“This life is supposed to hurt. ”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
How are you?
I’m good. I’m floating on the river so it’s perfect.
You’re literally floating on a river?
Yeah, I’m literally floating on the Colorado River.
Whoa. You have to tell me about that.
It’s just a nice place to relax. It’s my river—it’s really pretty out.
Are you moving from one point to another point? Or are you just—
I’m in a tube with a friend of mine and we’re anchored. We just drove down to the beach and threw a little anchor in the water, so we’re floating out a little bit but not too much.
That’s beautiful. I’ve never interviewed a person who was floating in a river.
I know. It’s going to make it seem like poets have this cushy life. I should’ve called you from the salt mines or something.
Haha, yeah! The sintering plant or something.
I’m looking out on the water. It’s really pretty here, our river is really clean. You can see down to the bottom.
So do you live near where you are right now?
Yeah, we just drove down a couple of roads and here we are.
That’s awesome. I guess we can begin at the beginning. You started out your career playing professional basketball internationally, which is unique for a poet, obviously. Can you talk about what the sort of pivoting from that life into the life of being a serious literary writer looked like for you? Were you writing while you were at games?
I didn’t really write while I was an athlete. I kept journals, which I guess is the gateway for a lot of people. I read a lot. I read just about anything I could get my hands on. I wasn’t a big poetry reader. For most of my life I haven’t been a big poetry reader. Sometimes when overseas, depending on what country I was in, my local friends would bring me books in translation. I went through all the books from their parent’s collection or their grandparent’s collection. It wasn’t until late in my MFA program, it was a three-year program, that I finally learned how to read poetry. That’s when I learned to write it, I think. It took me learning to read it.
What do you mean when you say “learned how to read it”?
With prose, you can lose yourself in it and you can let it carry you away. You find whatever that rhythm is, and there’s a certain fastness to it even if the writing moves slowly. There’s a certain speed to it—you expect to get from point A to point B in a way you can’t with poetry. Poetry, for me anyway, seems to be a place where you slow down. In my life, just about everything I did had the pace of a basketball game. Sometimes fast, sometimes less fast. I understood momentum. I learned that not everything has to be one speed. I had to learn to interpret poetry’s momentum and rhythm, had to learn how to move in it. One of the things I always try to tell my students is that the poems are not about you, they are about the reader. It’s not about the reader reading your life in the poem. It’s about them being able to read some part of their own life in the poem, even if it’s a part they don’t understand. I wasn’t a good reader of poetry until I realized poetry had a different rhythm and momentum. I guess I also had to learn to be quiet. It took a while to find that.
That poetry is not something you can skim in the way you can prose is a barrier for entry for a lot of people. They are so used to that mode of reading, especially online. Now, the vast majority of our reading is just skimming headlines and skimming status updates and stuff like that, and that’s sort of antithetical to how one behaves as a good reader of poetry.
I think too when we read prose we are so willing to be told something. We want an answer. Just the very nature of a plot gives you an answer, at least in some respects. What I had to learn about poetry is that the poem wasn’t necessarily going to tell me something. It was going to be something that I learned on my own in the poem but maybe the next reader would learn something different. This also draws me to writing: I am free from having to know something. That’s the most natural mode of learning for me—questions, not answers.
You’re someone who has a foot in both ponds, no pun intended. Some of your poems, like “How to Love A Woman With No Legs” and “The Hooferman,” have reappeared as short stories as well. Can you talk about writing about the same content or maybe the same sort of germ of an idea in the different modes?
What I’m writing right now is very different from what I’ve written before. I’m writing in a way that doesn’t outline the borders of the different genres. You could call some of the things I’m writing prose poems or flash essays or short lyric pieces or whatever people decide. For me the modes don’t feel very different.
During the first book I was so close to the MFA that I was very aware of the distinctions, but now, for me, it’s not very different. This has a lot to do with how I was raised. Story is the thing we’re after. And for me, poetry feels a lot like a story. I know the difference of the economy of the language and of course I know the physical being of the poem is different in terms of lines, stanzas, and breaks. But I think I chase the story the same way in both poetry and prose whether it’s short essay or story. So there’s a blur that happens between them. It’s how I interpret the images that determines, at least right now, whether the thing becomes a poem or becomes a prose story or a small flash lyrical memoir or something.
