If I’m being honest, I never really know what to say when asked what my poetry is about. This is not because I don’t actually know what most of my poems are about or what compels me to write them. But when I am posed this question my palms begin to sweat and my mind reels through all the misguided conceptions that could possibly result if I answered with a “this poem is about breakfast/beaches/a bowl of fruit/the treacherous terrains of love.” Over the years, and even past months, I have tested out different answers, different ways of exploring the “aboutness” of my poems. A generalization like “coming of age” usually leaves me and, mostly likely, my questioner feeling empty-handed. The indirect “It’s still in progress but I am attempting to shatter form” has me feeling dishonest. So, the truth is, my poetry is about my obsessions – small ones and big ones. It is about the objects of my obsessions, the results and qualities of my obsessions and, the spaces my obsessions do and do not occupy. Because, so often, a poem is about both the thing its subject is and the thing that it’s subject is not.
On Thursday evening I attended a reading by Natalie Diaz through the Zell Visiting Writers Series. Diaz is the recipient of many honors and awards in poetry and is the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec. Her poetry offers accounts of her Mojave-American upbringing that are both unflinching and tender. It was at the reading that I was brought to examine my own relationship with poetic subjects. This was scary and hard. I was also comforted to hear Diaz, a poet I look up to greatly, speak on her own search for poetic subject. She told the story of how she would visit crane sanctuaries in hopes to discover a new subject. Perhaps she would become a “nature poet”, she thought. Then, as she told the audience, she would always arrive back at the subject of her brother, and to the body, and to basketball, and to violence and tenderness, and to how violence and tenderness are implicit in one another. And after she said all this about her recurring subject, about violence, and about tenderness, I listened to her last poem, “Ode to the Beloved’s Hips” and heard all the absences and all the presences of her dark and joyful obsessions.