‘Year of the Dog’: Deborah Paredez on Poetry as the Language of Truth
Deborah Paredez’s new poetry collection is a haunting collage of photographs and poems that carry us from 1970 to the present. This daughter of the Vietnam War focuses on the ways that women’s voices are at the center of the elegiac tradition, decrying violence and the trauma of oppressive systems.
Yvette Benavides: Your latest poetry collection is Year of the Dog, and it also includes a collage of images from the Vietnam era. Can you tell me about this connection between the poems and the art and what it helps us to understand about the ways that you're documenting this era as a poet, but also as the daughter of the Vietnam war?
Deborah Paredez: Thank you, Yvette for that question. I'm so happy you used the word “documenting” because to me, when we think about the Vietnam era, and that war in particular, we often associate it with a kind of change in documentary war photography wherein, photographers had kind of more unrestricted access and many folks listened before the evening news each night and heard about the dead that they were counting and saw images from the war. And many of us who may have been young during that era still very much live with the images, and they are very striking and now iconic and often Pulitzer-Prize- winning images from that era, whether it was from photos taken in Vietnam or photos taken here. As you know, various communities responded in a range of ways to the war. So for me to write about this moment and particularly as a Latina and someone invested in the ways Latinos themselves have, and continue to, I think, be suspicious of, conventional ideas of documentation, right? Latinas are often understood vis-a-vis documentation, right? “Do you have your documents?” Are you somehow considered to be legal or not depending upon your relationship with documents? For me, I really wanted to include some of these iconic documents and to really interrogate them through the relationship between the poetry and the words. I incorporate some iconic photos, right? The Kent State photo…We've just completed the 50th anniversary of the Kent State and Jackson State shootings…and some other iconic photos as well from the era. And I collaged them and intersperse them with snapshots my father took during his time when he served in the war as a Mexican immigrant newly, you know, not so newly arrived, but certainly had newly acquired his citizenship just in time to be drafted. I think about how I wanted people, I wanted readers to rethink the ways we are, and we have historically been thought of to see or remember that era.
YB: And you call this a “Latina feminist work.” For listeners that might not understand the implications of this, can you explain what it means in this book?
DP: Absolutely. One of the aims of the book was to question the ways we think about those who served in the Vietnam War. Oftentimes, Latinos, we’re sometimes included as a side-note to the larger story but are often overlooked. And in part that is because of the ways they were documented or undocumented in official counts because at that time, we were considered racially white. It was hard to even account for how many served while we know Latino communities often served in greater proportional numbers. And so to me telling that story was one that was very invested in kind of telling the story of greater Latino and Latina history, but also wanting to tell it as someone who…as the daughter of someone who served and fortunately was able to come home, how that war was brought home and lived in our life and our home and how it was lived in the lives of many young people. And so to tell it in a feminist way means to—and a Latina feminist way—means to attend to the Latinos who served. It means to attend to many ways that women of color, often, were affected by the war. It means to really attend to how power works, right? You know, with feminists just kind of help us look critically at power and how it works. For me, I really was interested in looking at a range of women of color who had important roles in the war, whether it's Angela Davis or Kim Phuc, the young woman who was often referred to as “the Napalm Girl” in the photo by Nick Ut. So those are some of the ways for me to be a Latina feminist means to attend to both concerns that are important for Latino history, but to larger concerns about the ways women of color have been central to our understandings of that era.
YB: And there is a whole section that is sort of this look at Kim Phuc. The book is divided into three sections. There are acts here, movements around mythology. And I even was looking at some of this work as sort of the mythology of war from the Vietnam era, and then to sort of the present. And it ends up a real journey for the reader to move through the book. I mean, linear… linearly. Yes. But also, that's not quite right. It's because we go into so many places in each, in each movement. Can you explain why this structure is so important to you in terms of the overall?
DP: Sure. Year of the Dog refers in the book to the year 1970, which was the year of my birth. That year, my father was preparing to be deployed to Vietnam, the year of tremendous protests and all kinds of activity both here and in Southeast Asia. But it also, to me, evokes the story of Hecuba, the Greek myths, Greek mythic figure of Hecuba, who was the queen of Troy. And in the Trojan War, all of her family has died, and she's being taken back by the Greeks as a slave, you know, to be taken back. And she's so filled with horror and grief at the horrors of war that she's witnessed that she howls and howls and won't let go of her grief. And she howls until she's transformed into a dog. And she leaps from the ship and sort of escapes from being taken back by the Greeks, but kind of lives out her days as this howling dog, you know, grieving. And so I really wanted to take that idea of what it means to be a woman who's going to look into the face of disaster—as women often have had to do—and to bear witness to it and to not sort of let it go. And I finished the book in another year of the dog, 2018, which at that time was the year that recorded the highest numbers of school shootings in the nation's history. For me finishing this book about a historical moment, but in a moment in which the legacy of war, the sort of never-ending war was very present to me. I wanted readers to experience that journey in the way that the book is structured. So even as we move from 1970, which is most of what that first section is about toward the future. I also wanted it to be interwoven with the presence of the past kind of throughout.
YB: Your book was released in mid-April. And we were about a month into the pandemic and social distance closures. By then the publishing world had been affected. People could not get to readings or conferences and bookstores, but I want to ask you about the ways in which poetry is surviving. I love seeing all of the inventive and creative ways that we can still get to see writers doing these sorts of virtual appearances on social media. And it just makes me think of the ways that poetry just survives. Have you thought about why it is that poetry matters so much right now?
DP: Sure. You know, I believe, as many, I think as many poets do that poetry may not always hold facts, but often holds truth and often holds truth in a language that, because it's a kind of balance elevated or heightened or a strange language, right? For many of us, it can perhaps access some of the truths that we may not be able to access with our everyday language. And I think particularly in a moment when what the facts are, or what news is, or is not, or the understandings of a kind of mistrust around facts and things like that, that our language, or everyday language, often has—even the language that's supposed to be reported to be, you know, truthful or whatever. I think when we're in a moment historically, that has a lot of suspicion around that. The language of poetry and the way that it kind of speaks in this other language can house some of the truth that we're really starved for as a community, certainly within the context of this nation. And, and I think it's not surprising as a result, for example, that after the 2016 election poetry readership rose exponentially. I think during this moment, people are also looking to poetry to find some solace and some truths. I do think it's about that.