Interviews

Octavio Paz, The Art of Poetry No. 42

Interviewed by Alfred Mac Adam

Though small in stature and well into his seventies, Octavio Paz, with his piercing eyes, gives the impression of being a much younger man. In his poetry and his prose works, which are both erudite and intensely political, he recurrently takes up such themes as the experience of Mexican history, especially as seen through its Indian past, and the overcoming of profound human loneliness through erotic love. Paz has long been considered, along with César Vallejo and Pablo Neruda, to be one of the great South American poets of the twentieth century; three days after this interview, which was conducted on Columbus Day 1990, he joined Neruda among the ranks of Nobel laureates in literature.

Paz was born in 1914 in Mexico City, the son of a lawyer and the grandson of a novelist. Both figures were important to the development of the young poet: he learned the value of social causes from his father, who served as counsel for the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, and was introduced to the world of letters by his grandfather. As a boy, Paz was allowed to roam freely through his grandfather’s expansive library, an experience that afforded him invaluable exposure to Spanish and Latin American literature. He studied literature at the University of Mexico, but moved on before earning a degree.

At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, Paz sided immediately with the Republican cause and, in 1937, left for Spain. After his return to Mexicao, he helped found the literary reviews Taller (“Workshop”) and El Hijo Pródigo (“The Child Prodigy”) out of which a new generation of Mexican writers emerged. In 1943 Paz traveled extensively in the United States on a Guggenheim Fellowship before entering into the Mexican diplomatic service in 1945. From 1946 until 1951, Paz lived in Paris. The writings of Sartre, Breton, Camus, and other French thinkers whom he met at that same time were to be an important influence on his own work. In the early 1950s Paz’s diplomatic duties took him to Japan and India, where he first came into contact with the Buddhist and Taoist classics. He has said, “More than two thousand years away, Western poetry is essential to Buddhist teaching: that the self is an illusion, a sum of sensations, thoughts, and desire. In October 1968 Paz resigned his diplomatic post to protest the bloody repression of student demonstrations in Mexico City by the government.

His first book of poems, Savage Moon, appeared in 1933 when Paz was nineteen years old. Among his most highly acclaimed works are The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950), a prose study of the Mexican national character, and the book-length poem Sun Stone (1957), called by J. M. Cohen “one of the last important poems to be published in the Western world.” The poem has five hundred and eighty-four lines, representing the five hundred and eighty-four day cycle of the planet Venus. Other works include Eagle or Sun? (1950), Alternating Current (1956), The Bow and the Lyre (1956), Blanco (1967), The Monkey Grammarian (1971), A Draft of Shadows (1975), and A Tree Within (1957).

Paz lives in Mexico City with his wife Marie-José, who is an artist. He has been he recipient of numerous international prizes for poetry, including the International Grand Prix, the Jerusalem Prize (1977), the Neustadt Prize (1982), the Cervantes Prize (1981), and the Novel Prize.

During this interview, which took place in front of an overflow audience at the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in New York, under the auspices of the Poetry Center, Paz displayed the energy and power typical of him and of his poetry, which draws upon an eclectic sexual mysticism to bridge the gap between the individual and society. Appropriately, Paz seemed to welcome this opportunity to communicate with his audience.

 

INTERVIEWER

Octavio, you were born in 1914, as you probably remember . . .

OCTAVIO PAZ

Not very well!

INTERVIEWER

. . . virtually in the middle of the Mexican Revolution and right on the eve of World War I. The century you've lived through has been one of almost perpetual war. Do you have anything good to say about the twentieth century? 

PAZ

Well, I have survived, and I think that's enough. History, you know, is one thing and our lives are something else. Our century has been terrible—one of the saddest in universal history—but our lives have always been more or less the same. Private lives are not historical. During the French or American revolutions, or during the wars between the Persians and the Greeks—during any great, universal event—history changes continually. But people live, work, fall in love, die, get sick, have friends, moments of illumination or sadness, and that has nothing to do with history. Or very little to do with it.

INTERVIEWER

So we are both in and out of history? 

PAZ

Yes, history is our landscape or setting and we live through it. But the real drama, the real comedy also, is within us, and I think we can say the same for someone of the fifth century or for someone of a future century. Life is not historical, but something more like nature. 

INTERVIEWER

In The Privileges of Sight, a book about your relationship with the visual arts, you say: “Neither I nor any of my friends had ever seen a Titian, a Velázquez, or a Cézanne. . . . Nevertheless, we were surrounded by many works of art.” You talk there about Mixoac, where you lived as a boy, and the art of early twentieth-century Mexico.

PAZ

Mixoac is now a rather ugly suburb of Mexico City, but when I was a child it was a small village. A very old village, from pre-Columbian times. The name Mixoac comes from the god Mixcoatl, the Nahuatl name for the Milky Way. It also means “cloud serpent,” as if the Milky Way were a serpent of clouds. We had a small pyramid, a diminutive pyramid, but a pyramid nevertheless. We also had a seventeenth-century convent. My neighborhood was called San Juan, and the parish church dated from the sixteenth century, one of the oldest in the area. There were also many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses, some with extensive gardens, because at the end of the nineteenth century Mixoac was a summer resort for the Mexican bourgeoisie. My family in fact had a summer house there. So when the revolution came, we were obliged, happily I think, to have to move there. We were surrounded by small memories of two pasts that remained very much alive, the pre-Columbian and the colonial.

INTERVIEWER

You talk in The Privileges of Sight about Mixoac's fireworks.

PAZ

I am very fond of fireworks. They were a part of my childhood. There was a part of the town where the artisans were all masters of the great art of fireworks. They were famous all over Mexico. To celebrate the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, other religious festivals, and at New Year's, they made the fireworks for the town. I remember how they made the church façade look like a fiery waterfall. It was marvelous. Mixoac was alive with a kind of life that doesn't exist anymore in big cities. 

INTERVIEWER

You seem nostalgic for Mixoac, yet you are one of the few Mexican writers who live right in the center of Mexico City. Soon it will be the largest city in the world, a dynamic city, but in terms of pollution, congestion, and poverty, a nightmare. Is living there an inspiration or a hindrance? 

PAZ

Living in the heart of Mexico City is neither an inspiration nor an obstacle. It's a challenge. And the only way to deal with challenges is to face up to them. I've lived in other towns and cities in Mexico, but no matter how agreeable they are, they seem somehow unreal. At a certain point, my wife and I decided to move into the apartment where we live now. If you live in Mexico, you've got to live in Mexico City.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us something about the Paz family?

