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Author Spotlight: Diego Báez

Univ. of Arizona Press

Feb. 20, 2024


What living poet/writer had the biggest influence on your book?


Rigoberto González. Hands down, full stop. As a writer, teacher, mentor, and friend, Rigo has helped dozens and dozens (hundreds?) of emerging poets find their voice, navigate the business of poetry, and land on their feet. I consider myself lucky to be counted among them.



What’s your favorite line(s) from your book?


This morning, my favorite lines consist of twelve tiny syllables tucked into a tidy tercet that comprises the shortest poem in the book, “Yuyos”:


cashew for good

measure cayenne

and petunias


Yuyos are traditional herbs added to beverages for their medicinal or flavorful qualities. The words “cashew,” “cayenne,” and “petunia” all derive from Tupí, from which contemporary Guaraní evolved. I like to imagine sprinkling each ingredient into a cauldron to make a cacophonous broth of leaves and bark, flowers and language. I hope readers enjoy the concoction, as well.



What is your current obsession? Short lines, slant rhymes, couplets, trees, etc.


I’ve long been interested in inconsistency, contradiction, and asymmetry. These traits have defined my experiences of Latinidad—as someone who didn’t grow up speaking Spanish or with a Latinx community, but who nevertheless visited Paraguay every few years for months at a time—and it feels unavoidable that I seek these haphazard imbalances in poetry I read and write.


This will sound funny, but I’m especially pleased with the Table of Contents for Yaguareté White. The list includes many poems with one or two-word titles, but is then punctuated by these long, gangly titles that sprawl awkwardly across the page. I like that a lot. In life, I’m drawn to stability, security, and predictability. I think my aesthetic preferences counterbalance those risk-averse impulses. I love poems that expand and cinch wildly, or wiggle and zig-zag all over. It feels so wild and fun and free.



William Carlos Williams is synonymous with plums. If you had to choose one fruit and one animal/plant/celestial body that would forever remind people of you, what would you choose and why?


The fruit is easy, but I’m gonna cheat and choose two: pineapple cut with jalapeño (*technically* fruta tambien). I’m a sucker for heat paired with sweet, like I cannot get enough of it. My preferred spiciness level is “bordering on regret.” On pizza, in Thai food, my salsa, throw peach, mango, or piña in with the hottest pepper you can find. That’s my jam.


As for an animal, plant, or celestial body, the jaguar seems like an obvious choice, since it’s both native to Paraguay and an important part of Guaraní cosmology. But I’m gonna go with jurumí, the giant anteater, which makes an appearance in the book. They are so wide and strange looking, but I’ve yet to see one in the wild for real.



What role does the poet play in the 21st century?

I look around and wonder, rather, what roles don't poets play in the world today?


I see so many poets engaged in unique, important work. We lead vital arts organizations, like Ricardo Maldonado at the Academy of American Poets or Jacqueline Balderrama, Norma E. Cantú, Willie Perdomo, and Pablo Miguel Martínez at CantoMundo. We edit major literary publications, like Carmen Giménez at Graywolf or Javier O. Huerta and León Salvatierra at Huizache. We engage literally millions of followers, like Yung Pueblo, Rudy Francisco, and others.


We serve our communities in so many ways. Jordan Pérez helps protect children at the nonprofit Safe from Online Sex Abuse (SOSA) and has featured on the TV show Undercover Underage. Kinsale Drake founded the NDN Girls Book Club and has been recognized by Time magazine for her efforts. Antonio de Jesús López is the new Mayor of East Palo Alto. Name another profession with such breathtaking range and diversity of positions available to its practitioners.


This is of course not to mention our many roles as teachers, organizers, and activists. As intellectuals and artists. As students and parents, siblings and children. As neighbors and bystanders, as strangers and future friends. In the end, I believe we are caretakers, of language, of each other, of the planet. We have to be. Otherwise, what else is there?


Diego Báez is a writer, educator, and abolitionist. He is the author of Yaguareté White (Univ. Arizona, 2024). A recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, the Surge Institute, the Poetry Foundation Incubator for Community-Engaged Poets, and DreamYard’s Rad(ical) Poetry Consortium, Diego has served on the boards of the National Book Critics Circle, the International David Foster Wallace Society, and Families Together Cooperative Nursery School. Poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Freeman's, Poetry Northwest, and Latino Poetry: A New Anthology. Book reviews have appeared at Booklist, Harriet, and The Boston Globe. Diego lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.


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