Metta Sáma on Activism, Writing, Teaching, and Blogging

Sarah Marcus: You serve on the Board of Directors for VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts. How and why did you get involved with VIDA? From the perspective of being both a teacher and a writer, what relevance do you think VIDA holds for our current literary landscape? What do you think people who identify as inclusive feminists can do to further the cause?

Metta Sáma: When Cate Marvin, Ann Townsend & Erin Belieu founded VIDA (née WILA), I was deeply interested in being part of an organization, in the 21st century, that advocated for the visibility of women writers. We spend a lot of time talking about “how far we’ve come,” I reckon as a way to put a positive spin on the state of the world, and we have come a long way, but not very far, and VIDA addressed this. Because of the vision that led to The Count, we now have more and more open conversations (in newspapers and journals, for example) about the ways in which women—women’s issues & women’s aesthetics & women’s styles & women’s theories—have been pushed aside to create more room for men—men’s issues & men’s aesthetics & men’s styles & men’s theories. Now that VIDA has extended The Count to incorporate the invisibilities of women of color in publishing houses, I see a recognition of a failure of the publishing industry and of writing organizations to actually acknowledge the ways in which women of color have been not only shoved aside, but nearly completely erased, a recognition that the values & aesthetics we hold Literary Arts to is overwhelmingly white and often oppressively white male, and that these values and aesthetics that are being upheld serve white writer communities alone. With this new recognition of the ways in which women of color, even in VIDA, have been swept aside, I find VIDA to be the kind of organization that I can stand beside, an organization filled with writers who are willing to acknowledge their own complicity in erasures, and who are working, deeply and consistently and fully, to address those failures.

What can people do to further the cause to be more inclusive writerly societies? In part, they can do what VIDA is doing: recognize, acknowledge, educate yourself, seek change, be sincere & thoughtful about the reasons you want to change, and change. Don’t jump on bandwagons or follow trends; don’t get on your high horse and change because you need to be the hero; don’t react because you’re afraid of being seen as racist or sexist. Change because you truly see the erasures; change because you truly see the erasures as institutional and personal racisms and sexisms and you want to do better.

SM: I am an avid follower of your extremely honest and powerful blog. In your post titled “I Cried For Years: Making Friends with White U.S. Americans,” you wrote: “Years later, I look at the number of white friends who have blacklisted me, who have called me an instigator, who have condemned me for my use of the term ‘whitefolks’, who have said I don’t give them enough credit, who call me harsh, trouble maker, insensitive, uncaring. The white friends who want to be congratulated for every little step they make to atone for not being aware of race and racism. The white friends who tell me I need to find a more generous graceful tone when I talk about race.” Firstly, I am in constant awe of how raw, brave, and fierce these posts are. Can you tell us about your experience blogging about race and feminism? Do you deal with or engage with many trolls? Have you thought about publishing these pieces elsewhere? What do you want your readers to walk away knowing?

MS: Thank you for reading those posts, firstly. To be honest, I started the blog alongside a class I teach every Fall semester, a senior capstone course which I’ve re-designed to be as much about students polishing their work as it is about preparing them to be writers in this social media world. I require them to either have a blog or a Twitter account or a Facebook account, something that writers utilize for networking. I re-opened a Twitter account and re-activated my Facebook account and began the blog so I could participate in the world I was introducing them to. In discussing with them the faces we present in our social media world, the faces that are persona, I decided that my blog would be the space of no holds barred, as it operates in sentences and paragraphs.

In the past few weeks, the posts have been way more painful than I hoped the space would be able to hold, yet, the stories have been here with me for decades and finally needed to come out. What has been really wonderful, in part, is the number of bloggers who have been writing about racism and racists in the academy, so I don’t feel alone out here. For every person who says: oh, that’s just her; she put herself in those situations, there is a blogger who is not me whose post basically says, here’s another one of us and another and another and another, ad infinitum. It’s important for these stories to be told, now; the energy is here for it; the refusals to be silenced that people of color are now insisting upon is powerful. I had a friend recently tell me about a racial incident at a university and she said the woman who the racism had been enacted upon went about her protest in the wrong way. I disagreed with her; yes, the woman was very very vocal and gave zero fucks about decorum and respectability politics, and she needed to be. We, as POC, spend so much time worrying about grace and mercy, that we convince ourselves that the racisms enacted upon us aren’t as bad as we thought they were. Why spend that time trying to be gracious and merciful to your attackers? Come at them hard, come at them fiercely, come at them with all of your power. That, too, is love. Love for the self. Love for the community. Love for the generations to come after you.

