Behind the Book: Eugene Gloria Talks Writing SIGHTSEER IN THIS KILLING CITY

Header image. At the top left, the LR logo, a black circle with the white letters "L" and "R" inside. Beside it, the text "Behind the Book: Eugene Gloria + Sightseer in This Killing City." Beneath this header text are two images: a photo of Eugene Gloria (a poet with shoulder-length, dark hair, dressed in a dark, v-neck sweater  with a gray tee peeking through at the neck; he is standing against a background of trees and greenery), and, to its left, the cover of SIGHTSEER IN THIS KILLING CITY (painting of a dark-haired woman wearing a bright red beret and a black tunic with colorful stripes and a patterned neckline layered above a gray long-sleeved shirt; she is standing with crossed arms and glancing to the side skeptically against a background containing many colorful scenes of subjects including cars, houses, city skyscrapers, a road, a mostly obscured slogan, an interior, a house, and more. The title and the author's name appear above and below her, respectively, in all-caps sans-serif, black, bold font, overlaid on white, arrow-like shapes).
SIGHTSEER IN THIS KILLING CITY & Eugene Gloria (Author Photo: Amber Hecko; Cover Art: Pacita Abad)

In “Behind the Book,” we chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. This month, we spoke with poet Eugene Gloria about writing into the political, the lyric impulse, and how the notion of “the book [as] a unified song” guided him while putting together his unflinching new collection, Sightseer in This Killing City (Penguin-Random House, 2019).

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LANTERN REVIEW: Sightseer in This Killing City responds to recent reactionary politics around the world, including in the Philippines, the US, and Europe. Did the project that became this book evolve into its political perspective over time? Or were its politics there from its genesis, and if so—was there a particular political moment that served as the igniting spark? 

EUGENE GLORIA: Some of the themes that have emerged from my work over the years have explored masculinity and gun violence, displacement and grief, as well as beauty. I think I still find myself writing about these things. When I first imagined working on this collection of poems, I was interested in interrogating the person I have become after living in Indiana for many years. The initial title of my manuscript was “Karate, Guns, and Tanning,” named after a strip mall near where I live. But then the results of the US presidential election of 2016 happened around the same time the Philippines elected Rodrigo Duterte as their president. I wrote a significant portion of Sightseer in This Killing City while living and teaching in the Philippines while on a Fulbright grant in Manila. I guess it’s safe to say that the book’s political perspective (when it was being shaped as a book) became a response to the collective grief many of us share in the era of Trump and Duterte and the mass killings we now experience with alarming regularity. So I ended up adding newer poems and taking out some older ones that no longer fit.

LR: Many of the poems in Sightseer are written in persona. How did Nacirema (the primary persona in the book) first find her way to you? Did composing in her voice shape your own process and craft at all as you worked on the book?

EG: The name Nacirema comes from Horace Miner’s essay “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” from American Anthropologist, published in 1956. It was a satire of sorts addressed to other social scientists. I loved the idea of a name meaning “American” except spelled backwards. I was working on a poem about a Filipino nurse I knew from my old neighborhood in San Francisco when I first encountered the name via the visual artist Michael Arcega, whom I met at the Montalvo Artists Residency. He told me that he stole the name from Miner, and so I didn’t need his permission to use it as the name of a character in my poem. From “Nurse Nacirema” came “Ave Nacirema,” then gang-banger Nacirema in one of “The War on Drugs” poems, then Camino Nacirema in “My Sad Economist on the Nature of Things”—and so on. Having a character to work with allowed me to extend my examination of identity as a performed thing and not rely so much on the “I” persona who is also a stand-in for myself. And so, yes, developing a voice through Nacirema allowed me to take various directions with my collection that I hadn’t originally imagined. 

LR: Music heavily informs the syntax and sonics of the poems in the book. How does music factor into your writing process? How did it factor into your process for writing Sightseer?

EG: I often find myself revisiting my student days in writing workshop whenever I’m in the classroom with my students at the university where I teach. I find myself sometimes saying the same thing my teachers used to say to me about my poems: “So where’s the music in this?” I’ve always imagined music as feeling and sentences having their own level of sound in order to create “big” feelings. Sometimes you need to suspend sense in order to privilege music. As I’ve grown as a teacher who writes poems, I’ve allowed myself to experiment with formal structures in order to create new sonic possibilities for my narrative poems. “The Suitcase” is one example from the collection that comes to mind. Of course the lyric impulse takes over whenever I resist telling a story in my poems.

LR: The book is broken into four parts that function almost like dramatic acts or musical movements. Can you tell us more about the process by which the overall form of the book came together? For example, did you first decide upon the overall structure and then write into each section? Or did you begin with a looser assortment of poems that began to group themselves as you wrote?

