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.

Process Profile: Aimee Suzara Discusses “My Mother’s Watch”

Aimee Suzara
Aimee Suzara

Aimee Suzara is a Filipino-American writer, cultural worker and educator who has been writing and performing in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1999. Her first play, Pagbabalik (Return) was produced in 2006-7 and featured at several Bay Area festivals, and she is developing her second, A History of the Body, both supported by the Zellerbach Arts Fund. Her poems can be found in several journals and anthologies, including Walang Hiya (No Shame): literature taking risks towards liberatory practice, Kartika Review , Konch Magazine, Lantern Review and her chapbook, the space between. She has been a featured poet and educator at schools, universities and arts venues nationally.  Suzara has a Mills College M.F.A. and teaches English at Bay Area colleges. She has been a Hedgebrook Resident Artist and will be an Associate Artist at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 2011.

For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve been asking several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Aimee Suzara discusses her poem “My Mother’s Watch,” which appeared in Issue 2 of Lantern Review.

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Though I began writing it in 2008, three years after my parents’ return to the Philippines, this poem began on my first visit “home” in 1991. In the opening moment at the bustling palengke (market), my mother insisted that she keep on her beloved Rolex, despite the attention I felt it drew. Through the poem, I sought to gain empathy for her attachment to the watch and what it symbolized. At this crossroads where goods are sold and money exchanged, the watch became the entry point to my family’s journey as immigrants.

And so I traced back the genesis of this watch—more accurately, the events leading to the desire for the watch. I had been piecing together my parents’ story and was fascinated with their uprooting from the slow-paced life of their childhood, to the full-color Technicolor dream of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Elvis songs and surround-sound systems.  I was interested in this proverbial upward mobility, how it swept these newlyweds, not more than a few dollars in tow, into a life of shiny hyper-Americana.  We were an unusual Filipino family living up the nuclear-family dream, moving frequently, cut off from anything Pinoy. Racism was thick in the small desert town where I spent much of my childhood, and we were taught not to trust anyone.  In the age of credit cards and microwaves, we were right up in it, and at times it seemed we lived on an island stocked, as if our ammunition against the world, with Betamax videos, Jiffy pop and Lean Cuisines.

In peer feedback, it was suggested that this was a poem about privilege and its contradictions. What had been lost, and what could possibly be gained in its place, when a sense of genuine status or acceptance would always be denied? In the attempt to return to our beginnings, what do we cling to? Now came the questions befit for memoir. Was I treating our story with enough compassion? I felt I had to ask permission; my mother read it, and she did not mind my candidness. In the writing of the poem, the roots of my parents’ desire for the “flashy” began to unravel.  Images that pushed through marked my parents’ coming of age in America, and then mine.

The first draft of the poem was in three parts, but it was suggested that I separate it into more, that it was too rushed and condensed.  This made sense for what I wished to convey about time. The watch, like a heartbeat, like our lives, ticked on its own time. In its final version, in five parts, the poem spans at least twenty-five years. In the remembering, and in the writing, time stands still.

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Excerpt from “My Mother’s Watch”

IV.

They do not yet miss their left-behind lives:
Lolo’s rule in the house with the green metal gate where
nine kids left for the West,one by one by one
movie house in the little town by the sea
popcorn sold out of recycled coffee cans

Sine del Sol burns to the ground:
fatherless tensibling grudges

tsinellas shuf shuf shuffle across aged wooden floors
timemeasured in sunrise and sunset

The ones left behind keep time in slow
tick tock the clocks not turning digital

send us some Tang, cigarettes, M&Ms
medicine, a change of the curtains

From “My Mother’s Watch” | Aimee Suzara | Issue 2, Lantern Review | pp 17-24.
Click here to read the poem in its entirety.

Process Profile: Barbara Jane Reyes Discusses “13. Black Jesus” [from “The City That Nearly Broke Me”]

Barbara Jane Reyes

Barbara Jane Reyes is the author of Diwata (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2010), recently noted as a finalist for the California Book Award. She was born in Manila, Philippines, raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Gravities of Center (Arkipelago Books, 2003) and Poeta en San Francisco (Tinfish Press, 2005), which received the James Laughlin Award of the Academy of American Poets. She is co-editor with her husband, poet Oscar Bermeo, of Doveglion Press, and an adjunct professor in Philippine Studies at University of San Francisco.