I don’t engage with trolls. Engaging with trolls is not love. We’ve had enough social media years to identify the markings of the trolls, so why commune with them? I have seen men say on other people’s walls (people who have shared my posts) that my posts which I say are about race aren’t about race, that I’ve just made bad choices in friendship, or that I put myself in those situations so they can’t sympathize with me. I saw those comments and created a new blog to address those comments, to tell a new story. Those men were fuel, I suppose.

And that’s one thing that I hope that people get when they read my blog posts: all of these oppressors, these racists, are fuel. We can’t stop the racists and oppressors from being themselves, but we can expose them, and in exposing them, we can expose our own refusals to be silenced, to be oppressed, to be invalidated and devalued. Our voices, even solo, are thunderous.

SM: There are so many vital posts on your page, but one that I can’t seem to stop thinking about is “How We Lie When We Say We Love Women.” You wrote: “But somehow, comparing women’s bodies to the earth lets us off easy. The land is pillaged; the woman is raped. The land is drilled into; the woman is raped. The land is land and what is it there for, if not to be attacked by man? The woman is woman and what is she there for, if not to be dominated by man? To talk about rape is to admit that we have a problem with women. We say we love them, but we quickly call them cunts when we’re angry with them. We say we love them, but we blame them for everything that goes wrong in the world.” Can you talk a bit more about why the comparison of women’s bodies to the earth is problematic? What responsibility do we have as peers and as teachers on social media and in the classroom to challenge these troublesome assumptions and the accepted culture of hate against women?

MS: I’m so happy you brought that post up, Sarah. There was a lot of silence around that post, and I think it has a lot to do with the inability of men to talk openly, effectively, about violences against women. And the ways in which women have been trained, often, to devalue ourselves, to place men above us. There are easy comparisons to be made here. How many white people say: “I’m listening, but I’m staying silent because I don’t know what to say” when they see a racist attack against a person of color? How many men just stay silent when they see a woman attacked by a man?

That post was so incredibly difficult for me to write, because a friend I love immeasurably is one of those men who calls women cunt when he’s angered by them. And I love that dude, incredibly. And I believe he believes he loves women incredibly. And yet, when we attempt to talk about his language against women, there is tension and this new thing we call “policing” of language.

I suppose that post-colonial scholars were “policing” metaphors when they began to talk about the problems of comparing women’s bodies to land. Land is an object, something that men see as theirs to colonize, to bulldoze, to deforest, to mine, to mountaintop remove, to stick a flag in, name and call their own. When women’s bodies are compared to land, the women are seen as the possession of men, an object that is theirs to colonize, to bulldoze, to deforest, to mine, to mountaintop remove, to stick a flag in, name and call their own. This extends to feminizing objects: cars, boats, motorcycles. The woman as brickhouse. The woman who reminds a man of his jeep. The woman as fine china. And, for me, the worst, the woman as a body to bear the weight of man (ie, the men who want to crawl inside of women for protection, for solitude, for warmth). These comparisons of women to land gives way to women as man-made objects as women’s bodies of vessels to hold men and their multitude of problems. It dehumanizes women, so when we attempt to talk about violences against women, it’s difficult. After all, the reasoning goes, women are objects for men to possess.

It’s our responsibility, in part, as humans in this world, to not let men get off easy. I’ve seen enough of the men who say things like “yeah, that song is misogynistic, but hey, it’s rap!” These are the kind of men who blame women for all of their failures in life. The men who claim to love women but forgive the ways in which language is often used a cudgel to knock women down. The more we call attention to these violences, the more work, I hope, we put into dismantling these oppressive structures.

SM: Miel’s description of your forthcoming book, le animal & other strange creatures, says that “despite the poet’s resentment of those who have access to ‘a safe world I can only imagine’, and despite the sound of necks and bones breaking that bubbles as a soundscape under her work, Sáma seems fundamentally optimistic.” What role does safety or the lack thereof play in this book? Do you believe that you are fundamentally optimistic? Is this important when advocating through writing?