I grew up with stories, with a big family and a native community, where everything is a story. Someone goes down to the liquor store, and they’ll come back with a story. You wake up from a dream and, oh, you’ve got a story already. And so there’s not a great distinction between what those stories are other than a way to communicate with somebody, a way to tell what you’ve seen or something you’re wondering about. And I feel pretty lucky for that. In those poems and stories that you mentioned, I began with just an image I cracked open. Inside there was a poem. Realizing the poem hadn’t done quite what I’d wanted it to do yet or I still felt that there was a part of me that wanted to tell something more about it, I just sat down and stretched them into 3,000 words, to 3,500 words. Then, I saw what was left. Usually the difference is the character, there’s an actual character who develops in some way because they have more time and space to do that.
I would say that you have a lot of fascinating characters just in your poems too that feel pretty fleshed out and pretty actualized, and I’m not just talking about the main characters. I’m thinking of characters like Mary Lambert, or the old woman with no legs who lost them to the white man named Diabetes. They feel so concrete and real in the way that you’ve written them.
They all feel like real people to me. They’re half me, like any character I imagine is going to be. They’re built from all the things I’ve seen and all the people I’ve known and all the places I’ve been. And so in a lot of ways they do feel like real people to me. They feel like 1/67th of every person I’ve met, you know? Or like 1/39th of every image I’ve seen or been afraid of or moved toward at night.
The pity of it is that some of the names on the reservation cannot be equaled in the imagination. It would be much more dynamic and amazing and unimaginable and completely unbelievable if I told you the truth about some of the people, some of the places I’ve been. It’s a little bit crazy. I’ve talked a lot with my students—you know the reservation and the desert and these small desert towns, they’re such terrible but also wonderful places. I always tell my students you can’t tell the truth because nobody will believe the truth if we tell it to them. The stories we have are completely unbelievable and unimaginable and so the only thing we can do is try to reimagine it and revision it and try to build it in a way that will let people just get a glimpse of some of the things that we see and carry through these places.
Throughout the book there’s this intense connection to both Borges and Lorca that reoccurs, and maybe that’s where some of that comes from. Your station is just so fantastic—I don’t mean qualitatively, I mean beyond the easily imagined—that calling upon those voices maybe helps you to get at that unbelievableness in a way that still feels authentic.
Exactly. I think “fantastical” is probably a good word. “Fantastical” was one of Lorca’s words, so that’s definitely an important thing. But yeah, Borges, Lorca, Neruda, these are my storytellers. They remind me of my grandparents. My grandparents were Spanish, but it reminds me of some of the stories they had. In our family line we have mystics. What I find in some of their fantastical stories and what I find in Borges is refusal to completely commit to telling the truth. You never know if he’s saying, “forget it, I’m not going to tell you any truth,” or if he’s saying “this is exact truth because I’m telling you that there is no truth.”
I find a space for my own stories in theirs, and it does feel like a conversation. When I pick up Lorca, when I’m reading any of these poems, it does feel to me like, “hey, I know those images because I know the corners of where your mind had to move into, where the mind had to leave those corners in order to build these things.” It’s crazy but a Lorca poem or a Borges story, they feel like my living room. It’s like, I recognize that lamp. When Lorca says “the horn of moonlight is moving through the alleys like a unicorn,” I think, “of course, that’s the only way light could move through!” The poems are talking about the living room I grew up in. The same kind of darks and lights and gods and hearts and desires. They’re ours too.
That’s beautiful. That comes across in the work—you’re not just alluding to them in some gesture to situate yourself within a certain canon or—
We don’t trust cannons out here. The government ruined that for us. The government fucked that up. We don’t do cannons anymore.
But really, the canon for me sometimes feels a little bit strange because where I come from, here on the reservation, in our community, you respect your elders and you know that all the things coming out of you have come through them to you. I’m grabbing onto them, and the energy is moving through me—these words came from somewhere else, somebody else, some other time. But it seems to me when people talk about the canon, that what they are often trying to talk about is assimilation. I really want to headbutt it; you know, we headbutt out here.
It seems that people want, they need to know, “who do you associate yourself with because that’s going to help me one, determine if I understand you or not, and two, it’s going to help me determine if you’re authentic or legitimate or not.” That’s especially true when it comes to Natives, because it’s like what is our canon? Joy Harjo is still writing, she’s not dead and gone, you know. Luci Tapahonso, Simon Ortiz, but also one of the first contemporary male poets I read was Sherwin Bitsui, and he’s what, like a year or two older than I am? And I’m now his contemporary in some ways, in terms of the way some people group us, but he’s somebody whose work I learned from because he had been writing for so much longer than I had been. The canon is—it’s a crazy thing, it seems to me like a country club. Whose country club do you belong to? The canon is so strange because it’s like, “okay, who is dead that we can now respect even though we treated them like shit the whole time they were alive?”
Joan Rivers slept on a pillow that said, “Don’t expect any praise without envy until you’re dead.”
Haha, that’s great. Rest her soul.