PAZ

My father was Mexican, my mother Spanish. An aunt lived with us—rather eccentric, as aunts are supposed to be, and poetic in her own absurd way. My grandfather was a lawyer and a writer, a popular novelist. As a matter of fact, during one period we lived off the sales of one of his books, a best-seller. The Mixoac house was his. 

INTERVIEWER

What about books? I suppose I'm thinking about how Borges claimed he never actually left his father's library.

PAZ

It's a curious parallel. My grandfather had a beautiful library, which was the great thing about the Mixoac house. It had about six or seven thousand books, and I had a great deal of freedom to read. I was a voracious reader when I was a child and even read “forbidden” books because no one paid attention to what I was reading. When I was very young, I read Voltaire. Perhaps that led me to lose my religious faith. I also read novels that were more or less libertine, not really pornographic, just racy.

INTERVIEWER

Did you read any children's books?

PAZ

Of course. I read a lot of books by Salgari, an Italian author very popular in Mexico. And Jules Verne. One of my great heroes was an American, Buffalo Bill. My friends and I would pass from Alexandre Dumas's Three Musketeers to the cowboys without the slightest remorse or sense that we were warping history.

INTERVIEWER

You said once that the first time you saw a surrealist painting—a picture where vines were twisting through the walls of a house—you took it for realism.

PAZ

That's true. The Mixoac house gradually crumbled around us. We had to abandon one room after another because the roofs and walls kept falling down. 

INTERVIEWER

When you were about sixteen in 1930, you entered the National Preparatory School. What did you study, and what was the school like? 

PAZ

The school was beautiful. It was built at the end of the seventeenth century, the high point of the baroque in Mexican architecture. The school was big, and there was nobility in the stones, the columns, the corridors. And there was another aesthetic attaction. During the twenties, the government had murals painted in it by Orozco and Rivera—the first mural Rivera painted was in my school.

INTERVIEWER

So you felt attracted to the work of the muralists then?

PAZ

Yes, all of us felt a rapport with the muralists' expressionist style. But there was a contradiction between the architecture and the painting. Later on, I came to think that it was a pity the murals were painted in buildings that didn't belong to our century.

INTERVIEWER

What about the curriculum?

PAZ

It was a mélange of the French tradition mixed with American educational theories. John Dewey, the American philosopher, was a big influence. Also the “progressive school” of education.

INTERVIEWER

So the foreign language you studied was French?

PAZ

And English. My father was a political exile during the revolution. He had to leave Mexico and take refuge in the United States. He went ahead and then we joined him in California, in Los Angeles, where we stayed for almost two years. On the first day of school, I had a fight with my American schoolmates. I couldn't speak a word of English, and they laughed because I couldn't say spoon—during lunch hour. But when I came back to Mexico on my first day of school I had another fight. This time with my Mexican classmates and for the same reason—because I was a foreigner! I discovered I could be a foreigner in both countries.

INTERVIEWER

Were you influenced by any of your teachers in the National Preparatory School?

PAZ

Certainly. I had the chance to study with the Mexican poet Carlos Pellicer. Through him I met other poets of his generation. They opened my eyes to modern poetry. I should point out that my grandfather's library ended at the beginning of the twentieth century, so it wasn't until I was in the National Preparatory School that I learned books were published after 1910. Proust was a revelation for me. I thought no more novels had been written after Zola.

INTERVIEWER

What about poetry in Spanish?

PAZ

I found out about the Spanish poets of the Generation of 1927: García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, and Jorge Guillén. I also read Antonio Machado and Juan Ramón Jiménez, who was a patriarch of poetry then. I also read Borges at that time, but remember Borges was not yet a short-story writer. During the early thirties he was a poet and an essayist. Naturally, the greatest revelation during that first period of my literary life was the poetry of Pablo Neruda. 

INTERVIEWER

You went on to university, but in 1937 you made a momentous decision.

PAZ

Well, I made several. First I went to Yucatán. I finished my university work, but I left before graduating. I refused to become a lawyer. My family, like all Mexican middle-class families at that time, wanted their son to be a doctor or a lawyer. I only wanted to be a poet and also in some way a revolutionary. An opportunity came for me to go to Yucatán to work with some friends in a school for the children of workers and peasants. It was a great experience—it made me realize I was a city boy and that my experience of Mexico was that of central Mexico, the uplands.

INTERVIEWER

So you discovered geography?

PAZ

People who live in cities like New York or Paris are usually provincials with regard to the rest of the country. I discovered Yucatán, a very peculiar province of southern Mexico. It's Mexico, but it's also something very different thanks to the influence of the Mayas. I found out that Mexico has another tradition besides that of central Mexico, another set of roots—the Maya tradition. Yucatán was strangely cosmopolitan. It had links with Cuba and New Orleans. As a matter of fact, during the nineteenth century, people from the Yucatán traveled more often to the United States or Europe than they did to Mexico City. I began to see just how complex Mexico is. 

INTERVIEWER

So then you returned to Mexico City and decided to go to the Spanish Civil War?

PAZ

I was invited to a congress, and since I was a great partisan of the Spanish Republic I immediately accepted. I left the Yucatán school and went to Spain, where I stayed for some months. I wanted to enroll in the Spanish Loyalist Army—I was twenty-three—but I couldn't because as a volunteer I would have needed the recommendation of a political party. I wasn't a member of the Communist Party or any other party, so there was no one to recommend me. I was rejected, but they told me that was not so important because I was a young writer—I was the youngest at the congress—and that I should go back to Mexico and write for the Spanish Republic. And that is what I did.

INTERVIEWER

What did that trip to Spain mean to you, above and beyond politics and the defense of the Spanish Republic?

PAZ

I discovered another part of my heritage. I was familiar, of course, with the Spanish literary tradition. I have always viewed Spanish literature as my own, but it's one thing to know books and another thing to see the people, the monuments, and the landscape with your own eyes.

INTERVIEWER

So it was a geographical discovery again?

