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A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz

2011 April 6

Oliver de la Paz is the author of three books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, and Requiem for the Orchard. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry with Stacey Lynn Brown, and co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. A recipient of grants from NYFA and the Artists’ Trust, his recent work has appeared in the New England Review, Sentence, the Southern Review, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing and literature at Western Washington University.

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LR: Who were your earliest influences as a young poet? Was there a momentous decision to pursue this career?

OP: I’ve got a lot of early influences so I’ll name a number of firsts. My very first poetry book was The Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. When my parents first arrived in the U.S. they became subscribers to Readers’ Digest and part of the subscription deal was to receive three gift books with their subscription. One of the gift books was Robert Penn Warren’s book. So apart from my mother’s medical texts, I was pouring over Robert Penn Warren’s poems, not really understanding what was happening in them, but having a profound curiosity over the work.

The first poetry books that I ever purchased for myself were for a poetry class in college. I bought Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares and Adrienne Rich’s Atlas of a Difficult World. The poetry collection that really opened my eyes to the sonic qualities a poem could have was Sylvia Plath’s Ariel. I still have the first two tercets memorized: “The Sunday lamb cracks in its fat./ The fat/ Sacrifices its opacity . . . ”

The first poetic influence that affirmed I could be a poet was Li-Young Lee’s first book, Rose. I was deciding between continuing a career in the sciences, or pursuing poetry. At the time, I was a care provider in a supported living home for the developmentally disabled and an EMT. I had a lot of time to read because the main client I worked with slept a lot due to the meds. So I read long into my shift. I imagine that was when I decided to pursue the life of letters. I wasn’t really excited about the lab work or the medical work I was doing, and I was feeling quite invigorated by all the poetry I was reading.

LR: “Drama is danger / plus desire, a teacher said.” What are your dangers and desires?

OP: My real life dangers—chainsaws and cancer. I’m not kidding about the chainsaws. I bought a Stihl chainsaw with a 25” bar, and I’m absolutely terrified of the thing. There are a lot of trees that are downed around my property that I haven’t properly disposed. One of the sure-fire things that occurs in this part of the Pacific Northwest is the seasonal wind gusts every Fall. Couple the windy weather with soaked ground from all the rain and you get a lot of downed pine trees. Anyway, all the locals had filled my head with horror stories of how a chain slipped off a bar and whipped across someone’s face or how a chainsaw tooth got lodged into someone’s hand and jerked back into their midsection. Understand that this is why I am afraid of my chainsaw.

I’m afraid of cancer, too. I was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer in 2007, which is a fairly common and highly treatable form of cancer. What was scary and particularly dangerous about my cancer was the size of the tumor. It was found on the left side of my neck and was roughly the size of a golf ball. I hadn’t noticed it, surprisingly. My mother spotted it while my wife and I were visiting her in Oregon. My mother reached across the table and pressed down on the knot as soon as she saw it. As I mentioned, papillary cancer is a fairly common and treatable form of cancer, but because of this tumor’s size, there was a possibility that it had spread. I went through a mild chemo treatment for a year after my thyroid was removed. The messy part wasn’t the surgery, it was the loss of the thyroid. It’s amazing what the thyroid does for the body. I went through a bout of weakness and insomnia as the doctors were trying to adjust my replacement hormone levels. I realize I’m probably over-sharing, but you asked the question.

As far as my desires are concerned, my current desires are that my children grow up wise, healthy, and happy. Of course, before I had children, I had different desires—namely to find a way to sustain myself as a writer. My desire to sustain myself through writing has shifted these days. I’m less concerned about sustaining myself as a writer and more concerned about assisting in sustaining writers’ communities. In particular, my hope is that Kundiman can become a self-sustaining organization. Under the wisdom and guidance of Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi along with Vikas Menon, Jennifer Chang, and Purvi Shah, I think it’s in good hands. Additionally, I hope that the students I teach in my creative writing classes continue to write long after they’ve finished their undergraduate and graduate college careers.

LR: As your books progress they seem to develop toward frank self-exposure. Names Above Houses has a fabulic narrative distance; in Furious Lullaby, you start to orbit spiritual questions; and by the time we get to Requiem for the Orchard we see the self-portraits and childhood memories. Was this a conscious aesthetic move, or did it simply happen?

OP: Each book came about as a way to escape the process of its predecessor. In other words, I had to relearn how to write a poem for each project. It was absolutely a conscious effort. I knew, after writing Names Above Houses, I could keep writing the same type of fabulist prose poem and it would be very easy to remain in the voice and the tone of that work, but I was bored of the process. It was getting to the point where there wasn’t much active imagination happening during the writing of some of the later poems, and the fact that it was becoming too easy became the impetus for me to stop writing prose poems for a while.

