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Author Uses Poetry for Advocacy


“‘Angels don’t come to the reservation,’” visiting poet Natalie Diaz read from her abecedarian, solidifying the night’s theme of effectively ironizing difficult cultural narratives.

Diaz shared poems from 2012’s When My Brother Was An Aztec and upcoming collections with students and faculty of CU Denver on March 2. Located in the Zenith room in the Tivoli, the reading drew a crowd large enough that many audience members had to stand flush against the walls to attend. In addition to hosting such an accomplished poet, the event’s popularity was ensured by also being the third annual Jake Adam York Memorial Reading.

York is highly regarded as one of the integral developers of CU Denver’s current Creative Writing program; he was also the founder of the university’s national literary magazine, Copper Nickel. His 2012 death was considered tragic and sudden, and the university has aimed to honor him since.

Diaz, like guests of previous years, was invited because she shares York’s belief in using art for social advocacy. “Jake’s work left a big impression. He created space on and off the page for tenderness, and taught us how to treat poets with kindness,” said Brian Barker, a fellow poet and English professor at CU Denver, before Diaz’s reading.

The audience was enraptured from the moment Diaz took the mic. Her delivery was bold, assertive, and utterly alive: A perfect complement to the poems she so expertly crafted. Her topicality ranged from the intensely intimate—failing to communicate the beauty of poetic moments to her meth-addicted brother—to national concerns—police brutality against marginalized people. The audience could barely abstain from applauding each stanza.

In the boundless lyric essay “Body of Ethics,” the poet explored a tension that surfaces in much of her work: As a queer Native woman who is commonly misgendered, where does Diaz’s personhood emerge among the slippage of so many intersections? Which division of herself will surface in a moment of crisis? What makes her vulnerable, and what affords her protection?

Following the reading, Diaz spoke about the motivations and philosophies of her writing. As director of a Mojave language revitalization program in Arizona, the nature of language itself became foregrounded. “Poetry is a compression of language. We don’t have many words, so we have to pick the right ones,” Diaz said.

Audience members pressed her to speak about language as an element of intersectional identity. “English is a beautiful language, but it’s the one that silenced mine,” Diaz said. “[Words] are not something I type or text or font. Language is an energy to me; it’s not utilitarian.”

In a brief amount of time, Diaz addressed everything from violence enacted against people of color, the nature of knowing, and the messiness of mental illness. Through it all, she was capable of making each subject multiplicitous: She infused even the bleakest of narratives with humor, and always created space for hope. Those who waited in line for the signing following the main event left with a potent transcription on their book’s title page: “Sumaeh ‘ahotok.” Dream well.

—Taylor Kirby

Above: Poet Natalie Diaz uses themes of social justice in her work.

photo: Robert Westbrook

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