Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Q&A with Diego Báez




Diego Báez is the author of the new poetry collection Yaguareté White. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Freeman's and The Georgia Review. He teaches at the City Colleges, and he lives in Chicago.

Q: Over how long a period did you write the poems in your new collection?


A: I found a draft of one poem, "the skin," from as early as 2008. So that's 15 years these poems have been shaping up.


Most of the manuscript I'd pulled together by 2017 or so. But it wasn't until the birth of my child that I started to explore topics that ultimately became central to the collection.


I’ve been obsessed with the bidirectionality of inheritance: what our children take from us, and what we, in turn, take from our parents. But also, what we take from our children, without whom, at least for me, this book wouldn’t exist.


I did write several poems as recently as 2023. One is a distasteful joke my uncle delivered at a dinner. Another's about language and empire, themes I hope surface throughout the collection.


Q: Your collection focuses on Paraguayan-American identity--what would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions in the United States about Paraguay?


A: I'd be surprised to learn there's anything remotely approaching a commonly shared perception of Paraguay. You never hear about it! (Perhaps I can help to change that.)


The most common misperceptions likely derive from tidbits and trivia of that have migrated online (dueling is legal, Paraguay’s flag has different designs on either side) and from depictions in popular media, but even those are scarce.


When they do appear, Paraguayans are often whitewashed by the creators’ imaginations, as with Lily Tuck’s National Book Award-winning novel, The News from Paraguay. (The author admitted to never having visited the country while writing it.)


Fun fact: the guy who lied about finding that last golden ticket in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory? Paraguayan.


Q: The writer Saeed Jones said of the book, “With lacerating wit and a fearless commitment to the integrity of the line, Báez explodes the intersection of home, history and language.” What do you think of that description?

A: I think Saeed is very kind. He and I went to poetry school in Newark, New Jersey many years ago. I still remember very clearly an early autumn outing to Manhattan, before classes had begun, and everyone was only just getting to know one another. After a drink or three, I said, “Saeed, I'm so glad you are who you are."


I still am. His voice is so urgent and unique among American letters. I'm honored to have his endorsement.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from this collection?


A: This will feel like a tangent, but I promise it's not:


Until 2022, I served on the board of the International David Foster Wallace Society. I co-chaired the Society’s DEI Committee and, back in 2020, we did a group read of Courageous Conversations by Glenn E. Singleton. One exercise Singleton asks participants to consider is the question: How does race impact your everyday life?


At the time, everyone on the board was white, and every one mentioned colleagues and neighbors of color, kids at their kids' schools, so forth. Not one accounted for the role of their own whiteness in shaping their own personal experience.


But this topic has been a consistent preoccupation of mine: how my own white heritage and privilege has defined my movement through the world. As a person of color also, I have seen firsthand what White Supremacy Culture values and rewards. The ability to see through the racialized lens of whiteness felt like a gift, at the time.


I hope my book can pay this gift forward to readers.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: During pandemic lockdown, I binged Drive to Survive, the Netflix show about Formula 1 motor racing.


Whether borne of legitimate—albeit uncharacteristic—interest in a sport (let alone one inextricably linked to fossil fuels, carbon pollution, and global climate collapse) or from a desperate desire to connect with *anything* amid the mire of pandemic America, I became absolutely enthralled with the sport.


I tuned in for the start of the 2021 F1 season, which turned out to be arguably *the* most exciting, maddening, and ultimately controversial season of recent memory.


So I'm writing a chapbook of F1 poems.


After that, I plan to write another book of poems exploring topics that didn’t make it into Yaguareté White, like the legacy of Eliza Lynch, an Irish woman who became mistress/partner to Francisco Solano López, one of many dictators of Paraguay.


I’m also interested in writing ekphrastic poems that engage with work by Paraguayan visual artists, such as Faith Wilding and Miriam Rudolph.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: One thing I really want to emphasize is just how vastly different the experiences of Latin American diasporic communities can be. My dad won a scholarship and flew over on a jet when he was 16, an experience entirely unlike that of many Mexican and Central American migrants. It’s not lost on me that this relative privilege is baked into my experiences of Latinidad.

And my parents also made it a point to travel with me and my brothers back to Paraguay every three to four years. I didn’t appreciate the difficulty of this commitment until many years later, and I’m so grateful to have spent time in Paraguay over so many formative times of my life.


That dedication to preserving and strengthening family ties is a model for masculinity I hope to emulate in my own role as a man, a father, and as a Paraguayan American. My desire is that Yaguareté White at least begins to touch on these themes, as well.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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