I then attempted writing short lyrics, which you see in the middle section of Furious Lullaby. I had been reading a lot of Paul Celan to get back into the mode of the short lyric. It was the tail end of my time as a graduate student at Arizona State University, and I was working with Norman Dubie, who has the most incredible imagination. He was “seeding” the second book for me by offering me various assignments that ultimately show up in some of the aubades that fill the book. Also during this time, I was re-learning how to put together a manuscript. It was relatively easy to construct Names Above Houses because it’s a linear manuscript which is character driven. Furious Lullaby took awhile to assemble and went through numerous drafts. I had started the manuscript in 1999 and didn’t have it published until 2007. It did the rounds at all the various contests, and I learned a heck of a lot about how to structure a manuscript. While Furious Lullaby was circulating, I wasn’t writing. I probably should’ve put pen to paper, but a number of things were happening in my life. I had gotten married, I got a new job, I moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. I didn’t have time to espouse a new obsession.

Unlike the other two books, in Requiem for the Orchard I wanted to explore a voice that was much more self-reflexive. The sum total of returning to the West, becoming a parent, and having more time to write triggered a creative surge that hasn’t seemed to abate. Requiem for the Orchard was written during a relatively short period—between 2007 and 2009. The poems were written relatively close together, so the tonal level, the themes, all of it was fairly uniform. I needed to get a handle on my cancer recovery and my new fatherhood, so the poems took shape as I was trying to avoid pathos. In order to trick myself away from writing the overly sentimental poem, I gave myself assignments. All those “Self Portrait” poems are the result of many assignments, and the titles are giveaways for the specific prompt I had given. The titles ultimately became a guide for the structuring of the book.

LR: In an old interview (from 2006), you said that after Names Above Houses you became more deliberate in your writing, connecting poems by sequence or theme. How does inspiration figure into this process?

OP: Inspiration is always a factor during this process, but I don’t believe inspiration comes out of the aether. I firmly believe that all art is dialogic, that it’s in conversation with something that is occurring in the culture or in the artist’s life at the time. So in the case of my writing, I apply the same idea to a poem that I may be writing. After it has been written, I explore whether it is conversant with other works that I have written. If it isn’t, then I imagine the possibilities of a poem that could have a conversation with it and set about crafting that poem.

I’ve heard that such a process may foster the composition of flat poems that can’t survive on their own without its cohort, but that’s where revision comes in.

Additionally, my writing process is compact and fairly economical. I don’t write during nine months out of the year. During the three months that I am writing, I write in short, intense bursts. What happens during those little bursts is that my mind won’t have time to shift from one idea or subject to the next, so I continue writing on that subject. I mentioned in your previous question that I give myself assignments. The assignments I give myself are also thematic guidelines. I tend to imagine a sequence of poetry as paintings that are to be hung in a gallery for an exhibition. There is a narrative that occurs when you go to a gallery to view paintings on a wall. Certain paintings cannot be placed adjacent to each other. Certain paintings demand their own wall. Architecture. Form. These concepts all demand that there be some form of inspiration at work. What’s particular to the architect or even the gallery curator is the idea of utility—there is a functionality that must exist within the design. The building must be designed so that the plumbing can reach the top of the tower. The gallery display must be arranged so that the patrons of the gallery enter the gallery and proceed through the exhibit in a particular manner.

LR: You make beautiful use of flight—sometimes deformed or aberrant—as theme and image. Requiem for the Orchard ends with this self-portrait: “Now, where once resided // acrimony for youth’s black seed—nothing except a single wing / opening and closing and opening again to catch the wind.” It reminds me of Fidelito when he’s broken his wrist, and his mother “feels his unsteady pulse and shields her one-winged son.” Can you say something about the single wing?

OP: I’ll try. This is a difficult question because it’s something that I’m still muddling through. The image of the single wing renders the violence of the speaker’s upbringing in concrete and uncompromising terms. An animal is mutilated at the hands of children who are trying to become men by driving a tractor they have no business driving. And yet, what closes the poem is the image of a child raising his arms, wanting to be picked up by his father who had been one of the children driving the tractor. So, in this case and in the case of many of my poems, the idea of flight for me is the idea that despite the past, there remains a possibility of grace.

I also have to mention, as an immigrant and son of immigrants, “flight” symbolism is almost always charged with the idea of fleeing from something. In the case of my family, we left the Philippines during the 70’s “brain drain” of that country, when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. My father always tells me that we left the Philippines in order to have more opportunities. He holds on to this narrative still to this day. The idea of the single wing, in this sense, could suggest all the ways in which we hold on to an idea and how that idea tries to raise itself into the air.

