At 42, Diaz is the youngest poet ever elected to the academy's board of chancellors
This January, Amanda Gorman’s stirring words at President Biden’s inauguration celebration ignited a love for poetry many Americans didn’t even know they had. Just days before, another young poet of color had quietly made her own mark on the craft.
At 42, Arizona State University Associate Professor Natalie Diaz became the youngest chancellor ever elected to the Academy of American Poets, an organization founded in 1934 to support American poets and foster the appreciation of contemporary poetry. Past chancellors include ASU University Professor Alberto Ríos, Lucille Clifton and W. H. Auden.
“I'm not often the youngest at things,” said Diaz, the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University. “I feel like things tend to come to me more slowly, though always right on time. While I did come late to poetry, I don't feel particularly young. I learned and am still learning to be a poet and person reading the works of many of the current chancellors.”
The issue of her precociousness aside, one thing many of her contemporaries agree on is Diaz’s distinct ability to manipulate language. When she was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2018, ASU President’s Professor Bryan Brayboy, whom she credits as a mentor, called her “a magician with words.”
“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,” Brayboy said. “Simply put, the words are better when she puts them together.”
Diaz’s election to the Academy of American Poets also marks the first time the board of chancellors comprises a majority of poets of color and a majority of women.
“To be welcomed in alongside Nikky Finney and Tracy K. Smith is lucky,” she said. “It makes me feel the way I used to feel walking into a basketball gym with my teammates – an excitement and an awe. Awe at what your teammates are able to do … out on the court and excitement for who you might become alongside them in study and practice of the game. Poetry and basketball are similar.”
Much has been made in the past about Diaz’s prowess on the court (she played internationally in college) and its apparent incongruity with the practice of wordsmithing she has now more or less dedicated her life to. But for her, they’ve always been intertwined.
As a child growing up on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation, a roughly 24,000-acre plot of land that straddles the borders of California, Arizona and Nevada, Diaz and her five younger siblings would while away the blistering summer days in the air-conditioned civic center a short walk away from their home. There was both a gym and a library at the center, each with alternating hours. So Diaz would begin her day at the library, reading until the gym opened, then hit the court to shoot some hoops. When the gym closed for lunch, she’d head back to library until it opened again in the afternoon.
“When I go back home to the rez, I’m just me. Still known more for basketball and Mojave language work than anything else. ... Which is why going home is so important to me — it is me. The quietness, the bleached sky and dirt in the day, the pitch dark sky and its weight of stars, my blue green river and its arroweed and levees. I’m just me when I’m home.”
– ASU Associate Professor Natalie Diaz
Basketball has long been a popular sport among Indigenous peoples, whose unique, up-tempo “rezball” style of play was featured in the 2019 Netflix documentary “Basketball or Nothing.” Diaz took to it easily after watching her older brother play.
“My dad built me my first hoop out of like, busted plywood,” she said, laughing. “I remember he spray painted the square and used bail wire for the rim. And I just thought that was the greatest.”
The sport was more than just a pastime for Diaz and members of her community. It was a source of pride, as well as opportunity. She played throughout high school and was recruited by several schools, but none of them felt right – until a visit to Old Dominion University in Virginia that almost never happened.
“It was such a big shock to go from the reservation to these really big schools,” Diaz said. “I just remember thinking like, I love basketball, but how will I do everything else when I'm here? How will I eat? Who will I talk to? (It got to the point where) I wasn't allowed to take any more visits to schools, because they would only pay for me to visit five. But some people in town put together some money and got me a ticket to Virginia.”
On her “unofficial” visit to Old Dominion, she met the team’s players, many of whom were international, from countries like Portugal, Mozambique and Cape Verde, as well as the coach, who dazzled Diaz with her command of many languages.
“They felt not unlike me,” Diaz said. “So I thought, what might happen if I am part of this energy?”
Her first year there, Diaz’s team made it to the Final Four. That success was followed by a spate of international play, during which she spent time in several European countries, including Spain, where she was able to meet cousins from her father’s family – which is both Mexican and Spanish – for the very first time.
Ultimately, it was a torn ACL that derailed Diaz’s basketball career. She had just signed a contract to play in Israel when it happened.
“That injury sat me down for a few minutes,” she said. That was long enough for some of the professors she had kept in touch with at Old Dominion to convince her to take some master’s degree-level writing classes. “I think they knew more than I did about what kind of writer I was or might be.”