MS: When I was an undergraduate student, I was a cynic. I had a friend who became my first surrogate mother, who often said to me: “You’re too young to be a cynic!” but in my mind, cynics were the most optimistic people in the world. We had so much hope for the present, so much hope for the potential of humans to behave humanely, yet we were also realists who saw that people were so caught up in striving for capitalistic success that they often forgot how to actually care about people they weren’t related to. Every time an election rolls around, I prepare myself for utter depression. The millions of dollars thrown into these campaigns, for what, ads? Posters? Banners? Office space? It’s truly upsetting. And yet, my core is this thing called hope, and in the core of that hope is this thing called faith in humanity.

I often tell people this little story of one of my ex-professors, who, during my dissertation defense asked me: “Do you have any joy?” I was surprised by the question, affronted by the question. Here we were, talking about these poems that were filled with the myriad problems of the world, poems that addressed poverty and xenophobia and racism and islamaphobia and sexism and homophobia and this professor was asking me if I had joy. I responded: “Yes, I have joy. There is joy in writing about these problems; joy in sharing my thoughts about these problems; joy in calling attention to these problems; joy in seeking justice.”

I’m not sure that writing needs to be optimistic; however. I’m with Toni Morrison, who said, “I did not want to feel anything that did not originate within me. . . I want to feel what I feel. What’s mine. Even if it’s not happiness, whatever that means.”

SM: What are you currently working on, and what will we get to see from you in the future? What advice would you offer to younger writers just starting out?

MS: Thanks for asking! I’ve been working collection of poems and fables about a group of people who follow a person who thinks humans can turn into dragons. A chunk of those poems are coming out soon in Heir Apparent & a chunk will appear in the Kat Dixon edited anthology Dismantled Almosts. A few others can be found in The Baffler, La Fovea, The Rumpus & Valley Voices. The Winter 2016 issue of North American Review will, in part, be an edited collection of poems by African American writers, which I edited and am thrilled by. I’m also on the docket to edit, alongside Racquel Goodison & b. william bearhart the May 2016 About Place journal, from Black Earth Institute, so be on the look-out, in October, for a call!

To young writers starting out: Listen to Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Feels to be Free” and enact freedom in all the ways you can imagine and push to imagine more.

photoMetta Sáma is author of After “Sleeping to Dream”/After After (Nous-Zot), Nocturne Trio (YesYes Books) & the forthcoming le animal & other strange creatures (Miel). She is Director of Center for Women Writers and Assistant Professor and Director of Creative Writing at Salem College.

Top 5 Feminist Books You Haven’t Yet Read But Definitely Should


Here are five awesome titles to add to your own personal back-to-school reading list:
1. Enlightened Sexism by Susan Douglas
In this great pop-academic read, Douglas traces the “girl power” movement of 1990s media (as seen in figures like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Janet Reno) and how it ended up creating a subtle but dangerous message that the work of feminists has all been fully achieved already. If you’ve ever been frustrated by a conversation with someone who claims that “we don’t need feminism anymore” because “women are already fully equal to men,” then you’ll want to read Douglas’s argument about where this idea came from.
2. The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan
OK, so you’ve done your feminist historical homework. You’ve read The Feminine Mystique, The Second Sex–you’ve even gone all the way back to Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 A Vindication on the Rights of Woman. But why not go even farther back–back to 1405, when Christine de Pizan made a feminist argument nearly 600 years before feminism ever existed? In this landmark text, Pizan builds an allegory city where women are safe from gendered violence, oppression, and inequality, all with the help of her feminist fairy godmothers Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Bonus points if you teach this text to your students–here are some ideas on how to do this.
3. The Woman Reader by Belinda Jack
While you’re on that history kick, settle in with Jack’s book for a deliciously thorough history of women’s literacy. Starting with prehistoric times and continuing all the way to the present, Jack documents struggles for women’s literacy, including censorship and education battles, and the daring acts of countless women who stood on the forefront as advocates for women readers.
4. An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Gay’s Bad Feminist got tons of great attention, and for good reason–but don’t overlook her novel, An Untamed State. This gripping narrative of a woman kidnapped in Haiti and held hostage by a gang of men also contains an unexpected love story. It’s a tale of survival, courage, trauma, and recovery that also delves into issues of class and immigration. Once you start, you really won’t be able to put it down, so block off a day for this suspenseful read.
5. Plot by Claudia Rankine
You read Rankine’s fierce, ground-breaking Citizen. But what about Plot? The innovative, experimental forms of this book of poems explore pregnancy and childbirth in ways that will demand your full emotional and intellectual engagement. Check out this lively text for a cutting-edge, avant-garde approach to an age-old topic.