I love what you said about how language that comes out of us has to come through us, though. That seems like such a central idea about what we are doing as poets, contributing a voice to this conversation that has preceded us by millennia and will continue going long after the last person has forgotten our name.
Yes! You would think it was innate in us that you honor and respect your elders or the people who have made it easy for you. There is no doubt that people like Joy (Harjo) and Simon (Ortiz) and Paula (Gun Allen) and the things they fought through have made it so much easier. We can now be called “Native writers.” We have some strength in numbers now. We’re actually considered for our work that isn’t meant for natives. The great smallpox award of the 21st century.
It’s strange though, because when we get in territory that I don’t trust is when we start to pit ourselves against whatever this canon is. Like when what gets in the way is our want to prove how different we are or how authentic we are or how much better we are than whatever the canon was established as being. It’s an untrue and dishonest way of interacting with all those voices who came before us, and I think it just makes jerks out of us when we say, “I’m different than the other native writers because I can do this, this, and this.” It’s just a strange conversation and I think as soon as it gets into the realm of academia or awards or whatever these types of recognitions are, that’s when we start hurting one another. I’m always a bit careful about those things.
I’m watching a hummingbird right now. It keeps going down in the water and it sips from the water and then it goes back up and sits on a mesquite tree.
Huh. I didn’t even know—I’ve never thought about hummingbirds drinking anything but nectar.
Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve even seen that before either. I don’t live on the water, but I have like a big desert behind me in my backyard and so there’s a hummingbird that goes along with me when I run the desert. He’ll hop from mesquite tree to mesquite tree. He only goes so far and then he’ll head back but he’ll always follow me out.
But this one, has a whole different beak. He’ll kind of sit there for a while and then take off. Maybe he’s finding some flowers or something but he’ll come and hover above the river and get down in it and come back up.
Maybe he’s curious about your thoughts on contemporary poetry.
Haha. I think he wants my Pellegrino drink actually.
Or that. Alright, I want to talk about the book specifically. Narratives of addiction aren’t super prevalent, and I think ones told from the perspective of someone who is not experiencing the addiction first-hand—that is to say someone who loves an addict—are even rarer. Can you talk about what it was—that is just a non-question, actually, I’m not even going to ask that. I was going to say “what it was like writing that,” but that’s a bullshit question.
I would’ve given you the same bullshit answer I gave all the others who’ve asked it.
Haha, that’s why I won’t ask it. But, let me talk about a specific poem. In “A Brother Named Gethsemane,” you have this, just this totally wrenching moment: “This is my brother and I need a shovel to love him,” which is one of the lines I will never forget from the book. Can you talk to me about writing that particular poem?
I definitely can, and you know that’s a line that for a while I just didn’t have the right words for. But that poem in particular was kind of the momentum of it, the fast-pace of it. I kept trying to craft that poem, to organize it, control the momentum of it, when I finally realized the emotion was not controllable. It can’t be contained and crafted, it’s a surge of the way my brother speaks when he just can’t make sense of it. It’s the way my parent’s speak kind of rapidly and incoherently when they’re trying to make excuses for him or trying to make an excuse so they can still love him and be his parents and still consider him their son. It’s the whole notion of Gethsemane. The garden is where Jesus sweat blood when he found out what would happen to him.
To me it felt that way seeing my brother. I think he’s seen as having no emotion himself in the poems, except that I see him struggle. I’ve seen him—yes the drugs make him an animal, but I’ve also seen the man who is my brother struggle with that. I’ve seen him try to stay off of it and he couldn’t, you know? I’ve seen him lock himself into my parents' home so he would stay off of it and he was never able to last very long. And so that line was the same emotional wonder that came out of me in the poem “No More Cake Here.”
It’s active work to try to love my real brother as an addict. To try to love him when he’s hurting other people and he’s hurting himself. So you reach that kind of disgusting knowledge in yourself, that disgusting thing you learn about yourself when you think, “I’m not doing a very good job of loving my brother like this, I’m failing at it because I want to kill him sometimes. I want to put him and us out of our misery.” And then to think there will be a time when the best way that I can love him will be when he’s gone, you know? I was trying to find a way to express that.
We grew up around shovels. My dad does construction. While I was visiting my parents for the weekend, in the back of the work truck there were these really sharp shovels. The shoulder blade and the shovel blade have always seemed really close to me. Visually and logistically there’s just something about that, and I guess that the story of Antigone and those myths along with. It’s the knowing that it might not get better while he’s alive.
We’re talking about Gethsemane and this garden at the core of the story, but then in the poem you have this earth riddled with a brother, which is an intense subversion of that idea of the garden.