PAZ

Yes, but there was also the political, or to be more precise, the moral aspect. My political and intellectual beliefs were kindled by the idea of fraternity. We all talked a lot about it. For instance, the novels of André Malraux, which we all read, depicted the search for fraternity through revolutionary action. My Spanish experience did not strengthen my political beliefs, but it did give an unexpected twist to my idea of fraternity. One day—Stephen Spender was with me and might remember this episode—we went to the front in Madrid, which was in the university city. It was a battlefield. Sometimes in the same building the Loyalists would only be separated from the Fascists by a single wall. We could hear the soldiers on the other side talking. It was a strange feeling: those people facing me—I couldn't see them but only hear their voices—were my enemies. But they had human voices, like my own. They were like me.

INTERVIEWER

Did this affect your ability to hate your enemy?

PAZ

Yes. I began to think that perhaps all this fighting was an absurdity, but of course I couldn't say that to anyone. They would have thought I was a traitor, which I wasn't. I understood then, or later, when I could think seriously about that disquieting experience, I understood that real fraternity implies that you must accept the fact that your enemy is also human. I don't mean that you must be a friend to your enemy. No, differences will subsist, but your enemy is also human, and the moment you understand that you can no longer accept violence. For me it was a terrible experience. It shattered many of my deepest convictions.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that part of the horror of the situation resulted from the fact that the Fascist soldiers were speaking your language?

PAZ

Yes. The soldiers on the other side of the wall were laughing and saying, Give me a cigarette, and things like that. I said to myself, Well, they are the same as we on this side of the wall.

INTERVIEWER

You didn't go straight back to Mexico, however.

PAZ

Of course not. It was my first trip to Europe. I had to go to Paris. Paris was a museum; it was history; it was the present. Walter Benjamin said Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century, and he was right, but I think Paris was also the capital of the twentieth century, the first part at least. Not that it was the political or economic or philosophic capital, but the artistic capital. For painting and the plastic arts in general, but also for literature. Not because the best artists and writers lived in Paris but because of the great movements, right down to surrealism.

INTERVIEWER

What did you see that moved you?

PAZ

I went to the Universal Exposition and saw Guernica, which Picasso had just painted. I was twenty-three and had this tremendous opportunity to see the Picassos and Mirós in the Spanish pavilion. I didn't know many people in Paris, and by pure chance I went to an exhibition where I saw a painting by Max Ernst, Europe after the Rain, which made a deep impression on me.

INTERVIEWER

What about people?

PAZ

I met a Cuban writer who became very famous later, Alejo Carpentier. He invited me to a party at the house of the surrealist poet Robert Desnos. There was a huge crowd, many of them quite well known—but I didn't know a soul and felt lost. I was very young. Looking around the house, I found some strange objects. I asked the pretty lady of the house what they were. She smiled and told me they were Japanese erotic objects, godemiches, and everyone laughed at my innocence. I realized just how provincial I was.

INTERVIEWER

You were back in Mexico in 1938. So were André Breton and Trotsky: did their presence mean anything to you?

PAZ

Of course. Politically, I was against Breton and Trotsky. I thought our great enemy was fascism, that Stalin was right, that we had to be united against fascism. Even though Breton and Trotsky were not agents of the Nazis, I was against them. On the other hand, I was fascinated by Trotsky. I secretly read his books, so inside myself I was a heterodox. And I admired Breton. I had read L'Amour fou, a book that really impressed me.

INTERVIEWER

So in addition to Spanish and Spanish American poetry you plunged into European modernism.

PAZ

Yes, I would say there were three texts that made a mark on me during this period: the first was Eliot's The Waste Land, which I read in Mexico in 1931. I was seventeen or so, and the poem baffled me. I couldn't understand a word. Since then I've read it countless times and still think it one of the great poems of the century. The second text was Saint-John Perse's Anabase, and the third was Breton's small book, which exalted free love, poetry and rebellion.

INTERVIEWER

But despite your admiration you wouldn't approach Breton?

PAZ

Once a mutual friend invited me to see him, telling me I was wrong about Breton's politics. I refused. Many years later, I met him and we became good friends. It was then—in spite of being criticized by many of my friends—I read with enthusiasm the Manifesto for a Revolutionary Independent Art written by Breton and Trotsky and signed by Diego Rivera. In it Trotsky renounces political control of literature. The only policy the revolutionary state can have with regard to artists and writers is to give them total freedom.

INTERVIEWER

It would seem as though your internal paradox was turning into a crisis.

PAZ

I was against socialist realism, and that was the beginning of my conflicts with the Communists. I was not a member of the Communist Party, but I was friendly with them. Where we fought first was about the problem of art.

INTERVIEWER

So the exposition of surrealism in Mexico City in 1940 would have been a problem for you.

PAZ

I was the editor of a magazine, Taller. In it one of my friends published an article saying the surrealists had opened new vistas, but that they had become the academy of their own revolution. It was a mistake, especially during those years. But we published the article.

INTERVIEWER

Publish or perish.

PAZ

We must accept our mistakes. If we don't, we're lost, don't you think? This interview is in some ways an exercise in public confession—of which I am very much afraid.

INTERVIEWER

Octavio, despite the fact that you are a poet and an essayist, it seems that you have had novelistic temptations. I'm thinking of that “Diary of a Dreamer” you published in 1938 in your magazine Taller and The Monkey Grammarian of 1970.

PAZ

I wouldn't call that diary novelistic. It was a kind of notebook made up of meditations. I was probably under the spell of Rilke and his Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The truth is that the novel has always been a temptation for me. But perhaps I am not suited to it. The art of the novel unites two different things. It is like epic poetry, a world peopled by characters whose actions are the essence of the work. But unlike the epic, the novel is analytical. It tells the deeds of the characters, and at the same time, criticizes them. Tom Jones, Odette de Crécy, Ivan Karamazov, or Don Quixote are characters devoured by criticism. You don't find that in Homer or Virgil. Not even in Dante. The epic exalts or condemns; the novel analyzes and criticizes. The epic heroes are one-piece, solid characters; novelistic characters are ambiguous. These two poles, criticism and epic, combine in the novel.

INTERVIEWER

What about The Monkey Grammarian?

PAZ

I wouldn't call that a novel. It's on the frontier of the novel. If it's anything, that book is an anti-novel. Whenever I'm tempted to write a novel, I say to myself, Poets are not novelists. Some poets, like Goethe, have written novels—rather boring ones. I think the poetic genius is synthetic. A poet creates syntheses while the novelist analyzes.

INTERVIEWER

If we could return to Mexico during the war years, I would like to ask you about your relationship with Pablo Neruda, who was sent to Mexico as Consul General of Chile in 1940.

