The Operating System


Before I met Natalie Diaz, I was already in love with her writing. The day of my first workshop session with her, I scurried in nervously, eager to soak up insight into how she chisels poems from the bruised and also beautiful corners of her life.
Natalie is a person of many talents who gives me hope that “doing it all” is actually possible. In addition to being a phenomenal writer, she has had an overseas career as a professional basketball player and is currently working on a Mojave Language Dictionary. Her book When My Brother Was an Aztec, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2012, has garnered numerous accolades.
Through a mythical and gut-wrenching linguistic precision, Natalie weaves all the light and dark of human experience. She juggles the gift and loss of humanity within the delicate fibers of family relationships, the beautiful terror we nestle behind family doors.
Of her brother she writes:
My brother’s shadow flutters from his shoulder, a magician’s cape.
My personal charlatan glittering in woofle dust and loaded
With gimmicks and gaffs.
A train of dirty cabooses, of once-beautiful girls,
Follows my magus man like a chewed tail
helping him perform his tricks.
He calls them his Beloveds, his Sim Sala Bimbos, juggles them,
Shoves them into pipes packed hot hard as cannons…
Her work gives name to the turbulent emotional currents within all of us and helps her readers heal parts of themselves which need naming. Her book reminds me that writing about these skeletons is a vital form of truth-seeking for the writer and all kinds of goodness for readers. I came to her writing at a time when I questioned my own work, whether it was poetry or just the therapeutic musings of someone processing family baggage.
In her New American Poets Series feature on the Poetry Society of America website, Natalie affirms the validity of this examination of family through poetry:
[articlequote]When I write, I bring all of my truths, even the Judas-truths that make me feel like the betrayer whose dirty hands are resting on the table for everyone to see, including God. For me, writing is less a declaration of those truths than it is my interrogation of them. Uncovering the darkness in me that led to some of the poems about my brother also lights up the hard, bright way in which I love him and the small wars I wage to win him back.[/articlequote]
Her craftsmanship of metaphor as image is impeccable. When she writes of love, something as simple as an apple in a lover’s hand firecrackers into a “red merry-go-round” or “pulses like a red bird.”
She writes of hands:
O, the beautiful making they do—
of trigger and carve, suffering and stars—
Aren’t they, too, the dark carpenters
of your small church? Have they not burned
on the altar of your belly, eaten the bread
of your thighs, broke you to wine, to ichor,
to nectareous feast?
Her work challenges the stereotypical western-centric/colonial view of Native Americans to expose American ignorance with exquisitely painful imagery:
A gunny sack full of tigers wrestles in our chests—
.          .They pace, stalking our hearts, building a jail’
.          .with their stripes. Each tail a fuse. Each eye a cinder.
Chest translates bomb
Bomb is a song—
The drum’s shame hollowed lament
Burlap is no place for prayers or hands
The reservation is no place for a jungle.
Natalie Diaz is a workshop instructor who knows how to push a writer to mine the word and all its etymological glory for the image!  I had the pen-altering experience of studying under her through Cave Canem’s Writing Across Cultures Workshop Series. Long after this workshop she continues to be a source of inspiration and support.

Charan Morris (left) with Natalie Diaz, courtesy of the author.

Charan Morris (left) with Natalie Diaz, courtesy of the author.

Charan P. Morris is a New York based poet/educator.   A 2011-12 LAMBDA Literary Foundation Fellow and recipient of the Archie D. and Bertha H. Walker Scholarship for the Fine Arts Work Center 2013 Summer Program, her work has been published in Sinister Wisdom, Kweli Journal, InDigest Magazine, The Mom Egg, Stand Our Ground anthology and Liberator Magazine.  Charan has performed as a feature poet for various audiences along the East Coast & Midwest. She has shared a stage with Gill Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Staceyann Chin and others. Poetry takes its rightful place in her life–neck and neck with teaching.  In addition to being a ten-year NYC public school educator, Charan has facilitated poetry workshops with diverse groups of writers including formerly incarcerated youth and graduate students at Columbia University. Her work fuels public dialogue around colorism, homophobia and the effects of war.  Of course, sometimes she writes about being human.
[Editor’s note: Charan comes to us through our active network of past participants in this project, in this case via the inimitable JP Howard, who also brought Ed Toney into the fold this year. Thank you JP, and thank you all! ONWARD: may we continue to grow from person to person, year to year.]

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