Interview: Diego Báez Debuts New Poetry Collection, Yaguarete White

Interview conducted by Binx River Perino.

Chicago-based writer Diego Báez is an educator at the City Colleges and a fellow at CantoMundo, the Surge Institute, and the Poetry Foundation’s Incubator for Community-Engaged Poets. Báez has served on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle, the International David Foster Wallace Society, and Families Together Co-operative Nursery School. His poems, book reviews, and essays have appeared online and in print, and he is the author of the upcoming Yaguarete White (University of Arizona, 2024), a finalist for the Georgia Poetry Prize and a semifinalist for the Berkshire Prize for Poetry. 

In early February, Báez will read off-site at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Conference in Kansas City. He also has a virtual launch via Zoom on February 20, with several friends and fellow poets. Locally, Báez is putting together a celebration at Truman College, where he teaches. In his words, Báez feels it’s “authentic” to host a release party in his community. His cousin, an incredible baker with a business in Milwaukee called LucyBakes, will provide cookies for the celebration, while a harpist will play Paraguayan music. The celebration takes place Thursday, February 22. In March, Báez anticipates attending the Tucson Festival of Books.

Details for all events will be on Báez’s website. His new collection can be ordered from the University of Arizona Press website.

First of all, congratulations! How does it feel to have a debut collection out?

It feels weird. I feel like a lot of poets debut in their 20s or when they’re right out of grad school. I graduated a long time ago and I’m older now. The poems in the book have been evolving over a decade. I found drafts in my email from 2007, 2008 maybe, for some of them. It feels good, though! 

Everything happened kind of quickly. In July, I first saw the proof and the cover. I found the artist, Alan Berry Rhys, whose art has a pulpy, comic book feel. I sent his people a couple of options, some images that I liked but wasn’t sure if I could use. He actually suggested a different piece, and it was originally horizontal. He reoriented it for the cover and changed some of the elements. 

There is a story behind the design. The original artwork is called “Yaguareté-abá,” which refers to a were-jaguar or jaguar-man. The Guaraní legend is that a baptized indigenous person experiences a shamanic transformation into a jaguar-man. In order to kill the jaguar-man, one would have to use a bullet that was blessed and a machete that was blessed. Then, after one kills the jaguar man, one would have to decapitate themselves. It’s kind of heavy and there’s so much to explore, but I love the central image in this design. It’s like a veil that can be pulled on and off, which was how I kind of felt about my Paraguayan identity and the language itself. In some ways, I put on and take off this identity, which is a privilege many people don’t have. It’s complicated and intense. When the cover came together, it felt perfect.

And now it’s all happening! The book comes out on February 20, and it feels good to have these poems in the world. It feels like it’s time, but I’m also trying not to get ahead of myself. I want to be present with it because this—a debut—happens only once. 

Do you remember the moment when the idea for this collection came to you?

Yes, I do! In 2017, I thought I had a book together and it was called something very different. It was called “Valleys Full of Jaguars,” which is a line from a novel by César Aira. There weren’t any sections in my book, and I gave it to a mentor in undergrad, a professor named Mike Theune. He was always so talented at rearranging poems and finding an order for them, so he totally broke it apart. He suggested the sections. I realized that I had a kernel of a thing in the beginning, but now it’s become something different. Having these three sections working on their own but also together launched a new phase of writing. It took another five years for me to see what it was going to be. Now the poems are talking to each other in different ways. 

I couldn’t have done it on my own, obviously. I needed so many folks who knew what they were doing and had been doing it for a long time. People like Mike are the reason this book exists in its current form. 

What were you reading, listening to, and/or watching during the project? What was speaking to you while you were working on it?

Most recently, in the last year, I’ve been rediscovering Paraguayan music. It consists of a lot of harp, accordion, and guitar. I grew up listening to mostly that and Christian rock in my household. When I was younger, I thought Paraguayan music was so annoying because my dad would play it over the boombox every Saturday. It was all we would listen to. I thought every song sounded the same. Now, with Spotify, I’ve been pulling up these tracks and appreciating them more. I’m like, “Wow, this is beautiful.” Rediscovering that has really been cool. Also, hip-hop has been an informing influence for most of my life, despite my parents’ objections to certain albums I’d bring home from Sam Goody. I must have bought the first Redman and Method Man album like five times, and five times, my parents’ confiscated it. I finally brought them around through a selective sampling of Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival, which is perhaps easier on the ears for anyone with a low tolerance for profanity.

Author Diego Báez

The collection has a very interesting order to it and I was wondering: what do the section titles mean and how did you decide on the organization of those sections?

Finding the right titles for the sections took a long time. Ultimately, I chose simplicity. The titles are in Guaraní, meaning one, two, and three—just numbering the sections. One of the concerns in the book is the indigenous language of Guaraní. I grew up hearing my dad speaking it, but he didn’t pass it down. It was always this thing that felt close, but didn’t belong to me. A lot of the book grapples with the parallax of inheritance, those cultural practices that seem to move close and grow distant at the same time.