PAZ

As I said earlier, Neruda's poetry was a revelation for me when I started to read modern poetry in the thirties. When I published my first book, I sent a copy to Neruda. He never answered me, but it was he who invited me to the congress in Spain. When I reached Paris in 1937, I knew no one. But just as I was getting off the train, a tall man ran up to me shouting, Octavio Paz! Octavio Paz! It was Neruda. Then he said, Oh, you are so young! and we embraced. He found me a hotel, and we became great friends. He was one of the first to take notice of my poetry and to read it sympathetically.

INTERVIEWER

So what went wrong?

PAZ

When he came to Mexico, I saw him very often, but there were difficulties. First, there was a personal problem. Neruda was very generous, but also very domineering. Perhaps I was too rebellious and jealous of my own independence. He loved to be surrounded by a kind of court made up of people who loved him—sometimes these would be intelligent people, but often they were mediocre. The second problem was politics. He became more and more Stalinist, while I became less and less enchanted with Stalin. Finally we fought—almost physically—and stopped speaking to each other. He wrote some not terribly nice things about me, including one nasty poem. I wrote some awful things about him. And that was that.

INTERVIEWER

Was there a reconciliation?

PAZ

For twenty years we didn't speak. We'd sometimes be at the same place at the same time, and I knew he would tell our mutual friends to stop seeing me because I was a “traitor.” But then the Khrushchev report about the Stalinist terrors was made public and shattered his beliefs. We happened to be in London at the same poetry festival. I had just remarried, as had Pablo. I was with Marie-José, my wife, when we met Matilde Urrutia, his wife. She said, If I'm not mistaken, you are Octavio Paz. To which I answered, Yes, and you are Matilde. Then she said, Do you want to see Pablo? I think he would love to see you again. We went to Pablo's room, where he was being interviewed by a journalist. As soon as the journalist left, Pablo said, My son, and embraced me. The expression is very Chilean—mijito—and he said it with emotion. I was very moved, almost crying. We talked briefly, because he was on his way back to Chile. He sent me a book, I sent him one. And then a few years later, he died. It was sad, but it was one of the best things that has ever happened to me—the possibility to be friends again with a man I liked and admired so very much.

INTERVIEWER

The early forties were clearly difficult times for you, and yet they seem to have forced you to define your own intellectual position.

PAZ

That's true. I was having tremendous political problems, breaking with former friends—Neruda among them. I did make some new friends, like Victor Serge, a Franco-Russian writer, an old revolutionary. But I reached the conclusion that I had to leave my country, exile myself. I was fortunate because I received a Guggenheim Fellowship to go to the United States. On this second visit, I went first to Berkeley and then to New York. I didn't know anyone, had no money, and was actually destitute. But I was really happy. It was one of the best periods of my life.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

PAZ

Well, I discovered the American people, and I was thrilled. It was like breathing deeply and freely while facing a vast space—a feeling of elation, lightness, and confidence. I feel the same way every time I come to your country, but not with the same intensity. It was vivifying just to be in the States in those days, and at the same time, I could step back from politics and plunge into poetry. I discovered American poetry in Conrad Aiken's Anthology of Modern American Poetry. I had already read Eliot, but I knew nothing about William Carlos Williams or Pound or Marianne Moore. I was slightly acquainted with Hart Crane's poetry—he lived his last years in Mexico, but he was more a legend than a body of poetry. While I was in Berkeley, I met Muriel Rukeyser who very generously translated some of my poems. That was a great moment for me. A few years later, she sent them to Horizon, which Spender and Cyril Connolly were editing in London, where they were published. For me it was a kind of . . .

INTERVIEWER

Small apotheosis?

PAZ

A very small apotheosis. After New York, where I became a great reader of Partisan Review, I went on to Paris and caught up with some friends I'd met in Mexico. Benjamin Péret, for example. Through him, I finally met Breton. We became friends. Surrealism was in decline, but surrealism for French literary life was something healthy, something vital and rebellious.

INTERVIEWER

What do you mean?

PAZ

The surrealists embodied something the French had forgotten: the other side of reason, love, freedom, poetry. The French have a tendency to be too rationalistic, to reduce everything to ideas and then to fight over them. When I reached Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre was the dominant figure.

INTERVIEWER

But for you existentialism would have been old hat.

PAZ

That's right. In Madrid, the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset—and later his disciples in Mexico City and Buenos Aires—had published all the main texts of phenomenology and existentialism, from Husserl to Heidegger, so Sartre represented more a clever variation than an innovation. Also, I was against Sartre's politics. The one person connected to French existentialism with whom I was friendly and who was very generous to me was Albert Camus. But I must say I was nearer to the surrealist poets.

INTERVIEWER

By the end of the forties you had published two major books, the poems collected in Freedom on Parole and The Labyrinth of Solitude. I've always been curious about the title of Freedom on Parole. Does it have anything to do with the futurist poet Marinetti's “words on leave”?

PAZ

I'm afraid not. Marinetti wanted to free words from the chains of syntax and grammar, a kind of aesthetic nihilism. Freedom on Parole has more to do with morals than aesthetics. I simply wanted to say that human freedom is conditional. In English, when you are let out of jail you're “on parole,” and parole means “speech,” “word,” “word of honor.” But the condition under which you are free is language, human awareness.

INTERVIEWER

So for you freedom of speech is more than the right to speak your mind?

PAZ

Absolutely. Ever since I was an adolescent I've been intrigued by the mystery of freedom. Because it is a mystery. Freedom depends on the very thing that limits or denies it, fate, God, biological, or social determinism, whatever. To carry out its mission, fate counts on the complicity of our freedom, and to be free, we must overcome fate. The dialectics of freedom and fate is the theme of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, although in Shakespeare fate appears as passion (love, jealousy, ambition, envy) and as chance. In Spanish theater—especially in Calderón and Tirso de Molina—the mystery of freedom expresses itself in the language of Christian theology: divine providence and free will. The idea of conditional freedom implies the notion of personal responsibility. Each of us, literally, either creates or destroys his own freedom. A freedom that is always precarious. And that brings up the title's poetic or aesthetic meaning: the poem, freedom, stands above an order, language.

INTERVIEWER

You wrote Freedom on Parole between 1935 and 1957, more than twenty years. . . .

PAZ

I wrote and rewrote the book many times.

INTERVIEWER

Is it an autobiography?

