The role of the outsider, the solitary, the wanderer, comes naturally to Octavio Paz. Many of 64 years have been spent outside his native Mexico, from the early 1920s, when he spent two years in the Mexican ghetto of Los Angeles ("my father was a political exile, and we didn't have much money) to the last seven years when he has been a visiting professor at Harvard.
You can feel this solitude in his poetry, which ranks among the finest being written today in the Spanish language, and you can hear it as he says, "Today, of course, we are all outsiders, all caught between two worlds. Everyone, not only the artists. I am not sure whether this is good or bad, but it is certainly happening.
"Modern society is a collection of outsiders. Perhaps it is going to be good in the end, but now it is a great suffering."
Paz believes that the frequent uprooting of his life (he has lived, among other places, in Spain, India, England, Japan and France, where he met and married his wife, Marie) has helped to intensify his Mexican identity, and wherever he goes he brings a part of Mexico with him. "I am happy in New England," he muses; "I feel it is where the United States began. But I also feel like a stranger there."
He is intrigued by the differences between the southern land where he was born and the northern one where he has spent so much of his life. "In Mexico, we still worship ancestors; here, you hardly know them. You are looking for your roots, we are living in ours."
Standing between two cultures, he finds that they are moving closer together. The large and growing Hispanic population of the United States makes it the fifth-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, and the big cities in Mexico are becoming rapidly Americanized. But there are still basic differences.
"The way we think about time, for example - this is changing. Mexicans used to look to the past as the golden age, while Americans thought it was somewhere in the future. Now, Americans are becoming less optimistic of the future, and this is good. You will find that you can recapture many things that you had lost with your religion of the future."
Looking at the strange giant to the north, Mexican intellecturals in the past have been inclined to turn their eyes away, but now Paz sees a change in this attitude. "On the popular level, of course, the influence of the United States has been enormous for a long time, but the intellectual class has been more inclined to look to Europe. Now, American influence is alos being felt in the upper levels of society, and here, too, there is a new willingness to understand Mexico.
"In the past, all the great civilizations have been a product of cross-breeding. In a union of our cultures, there may be the possibility of another great civilization.
"You still talk about 'Latin America,' sometimes, as though it were one entity - as it is in some ways; but there is an enormous difference between Mexico and, for instance, Argentina, and this is beginning to be understood."
The poet, the solitary, is only one side of Octavio Paz. The other side - public man, teacher, diplomat - took the spotlight last night when he gave a lecture at the Organization of American States to open the Mexico Today Symposium which will be happening all over Washington for the next six weeks, in discussions, music and dance performances, art exhibits, film festivals, lectures and other special events.
The poetry which has won him international awards has been paralleled in his writing by prose - analytic, philosophical, polemic - which has made him a spokesman for his countrymen with a large international audience.
His latest prose venture is the editorship of a monthly magazine, Vuelta, devoted to literature and politics. "We needed money to get started," he recalls, "so we bought a painting from Tamayo - cheaply; he was very generous - and we held a lottery for the painting and that gave us enough to begin. We are about to celebrate our second year - 24 issues - and we have a circulation of 8,000 copies in Mexico, which is enormous for a literary magazine."
The magazine also circulates in Spain and throughout Latin America ("but not in Chile; that's different"), and he finds its international success both encouraging and frustrating. "We enjoy being widely read, and we have this feeling of belonging to a common language, a common culture, with other Spanish-speaking nations. But sometimes we have trouble getting the money out of some countries. I cannot help thinking how foolish it is to put these political and economic barriers between people of the same culture."
His two kinds of writing are totally different processes, he says. "When I write prose, it is for moral, political, intellectual reasons; there is something that needs to be said, and nobody else is saying it. I want to communicate ideas, to be accepted and understood.
"When I am writing a poem, it is to make something, an object or organism that will be whole and living, something that will have a life of its own, independent of me.
"You don't care, with a poem, whether you are popular or unpopular. The important point is that the thing is made and that it is good."