One way that I try to share these experiences with readers is to introduce them to the language. There’s one poem titled, “So You Want to Write in Guaraní,” and the speaker mentions that the kids are counting in Guaraní. That’s one way of introducing this slow, laborious process of language acquisition when it’s not one that I ever speak because I don’t live in Paraguay and I don’t have a Paraguayan community. That goes for Spanish, too. Once I figured out which poems are dealing with language acquisition, then I could number the sections.

The first section is a replication for readers of what it feels like to be in Paraguay—not as a tourist, missionary, or someone with an agenda—but also as someone who is white. My mom is white, I’m white, and it feels disingenuous to deny that. All that baggage is carried into Paraguay. I’ve been asking myself these questions of what is personal, what is familial, and what is cultural. It’s been illuminating to think along those lines when questioning perspectives, behaviors, and habits I’ve developed over time.

One habit in particular informs the second movement or section. In Paraguay, alcoholism is rampant. But both sides of my family deal with it, and it’s gotten close to ruining my life. That’s at the heart of the collection, in the middle, and serves as a center-piece of the collection and as a fulcrum. That gave me the opportunity to allow the final section to take a step back, expand the aperture a bit, and wind down with perhaps more positive or optimistic perspectives. 

I really want to talk about the postcard poems. I admire them so much because they are such a subtle and unique way of framing these neoliberal structures that maintain colonization. They’re somehow both playful and severe. Please tell me where they came from!

The postcards started with my own observations in Paraguay. A poem that didn’t make it into the book was based on a ridiculous interaction. Back in the '90s in Paraguay, you had to go into town and go to a special building to make phone calls. We were sitting there waiting to call home and these two white dudes—who were obviously Mormons–were sitting there as well. They started talking to us, and my middle brother started talking to them, but didn’t register that they were clearly from Utah. He was talking to them really slowly and intentionally, enunciating his words to them. I was like, “Armando, bro, they’re from America.” That poem didn’t make it into the book, but I was thinking about people who go to Paraguay for reasons other than family. I went online to look for other people’s experiences in Paraguay and I found blog posts from which I borrowed. Some were just terribly ignorant, others were of the White Savior variety. Some portions remained intact verbatim, like the “dirty, dirty Guaraní,” which was a comment made by some white person. I’ve gone back to see if the posts are still up, but some have disappeared. I did have a friend suggest that the drafts needed more editorializing. They are found poems, but they needed artistry. They needed to resonate a little bit more with the rest of the collection. 

In general, I thought that the collection pushed the boundaries of form in so many ways. There’s so much variety and possibility. One poem that really stood out to me when I think about form was “Chestnut People.”  How did that poem come to you? Through your revision process, how did it get to where it is?

Thanks for paying close attention to that one in particular. Last night, I actually did an accounting of forms. I’ve been self-conscious about how many prose-poems are in the collection. When I tallied it up, there are nine or ten prose-poems, but a lot of poems with couplets and tercets, too. “Chestnut People” uses tercets, which I like. They’re tidy. There’s also a resonance with another poem, “Call Sopa Sopa,” which mentions the use of the number three in a country of Catholics. Echoes of Catholicism very much inform a lot of the book. In “Chestnut People,” it started with two things: one was an image of my abuela’s kitchen where she had orange skins spiraling down to attract pests away from the food she prepared. My abuela was a very important person in my life even though we didn’t speak the same language and I only saw her every three or four years. That image demanded to be in a poem and in the book. 

“Chestnut People” also tackles a tricky topic. There’s a preoccupation throughout the book with skin and color. Growing up, skin color—not exactly race, per se—was easily the most noticeable differentiator for me as a kid, both in Paraguay and in Central Illinois. In the states, during the summer, my brothers and I were very tan compared to our white neighbors. Then going to Paraguay, it was the opposite, because we’d go down in the winter and we’d lose our tan and look pasty-white compared to everyone in Paraguay. It was such a stark difference. Learning to play and interact with my cousins, as with any distant relative, I felt it out and really got to know Juan, who appears in the poem. The cultural and language barriers were difficult to get through. 

This poem in particular always had the tercets and center-justification which is something I don’t often do. And then, adding the shape of wings was a suggestion from a friend. I thought it worked really well to sort of imitate the spiral of orange skins, but also the shape of a child playing with their arms up in glee. It’s sort of a concrete poem, but not entirely. 

As far as the Q and A poems go, I thought they were interesting, but obviously I didn’t understand what they were saying because they’re in Guarani. Where did those come from?