Contest Winners Announcement

Gazing Grain Press is delighted to announce the results of the 2015 feminist poetry and prose chapbook contests. Judge Natalie Diaz has selected Marisa Crawford as the winner of our 2015 poetry/hybrid contest, and her chapbook Big Brown Bag will be published in September. We’ll have a launch and celebratory reading during Fall for the Book. Judge Amber Sparks has chosen Heidi Czerwiec’s Sweet/Crude as the winner of the 2015 prose/hybrid contest, and her chapbook will be published in spring 2016.

We are also happy to announce that Denise Leto’s manuscript Until the Greed of Pronoun’s Salvage is the poetry contest runner-up, and How to Boil an Egg by Nora Brooks is the prose contest runner-up. We will publish excerpts from both manuscripts as miniatures this year.

Natalie Diaz’s comments on Marisa Crawford’s Big Brown Bag:

“This collection is about obsessions and how we are always building them, surrendering to them, or evading them. In the opening poem we learn that Bloomingdale’s, its “brown bag” held like a bomb, are the objects of the speaker’s side-eye, tell-it-slant gaze: I saw the Bloomingdale’s out of the corner of my eye / & with the way the light was hitting it, it looked like a mirage. / Like a temple… What is really being wrestled with is love, its losses, despair, denial of that despair, learning to love one’s own body and self, and all the ways we trick ourselves into making it through the hours and days and shifts of this grinding blue world. The last couplet of the book: There was that big sign on Route Nine that said, “Free Air.” Somebody told me, memory is a tire. Change it. Go from there.”

Marisa author photoMarisa Crawford is the author of the poetry collection The Haunted House (Switchback, 2010), and the chapbook 8th Grade Hippie Chic (Immaculate Disciples, 2013). Her writing has appeared in Bitch, Hyperallergic, The Hairpin, and The &NOW Awards 3: Best Innovative Writing (&NOW, 2015), and is forthcoming in the second edition of Gurlesque: the new grrly, grotesque, burlesque poetics (Saturnalia, 2016). Marisa is founding editor of the feminist website WEIRD SISTER, and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Denise LetoDenise Leto is a poet who explores different forms of media and performance. She was recently awarded the Orlando Prize in Poetry from the A Room of Her Own Foundation and a Fellowship in Poetry by the Breadloaf Residency Program in Sicily. She was an Honorary Fellow and Artist in Residence at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. Denise wrote the book of poems for the collaborative and multigenre feminist performance piece entitled Your Body is Not a Shark with music, sound art, dance and text. Her chapbook with Amber DiPietra, Waveform, was published by Kenning Editions. (Photo credit: Julie Sartwell)

Amber Sparks’ comments on Heidi Czerwiec’s Sweet/Crude:

“This lush, language-driven meditation on the North Dakota oil boom is as perfect a jagged juxtaposition as the title implies. Part history, part geology lesson, part survey, part indictment of corporate greed – it’s also something much more: a song about the stubborn, sorry, beautiful mess we humans have become.”

HauthorpicHeidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor of North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent collections, Self-Portrait as Bettie Page (2013) and A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster (2015), and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets (2015).



Photo on 2012-03-23 at 13.51Nora Brooks is a writer whose poetry, cultural coverage and fiction has appeared in RedactionsAlimentumMonkeybicycle, H.O.W. Journal, PopMattersPoets & Writers online, The Best American Poetry blog and is forthcoming from EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts. A poem from How to Boil an Egg and Other Recipes was chosen by Short anthologist Alan Ziegler for a selection on The Best American Poetry blog. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School, where she was a research assistant for The Best American Poetry series editor David Lehman and a teaching assistant for rock critic Greil Marcus. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and a lot of puppets.

