An Interview With Poet Natalie Diaz

Stan and I have discussed in our own way the importance of doing what is right for the Earth, regardless what the outcome. This is the only way to behave properly, given how overwhelming the current planet situation is.

“I was really struck by your phrase, ‘no matter the outcome,’” Natalie responds. “I am struck by the insistence that these things are a part of the state of the climate right now. I don’t believe this is us having control over the land. This is the land telling us it’s tired. It’s tired of sustaining us when we can’t reciprocate the relationship that I believe was set out for us. I don’t have the articulation yet, but I do think there’s something about when we do acknowledge what we’ve done, or even our refusal to acknowledge what we’ve done. It’s still such a dominion, right? As if we are occupying dominion on the land and will direct it. We are definitely a part of the momentum of what’s happening to water, to Earth, to climate. Yet this is also very much the Earth telling us it’s exhausted. It’s ready to start cleaning itself. It’s ready to move on to its next iteration.”

Natalie shared with us that her father is Mexican and Spanish, not Native, yet grew up on the rez alongside her mother’s family. Her family has a long-standing, deep connection to the desert.

“We have a big volcano cone, Amboy Crater, so at some point everything here has burned up. Fossils are less common. We also have the fault line and the rift zone right up the road, as well as lava fields or huge salt flats. Along with all of this we have the river and we’re in a valley. I’ve always known the Earth is on a track of its own, already set in motion to do what it does. This was something my father used to say, and he still is very interested in earthquakes. My father taught me this way of seeing the Earth. We are only one movement in its great momentum. But now we have the ‘Anthropocene,’ right? Which is problematic because it re-centers humans, as in it’s still Our time, a time that’s jUse this sitet about us.”

Natalie recalled when we were in our writing residency — she, I, and Spanish translator Will Vanderhyden.

Book cover for We Are the Middle of Forever: Indigenous Voices from Turtle Island on the Changing Earth
We Are the Middle of Forever: Indigenous Voices From Turtle Island on the Changing Earth, (2022).

“I had the luck of being alongside Dahr and Will,” she said, speaking directly to Stan. “In the evenings we gathered sometimes and had conversations. We called ourselves ‘Team Doom’ because we always arrived at talking about climate disruption or all of these different crises in the world. We were discussing whether people should have children or should we drive a Prius. But one of the things Dahr said to me was this: ‘Can I be honest with you? This has been terrifying to know these facts about the climate.’ But Dahr went on to tell me that he was just trying to reduce his carbon footprint as much as possible because he was thinking of the generations to come after us. This has stayed with me and changed me. I even remember the next morning waking up and being like, the world is new, and I’m new in it.”

This was the first time I’d come toward an iteration of that “no matter the outcome,” I must find a way to comport myself in the best way possible amidst the catastrophes besetting Earth. Although it wasn’t until I met Stan, years later, that I literally came to terms with this concept.

“But this is something that I’m really grappling with,” Natalie continued. “I feel like we don’t really have a language to talk about how small we are and how we might cause damage that on the human scale is immense and overwhelming. It doesn’t mean we won’t damage other life-forms, yet I think that life is so much larger. It’s hard for me to find the practice of that except in trying to think toward it. We have a very large impact on the world and are constantly destroying it. While we are a destructive species in many ways, the scope of life is infinitely larger than ours. So I feel like the scope actually shifts, so it’s not so much about us. What are you going to save? What are we going prevent? We’re now dealing with tiny numbers and degrees. Whether it’s talking about temperature or the ocean rising, there will be life after us. So when I originally heard this comment, ‘no matter the outcome,’ to me, that might seem like the most essential comment. ‘No matter the outcome.’ Who do I want to be as a relational being or person, no matter the outcome? I don’t think I even have an answer now, except that that feels like the question I needed.”

Stan spoke about how he carries this question of “what is ours to do no matter what the outcome” against the backdrop of his own moral wounds from the military. He mentioned how the VA has the term “moral wounds” for what happens to soldiers who were sent to war believing in the cause, only to see other soldiers commit atrocities. He also said that Agent Orange (the chemicals that he was exposed) can make his life shorter. However, he believes that it is how we live our lives that is most important. “It’s about the manner in which I engage every living being that I come in contact with; that is the most crucial thing. That’s the relationship.”

In direct conversation with Natalie, he emphasized the constant change and movement of the relationship. constant exchangeThis is what life’s all about. “I think we get hung up on the outcome and then we make tons of mistakes trying to make that perceived outcome happen when it’s only coming from a partial framework, a partial understanding of what’s going on.”

Natalie began to ask questions, while thinking aloud.

“How did we get here? How do we move forward and react? What’s getting in the way of that? If there’s a quick answer to these, it’s that humanity is a small part of this much larger thing, and we must get back to being in relationship to the land and water. What would humanity look like if it were to be in relationship with the land and water? It’s the large question of the ways we try to push ourselves through a day. To be who you are. To say because I’m a poet, this can be who I am in a day, or this is how I might treat someone. This is what I might always be conscious of or central to in my language when I speak with my mother, my lover, my friend or a stranger. These are my small ways. Or how do you get to your water? How do I use it in one day? Or how can we work in the gardens? Then we have the larger world that is not asking that question, no m atter the outcome.”

Natalie paused and then said that this reminded her about abolitionists, or people who were traumatized or have suffered the moral wounds of war, and how important is it to give these things language.

“That’s why I think it’s so impactful that you are working on this book because sometimes a story, in a Western sense, lets us forget this. Indigenous stories work differently because of the intimacy of their language. So, suddenly, like putting the word ‘moral’ in front of wounds, that’s a whole different way of being held, and it’s a whole different way of learning to love yourself. Sometimes we forget the simplicity and power of a single word, of a way of language.”

Natalie believes that the way we iterate, replicate, or commodify things is contrary to what the land has told the human body. This is what true abundance looks like.

“It was Creator pulling us up from the land and saying this is who you are in language, but it happened while land was happening. He then said, “This is where your water will be from.” He moved his lance into Earth and water appeared. This is how you hunt. Language is one route to returning us to land in the same way that the Creator gave us language so we could identify ourselves as both water and land. Of each. Language has the power to return to its original form. The Earth itself was the first to speak of Earth. These knowledges are held in indigenous languages, but English can be made more flexible and open to such relationships. In language, we’ll always return back to the land if you know how to look for it.”

We Are the Middle of Forever can be purchased here.