PAZ

Yes and no. It expresses my aesthetic and personal experiences, from my earliest youth until the beginning of my maturity. I wrote the first poems when I was twenty-one, and I finished the last when I turned forty-three. But the real protagonist of those poems is not Octavio Paz but a half-real, half-mythical figure: the poet. Although that poet was my age, spoke my language, and his vital statistics were identical with my own, he was someone else. A figure, an image derived from tradition. Every poet is the momentary incarnation of that figure.

INTERVIEWER

Doesn't The Labyrinth of Solitude also have an autobiographical dimension?

PAZ

Again, yes and no. I wrote The Labyrinth of Solitude in Paris. The idea came to me in the United States when I tried to analyze the situation of the Mexicans living in Los Angeles, the pachucos, or Chicanos as they're called now. I suppose they were a kind of mirror for me—the autobiographical dimension you like to see. That on one side. But there is also the relationship between Mexico and the United States. If there are two countries in the world that are different, they are the United States and Mexico. But we are condemned to live together forever. So we should try to understand each other and also to know ourselves. That was how The Labyrinth of Solitude began.

INTERVIEWER

That book deals with ideas such as difference, resentment, the hermetic nature of Mexican man, but it doesn't touch on the life of the poet.

PAZ

True. I tried to deal with that subject in a short essay called “Poetry of Solitude and Poetry of Communion.” That article in some ways is the poetic equivalent to The Labyrinth of Solitude because it presents my vision of man, which is very simple. There are two situations for every human being. The first is the solitude we feel when we are born. Our first situation is that of orphanhood, and it is only later that we discover the opposite, filial attachment. The second is that because we are thrown, as Heidegger says, into this world, we feel we must find what the Buddhists call “the other share.” This is the thirst for community. I think philosophy and religion derive from this original situation or predicament. Every country and every individual tries to resolve it in different ways. Poetry is a bridge between solitude and communion. Communion, even for a mystic like Saint John of the Cross, can never be absolute.

INTERVIEWER

Is this why the language of mysticism is so erotic?

PAZ

Yes, because lovers, which is what the mystics are, constitute the greatest image of communion. But even between lovers solitude is never completely abolished. Conversely, solitude is never absolute. We are always with someone, even if it is only our shadow. We are never one—we are always we. These extremes are the poles of human life.

INTERVIEWER

All in all, you spent some eight years abroad, first in the United States, then in Paris, and then in the Mexican diplomatic service. How do you view those years in the context of your career as a poet?

PAZ

Actually, I spent nine years abroad. If you count each of those years as a month, you'll find that those nine years were nine months that I lived in the womb of time. The years I lived in San Francisco, New York, and Paris were a period of gestation. I was reborn, and the man who came back to Mexico at the end of 1952 was a different poet, a different writer. If I had stayed in Mexico, I probably would have drowned in journalism, bureaucracy, or alcohol. I ran away from that world and also, perhaps, from myself.

INTERVIEWER

But you were hardly greeted as the prodigal son when you reappeared . . .

PAZ

I wasn't accepted at all, except by a few young people. I had broken with the predominant aesthetic, moral, and political ideas and was instantly attacked by many people who were all too sure of their dogmas and prejudices. It was the beginning of a disagreement that has still not come to an end. It isn't simply an ideological difference of opinion. Certainly those polemics have been bitter and hard-fought, but even that does not explain the malevolence of some people, the pettiness of others, and the reticence of the majority. I've experienced despair and rage, but I've just had to shrug my shoulders and move forward. Now I see those quarrels as a blessing: if a writer is accepted, he'll soon be rejected or forgotten. I didn't set out to be a troublesome writer, but if that's what I've been, I am totally unrepentant.

INTERVIEWER

You left Mexico again in 1959.

PAZ

And I didn't come back until 1971. An absence of twelve years—another symbolic number. I returned because Mexico has always been a magnet I can't resist, a real passion, alternately happy and wretched like all passions.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about those twelve years. First you went back to Paris, then to India as the Mexican ambassador, and later to England and the United States.

PAZ

When I'd finished the definitive version of Freedom on Parole, I felt I could start over. I explored new poetic worlds, knew other countries, lived other sentiments, had other ideas. The first and greatest of my new experiences was India. Another geography, another humanity, other gods—a different kind of civilization. I lived there for just over six years. I traveled around the subcontinent quite a bit and lived for periods in Ceylon and Afghanistan—two more geographical and cultural extremes. If I had to express my vision of India in a single image, I would say that I see an immense plain: in the distance, white, ruinous architecture, a powerful river, a huge tree, and in its shade a shape (a beggar, a Buddha, a pile of stones?). Out from among the knots and forks of the tree, a woman arises . . . I fell in love and got married in India.

INTERVIEWER

When did you become seriously interested in Asian thought?

PAZ

Starting with my first trip to the East in 1952—I spent almost a year in India and Japan—I made small incursions into the philosophic and artistic traditions of those countries. I visited many places and read some of the classics of Indian thought. Most important to me were the poets and philosophers of China and Japan. During my second stay in India, between 1962 and 1968, I read many of the great philosophic and religious texts. Buddhism impressed me profoundly.

INTERVIEWER

Did you think of converting?

PAZ

No, but studying Buddhism was a mental and spiritual exercise that helped me begin to doubt the ego and its mirages. Ego worship is the greatest idolatry of modern man. Buddhism for me is a criticism of the ego and of reality. A radical criticism that does not end in negation but in acceptance. All the great Buddhist sanctuaries in India (the Hindu sanctuaries as well, but those, perhaps because they're later, are more baroque and elaborate) contain highly sensual sculptures and reliefs. A powerful but peaceful sexuality. I was shocked to find that exaltation of the body and of natural powers in a religious and philosophic tradition that disparages the world and preaches negation and emptiness. That became the central theme of a short book I wrote during those years, Conjunctions and Disjunctions.

INTERVIEWER

Was it hard to balance being Mexican ambassador to India with your explorations of India?

PAZ

My ambassadorial work was not arduous. I had time, I could travel and write. And not only about India. The student movements of 1968 fascinated me. In a certain way I felt the hopes and aspirations of my own youth were being reborn. I never thought it would lead to a revolutionary transformation of society, but I did realize that I was witnessing the appearance of a new sensibility that in some fashion rhymed with what I had felt and thought before.

INTERVIEWER

You felt that history was repeating itself?

