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ASU poet Natalie Diaz wins MacArthur 'genius' grant

October 4, 2018

'Magician with words' explores how language can exist in our bodies and shape identity

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.

Arizona State University poet Natalie Diaz has been named one of 25 winners of this year's John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowships, commonly known as MacArthur "genius" grants.

Diaz, an associate professor in the Department of English, blends the personal, political and cultural in poems that draw on her experiences as a Mojave woman to challenge the mythological and cultural touchstones underlying American society.

The fellowship is a prestigious honor, a recognition of exceptional creativity, and it is not, the foundation emphasizes, a lifetime achievement award but instead a search for people on the verge of a great discovery or a game-changing idea. Winners, who must be nominated, receive a no-strings-attached stipend for $625,000, paid over five years.

Diaz, who has done work to help preserve the Mojave language, says she was not always a poet.

"Poetry is strange, and my arrival to it was, I think, a little bit unorthodox. I was always an athleteDiaz played point guard on the Old Dominion University women’s basketball team, reaching the NCAA Final Four as a freshman and the Sweet Sixteen her other three years. She would later play professional basketball in Europe and Asia before returning to school for her master's in poetry and fiction at Old Dominion., and so for me poetry is one way I center myself in my body," Diaz said in a video by the MacArthur Foundation. "The way that happens is, I really believe in the physical power of poetry, of language. Where we come from, we say language has an energy, and I feel that it is a very physical energy. I believe in that exchange, and to me it's very similar to what I did on a basketball court."

WATCH: The MacArthur Foundation video with Natalie Diaz

Diaz identifies as indigenous, Latinx and as a queer woman, and she told the MacArthur Foundation that what she hopes her work can offer "a queer writer or a queer-identifying person in general is the space to one, hold the ways we've been hurt and the ways we've been erased and also to hold in the other hand, simultaneously, the way we deserve love, our capacities for love and all of the innovative ways we've managed to find to express that love to one another."

Recently, Diaz has been dabbling in new work concerning the importance of water, which reflects her strong affinity for environmental and humanitarian issues. Last summer, she wrote, curated and led an exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City titled “Words for Water: Stories and Songs of Strength by Native Women” that featured a collective of indigenous women poets, writers and musicians exploring the power of language, story and song in the fight for environmental and cultural justice.

Diaz is the founder of archiTEXTS, a program that facilitates conversations — on and off the page — and collaborations between people who value poetry, literature and story. In November 2017, archiTEXTS held an event at ASU called “Legacies: A Conversation with Sandra Cisneros, Rita Dove and Joy Harjo,” in which the authors discussed their personal journeys through the American literary landscape.

Colleagues have remarked on the unique way Diaz plays with language, manipulating traditional structures into something completely unexpected and forcing the reader to rethink what words really mean.

"Natalie Diaz is a magician with words," said Bryan Brayboy, President's Professor and directorBrayboy is a President’s Professor of indigenous education and justice in the School of Social Transformation, as well as senior advisor to the president, associate director of the School of Social Transformation and co-editor of the Journal of American Indian Education. of the Center for Indian Education at ASU. "In her hands, they are much more than singular words strung together to make meaning; she weaves them together through textured, embodied and nuanced precision. Simply put, the words are better when she puts them together.

"Many of us have seen Natalie's genius up close. It is powerful, profound and provocative. Her presence changes conversations for the better." 

SHELF LIFE: More info on Diaz's debut collection, "When My Brother Was an Aztec"

This September, two of Diaz's poems — “American Arithmetic” and “Cranes, Mafiosos, and a Polaroid Camera” — were featured at Motionpoems, an event showcasing a collection of short films based on poems. Diaz said she was drawn to the project because she loves film and thinks in images.

"The word imagination is made up of image," she said. "There can be no future without images, without the images of our past that we dream or Rubik's cube into a new configuration of what is possible."

Both poems will be part of her second book, "Post Colonial Love Poem," which will be available in 2020, and have influenced her Ford Justice Grant work.

Top photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Emma Greguska

Editor , ASU News

(480) 965-9657

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International conference at ASU to explore themes of Jewishness in dance

ASU to explore themes of identity at conference on Jewishness in the dance world
October 4, 2018

New pedagogy, Israel, identity and the Holocaust among themes of gathering

How would you dance with a Yiddish accent? Or express the tensions of Jewish-Arab relations through movement?

Arizona State University is holding an international research conference this month called “Jews and Jewishness in the Dance World” that will touch on dozens of these kinds of topics. More than 100 presenters from eight countries will gather for four days of events starting Oct. 11, including discussions, performances, dance labs, a film series and a book reading.

Naomi Jackson, an associate professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, said she is organizing the conference now because of an interesting confluence of old and new at the moment. The “old” refers to the end of the previous generation of Jewish people, brought home to her most keenly when her father died a few years ago.

“That generation represented, for me, an artistic and intellectual legacy of Jewish culture that is incredibly powerful,” she said.

“I wanted to honor it because it’s in danger of disappearing because of the high rate of intermarriage. It’s a legacy that I wanted to honor and preserve,” said Jackson, who also is affiliated with the Center for Jewish Studies at ASU, which is the main sponsor of the conference. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

The “new” refers to a dance form called Gaga, developed by Ohad Naharin, the artistic director of Batsheva Dance Company in Israel.

Trailer for "Mr. Gaga," a documentary about Ohad Naharin

“It has spread like wildfire across the dance community and the world,” she said. “Gaga is becoming the ‘in’ technique. This is what’s hot now."

Jackson said the conference will consider the ways Jewish people have impacted dance.

“The Jewish contribution, to especially modern dance and postmodern dance, hasn’t been identified and named. It’s been there, but it’s been invisible,” she said.

Much of the impact has revolved around the Jewish notion of “tikkun olam” — the idea of healing the world through good works.

“How this played out is that many of the pioneers in dance therapy and community dance are Jewish. A lot of them say they went into these fields because of this idea of repairing the world and of social justice,” she said.

liz lerman

Liz Lerman

Liz Lerman, an Institute Professor in the Herberger Institute, is a pioneer in community dance, having founded the Dance Exchange to engage different kinds of people in dance. Lerman, a choreographer, performer and writer, will curate a performance on Oct. 14 and then participate in a discussion about what it means to “dance Jewish.”

Other sessions will include “Dancing Their Identity: Orthodox Women Shaping a New Path in Education,” “Ballet and Jewishness” and “From Victimized to Victorious: Re-Imagining Identities Through Dance.”

The conference will address complicated questions, Jackson said. One session will include Adam McKinney, an assistant professor of dance at Texas Christian University and a former performer with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

“He’s black, he’s Jewish, he’s gay and he’s orthodox,” she said. “His session is about what it means to be all those complex things today.”

Another session will be a moderated fishbowl about the politics of Israeli folk dance, which Jackson anticipates could be contentious.

“I know there will be places of conflict, and I don’t want to avoid that.”

Top photo: Naomi Jackson, an associate professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, is organizing the "Jews and Jewishness in the Dance World" conference at ASU's Tempe campus this month. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News