We are also pleased to recognize the following outstanding manuscripts:

Poetry/Hybrid Finalists

Repka, Denise Bickford

Notes on the post-body, Sarah Cook

Darling Girl, Amber Edmondson

Medicatrix Naturae, Lizi Gilad

inter:burial places, Billie Tadros 

Poetry/Hybrid Semi-finalists

here is how I lived in my body on this day, Aimee Herman

Bone Loss, Kate Hovey

Speech Rinse, Vanessa Couto Johnson

Searching for a Flag, H. Melt

The Next Time Art Seduces You, Carolyn Moore

Cold Garden, Lisa Moore

Dirt, Root, Silk, Susan Azar Porterfield

The Walking Dead–A Lyric, Dawn Tefft

Prose/Hybrid Finalists:

A Rose for [], Caren Beilin

Weight, Elise D’Haene

This Green Country, Kelly Lynn Thomas

A Registry of Survival, Ann Tweedy

Prose/Hybrid Semi-finalists:

Triptychs on a White Belt, Yu-Han Chao

from The Architecture of Water, Rebecca Woolston

Arisa White Talks Emotional Mapping, Comprehending Trauma, Inclusivity, Intersectionality, & More

Sarah Marcus: You are one of the founding editors for HER KIND, an online literary community powered by VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts. The New York Times has said that “since it began several years ago, the VIDA count has been a reliable conversation-starter about gender disparity in the literary world.” How did you get involved with VIDA, and how did this initial blog come to be? Is there overlap in purpose and message with your work as a Kore Biters’ columnist at Kore Press?

Arisa White: I was recruited by VIDA founder Cate Marvin to come on board to help conceptualize and edit HER KIND. Rosebud Ben-Oni was my co-editor and it was because of our well-clicked relationship as editors, as writers, as woman of color, as creatives, as so many things, we were able to make HER KIND into a community that welcomed and promoted emergent and established literary voices. Mostly, Rosebud and I shared a vision to value each woman as a living library. Here is the mission we came up with, and it came from the heart:

HER KIND is VIDA’s next big step. It will serve as a forum to create lively conversation about issues that are often dismissed or overlooked by the mainstream media. We wish to honor the experiences of women writers and hope HER KIND will be an agent for positive social change, encouraging women to define their own terms regarding the importance and value of women’s voices. Funny, thorny, contemplative, savvy—HER KIND will provide a myriad of voices and aesthetic approaches for the blog.

So whenever or wherever Rosebud and I combine our powers, we will bring it. Now at Kore Press, we are interviewing women writers who we see as literary activists, who are bold and speaking truth in distinctive and provocative ways. We have Airea D. Matthews, Rachel McKibbens, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, to name a few, as Kore Biters.

SM: Your gorgeous debut poetry collection, Hurrah’s Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards! Can you tell us about this project? What poems do you feel the most connected to in this book? I especially enjoyed the exploration of identity through dialogue, sound, and language. How long did it take you to complete this work?

AW: It took me about 12 years to complete Hurrah’s Nest. I left my MFA program at UMass, Amherst, with a version of it that I continued to work on until it became the version we see today. Like most debut collections, I explore my childhood and family dynamics and was interested in feeling through, more deeply, the moments of intimate violence, the abusive relationships my mother found herself in, and to hold it all with the love that was present. I wanted to know what was the formative ground that held us up. It is a book that interrogates the memories that stick with you, asking to be massaged down, those knots in your narrative, in your sense of self, and poems were the healing attention I could give. Because I enjoy what each poem and prose piece, is doing, what each taught me about what I’m capable of aesthetically, I connect to all the poems in Hurrah’s Nest.

SM: As a writer and BFA Creative Writing faculty member at Goddard College what role does inclusive feminism and intersectionality play in your curriculum and in your larger literary community?

AW: Goddard is low-residency, so the students create their study plans—their “syllabus” for the semester. As an advisor, I share my knowledge with them, guide them to read beyond their cultural influences, explore other eras, and this philosophy is also supported by the pedagogical practices and the educational mission of the BFA Creative Writing Program and Goddard as a whole. I do my best to model a life of inclusivity and honor the intersectionalities that inform the lives around me. It’s not so much a role as it is a way of life. A way of being that I am sure to nurture and evolve and to encourage myself to step beyond what is comfortable, to create encounters that will open me to understanding who is around and before me. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks about in her TedTalk, we have to move beyond the single story, because who we are as people is far more rich and layered and complex that we are taught to consider. This is the failure of our consciousness—it is individual, dualistic, and lacks a cosmological approach. Within my community of family, friends, students, and bystanders, I ask us to question and to think about our narrow expectations, to hold the contradictions, and not regard the other as an object for their personal use—and they do that too for me.

SM: We learn in your dear Gerald author statement that these epistolary poems and prose are addressed to your father who was deported to his homeland several years prior and that the last time you saw him you were three years old. What was your experience of giving him a copy of this manuscript like after 30 plus years of abandonment? What was it like to create a cross-genre manuscript? How did you make decisions about ordering the pieces?