PAZ

In a way. The similarity between some of the attitudes of the 1968 students and the surrealist poets, for example, was clear to see. I thought William Blake would have been sympathetic to both the words and the actions of those young people. The student movement in Mexico was more ideological than in France or the United States, but it too had legitimate aspirations. The Mexican political system, born out of the revolution, had survived but was suffering a kind of historical arteriosclerosis. On October 2, 1968, the Mexican government decided to use violence to suppress the student movement. It was a brutal action. I felt I could not go on serving the government, so I left the diplomatic corps.

INTERVIEWER

You went to Paris and then to the United States before spending that year at Cambridge.

PAZ

Yes, and during those months I reflected on the recent history of Mexico. The revolution began in 1910 with great democratic ambitions. More than half a century later, the nation was controlled by a paternalistic, authoritarian party. So in 1969 I wrote a postscript to The Labyrinth of Solitude, a “critique of the pyramid,” which I took to be the symbolic form of Mexican authoritarianism. I stated that the only way of getting beyond the political and historical crisis we were living through—the paralysis of the institutions created by the revolution—was to begin democratic reform.

INTERVIEWER

But that was not necessarily what the student movement was seeking.

PAZ

No. The student leaders and the left-wing political groups favored violent social revolution. They were under the influence of the Cuban Revolution—and there are still some who defend Fidel Castro even today. My point of view put me in opposition, simultaneously, to the government and the left. The “progressive” intellectuals, almost all of whom wanted to establish a totalitarian socialist regime, attacked me vehemently. I fought back. Rather, we fought back—a small group of younger writers agreed with some of my opinions. We all believed in a peaceful, gradual move toward democracy. We founded Plural, a magazine that would combine literature, art, and political criticism. There was a crisis, so we founded another, Vuelta (“return”), which is still going strong and has a faithful, demanding readership. Mexico has changed, and now most of our old enemies say they are democratic. We are living through a transition to democracy, one that will have its setbacks and will seem too slow for some.

INTERVIEWER

Do you see yourself as part of a long line of Latin American statesmen-writers, one that could include Argentina's Sarmiento in the nineteenth and Neruda in the twentieth century?

PAZ

I don't think of myself as a statesman-poet, and I'm not really comparable to Sarmiento or Neruda. Sarmiento was a real statesman and a great political figure in addition to being a great writer. Neruda was a poet, a great poet. He joined the Communist Party, but for generous, semi-religious reasons. It was a real conversion. So his political militance was not that of an intellectual but of a believer. Within the party, he seems to have been a political pragmatist, but, again, he was more like one of the faithful than a critical intellectual. As for me, well, I've never been a member of any political party, and I've never run for public office. I have been a political and social critic, but always from the marginal position of an independent writer. I'm not a joiner, although of course I've had and have my personal preferences. I'm different from Mario Vargas Llosa, who did decide to intervene directly in his country's politics. Vargas Llosa is like Havel in Czechoslovakia or Malraux in France after World War II.

INTERVIEWER

But it is almost impossible to separate politics from literature or any aspect of culture.

PAZ

Since the Enlightenment, there has been a constant confluence of literature, philosophy, and politics. In the English-speaking world you have Milton as an antecedent as well as the great romantics in the nineteenth century. In the twentieth century, there are many examples. Eliot, for instance, was never an active participant in politics, but his writing is an impassioned defense of traditional values, values that have a political dimension. I mention Eliot, whose beliefs are totally different from my own, simply because he too was an independent writer who joined no party. I consider myself a private person, although I reserve the right to have opinions and to write about matters that affect my country and my contemporaries. When I was young, I fought against Nazi totalitarianism and, later on, against the Soviet dictatorship. I don't regret either struggle in the slightest.

INTERVIEWER

Thinking about your time in India now and its effect on your poetry, what would you say about the influence of India?

PAZ

If I hadn't lived in India, I could not have written Blanco or most of the poems in Eastern Slope. The time I spent in Asia was a huge pause, as if time had slowed down and space had become larger. In a few rare moments, I experienced those states of being in which we are at one with the world around us, when the doors of time seem to open, if only slightly. We all live those instants in our childhood, but modern life rarely allows us to reexperience them when we're adults. As regards my poetry, that period begins with Salamander, culminates in Eastern Slope, and ends with The Monkey Grammarian.

INTERVIEWER

But didn't you write The Monkey Grammarian in 1970, the year you spent at Cambridge University?

PAZ

I did. It was my farewell to India. That year in England also changed me. Especially because of what we must necessarily refer to as English “civility,” which includes the cultivation of eccentricity. That taught me not only to respect my fellow man but trees, plants, and birds as well. I also read certain poets. Thanks to Charles Tomlinson, I discovered Wordsworth. The Prelude became one of my favorite books. There may be echoes of it in A Draft of Shadows.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a schedule for writing?

PAZ

I've never been able to maintain a fixed schedule. For years, I wrote in my few free hours. I was quite poor and from an early age had to hold down several jobs to eke out a living. I was a minor employee in the National Archive; I worked in a bank; I was a journalist; I finally found a comfortable but busy post in the diplomatic service, but none of those jobs had any real effect on my work as a poet.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have to be in any specific place in order to write?

PAZ

A novelist needs his typewriter, but you can write poetry any time, anywhere. Sometimes I mentally compose a poem on a bus or walking down the street. The rhythm of walking helps me fix the verses. Then when I get home, I write it all down. For a long time when I was younger, I wrote at night. It's quieter, more tranquil. But writing at night also magnifies the writer's solitude. Nowadays I write during the late morning and into the afternoon. It's a pleasure to finish a page when night falls.

INTERVIEWER

Your work never distracted you from your writing?

PAZ

No, but let me give you an example. Once I had a totally infernal job in the National Banking Commission (how I got it, I can't guess), which consisted in counting packets of old banknotes already sealed and ready to be burned. I had to make sure each packet contained the requisite three thousand pesos. I almost always had one banknote too many or too few—they were always fives—so I decided to give up counting them and to use those long hours to compose a series of sonnets in my head. Rhyme helped me retain the verses in my memory, but not having paper and pencil made my task much more difficult. I've always admired Milton for dictating long passages from Paradise Lost to his daughters. Unrhymed passages at that!

INTERVIEWER

Is it the same when you write prose?

PAZ

Prose is another matter. You have to write it in a quiet, isolated place, even if that happens to be the bathroom. But above all to write it's essential to have one or two dictionaries at hand. The telephone is the writer's devil, the dictionary his guardian angel. I used to type, but now I write everything in longhand. If it's prose, I write it out one, two, or three times, and then dictate it into a tape recorder. My secretary types it out, and I correct it. Poetry I write and rewrite constantly.