Yeah, yeah, definitely. That, and I’m also skirting the line between this idea of salvation and the fact that it doesn’t happen, you know? Save yourself or it’s not going to happen. Maybe it’ll happen when we’re all some other place but while we’re here on earth there’s not a lot of salvation unless you can offer it to someone else or unless someone else offers it to you.
In my brother’s case, he kept praying for God but I know there were times when he was looking for something and nobody knew how to give it to him and he wasn’t able to do it himself. Just setting those images close together.
Look at Jesus—he’s slated to do it, to save mankind, for our salvation. And then to think it was such a horrible thing that he sweat blood when he found out what was going to happen to him. It sounds like he got the raw end of the deal too. It sounds like he got screwed.
I grew up half-Catholic, some of those things that we’ve used to comfort ourselves, if look at them closely enough and you set your real life beside them, you realize, man, we’re done for. This life is supposed to hurt. You take what beautiful good things you can and you hold onto them when you’ve got them and when they’re close enough, because other than that it's going to hurt.
Wow. Yeah. There’s this Denis Johnson line I love where he says, “Some people we glimpse as chasms, briefly but deeply, even to the death of us. Others are shallow places you never seem to get across.” That seems to relate to what you’re talking about.
I don’t know if this was a direct influence, but Marie Howe’s What the Living Do about her brother’s struggle with AIDS ends with the line “I am living. I remember you.” And your, “this is my brother I need a shovel to love him,” seems like a new take on that line. You know what I mean? Resonating at the same frequency.
Yeah, that was a beautiful book. I remember feeling like a different person after I read that book. Just the honesty with which she looked at herself, her brother, and the disease. I think we look at mortality in terms of the death part, but Howe also took a really hard, close look—I don’t want to say "brave" because "brave" is such a fucking lame word—I mean she looked at life too, and I think sometimes we think the worst thing is the death part of it but sometimes it’s the living part that is the toughest.
Maybe that’s what I learned from that book. It’s incredible.
One of the real triumphs of your book is how well it captures how death can almost be a moment of exhalation, you know? That is where the dailiness of the struggle changes.
That’s a major theme of both collections.
Well, thanks. It’s pretty incredible to be set next to her.
I want to ask about “I Watch Her Eat the Apple,” which is this gorgeous poem of intense desire and yearning, but it’s immediately following a poem about your brother’s funeral. That’s a really interesting moment of movement in the book, of tonal shift—I was wondering if you could talk about that.
Yeah, for me that shift is one of the most important in the book. For me that was the moment that said: And then you wake up the next morning. And the morning after that. And the morning after that. And you do the things I talk about, you find that beautiful thing. I wanted that first thing to be some simple everyday thing. I didn’t want it to be some fantastical, hyperbolic, beloved poem. It’s just, how lucky that I wake up and I don’t have the demons that my brother had on my shoulder, but I can wake up and watch somebody eat an apple and I can be in love. How lucky that I can have these desires as I watch my brother be drained by his. That was a start for me, and it was one that I was advised against by just about everybody who wanted to advise me.
Yeah, that those poems didn’t fit the tone of the book. But I don’t know, I don’t know that I’m going to find the time in my life when there is going to be one main voice leading the way. There is this kind of cacophony or this chaotic choir in my head. It’s filled with family and religion and faith and love and God and this world. I mean, it’s enough to be a person in the bigger world, much less all the small ones you move in.
That section was really important. I wanted to say, “Yeah, and then what comes after every funeral? The morning.” It doesn’t mean your grief is gone, it doesn’t mean what’s happened the day before is gone, it just means that the morning is there and what are you going to do? You live through it. I wanted it to mirror the things that do happen. We get up and yeah, we’re awful people and we do awful things and awful things happen to us, but we still make love, and we still want. That’s why the third section feels like one of the most important to me, I guess.
It feels important. You have the line, “All I know of war is win.” You’ve moved through this Herculean feat of endurance and you’re still ending in desire and love. That seems like a kind of winning the war.
Yeah, and I guess you win either way. You die and leave this place and that might be a kind of winning. Or you live and survive this place which is another kind of winning.
We can’t lose, can we?
Hah. I guess not. Do you want to tell me what you’re working on now?
Yeah, I’m finishing my second book of poetry. And that will be out with Copper Canyon too. I was supposed to have it out this year but it took a few turns so I gave myself a little bit more time with it.
I love the poems that I’ve seen trickling out, newer poems that weren’t in When My Brother Was An Aztec.
Yeah, there are a lot of love poems in this new one, there is a lot of basketball stuff in it. I’m also working on a novella and a short story collection. I’m writing all over the place, writing a lot of different things.
Interview Posted: July 27, 2015
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