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Natalie Diaz, Poet with Two ODU Degrees, Wins MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’

By Philip Walzer

Old Dominion University graduate Natalie Diaz, a poet who draws on her experiences as a Mojave American and Latina, was named one of 25 MacArthur fellows on Thursday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Also known as MacArthur "genius grants," the fellowships provide each recipient $625,000 over five years.

In a video on the foundation's web site, Diaz said reservations are "places where there's an incredible kind of culture and communal love. All of my art was formed there on the reservations, listening to my great-grandmother's stories, hearing the language, talking with my elders."

Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California. She is an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe.

She received her bachelor's degree from Old Dominion in 2000. She played on ODU's women's basketball team and later professionally in Europe and Asia.

She returned to ODU for a master's degree in fine arts, which she received in 2007.

"For me, poetry is one way I center myself in my body," Diaz said in the video. "I really believe in the physical power of poetry, of language. Where we come from, we say language has an energy, and I feel that it's a physical energy. To me, it's very similar to what I did on a basketball court."

Diaz is an associate professor of English at Arizona State University. She wrote the collection "When My Brother Was an Aztec," published in 2012 by Copper Canyon Press. A New York Times reviewer called it a "beautiful book." Publishers Weekly said in its review: "Diaz portrays experiences rooted in Native American life with personal and mythic power."

Luisa Igloria, a professor of English and creative writing at ODU, said: "All of us in the program are elated at Natalie's continuing successes — especially this new and wonderful accolade. Natalie's book started out here as her M.F.A. thesis, and I feel lucky to have served as her thesis director. From the outset, we knew she was going to do great things."

Janet Peery, a professor of English and creative writing, said poetry is not the only genre in which Diaz excels.

"I worked with Natalie on her fiction thesis — she did dual theses in poetry and fiction — and I have no doubt that when she publishes the novel or novels that are in her, there will be celebration," Peery said. "Not only is Natalie an excellent poet and gifted storyteller, she is a force for good in the world. Her work with her tribe's elders to document and preserve their language is vital. For Natalie, it's a labor of love. She's the kind of person who will put her heart into everything she does, prize or no prize."

Diaz, 40, also has received a Lannan Literary Award, Princeton Hodder Fellowship, PEN/Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship and Louis Untermeyer Scholarship in Poetry from the Bread Loaf Foundation.

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