I actually got some push-back on those and I insisted that they stay because part of why they exist is to replicate the frustrating experience of failing to comprehend language. Trying to replicate for readers what I experience so often in Paraguay and sometimes in the states too was an inspiration. The “joke” poems, as they’re called, were in the book for most of its development. There’s another “joke” poem at the end that was added as I was finishing the manuscript. It's based on a story that really happened, where my uncle was telling an anti-Semitic joke at the table, and I could tell it was anti-Semitic, though I couldn’t understand the context. When the punchline arrived, I didn’t know what was being said. I never found out what the punchline was, it was never translated or explained to me. I knew it was horrific, but it got me thinking about humor across languages. The structure of humor became a subject in the collection with the “joke” poems. I was thinking about the frustration of unanswered questions and unresolved stories and the tension that humor can leverage. 

When you were assembling the collection, did you write any poems with the intention of them being in the collection?

Yes, the title poem! The very first poem didn’t come along until relatively recently, like 2020 or 2021. That was after a dear friend of mine, Rosebud Ben-Oni, read the book and gave some edits. She suggested having a title poem. It was funny because the collection was, like I mentioned, “Valley Full of Jaguars,” and she said, “There are no jaguars in it.” It was supposed to be an ironic title, but it didn’t quite work out. Instead, I took her advice on writing a title poem and it just came together in more or less one draft. It felt right, it felt like the right opening. That poem is an anchor that frames the whole collection. 

One part of the publication process was a peer review, which I wasn’t expecting, and two anonymous poets gave me feedback on how some of the poems don’t stand alone. I appreciated the notes, but I stood by my choices. Some of those poems will never be published anywhere other than in this collection. I admire poets who have banger after banger in their books. But some poems in my collection are just connective tissue and I’m okay with that. Those poems have to live only inside the container of this book. 

I wanted to ask about the speaker or the speakers, plural. Who are they? How did you think about the speaker(s) throughout your revision process?

There are definitely several speakers. One primary speaker is closely aligned with me and my experiences as a white Latino traveling between the US and Paraguay, and all the baggage that carries. There is certainly a speaker who is maybe a little heightened with bravado, maybe a little more confident, just for a couple of poems. There are the postcard poems, which are not close to me, those are speakers who are very far from my experience. There are a few of those “joke” poems that I mentioned, which are more problematic because they’re dark and not especially funny and they’re not set up the way that jokes usually work. A joke is not usually told in two different languages, unless you’re a bilingual speaker, I suppose. Those poems don’t have a clear identity for who they are as speakers, but they’re a little bit myself, struggling with humor in Guaraní and trying to follow a line of thinking that is ultimately unresolved. As you can tell, I’m not a fan of resolutions. I also want to be conscious of what is mine to tell and what is not. 

Speaking of which, are there any future projects?

I’m working on a new series of poems currently from the point of view of Formula One race car drivers. I became obsessed with that during the pandemic. The more I pay attention to it and understand the dynamics, the more that I see homosocial and even homoerotic elements. The competition, the sweat, and the masculinity of it all. I feel like I have the liberty to explore this because they’re celebrities. I can use their personalities to write some poems. 

There are certainly things I wasn’t able to explore in this book that I can do more with in another. The mistress/wife/courtesan of one of several dictators in Paraguay was an Irish woman named Eliza Lynch. My mom’s family name is Lynch, which provides an unexpected mirror. There’s maybe one mention of her in this collection, but I want to explore this more in another book. I’m excited for that, and I hope that’s not another 10 or 12 years down the line! 

I also have another project in mind about Hache Carrillo, a black fiction writer born in Detroit, who invented a persona for himself, claiming that he was a Cuban writer. His name was actually Herman Carroll. He wasn’t Cuban at all, but he invented this nationality for himself and this wasn’t revealed until he passed away. The whole literary world, it seemed, was shocked to find out that he maintained that false persona. I met him way back when I was in grad school. He came to Newark for a reading and he was very generous when I asked him a question. Back when I was using Facebook to communicate with people, I contacted him and I felt like I had a real connection with him. Then I learned that so much of who he was and what he wrote about was a sham. I feel like there’s something there, something I want to explore. 

Will there be a book tour for this debut collection?

I’ll be in Kansas City for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Conference, which will be fun. We’ll do a virtual launch via Zoom on February 20 with some friends and fellow poets. And I’m putting together a celebration here in Chicago. It will be at Truman College, where I teach. (Details for all events will be on my website.) It feels authentic to have a release party in my community. My cousin is an incredible baker with a business in Milwaukee, LucyBakes, and she’ll provide cookies for the event with icons from the book cover. There will also be a harpist playing Paraguayan music. That event will be on Thursday, the 22nd of February. I’ll also be at the Tucson Festival of Books in March, which will be incredible. Can you think of a better time to get out of the city? Yes, please.

Binx River Perino is a poet and activist from Texas. He holds a MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and his work has appeared in Door is a Jar, Beyond Queer Words, Variant Literature, and elsewhere. Based in Chicago, he has been a frequent guest reader for new words {press} and occasional contributor for Third Coast Review. 

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