Christopher Diaz is a Chamorro poet, freelance photographer, and military veteran. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 2009 with a B.A. in English, then served for six years as a Public Affairs officer in the U.S. Air Force. As a writer in residence with “Writers in the Schools”, he teaches performance poetry and creative writing to students across Houston. He is the Grand Slam Champion and co-coach of Write About Now’s 2017 slam poetry team; currently ranked ninth in the nation. He lives in Houston with his partner Emily, his dog Benny, and currently serves his poetry community as an organizer, workshop facilitator, video producer.
You are a photographer and poet. Do you ever find yourself drawn to one over the other?
I’ve definitely been more drawn to poetry over the past year than I have photography. I’m passionate about both but writing has always been my first love. My mom still has anthologies from grade school with these ridiculous poems I wrote — one about saving the Amazon rainforest, another one full of awful puns — you know, classic poetry themes. It’s a long story, but I stopped writing poetry for more than seven years straight. So I constantly feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time, and I think that’s why poetry feels so much more urgent to me. I often preach patience for the process, but half of the time it’s me projecting my own insecurities — trying to convince myself it’s okay that I went on hiatus for so long.
Are there ways you’ve learned to fuse the two together?
Yes! But it was never a conscious effort. Back in 2014, my friend Amir Safi invited me to attend TGS (Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival) in Bryan/College Station, TX. I was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in South Dakota, and had never photographed poets performing. I offered to shoot the event, and instantly fell in love with it (stayed up ‘til 4am the first night editing and posting photos). Fast forward four years later, and now I regularly shoot live performances. So many of us here in the South (and beyond, for that matter) love TGS, but it truly has a special place in my heart because it sparked a significant turning point in my life. Amir will deflect any credit, but I owe a lot to him for convincing me to come down that weekend. I will say, however, the proposition was to leave the snow in South Dakota for a weekend of poetry. And a free hotel room. And Whataburger, on him (his M.O. for out-of-towners). So … yeah — not the hardest decision I’ve ever made.
Tell us about how you got involved with Write About Now (both on and behind the camera).
My journey to WAN starts with hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life — leaving the the Air Force (s/o to an awesome segue from that last question). I come from a military family and always thought I’d go career. When I decided to hang it up in 2015, my partner (Emily) and I were talking about potential places we’d move to after I got out. Barcelona, Seattle, anywhere but Texas (we love it but wanted somewhere new). So, long story long, Amir convinced me to try out Houston, and Emily agreed to support me (even though she had just moved from Houston to live with me in South Dakota. Trust me. I know.). I started slamming and managed to make it on WAN’s inaugural team, and eventually began filming when Amir and Brady Ware asked if I’d like to join the video team. Sidenote #2: Brady Ware = videographer/editor/master of all trades imaginable. He and Safi started the WAN YouTube channel and Brady taught both of us everything we know behind the camera and in post production. That guy is love, talent, and magic incarnate.
Describe to us the behind-the-scenes process of filming, editing, and producing videos. What is the feeling once everything is uploaded?
The vision has always been to amplify poets’ voices. We know how dope and beautiful and necessary their work is, and we want the rest of the world to experience that, too. When anyone tell us their WAN videos help them book gigs or sell merch, or share their work with family and friends — it makes me so happy. And I know that’s a lazy way of describing it coming from a so-called poet, but, honestly, it just makes me really, really happy. I mean, last week I had a feature at a local library. A seven-year old girl and her mom came up to me afterward and the little girl said, “I came here to see you. I saw your video on the internet.” If one person on our channel has experienced that anywhere, it makes all of it worth it. And coming from someone who thought they’d never write again, I mean that.
I don’t want to get into too much detail with the technical behind the scenes work because it’s tedious and boring. I will say the process can definitely take time, from the moment we film a poet to the moment we publish their poem. At WAN we really care about the quality of our audio and aesthetic, and there’s a lot that goes into that — researching/purchasing/updating equipment, learning editing software/refining skills, establishing back-up procedures for inevitable technical difficulties, adjusting on the fly for the environment, blah blah boring, etc. It’s a labor of love though because we take pride in the end-product and hope the quality will help boost the poem’s/poet’s exposure.
Tell us about your experience with teaching performance poetry (as co-coach of the WAN slam team and an educator to 8th grade classes). How can one get involved in something similar?
To anyone who wants get involved, I’d encourage them to connect with the poetry organizers in their community. I’ve been afforded all of these wonderful teaching opportunities through the non-profit Writers In the Schools, and I found out about the organization through Houston’s poetry leaders.
