ve desperately heaved into the mail with more prayer than craft or confidence has been off the mark.
CW: Your worst poetry and basketball injuries?
ND poem: The Matter of Rejection Letters: Sure they hurt. They bruise the ego a little. This is where basketball comes in handy—remember ‘No Blood, No Foul,’ and, ‘You’re either hurt, or you’re injured.’ If your fingers aren’t broken, if your nose isn’t bleeding, get out there. Plus, getting your 3-pt shot blocked (a.k.a. rejected, stuffed, packed, denied, shut down, faced, etc.) into the 3rd row by Chamique Holdsclaw in the NCAA Finals, in front of over 30,000 people, and on national TV, is so-much-worse than having the New Yorker reject you quietly, politely, and over the privacy of your email.
Another thing, in basketball, no one will give you cryptic pointers about your shot, like ‘Memorable, but needs culling.’
Injuries: I tore my ACL, meniscus, and MCL (the unhappy triad), fractured my leg and wrist, severed a blood vessel under my eye socket, had numerous concussions, many jambed fingers, dislocated a shoulder, gritted through IT-Band Syndrome and cortisone shots, pulled muscles, sprained ankles that I still have nightmares about—all playing basketball. Vs. Once, I was rushing to the post office to make a post-mark deadline and I stubbed my toe on the curb out front.
CW: Compare the finances of basketball and poetry.
ND poem: Similarity: The cost of basketball shoes, which need to be replaced every 3 months, is equal to the amount you’ll spend on contests.
CW: Which is more thrilling, basketball or poetry?
ND poem: I know I can’t fill the void that basketball has left, but some days when I rise from my desk chair and feel shooting pain in my knees (which are not yet thirty in poetry years, but in basketball years are ancient) and creaking in other joints, I recognize these aches as close to what I once had. And every now and then, I let go of a line or an image and know instantly, as soon as it rolls from the curve of my mind or my gut, that it’s going in, that it won’t rattle around the rim, it won’t brick-up and fall short or bounce too hard from the backboard, that it won’t fall flat on the page…and it’s smooth and sure and turns the net to flames, and as much as I want to stand and watch it, and pat myself on the ass for how beautiful it is, I know I have to keep moving on down the page.
Catherine Woodard has played coed, pick-up basketball in New York City for three decades. Her poems have appeared in Poet Lore, Southern Poetry Review, RHINO and other journals. In 2011, Woodard was the featured poet at UnshodQuills.com, co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She will be a 2012 fellow at the Hambidge Center in Georgia and is a board member of the Poetry Society of America. Woodard is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. Woodard has a MFA in poetry from the New School University and MS in journalism from Columbia University.