AW: Giving him the book, I felt resolved. I got to meet the man that created the absence, and to understand what was that “thing” I carried around that is connected to his abandonment. I got to return to the site of the trauma and better comprehend its presence, and then chart within myself how it’s been functioning in my dynamics. And the book is arranged to mark those moments along that emotional map. After reading the collection, Gerald told me in a phone conversation that I could have written a better book if I talked to him first. There are many conditionals that we can apply to our lives to make a different outcome—but that’s all in the imagination. It is not real, not now, not here. And the point of the poems was to make sense of my life without him, to wrestle with the mythology of him, to give him an account of who I am. I took his response as a complete assholish remark—he couldn’t be with my point of view, with me. This has been a part of the journey too, recognizing that loss comes in all these different ways, these degrees of hereness, and I’ve had to make peace with that. With the people who are no longer in my life, because they fade out, because I let them go, because I wasn’t the best at showing up or I didn’t allow them to be here for me, and then there are folks who I am psychically connected to, people who resurface and then swim away, and I’m learning and relearning how to be OK with that, and how to not think that I could better if, I could be more loved if, I could write better if, and to accept myself as complete, whole, and no missing parts.

SM: What are you working on now, and what can we get excited to see from you in the future?

AW: When you’re in it, it’s often hard to say what it is exactly you’re working on . . . I think it’s a poetic drama. I’m interested in exploring in this work the intersection of drama, poetry, and narrative—what is useful from each, what combinations are necessary for the spiritual journey of a queer black woman working to integrate her feminine aspect? Also, I’m continuing to work on Post Pardon: The Opera, with my collaborator Jessica Jones. Last night, I watched a documentary about the Japanese architect Tadao Ando and in it he said, “Do not abandon your work!” and Post Pardon, from chapbook to libretto has been a testament to remaining in a relationship with what you create. So after a season of applying for grants to put on a full production and being rejected, we decided to reassess our direction with this project, and Jessica suggested we do an album of songs. There is so much vitality in the songs, the message toward healing, to paying attention to what we fear, and where we are uncomfortable so that we celebrate life more deeply, with more integrity. And we need more of those sentiments communicated in our music. The work has heavy jazz, soulful influences, and the songs will be revised to include some hooks and more choruses and lyrics changed here and there so that the meaning is broadened beyond the world of the opera itself.


Arisa White received her MFA from UMass, Amherst. She’s a Cave Canem fellow, and the author of Post Pardon, Hurrah’s Nest, and A Penny Saved. Her debut collection, Hurrah’s Nest, won the 2012 San Francisco Book Festival Award for poetry and was nominated for a 44th NAACP Image Award, the 82nd California Book Awards, and the 2013 Wheatley Book Awards. A 2013-14 recipient of an Investing in Artist Grant from the Center for Cultural Innovation and an advisory board member for Flying Object, Arisa is a BFA faculty member at Goddard College.

Review: The Apocalyptic Visions of Natalie Diaz: When My Brother was an Aztec

AztecNatalie Diaz
When My Brother Was an Aztec
Copper Canyon Press, 2012
103 pages, $16.00

 “And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers” – Ezekiel 25:17

What can you do when the world breaks apart? Turn to Natalie Diaz and her debut poetry collection When My Brother was an Aztec, perhaps the most anguished, eloquent, mournful document emerging from American poetry in the past quarter century. Within three parts, the poet presents an apocalyptic triptych of ruin, disaster, and collapse, and the crushing consequences of their interrelatedness. Turn and stand with Ms. Diaz, amazed while you both witness a complete communal demise as everyone disappears, screaming into that collapsing planet we once called home.

And it all begins in a small house on a Native American Reservation. Diaz’ speaker records the seismic rupture in the book’s opening, title piece. She relays the following: “[H]e lived in our basement and sacrificed my parents / every morning. It was awful.” (1) While a cursory reading might bring the reader to believe this story addresses a single family, Diaz’ speaker claims generational post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by the entire post-Columbus Native American culture, stating, “He thought he was / Huitzilopochtli, a god, half-man half-hummingbird.” (1) In microcosm, a 500-year holocaust occurs in the confines of the tiny dwelling, its occupants quartered or thrown off cliffs, again and again and again.