INTERVIEWER

What is the inspiration or starting point for a poem? Can you give an example of how the process works?

PAZ

Each poem is different. Often the first line is a gift, I don't know if from the gods or from that mysterious faculty called inspiration. Let me use Sun Stone as an example: I wrote the first thirty verses as if someone were silently dictating them to me. I was surprised at the fluidity with which those hendecasyllabic lines appeared one after another. They came from far off and from nearby, from within my own chest. Suddenly the current stopped flowing. I read what I'd written—I didn't have to change a thing. But it was only a beginning, and I had no idea where those lines were going. A few days later, I tried to get started again, not in a passive way but trying to orient and direct the flow of verses. I wrote another thirty or forty lines. I stopped. I went back to it a few days later, and little by little, I began to discover the theme of the poem and where it was all heading.

INTERVIEWER

A figure began to appear in the carpet?

PAZ

It was a kind of review of my life, a resurrection of my experiences, my concerns, my failures, my obsessions. I realized I was living the end of my youth and that the poem was simultaneously an end and a new beginning. When I reached a certain point, the verbal current stopped, and all I could do was repeat the first verses. That is the source of the poem's circular form. There was nothing arbitrary about it. Sun Stone is the last poem in the book that gathers together the first period of my poetry: Freedom on Parole. Even though I didn't know what I would write after that, I was sure that one period of my life and my poetry had ended, and another was beginning.

INTERVIEWER

But the title seems to allude to the cyclical Aztec concept of time.

PAZ

While I was writing the poem, I was reading an archeological essay about the Aztec calendar, and it occurred to me to call the poem Sun Stone. I added or cut—I don't remember which—three or four lines so that the poem would coincide with the five hundred and eighty-four days of the conjunction of Venus with the Sun. But the time of my poem is not the ritual time of Aztec cosmogony but human, biographical time, which is linear.

INTERVIEWER

But you thought seriously enough about the numerical symbolism of 584 to limit the number of verses in the poem to that number.

PAZ

I confess that I have been and am still fond of numerological combinations. Other poems of mine are also built around certain numerical proportions. It isn't an eccentricity, but a part of the Western tradition. Dante is the best example. Blanco, however, was completely different from Sun Stone. First I had the idea for the poem. I made notes and even drew some diagrams that were inspired, more or less, by Tibetan mandalas. I conceived it as a spatial poem that would correspond to the four points on the compass, the four primary colors, etcetera. It was difficult because poetry is a temporal art. As if to prove it, the words themselves wouldn't come. I had to call them and, even though it may seem I'm exaggerating, invoke them. One day, I wrote the first lines. As was to be expected they were about words, how they appear and disappear. After those first ten lines, the poem began to flow with relative ease. Of course, there were, as usual, anguishing periods of sterility followed by others of fluidity. The architecture of Blanco is more sharply defined than that of Sun Stone, more complex, richer.

INTERVIEWER

So you defy Edgar Allan Poe's injunction against the long poem?

PAZ

With great relish. I've written other long poems, like A Draft of Shadows and Carta de creencia, which means “letter of faith.” The first is the monologue of memory and its inventions—memory changes and recreates the past as it revives it. In that way, it transforms the past into the present, into presence. Carta de creencia is a cantata where different voices converge. But, like Sun Stone, it's still a linear composition.

INTERVIEWER

When you write a long poem, do you see yourself as part of an ancient tradition?

PAZ

The long poem in modern times is very different from what it was in antiquity. Ancient poems, epics or allegories, contain a good deal of stuffing. The genre allowed and even demanded it. But the modern long poem tolerates neither stuffing nor transitions, for several reasons. First, with inevitable exceptions like Pound's Cantos, because our long poems are simply not as long as those of the ancients. Second, because our long poems contain two antithetical qualities: the development of the long poem and the intensity of the short poem. It's very difficult to manage. Actually, it's a new genre. And that's why I admire Eliot: his long poems have the same intensity and concentration as short poems.

INTERVIEWER

Is the process of writing enjoyable or frustrating?

PAZ

Writing is a painful process that requires huge effort and sleepless nights. In addition to the threat of writer's block, there is always the sensation that failure is inevitable. Nothing we write is what we wish we could write. Writing is a curse. The worst part of it is the anguish that precedes the act of writing—the hours, days, or months when we search in vain for the phrase that turns the spigot that makes the water flow. Once that first phrase is written, everything changes—the process is enthralling, vital, and enriching, no matter what the final result is. Writing is a blessing!

INTERVIEWER

How and why does an idea seize you? How do you decide if it is prose or poetry?

PAZ

I don't have any hard-and-fast rules for this. For prose, it would seem that the idea comes first, followed by a desire to develop the idea. Often, of course, the original idea changes, but even so the essential fact remains the same: prose is a means, an instrument. But in the case of poetry, the poet becomes the instrument. Whose? It's hard to say. Perhaps language. I don't mean automatic writing. For me, the poem is a premeditated act. But poetry flows from a psychic well related to language, that is, related to the culture and memory of a people. An ancient, impersonal spring intimately linked to verbal rhythm.

INTERVIEWER

But doesn't prose have a rhythm as well?

PAZ

Prose does have a rhythm, but that rhythm is not its constitutive element as it is in poetry. Let's not confuse metrics with rhythm: meter may be a manifestation of rhythm, but it is different because it has become mechanical. Which is why, as Eliot suggests, from time to time meter has to return to spoken, everyday language, which is to say, to the original rhythms every language has.

INTERVIEWER

Verse and prose are, therefore, separate entities?

PAZ

Rhythm links verse to prose: one enriches the other. The reason why Whitman was so seductive was precisely because of his surprising fusion of prose and poetry. A fusion produced by rhythm. The prose poem is another example, although its powers are more limited. Of course, being prosaic in poetry can be disastrous, as we see in so many inept poems in “free verse” every day. As to the influence of poetry on prose—just think about Chateaubriand, Nerval, or Proust. In Joyce, the boundary between prose and poetry sometimes completely disappears.

INTERVIEWER

Can you always keep that boundary sharp?

PAZ

I try to keep them separate, but it doesn't always work. A prose piece, without my having to think about it, can become a poem. But I've never had a poem turn into an essay or a story. In some books—Eagle or Sun? and The Monkey Grammarian—I've tried to bring the prose right up to the border with poetry, I don't know with how much success.

