Poetry exchange writes ASU professor into 'New Yorker' feature first


Natalie Diaz, assistant English professor at ASU.

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Most of us hope that our confessional emails to friends won’t wind up on the internet.

However, Arizona State University Assistant Professor Natalie Diaz and collaborator Ada Limón aren’t most of us, and their correspondence from January to September 2017 isn’t in the usual “Here’s what I had for dinner” or “My kids are driving me crazy” class of missives.

Diaz and Limón are both professional poets as well as friends. They conceived the idea of writing in verse-form to each other as they separately crisscrossed the country. Each knew, or at least hoped, that these “poem-letters,” as they call them, might someday be published.

“I wish we could go back to the windy dock,” wrote Limón from Kentucky, “drinking pink wine and talking smack. / Now it’s gray and pitchfork.”

“I am back in my desert after many years,” responded Diaz from the Southwest. “The Mohave. / This desert was once an ocean— / maybe this is why I feel myself drowning most places.”

Now their experiment has found an audience. “Envelopes of Air” appeared May 23 in The New Yorker, as the first of a “new recurring poetry feature that will be published exclusively on the web.” The series is intended as a platform for debuting long-form and experimental work.

Diaz and Limón also recorded a podcast with New Yorker poetry editor Kevin Young, where they discuss the freedom of expression and honesty they found in writing specifically to each other.

“This was a place that I haven’t been on the page before and it just felt bright: a bright, brand-new space,” said Diaz about the poem-letter form.

Diaz:

Let me call my anxiety, desire, then.
Let me call it, a garden.

Maybe this is what Lorca meant
            when he said, Verde que te quiero verde

because when the shade of night comes
I am a field of it, of any worry ready to flower in my chest.

Limón:

What does Lorca say? Compadre, quiero cambiar
      mi caballo por su casa
. Friend, I want to trade this horse

of illness for your house that praises the throat.

I’ll settle for these words you gave me: sweet smoke,
               and I’ll plant them into my chest so I can take this

circling spell and light it on fire.

Watch Natalie Diaz read a poem-letter, “From the Desire Field” (at 9:40), and other work during her remarks at the Department of English’s graduation reception May 2018:

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