Words cascaded across the stillness of the room, absorbed by warm lighting and cozy wooden décor, and filled the homey space with an energy fueled by beauty and reflection. Such was the atmosphere that permeated the Grove House at Pitzer College during a recent poetry reading by award-winning Native American poet Natalie Diaz.
The reading, which took place on the evening of Feb. 9, featured new works by Diaz as well as poems from her 2012 collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec. In addition to the reading, Diaz interacted with students in the Pitzer seminar course Unsettled Landscapes.
The course is taught by professor Tarrah Krajnak and “emphasizes the work of underrepresented artists, indigenous voices, and/or feminist perspectives on ‘landscape,’” according to the class Mellon intern, Lekha Jandhyala PZ ’16. In the coming months, artists such as Lucy Lippard and Laura Huertas Milan will also lead programs similar to Diaz’s reading.
Diaz’s poems seemed to strike a chord with many in attendance at the reading, judging by the focused, introspective faces around the room. The poems centered on imagery drawn from the poet’s experiences living on a Native American reserve, interactions with her family, and reflections on her Fort Mojave Indian heritage. The work Diaz shared also explored a range of motifs and thematic directions which she called her “images of obsession.”
“You kind of do a meditation on an image that’s been haunting you,” Diaz said during the reading. Such development of imagery was one of the central themes of Diaz’s discussion with students. “Natalie discussed her practice with us, from one artist to another,” Jandhyala wrote in an email to TSL. “She taught us to dig into our personal ‘images of obsession’—things we ruminate over or [are] preoccupied with.”
Students such as India Downes LeGuin PZ ’16, who was familiar with Diaz’s poetry prior to meeting her in person, drew inspiration from the poet’s approach to imagery construction. “In particular, I was interested in [Diaz’s] idea of ‘images of obsession’ because it is validating to hear a published poet talk about images they come back to throughout their life as meaningful and worth exploring again and again,” LeGuin wrote in an email to TSL.
Amplifying the power of Diaz’s words were the sonic qualities of her reading. Jandhyala describes this as creating an “intimate” effect. “It was a completely different experience reading her book before we met her and getting to hear her read her own work in person. She has a very rhythmic and cyclic reading-style that drew me in,” Jandhyala said.
Diaz interjected commentaries and reflections in between readings of her work. These ranged from descriptions of her approach to writing to little quips about the social reception of her community and those who share her cultural heritage. When discussing the concept of love as explored in some of her poems, for instance, Diaz wittily said, “I think when you’re native, they’re all post-colonial love poems.”
Diaz has received numerous awards for her poetry, including the Lannan Literary Fellowship and the Nimrod/Hardman Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry.
“I will say that having a poet come to Pitzer is a very valuable experience for seniors like myself who are interested in art and writing,” Downes LeGuin said. “I had the pleasure of joining her for lunch, and that in itself was an invaluable experience because I got to hear her talk candidly about her work, and I got to talk about mine too.”