EG: I once met a poet who told me that she was working on her latest collection, and she was starting with the table of contents, listing the titles of poems she still had to write. Knowing her work, I didn’t think she was kidding. I’ve often toyed with the idea of putting together a book in the same way. I write in this old-fashioned way of crafting one poem at a time until I think I have enough for a book. Conceptualizing the collection is an entirely separate process. At one point, I had imagined the book in the form of a two-album set and calling it “The Essential Nacirema”—each section of the book as one side of a vinyl disc. Arranging my poems in sections allows for significant pauses, breathing room, and allows for the ending poems to resonate until the reader moves to the next section. I go back and forth on creating sections or not having them. Somehow it made more sense to do it for this collection.

LR: This is your fourth book. Have you found that your approach and perspective to shaping a manuscript has changed over time? If so, how has it evolved? If not, what are the constant stars that have always seen you through your projects?

EG: I think it was Robert Frost who said that when you’re putting together a collection of poems and you have twenty-four poems written, the twenty-fifth poem will be the book. The idea of the book being a unified song is also a guiding principle for me.

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Eugene Gloria is the author of four books of poems—Sightseer in This Killing City (Penguin-Random House, 2019); My Favorite Warlord (Penguin, 2012), winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; Hoodlum Birds (Penguin, 2006); and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (Penguin, 2000), a National Poetry Series selection and recipient of the Asian American Literary Award. He is the John Rabb Professor of Creative and Performing Arts and English professor at DePauw University.

Behind the Book: Oliver de la Paz Talks Writing THE BOY IN THE LABYRINTH

Header image. At the top left, the LR logo, a black circle with the white letters "L" and "R" inside. Beside it, the text "Behind the Book: Oliver de la Paz + The Boy in the Labyrinth." Beneath this header text are two images: a photo of Oliver de la Paz (the poet dressed in a blue shirt and standing against a pale yellow concrete wall dappled with leafy shadows and light), and, to its right, the cover of THE BOY IN THE LABYRINTH (abstract image of a falling figure surrounded with swirling, gauzy, fabric-like layers in colors of dark blue and green; the whole is overlaid with red, capillary-like veining, and with the author's name in blue and the title in bright green and yellow).
Oliver de la Paz & THE BOY IN THE LABYRINTH (Author Photo: Papandrea Photography)

Happy first week of autumn! Today, we’re excited to debut a brand-new blog series. In “Behind the Book,” we’ll chat with authors of new or recent collections about craft, process, and the stories behind how their books came into being. It’s our privilege to start off the series by chatting with contributor and longtime friend of the magazine Oliver de la Paz. Read on to learn how he pursues the discipline of returning to the page amid the busyness of family and academic life and how he grapples with writing about deeply personal subject matter—as well as about the long spool of a journey that led him to the heart of his breathtaking new collection, The Boy in the Labyrinth (U of Akron Press, 2019).

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LANTERN REVIEW: Can you tell us more about how the project for The Boy in the Labyrinth was born? Was there a specific generative moment, as in the encounter with Alicia Ostricker you recall in the Credo? How did the pieces of the story begin to make their way to you—and at what point did you realize that the boy in the labyrinth was your sons?

OLIVER DE LA PAZ: I had made a trip to read for the Slash Pine Festival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, around 2007 or 2008. That was right around the same time my wife, Meredith, was pregnant with our first son. The poet David Welch had read a few poems, which really had resonated with me in terms of tone, so I tried my hand at a few prose poems that were operating at a similar tonal level. And I thought nothing of it. I kept writing these poems about a mysterious boy in a labyrinth. The writing got a little more frenetic as the magnitude of raising a neurodiverse child as someone who was neurotypical and completely uninformed about parenting started to sweep through my consciousness. But I didn’t connect the fact of the poems with the story of my sons until later, honestly. I continued with the strange little tone prose poems about this boy for almost ten years without looking up and realizing what I was doing. Once I realized their connection, I stopped writing them and started writing poems that ended up being the connective tissue—the questionnaires and the story problems started to trickle into the work about three years ago, and that was when I realized what I had in front of me. The poem “Credo” that opens the book was borne out of necessity. I realize that the book suffers a fatal flaw, and that is context. I had to acknowledge, in writing, my fumbling manner of writing around my anxieties and face them head on.

LR: You begin with apology (specifically, to your neurodiverse sons for writing about them)—something that, you inform the reader, is part of your writing ritual. What is the significance of apology in your writing process? While writing this book in particular, how did you weigh and wrestle with the implications and responsibilities of writing about your children?

OD: Well, I’m still quite uncomfortable about this book and that it’s out. Part of that discomfort is because I’m writing about my sons. At the time of the start of the work, they were really young and didn’t have a whole lot of say in what it was that I was doing. There was no correction from them in my wrestling with my understanding of neurodiversity. Now, my oldest kid’s almost a teenager, and he’s clearly delineated for me his boundaries. He’s read through the tricky parts, and he’s given me a nod, but further on down, I’m not sure how he’ll feel, and so we may have a very different conversation about this book. And so the apology is, in many ways, for the future. I acknowledge that this book is an artifact of a particular time that fixes my sons at a particular age with struggles that are/were particular to a specific moment in time, and in many ways we have all moved beyond that time. 

