FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?
NATALIE DIAZ: I come from a community of story tellers. My mother is well-known, in a rez way, for her ghost stories. I grew up with stories about our land and water, about the strange and reality-defying occurrences of my desert-discovering the night heaving in sleep on a moonstruck sand dune; hearing an owl call out to you to, “Come closer and look”; a one-hundred twenty-seven-degree day; a rock who weeps when its creator dies. Before there was poetry, there was our Mojave language. When we say our name in Mojave, we say, “The river runs through my body”. When we say the Mojave word for sex, we refer to “what the hummingbird does to the flower”. The Mojave language isn’t metaphorical, rather it is a type of “all”, all things connected though different. Poetry is one of many lucky recognitions of that intimacy with language and the many bodies language carries. When I write or read poetry, I recognise it – as a home, like my desert and Mojave language; as a place of pain and intention, like my mother’s ghost stories; and as a way to practise my life, not unlike basketball. Poetry is where I recognise myself. I started writing poetry because it was what was there waiting for me, a gift to arrive at. I’m still arriving at it, it’s still always just up ahead.
FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?
ND: Poetry creates the conditions in which any wound can bloom, where words are everything they’ve been and all that they might yet be – these are the conditions I am also looking to find or create in the world in order to exist. I’m writing from a country that assumed I would have no voice that does not iterate and replicate its power. Poetry is not a hobby of mine, rather it is a practice, a way I live best. Poetry lets me be out of time in that I can remember my country’s violence and yet not be the sum of it. It is lucky to be invited into this space the Forward Prizes creates, which I experience as a space of rigorous inquiry of language. The shortlist feels like a generosity and invitation to join one of the most important conversations of our generation, which might go something like, “What is the power of language, and how can we be intentional with it, in the ways we both remember and imagine one another?”
I would like to ask a question of the Forward Prize family, meaning all of you who help to make it happen. I was taught that language is an energy that began long before me but that was moving through me. I have to be intentional with it, with how I reorganise and let it loose from me, because it will continue on without me, creating energy in the world. You do a similar work with this prize, with the community of readers it creates. I wonder, how do you all take your work within this family of the Forward Prize and reorganise it in the ways you use language in your homes, with your beloveds, with strangers? How does being a part of this energetic stream of poetry lead you into your hours, days, and lives? I imagine it changes you as much as it changes those who are awarded the prize.
FAF (Holly Hopkins, Forward Prizes Manager): I think there will be as many answers to that as there are people who work towards making the Forward Prizes happen. So, I passed your question on to others and included the answers I’ve received below. For myself, I read and wrote poetry long before I joined the Forward Arts Foundation, so language was already a very important part of my life. Working for the Forward Prizes has meant I read books and poems I might not have otherwise. I never know what the judges will choose (if I could predict their choices then we would have failed in our selection of judges – each judge should bring a different viewpoint, range of knowledge and expertise to the process). So, working on the prizes has enriched my own life and practice by bringing me to a broader range of books and ideas. Of course, poetry is not the only language I take home. Putting together the prizes is a job with its spreadsheets and emails and contracts and minutes, and they have their language which becomes part of me too. However, I feel very privileged to work in a job where I help connect life-changing poetry to new readerships.
FAF (Susannah Herbert, Executive Director): The community of readers, including judges and poets, around the Forward Prizes re-shape the ways I perceive the world. I respond to the responses created by poems. I watch how words fall and, by following them with my senses, I discover more about the listener, the poet, the times we live in. The poem is the occasion for this discovery. (You can learn so much about someone by hearing them read a poem and discuss it.) For the past ten days, works by recent Forward Prizes poets: Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and Kei Miller in particular, have been on a mixtape playing in my head and in a way, they help me discover myself, what I have missed. Recently I have been reading these poets – and others – before I sleep. I dream of becoming a better listener, of communicating in such a way that others will hear and remember, of making a space where others can truly feel heard and seen. I was a journalist for 25 years. My husband is still a journalist. Our daughters are in education. We still shout each other down and interrupt each other, all the time. But we also try, endlessly, to find other ways of listening, and to pay attention to what’s not said. Not easy. Never over. But worth it.
FAF (David Wheatley, Forward Prizes Judge 2020): Though I am a judge for this year’s Forward Prizes, I am aware that in reading it it is often poetry that judges me. Poetry addresses me with an energy that I must match before there can be dialogue. I am wary of poetry as a mere expression of my personality, and suspect that art arises from a super-personal imaginative reality or not at all, a phantasmagoria of self and anti-self, in Yeats’s terms. My own poetry is born of the bundle of accidents that is my daily existence, but transforms its chosen obsessions – contested landscapes, the shadows of history, animal life, the dreamscapes of my children – into the consciousness of a felt necessity. I walk through the woods and talk to the last Scottish wolf. I pick up the sound of your poems on the wind and send back this small response.