For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve been asking several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment, Barbara Jane Reyes discusses her piece “13. Black Jesus” [an excerpt of her longer project “The City That Nearly Broke Me”], which appeared in Issue 1 of Lantern Review.

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I love my Black Jesus persona.

He emerged in my “For the City That Nearly Broke Me” series, which I started writing after this prompt: “Write about the city that saved you. Write about one that nearly broke you.” Rachelle Cruz posted this prompt on her blog while she was a PEN Emerging Voices fellow.

I’ve never excavated Manila, my birthplace; it eludes my understanding, it’s always spitting me out. That’s how I see it, and so I wanted to find a thwart-proof way in.

I’ve spoken on Black Jesus and the galleon trade at Jacket2, in an interview conducted by Craig Santos Perez.

There is a general disdain Filipinos have for dark skin; we claim those precious few drops of Spanish blood. In this desire for whiteness, it’s ignored that much Spanish blood entered the Filipino via colonial rape.

The term “Buffalo Solider” has been around since the 1860’s, and refers to US cavalry and infantry regiments of African American soldiers. There are legends about the term’s origin, but I can’t get over the historical significance of African American men as animals. Moreover, these Buffalo Soldiers fought against Native Americans in the “Indian Wars,” and against the Filipinos in the Philippine American War. People of color pitted against one another in America’s formative wars of conquest.  Some defected from the US military, became Katipunan/Philippine freedom fighters, as “posters and leaflets addressed to ‘The Colored American Soldier’ described the lynching and discrimination against Blacks in the US and discouraged them from being the instrument of their white masters’ ambitions to oppress another ‘people of color’.”

And of course, “Buffalo Soldier” is a Bob Marley song, whose form the poem borrows. It’s a narrative of transnational displacement, an anthem of survival and resistance:

And he was taken from Africa,
brought to America.
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.
Say it was a buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta.
Buffalo soldier, in the heart of America.

It’s all of these displacements and reorientations that have allowed me to start the excavation.

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Excerpt from “13. Black Jesus”

After Bob Marley

The indio who carved me   knew the drum and the heart are one.
He knew the song for hunting,   the waiting song, the calling song.
He knew the song for planting,   the song of earth’s open hand.
He knew the song for walking,   the river water song.

Buffalo Soldier,   Carabao Brother,
Stolen from the Americas,   brought to the islands,
Sharpening machete,   crouching in the jungle,
Born into slavery,   son of revolution.

From “13. Black Jesus” | Barbara Jane Reyes | Issue 1, Lantern Review | p 65.
Click here to read the poem in its entirety.

Process Profile: Marc Vincenz discusses “Taishan Mountain”

Marc Vincenz

Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong to Swiss-British parents during the height of the Cultural Revolution. Later, he lived and worked in Shanghai for many years running an industrial design company. More recently, he moved to Iceland where he now works as a freelance journalist, poet, translator and literary critic. He is Poetry and Non-Fiction Editor for the international webzine Mad Hatters’ Review, Managing Editor of MadHat Press, and a member of the editorial board of the Boston-based Open Letters Monthly.

Marc’s recent poems have appeared in, or are forthcoming in Spillway, Poetry Salzburg Review, Poets/Artists, Nth Position, Möbius The Poetry Magazine, MiPOesias, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, FRiGG, the nervous breakdown, elimae and Inertia. A chapbook, Upholding Half the Sky, was published as part of the MiPOesias Chapbook Series by GOSS183: Casa Menendez (2010). A new chapbook, The Propaganda Factory, is forthcoming from Argotist ebooks later this year.

His poems are featured weekly on October Babies.

In this year’s May Process Profile series, we’ve been asking several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss their process for composing a poem of theirs that we’ve published. In this installment,  Marc Vincenz discusses his poem “Taishan Mountain,” which appeared in Issue 2.