One of the first victims of generational trauma is faith and spirituality, and Diaz’ speaker monitors this loss immediately. Part I investigates the damage firsthand. In “Abecedarian Requiring Further Examination of Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation,” she writes, “. . . death / eats angels, I guess, because I haven’t seen an angel / fly through this valley ever.” (5) Further on, “The Gospel of Guy No-Horse” presents a nihilistic mixture of rage and impotence coupled with alcohol-fueled lust and power. And the results can’t be good.

Repeatedly, Diaz’ speaker invokes Judeo-Christian images. “Reservation Mary,” “The Clouds are Buffalo Limping towards Jesus,” and “Prayers or Oubliettes” all employ these sentiments, but they turn them inside out. In “If Eve Side-Stealer and Mary Busted-Chest Ruled the World,” the speaker asks,

            What if Mary was an Indian

            & when Gabriel visited her wigwam

            she was away at a monthly WIC clinic

            receiving eggs, boxed cheese

            & peanut butter instead of Jesus? (25)

And while she portrays the effects of empty rhetoric and a foreign culture’s imposition on Native American life, Diaz’ speaker poignantly exposes, both literally and figuratively, the constant tug of ancestral history in “The Facts of Art,” when Hopi workers encounter a Native graveyard during their work on a highway with the Transportation Department.

As with soldiers displaying PTSD when hearing or imagining gunshots, Diaz records sounds of warfare throughout the volume. From Hotchkiss rifles and Gatling guns to exploding bombs and rumbling tanks, the enemy is always engaging and destroying Native American people and culture. Even without the appearance of foreign cavalry, the effects of warfare, concentration camps, and loss of identity haunt the volume. The speaker provides a perfect example of this trauma in “Other Small Thunderings,” writing,

Our medicine bags are anchored with buffalo nickels –

sleek skulls etched by Gatlings.

How we plow and furrow the murky Styx, lovingly

digging with smooth dark oars –

like they are Grandmother’s missing legs – (31)

Then, however, in Part II, Diaz shifts focus violently from the communal to the individual in a series of eleven poems focusing on a meth-addicted brother, his descent into darkness, and the tragic effects of his loss. The pieces ostensibly chronicle the destruction of a nuclear family. In “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” the speaker states, “He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps / when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.” (43) However, the larger effects of this ruin are captured in “As a Consequence of My Brother Stealing All the Lightbulbs.” Diaz writes, “—we are always digging each other out from an intimate / sort of rubble.” (54) The brother builds with the tiny house a funeral pyre where he and his family somehow live. But its ignition is spectacular, as the speaker records in “No More Cake Here;” the family throws a huge wake marking the brother’s passing.

In Part III, Diaz’ apocalypse slowly unfolds, the brother’s death being its catalyst. In “I Watch Her Eat the Apple,” the speaker unveils a new, if temporary, planet. She writes, “This blue world has never needed a woman / to eat an apple so badly, to destroy an apple, / to make the apple bone – / and she does it.” (74) The accumulative effects of personal and generational traumatic stress emerge in “Self-Portrait as Chimera.” She asks, “I am. I am and am and am. What have I done?”

As the volume approaches its close, apocalyptic signs increase and intensify. “[D]reaming a mesquite forest I once stripped to fire / before the sky went ash, undid its dark ribbons, and bent to the ground,” (84) Diaz writes in “Monday Aubade.” Reality and fantasy intermingle in terrifying fashion in “When the Beloved Asks, ‘What Would You Do if You Woke Up and I Was a Shark?’” In “Lorca’s Red Dresses,” the tempo increases as the speaker claims, “My tongue’s a heretic, prostrated. My heart’s a red dress.” (87) In the piece, “Of Course She Looked Back,” the disaster rapidly approaches. “Love Potion 2012” chronicles the world’s undoing, as the sea and the sky turn upside down. “This is no sea     Clouds not reef not stone,” (99) she declares.

But Diaz is not finished. She narrates events to the very end. In the closing “A Wild Life Zoo,” the speaker observes a lion attack a man who has entered his cage, in itself a horrifying sight. But the poet recognizes this inevitability, as the man’s trespass leads to his gruesome demise. “. . . I believed the lion and rang my bowl / against the cage to let them know.” (102) The world has collapsed. Everyone has fled and disappeared. And still, Diaz beats her jagged metal song alone against a cage of rigid bars.


Paul David Adkins lives in New York and works as a counselor.