FAF (Bidisha, Forward Prizes Judge 2018, now board member): Working on the Forward Prizes has shown me how precious language is. While some of the poets who are shortlisted and go on to win are widely read and critically acclaimed, the overwhelming majority create and publish without any assurance that their words are going to be read. Language is not just a means of expression, it’s also a bid for connection and an invitation to listeners. There’s no greater pain than speaking and not being heard and I admire poets’ (and all writers’) faith in language.
FAF (Leaf Arbuthnot, Forward Prizes Judge 2020): I absolutely love that Diaz answer. She’s so right to ask the question. I have been so enriched by reading all this poetry – particularly during such an isolated time, I’ve felt washed in the company of other minds.
FAF (Jamie Andrews, Forward Prizes Judge 2019, now board member): Physically – the piles of books that tower over you in the front room: part accusing, part inviting; and mentally – the accumulation of different images and different consciousnesses that teeters impossibly high above you, without ever quite crashing on you, is a singular imaginative —and maybe empathetic—feeling.
The collision of observing intense creativity, and also seeing the structures that enable and amplify it, does remind me that there’s something beautiful about collaborative operation and organisation in the service of individual creativity.
FAF (William Sieghart, Founder): One of the most wonderful moments of the year for me is the announcement of the shortlists of the entries to the Forward Prizes. For nearly 30 years I’ve had the pleasure of discovering new voices in poetry combined with new work by some of the finest poets from around the world. Then comes the clincher, the arrival of the annual Forward Book of Poetry assembled by the judges from their favourite entries to the prizes. Every year, it’s as though I’ve been given an insight into the poetic lives of seventy or so voices giving me a picture of our world as seen by so many different artists. As always poetry gets there first. Whatever is happening in the world, it’s the poets who are the first to tell us and it gives me an extraordinary sense of pride and privilege to be part of such an important and rewarding annual process for the past three decades.
FAF: Please tell us something about the creation of your shortlisted collection, from first words to final book. Does it mark a departure or change from your earlier work? Which poems in this collection are most important to you?
ND: I waited eight years between my first book and my second book, which is unusual in current American poetry time. It’s not that I am patient, because I am rather anxious, especially with what I love. And I feel always urgent and a little dangerous when I write, the danger of knowing myself. The work on this book was different in some ways simply because I am different, but it is also the same in many ways because I have a foundational relationship of language and image. My images were built in the desert where the temperature is easily 120 degrees in the summer, along a wild but endangered river, on a reservation which was where we were meant to die not live, where I have learned that to love a brother sometimes means you must fight him, etc. – those energies will always be present in me. And yet in this book I demanded a different visibility, one that makes my nation uncomfortable – my speakers refused to be defined by their wounds and would instead sow them and reap light from them. The wounds in this book become the speakers’ collaborators and conspirators in imagining the simultaneity so many of us need to exist. In these poems, my rage and anxiety are sisters of my desire and pleasure.
A poem that feels like a question I am entering in a new way is ‘I, Minotaur’. I was able to shape the movement of language and line in the ways I have known desire and language to move, as disruptions, out of time and across many planes. When the Minotaur, who is itself, who is my brother, who is me, states, “I am your Native, and this is my American labyrinth”, I am both reminded of my life and also urged toward something I don’t yet know.
FAF: At this moment, the world has been turned upside down by Covid-19. How do you think these extraordinary times will affect your readers’ response to your work?
ND: Pandemics are dangerous times because of the threats to our health and also because of the ways in which our governments move beneath their cover, as if moving in the camouflage of a giant dust storm. When we come out of this, I hope all of the books we’ve shared will leap us toward the new and return us to the old language we need to begin and to continue. Poetry is one of the ways I love myself best, in memory and imagination. It’s one of the few ways I can return to my brother, to the ways I love him. In these poems, I am all the things I am – anxious, exhausted, angry and so possible that I am dangerous. If anything, I wish these poems can be a way for a reader to return to themselves and their beloveds knowing how capable we are of love, how deserving, of receiving and offering it. Not a lazy love, not a sweet love, but the rigorous love, the love that makes us dangerous.
FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?
ND: I still have so much to learn about poetry, as a reader and a writer, but I think this James Baldwin quote, from a 1984 Interview at the Paris Review, is in relationship to how I think about my own landscape of poetry. Baldwin said, “Read as much as you can. I read everything. I read my way out of the two libraries in Harlem by the time I was thirteen. One does learn a great deal about writing this way. First of all, you learn how little you know. It is true that the more one learns the less one knows. I’m still learning how to write. I don’t know what technique is. All I know is that you have to make the reader see it. This I learned from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac.”