Part of the joy of Poetry Friday is getting to share poets whose work I admire. This Friday I chose Natalie Diaz. A few years ago I heard her read at AWP where the power of her images stunned me. I picked up a copy of When My Brother Was an Aztec from Copper Canyon’s table right after the reading. Her sense of play, both allusive and analytical, and her complex vision of relationships (familial and otherwise) keep me re-reading.
So it was a pleasure to watch interviews, find poems online, and find links to readings this week. The first week of December is a rough one here in Fairbanks. Everyone’s grumpy, light deprived, and planning on moving. Writing lessons featuring Diaz helped me keep from falling too far into the dark myself.
On Thursday, one student peeked at the biography offered by the Poetry Society of America open in a tab on my computer and asked, “Her brother was addicted to meth?” As Adrian Matejka explains, “It’s tempting to get caught up in the biographical elements of Natalie Diaz’s writing.” True.
For teens, those biographical elements can be magnetic. They increase (ever elusive) classroom engagement. Our curriculum features writers so distant from our students’ experiences (especially for my students at the youth detention center). Choosing poets whose lives and subjects overlap with the lives and experiences of our students helps them see themselves as writers. Many of my students play basketball and understand Diaz’s relationship with the game. Many are Alaska Native and grew up in villages where the impacts of colonization, including the generational impacts of institutional boarding schools, are part of daily life. Many have struggled with addiction, both their own and that of family members. Those points of connection to Diaz’s poems matter.
This Friday, I began with this video, an interview from the NewsHour Poetry Series. I talked a little about Diaz’s description of sharing her book with her family for the first time (especially the poem “No More Cake Here“).
Then I showed this clip focused on basketball and poetry:
Diaz says, “The page, I think, operates a lot like a court.” We talked about what that could mean for them. Both classes watched Diaz reading “Abcedarian Requiring Further Examination Anglikan Seraphym Subjugation of a Wild Indian Rezervation” and “Reservation Mary.”
In one class we watched Diaz read, “A Woman with No Legs.”
In another class I showed “Top Ten Reasons Why Indians Are Good at Basketball.”
If you’re making a packet of poems for class, You’ll find the full text for both “A Woman With No Legs” and “Why I Hate Raisins” at Gwarlingo. The Poetry Foundation website has a selection of her work available online Including “My Brother at 3 A.M.,” “It Was the Animals.”
For those of you seeking writing exercises to accompany these poems. I offered several, and I told each class that they would get to choose my topics for me.
They could write an abecedarian. For that, I showed them how to write the whole alphabet along the left side of the page in their notebooks and then we worked to fill in our lines. We had fun when we got to x. One poet added the X-Men at that point; others looked in the dictionary to discover a word. My first period class had me write an abecedarian.
They could write a top ten list. In one class they made me write a poem called, “Top Ten Reasons Not to Write Poems.”
They could write a poem inspired by the structure of Diaz’s poem, “A Woman with No Legs.” For that I showed them that the title contained the subject of each sentence in the poem. We talked about how the form changes at the end, with the last line where “her kneecaps” are the subject instead of the woman herself.
This exercise required more explanation than the other two. I told them to make a title about a person and then write each line beginning with the verb. For my students, this provided an opportunity for us to review subjects and verbs. It was easier for us to make each verb the beginning of the line. In the future, I plan to make a handout with the rough structure so students can fill it in and be reminded of where the verbs should go. For this option, I wound up having to write poems with the following subjects: a jailbird, bananas, a caribou, the last human, and a tree.
For those of you working in the secondary literature-focused classroom, use Diaz’s work to teach the literary terms abecedarian and allusion. For those of you teaching nonfiction and considering the impact that writing has on those being written about, her story of her family first reading “No More Cake Here,” could start a good discussion.
No matter what you teach though, read Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec if you haven’t yet. Please comment below if you’re planning to try this lesson, and let me know how it went once you do.