INTERVIEWER

We've talked about premeditation and revision: how does inspiration relate to them?

PAZ

Inspiration and premeditation are two phases in the same process. Premeditation needs inspiration and vice-versa. It's like a river: the water can only flow between the two banks that contain it. Without premeditation, inspiration just scatters. But the role of premeditation—even in a reflexive genre like the essay—is limited. As you write, the text becomes autonomous, changes, and somehow forces you to follow it. The text always separates itself from the author.

INTERVIEWER

Then why revise?

PAZ

Insecurity. No doubt about it. Also a senseless desire for perfection. I said that all texts have their own life, independent of the author. The poem doesn't express the poet. It expresses poetry. That's why it is legitimate to revise and correct a poem. Yes, and at the same time respect the poet who wrote it. I mean the poet, not the man we were then. I was that poet, but I was also someone else—that figure we talked about earlier. The poet is at the service of his poems.

INTERVIEWER

But just how much revising do you do? Do you ever feel a work is complete, or is it abandoned?

PAZ

I revise incessantly. Some critics say too much, and they may be right. But if there's a danger in revising, there is much more danger in not revising. I believe in inspiration, but I also believe that we've got to help inspiration, restrain it, and even contradict it.

INTERVIEWER

Thinking again on the relationship between inspiration and revision, did you ever attempt the kind of automatic writing the surrealists recommended in the first surrealist manifesto?

PAZ

I did experiment with “automatic writing.” It's very hard to do. Actually, it's impossible. No one can write with his mind blank, not thinking about what he's writing. Only God could write a real automatic poem because only for God are speaking, thinking, and acting the same thing. If God says, “A horse!” a horse immediately appears. But a poet has to reinvent his horse, that is, his poem. He has to think it, and he has to make it. All the automatic poems I wrote during the time of my friendship with the surrealists were thought and written with a certain deliberation. I wrote those poems with my eyes open.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think Breton was serious when he advocated automatic writing?

PAZ

Perhaps he was. I was extremely fond of André Breton, really admired him. It's no exaggeration to say he was a solar figure because his friendship emitted light and heat. Shortly after I met him, he asked me for a poem for a surrealist magazine. I gave him a prose poem, “Mariposa de obsidiana”—it alludes to a pre-Columbian goddess. He read it over several times, liked it, and decided to publish it. But he pointed out one line that seemed weak. I reread the poem, discovered he was right, and removed the phrase. He was charmed, but I was confused. So I asked him, What about automatic writing? He raised his leonine head and answered without changing expression: That line was a journalistic intromission . . .

INTERVIEWER

It's curious, Octavio, how often a tension allows you to find your own special place—the United States and Mexico, the pachuco and Anglo-American society, solitude and communion, poetry and prose. Do you yourself see a tension between your essays and your poetry?

PAZ

If I start to write, the thing I love to write most, the thing I love most to create, is poetry. I would much rather be remembered for two or three short poems in some anthology than as an essayist. However, since I am a modern and live in a century that believes in reason and explanation, I find I am in a tradition of poets who in one way or another have written defenses of poetry. Just think of the Renaissance and then again of the romantics—Shelley, Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads. Well, now that I'm at the end of my career, I want to do two things: to keep on writing poetry and to write another defense of poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What will it say?

PAZ

I've just written a book, The Other Voice, about the situation of poetry in the twentieth century. When I was young, my great idols were poets and not novelists—even though I admired novelists like Proust or Lawrence. Eliot was one of my idols, but so were Valéry and Apollinaire. But poetry today is like a secret cult whose rites are celebrated in the catacombs, on the fringes of society. Consumer society and commercial publishers pay little attention to poetry. I think this is one of society's diseases. I don't think we can have a good society if we don't also have good poetry. I'm sure of it.

INTERVIEWER

Television is being criticized as the ruination of twentieth-century life, but you have the unique opinion that television will be good for poetry as a return to the oral tradition.

PAZ

Poetry existed before writing. Essentially, it is a verbal art, that enters us not only through our eyes and understanding but through our ears as well. Poetry is something spoken and heard. It's also something we see and write. In that we see the importance in the Oriental and Asian traditions of calligraphy. In the West, in modern times, typography has also been important—the maximum example in this would be Mallarmé. In television, the aural aspect of poetry can join with the visual and with the idea of movement—something books don't have. Let me explain: this is a barely explored possibility. So I'm not saying television will mean poetry's return to an oral tradition but that it could be the beginning of a tradition in which writing, sound, and images will unite. Poetry always uses all the means of communication the age offers it: musical instruments, printing, radio, records. Why shouldn't it try television? We've got to take a chance.

INTERVIEWER

Will the poet always be the permanent dissident?

PAZ

Yes. We have all won a great battle in the defeat of the communist bureaucracies by themselves—and that's the important thing: they were defeated by themselves and not by the West. But that's not enough. We need more social justice. Free-market societies produce unjust and very stupid societies. I don't believe that the production and consumption of things can be the meaning of human life. All great religions and philosophies say that human beings are more than producers and consumers. We cannot reduce our lives to economics. If a society without social justice is not a good society, a society without poetry is a society without dreams, without words, and most importantly, without that bridge between one person and another that poetry is. We are different from the other animals because we can talk, and the supreme form of language is poetry. If society abolishes poetry it commits spiritual suicide.

INTERVIEWER

Is your extensive critical study of the seventeenth-century Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz a kind of projection of the present onto the past?

PAZ

In part, but I also wanted to recover a figure I consider essential not only for Mexicans but for all of the Americas. At first, Sor Juana was buried and forgotten; then she was disinterred and mummified. I wanted to bring her back into the light of day, free her from the wax museum. She's alive and has a great deal to tell us. She was a great poet, the first in a long line of great Latin American women poets—let's not forget that Gabriela Mistral from Chile was the first Latin American writer to win the Nobel Prize. Sor Juana was also an intellectual of the first rank (which we can't say for Emily Dickinson) and a defender of women's rights. She was put on a pedestal and praised, then persecuted and humiliated. I just had to write about her.

INTERVIEWER

Finally, whither Octavio Paz? Where do you go from here?

PAZ

Where? I asked myself that question when I was twenty, again when I was thirty, again when I was forty, fifty . . . I could never answer it. Now I know something: I have to persist. That means live, write, and face, like everyone else, the other side of every life—the unknown.