LR: The impetus behind this book is so personal. Did you ever feel the need to give it space for a period of time when engaging with it felt too emotional? If so, what did those moments of space look like for you, and how were you able to keep bringing yourself back to the work each time?

OD: Oh, absolutely. I worked on other projects to get my mind off of this project. I published Post Subject: A Fable, and I worked on a sixth manuscript. The two projects outside of The Boy in the Labyrinth were much more observational, though what remained intact was the allegorical nature of the writing. I think that thread spreads throughout my work. But then I’d be reminded that I also needed to tend to the more personal work. I don’t know about how other writers work, but I’m usually juggling two or three manuscript ideas at once so that if my mind is fatigued by any given project, there’s always another work that needs my attention. Again, I had worked on the poems in The Boy in the Labyrinth for nearly ten years, so I took many breaks away from the book to get my mind right but also to accommodate being a dad and being a teacher.

LR: How did you find your way to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and the use of the Greek ode as a form by which to structure the movement of the book? What craft considerations informed your process while trying to shape the narrative within this Classical framework?

OD: The structure came later. Part of my responsibility in working on such a large singular work is to usher a reader through its girth. It’s extremely dense and seemingly repetitive, which is the nature of obsession and writing through accretion. By imagining the work as akin to a Greek ode, I was also thinking about how the structure of the Pindaric odes commemorated events and how there were predictable elements of ceremony and ritual. I take my kids to church, and there are always particular rituals that they understand (they especially know when mass is about to end). So the Classical structure helped me organize the large morass of writing that I had done, but I also wanted to help the reader through the journey.

LR: How, if at all, did your process of composing the narrative prose poems in this book differ from your process for writing into the other forms that surround and weave through them (e.g., medical questionnaires, “story problems,” etc.)?

OD: I usually alternate between writing in verse and writing in prose forms. As I had mentioned, I’m usually juggling several projects at once, and I had been writing Post Subject: A Fable concurrently with The Boy in the Labyrinth. Both of these manuscripts take their cues from allegory and fable, and I had always associated parable and allegory with very short, concise prose. I wanted to interrupt the fabulist tendencies by writing in a more clinical mode. And I wanted to interrogate the form of the standardized test or the medical questionnaire, but mostly, in my process, I truly and actually needed a break from the discursive mode of allegory. The first of the works to be written outside of the allegorical mode was the “Autism Spectrum Questionnaire: Speech and Language Delay.” And that opened my mind up to other possibilities of writing that were in dialogue with the allegorical stories. They were all written together as a chunk—I don’t write throughout the year. I wrote almost exclusively in the summer for a very short and dynamic amount of time. So, naturally, when I started down the path of writing out these questionnaires, more and more came about because of the intensity of my limited writing schedule. 

LR: What were some of the joys and challenges of working on a project over such a long period of time? Do you have any advice for maintaining (or fostering) a sense of continuity among pieces written at very different points in time?

OD: Again, given my really limited amount of writing time due to parenting and all the other duties that are part of teaching in academia and being a spouse, I had to make some concessions with who I was as a writer, and so I developed a practice that grants me an immediate path when I take the task of writing up the following day. What you don’t see in The Boy in the Labyrinth are the cues that I left myself in syntax and structure that allowed me to continue the sequence. A number of them got cut in the final edits. I will say that Post Subject: A Fable shows many syntactic gestures that I used to help “warm up” my writing brain. I paint on big canvases. I almost always think of individual poems with respect to the poems adjacent to them—how a particular poem activates or negates the work surrounding it. I think in motif and pattern, and I love making bigger connections both in my own writing and in the work of writers whom I enjoy, either in individual poetry collections or a life’s work. 

Of course the challenge of writing in such modes is almost always sustaining the work, and I suppose I enjoy the discipline of continuous project building. In the end, there’s something about working on a singular, sustained project that is akin to controlling one’s time. 

My mother wakes up every day at around 4 AM, makes her coffee, reads, and then does her exercises. She has done this all my life. She is now in her late seventies, and she has Parkinson’s, but her ritual still persists. I admire her defiance, and in a way, writing in such an insistent, systematic, and sustained way is a kind of defiance for me. A way of making space for a ritual against the din of the world.

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, Post Subject: A Fable, and The Boy in the Labyrinth. He also coedited A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. A founding member of Kundiman, Oliver serves as the cochair of the organization’s advisory board. He has received grants from the NYFA and the Artist Trust and has been awarded two Pushcart Prizes. His work has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at PLU.