That’s not to say the thought had never crossed her mind. Diaz grew up in a family of storytellers, most notably her mother, who, in addition to enthusiastic recountings of mundane daily encounters, would regale Diaz and her siblings each night as she read aloud from books they had brought home from the library, using her body as much as her voice to convey the story.
“I think that's where some of that first appreciation for poetry came from,” Diaz said. “She would read out loud, and there was a certain amount of performing that she was doing. … And also, I think story has always been a really important part of the way we relate at home on the reservation. That's what the original poems were, they were stories. A way of carrying information. And I think I tend toward narrative poetry, especially in my first book.”
That book, “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” which describes her family’s struggle with her brother's addiction to meth, garnered Diaz considerable recognition and an American Book Award. Her second collection, “Postcolonial Love Poem,” was published in 2020, and was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the Forward Prize in Poetry.
On top of those accolades, Diaz has no shortage of fellowships to her name, including the aforementioned MacArthur Fellowship, the equally prestigious if less well-known Bread Loaf Fellowship and a Native Arts Council Foundation Artist Fellowship, among others. She’s not one to let it go to her head, though.
In 2019, ASU hosted a celebration of Diaz’s poetry, and her family attended the event.
“They had never been to one of my poetry readings, or any poetry reading for that matter,” she recalls. “I didn’t know they were coming, and they were late, so when I looked up as I was reading my last poem and saw my mother and father in the back of the room, I felt so proud and loved. … One of the hardest things about wanting to be successful in our world is that it often takes you far from home, far from your family, far from what makes you, you.
“I am as strong and imaginative as my parents made me, and a lot of that making involved them sacrificing possibilities and joys in their own lives. That reading wasn’t the biggest or most prestigious reading I’ve had — it wasn’t an award – but it is one of the most meaningful moments I’ve had in poetry. I felt like I was able to show them one of the many gifts they have given me.”
Another one of those gifts must have been an unflinching capacity for good, old-fashioned hard work. If Diaz isn’t writing or teaching or winning an award, she’s making other meaningful contributions to her field.
In January 2020, Diaz launched the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands at ASU, an initiative she hopes will spark inquiry, action and a reimagining of what America’s borderlands can be. Later, in June of that year, the center announced a partnership with the renowned Vera List Center for Art and Politics at The New School in New York City to provide Borderlands Fellowships to artists working on projects that explore the relevance of place through the lens of Indigeneity. And finally, the center capped off the year with a record $4.2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a two-year mentorship program for Native students. Diaz’s own former mentor, Brayboy, is a collaborator on the project.
“I’m so excited about it. I think it can make an impact on the ways we think about Indigenous art and scholarship, as well as the ways we practice collective and relational imagination,” Diaz said.
She spends a lot of time thinking about her students and their success. Back in 2016, when she was still unsure whether or not she wanted to teach at ASU, they were the deciding factor. She was in a meeting with various faculty of the Department of English who were introducing her to their students. At one point, some of the students, who were Mexican American, broached the subject of representation.
“I was surprised because there was faculty in the room, but the students were just very straightforward about the fact that they didn’t feel like their voices were being heard,” Diaz said. Cynthia Hogue, now an emeritus professor of English was one of the faculty members there that day. “Cynthia welcomed their questions, and she was not offended by them. She saw it as an opportunity for a conversation. And I was just like, ‘Wow. That's awesome.’
“I feel like what makes me possible at ASU is that that tension is allowed to exist. I've never felt stifled in terms of (expressing my thoughts or criticisms). At ASU, people understand the necessity of that.”
Diaz is just as grateful to the university for its support of her work with the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program, which allows her to spend time with her elders back home on the reservation, something she clearly cherishes.
“When I go back home to the rez, I’m just me. Still known more for basketball and Mojave language work than anything else,” she said. “So the international and national recognition only happens outside of home. Which is why going home is so important to me — it is me. The quietness, the bleached sky and dirt in the day, the pitch dark sky and its weight of stars, my blue green river and its arroweed and levees. I’m just me when I’m home.”
At the moment, Diaz is looking forward to a time when she’ll be able to safely gather and celebrate with her fellow newly elected chancellors at the Academy of American Poets, as well as some of its existing chancellors.
“Joy Harjo is also a chancellor, and it isn't often that two Natives are in the room at the same time,” Diaz said. “The work (academy executive director Jennifer) Benka and the previous and current chancellors have done was necessary work. It is lucky to be a part of group that is working to reflect poetry in the country.”
Top photo: Natalie Diaz, associate professor of English, Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry and director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands at Arizona State University. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now