LR: As a “poet-citizen,” what do you see as the relationship between aesthetic and social pragmatism?

OP: I see that they are concurrent and congruent. Art is a societal need, though some will always argue that art is impractical. One thing that I have always believed—art engages its audience in an active and dialogical way.

I believe in the power of dialogue. Whether that dialogue take the form of a painting or a poem is not my central concern. I myself draw much inspiration from the visual arts as well as literature. Many of my poems were inspired by the visual arts.

There is always a danger in categorizing things according to their usefulness. That happens so much and we’re seeing it now with this economic crisis—various legislatures are determining what should be cut based on use and usefulness. Art has the ability to foster creative and critical thinking. So when legislatures determine to cut the budgets of art programs or community programs, they are essentially diminishing the possibility for their constituents’ long-term civic involvement.

LR: You mentioned the Hoagland-Rankine issue on your blog. Rather than pressure you for a stance: can you say a bit about Asian American poetry and literature in general, and community/readership?

OP: It’s okay to pressure me. I was quite cheesed off by Hoagland’s poem and his response to Claudia’s poetic response, but for the longest time, I couldn’t articulate my displeasure. I was in the audience at AWP when Claudia Rankine had Nick Flynn read Hoagland’s piece. She then read her piece and the ensuing responses. There was a palpable tension in the air and I felt like I had been punched in the neck. After Claudia had finished, a number of poets gave her a standing ovation.

I’ve always been one to step back before responding to anything that coaxes such a visceral response. I’m still grappling with the “conversation.” So here’s where I’m at today, and my feelings can change depending on what sets me off. Art, for me, is governed by choices. There are decisions and micro decisions that go into the composition of a poem, and what irked me about Hoagland’s response to Claudia is that it seemed like he decided to disengage and ultimately divorced himself from holding any responsibility for his poem, fortifying himself with the argument that the role of the artist is simply to make art and that we are not to confuse the speaker with the artist. Sure, but as I mentioned, I believe art is governed by choice as is how we interact with said art. Claudia knew where he was coming from. She understood his rhetorical stance and countered it eloquently. Tony, it seemed, didn’t understand where Claudia was coming from, unfortunately, and I don’t feel his response was as rhetorically accommodating. High jinx ensued. So we’ve had responses and counter responses. Ultimately, the writing community is taking Claudia Rankine’s challenge on and proposing discussions, talks, the opportunity for dialogue.

With respect to Asian American poetry, literature, and the community, I have always felt a responsibility to that community. When I was starting as a writer I sought community. One of the first poets I contacted was Fatima Lim Wilson. She persuaded me to contact Nick Carbo. Nick mentored me for many years, putting me in touch with many of the writing friends I have now. Community is self-generative provided that the constituents of said community wish to sustain that community. I had mentioned one of my desires is that Kundiman become a self-sustaining community, and in many ways it has become just that. Many of the fellows who leave the retreat maintain their community by corresponding and collaborating with each other over the years. And let me also say that there is a need for communities like Kundiman, Kearny Street Workshop, The Asian American Writers Workshop, Macondo, Canto Mundo, and Cave Canem. First off, the life of a writer is a lonely one. The life of a minority writer is extremely lonely. As I was in the process of searching for community, I couldn’t go to my family because they were new immigrants and their view of a successful career path for me certainly didn’t involve the arts. So it’s important for the new generation of minority artists to see that they have predecessors, even models. Li-Young Lee was my first model. He led me to Garrett Hongo’s anthology, The Open Boat. Garrett’s anthology led me to contact Fatima Lim Wilson who led me to contact Nick Carbo. All the while, I was unsure about the writing life as a life.

What’s clear now is there are a number of really fantastic young Asian American writers out there—Esther Lee, Cynthia Arrieu-King, Melody Gee, Neil Aitken, Purvi Shah just to name a few Asian American poets with new books . . . and the difference between when I was coming into my own as a writer and what they are experiencing is that they know each other through various community experiences but particularly Kundiman.

LR: Advice for a young poet?

OP: Read as much poetry as you can, no matter the style or the school. It’s important not to lock onto one particular writing style at this point because it’s important to experiment with the possibilities of your aesthetic. It’s also important to seek a poetic community that will challenge and sustain you, whether that community is a writing group, a couple of friends who share your passion for writing, or a writing organization. You never know when you’ll encounter a moment when the solitary writing life calls you away from the desk and out into the open air.

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