It’s been such a blessing to guide young writers through the craft. To watch a student find their voice, believe in the power of their story, and have fun with it — is incredibly inspiring. In addition to eighth-graders, I’ve worked with young adults with disabilities, high schoolers, and students as young as 1st grade. If I’ve learned anything about teaching, it’s that it’s not as easy as most people seem to think it is. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for teachers, but being in the classroom has made me realize how much our educators actually do (and sadly how much our country undervalues them).
Co-coaching the WAN slam team was an incredible learning experience as well (s/o to my fellow co-coach RJ Wright). I’ll admit that it was stressful to be both a coach and team member, but my team was always there for me and I’m so grateful to have been trusted with that responsibility (ok I gotta s/o my teammates Ana and Xach, too). I’ve grown as both a writer and performer over the last year, and I’ve no doubt that coaching played a huge role.
How does one go about developing a unit plan for teaching performance poetry? Were there any lessons you found challenging to teach?
In my personal experience, the first step is always finding out where your students are coming from — socioeconomically, reading/writing level, everything. You have to make a consistent and conscious effort to get to know them throughout the year, but that basic info has to inform the way you approach the classroom and develop lesson/unit plans. Additionally, you have to expect that each class is going to be different, because rarely are they ever the same (e.g. first period is mostly quiet, fourth period is restless after lunch, third period is AP with tons of energy, varying comprehension levels throughout, etc.).
In between the resources at WITS, advice from my poet friends across the country, and online examples, I’ve had a lot of help in developing lessons. There are a million different ways to structure a unit plan and the beautiful thing is that you’re not the first to do it. Most educators I’ve met are eager to help those starting out and I certainly try to pay it forward whenever I can.
To me, the most challenging lesson to teach is any lesson on editing and revising. It becomes a delicate balance of showing students the power of revision, while simultaneously leaving their confidence in tact (as well as the integrity and authenticity of their voice). Creative writing can be such a personal and intimate endeavor, so you’ve got to guide students in viewing their art through an objective lens. Admittedly I’m not the best at these kinds of lessons, but I’ve learned a lot about guiding students through editing from Brendan Constantine and Bill Moran.
How do you cater your lessons around your students before meeting them? What factors do you consider when creating lessons for a specific demographic?
I think this goes along the same lines as the previous answer, but you have to meet students where they are. You hear it all the time in education, but it’s because it’s true. Whether you’re teaching students for a year or leading a one-time workshop in the park, you’ve got to do what you can to find out who your audience is. Sometimes it’s speaking with the school/organizer, other times it’s spending the first ten minutes of a workshop on introductions.
One of the most important things to me in creating lesson plans has been the consideration for representation. For example, the majority of my 8th-grade classes were filled with black and brown students. Beyond the fact that marginalized voices are already underrepresented, it was imperative that my students see successful and talented poets who look like them. That was always (and easily) at the forefront of my mind, because growing up, I can’t remember seeing myself represented either.
How do you foster community in spaces you have never been to?
I’m not sure I ever walk into a space thinking that people need me to foster community. I think with most spaces there is likely a community existing and/or thriving there already. If I’m invited into a space for any reason, I try to listen and learn how the community works (or doesn’t work) together. From there it’s about serving them as best as I can if they’re open to it. If my presence isn’t based on serving them, I probably don’t have any business being there.
You have worked in a wide range of mediums both in art and education, how do your approaches to both fields differ? How are they similar? Which aspects of each do you find most challenging and which came most naturally to you?
The approach to both has been fairly similar for me. The biggest challenge I find in art and education is fostering artistic integrity and authenticity. I think it’s a challenge that has forever plagued any artist. Specifically with my own experience, I have to make a conscious effort to guide students in writing what they want to write — and doing it how they want to do. I think that’s hard for anyone though. Especially if you’re just starting out, it’s perfectly natural for your art to resemble the art that inspires you. There’s a quote I’ve seen (that I can’t find on Google right now) but it goes something like, “Don’t write what you think they want to hear, write what you have to say.” And I still have to remind myself of that sometimes. It’s wonderful because the internet provides endless examples when it comes to spoken word. It’s delicate because sometimes young writers (any writers, including myself) feel like they have to write or sound like the poetry they consume, or subconsciously do it and never realize it. Ultimately I find comfort in it all, and I say the more examples the better. Not only because more and more poets get to shine, but because I think, “Wow — look at all of these talented people with such vastly different styles and stories to share… I’m going to lean into everything that makes me, me.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Christopher Diaz, follow him on social media! Facebook, Twitter & IG: all @lightbulbchris