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It happens sometimes, particularly if I am sitting up late at night attacking a blank sheaf of paper, I’ll suddenly hit upon a line, probably something totally unrelated to the piece I’m attempting, but a line that seems to ring true of its own volition. In “Taishan Mountain,” the particular line that arrived was: “It’s here, hovering on China’s precipice, / the Chairman proclaims the East is Red, / deems himself ruler of all he beholds.” When I’ve captured what I think may be at the heart of a poem, or narrative, I leave it for a day or two. I let it sit there, all alone on the page, occasionally going back to it, staring at it, meditating upon it. Quite often what I consider my better lines “arrive” when I’m dozing—not quite in sleep—but falling towards it; to quote my own poem, “hovering on the precipice.”

In this fashion, while considering the event on Taishan Mountain, this shadow appeared. At first I thought it might be a woman—perhaps Jiang Qing (Mao’s last wife and leader of the so-called Gang of Four)—standing beside the little-big man as he conquered the world atop China’s fabled Taishan Mountain. I soon realized that this persona, and consequently the narrator, was actually an unknown man. I’m not sure how; perhaps it had something to do with his posture. And this man was not even Chinese. (Actually, during the course of the Communist accession to power, numerous foreigners advised Mao). I wondered, of course: what if Mao’s most trusted advisor had been an unknown da bizi, and what if this person had been his secret lover? Now, it’s a fact that Mao liked the ladies, and had innumerable affairs during the course of his reign; but much of his cult of personality is still steeped in mystery—as it is, of course, with many fated or fateful leaders. There is this incessant need to expose something as yet undiscovered, that one might better grasp his actions. On Taishan Mountain, a foreign man with a moustache changes our perception of everything we’ve held true until now.

Finally, “Taishan Mountain” is a poem within a collection based on my own real and imagined experiences in China: an attempt at a deeper conversation with a country where I spent much of my life. At some stage I realized that you can only start to “understand” the Middle Kingdom by breaking down Western notions of its foreignness. In reality, love in China is as any love affair might be: passionate probably, heartbreaking maybe, but surely as potentially hard—or fertile—as any red earth anywhere in the known universe. And, of course, it too has the potential to change our perceptions of the world.

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Excerpt from “Taishan Mountain”

On Revolution: You must not move with excessive haste, nor use excessive
ruthlessness against the people.
– the I-Ching, The Book of Changes

On Taishan Mountain behind the fog
we wait for first glimpses of dawn.

It’s here, hovering on China’s precipice,
the Chairman proclaims the East is Red,

deems himself ruler of all he beholds.
I’m standing right beside him.

We’ve just fought a war, he’s so thin,
and he has this steely glint

as if he’s stumbled across some great illumination.
It’s a moment of connection with the universe,

a revelation beyond normal human comprehension,
something to make history, like Einstein

unravelling the universal laws
of energy and mass and motion.

From “Taishan Mountain” | Marc Vincenz | Issue 2, Lantern Review | pp 45-46.
Click here to read the poem in its entirety.

Process Profile: Kenji C. Liu Discusses “A Son Writes Back”

Kenji C. Liu

Kenji is a 1.5-generation immigrant from New Jersey. His poetry chapbook You Left Without Your Shoes (Finishing Line Press, 2009) was nominated for a 2009 California Book Award. His writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from Tea Party Magazine (not related to the conservative movement), Kartika Review, Flick of My Tongue (KSW, 2009), and Kweli Journal. He has received a Pushcart nomination and is working on a multi-genre full-length collection of poetry, prose and visual art. Kenji is currently the poetry editor at Kartika Review.

For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profile series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss pieces of theirs that we have published.  In this installment,  Kenji C. Liu discusses his poem “A Son Writes Back,” which appeared in Lantern Review Issue 2.

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Somebody’s calligraphy hung on the wall in the house I grew up in. I saw it every day. In my late twenties, on a visit back home, I asked my father about it. It was a poem written by my ancestor Guang-Chuon Gong almost eight centuries ago—advice to the Liu family.

The qilu is a classic Chinese form consisting of eight lines of seven characters each. I took my father’s translation and adjusted it to eight lines of seven syllables each. My responses to Gong follow this adjusted form.

A Son Writes Back” is one of several poems that has developed out of a challenge I put to myself years ago—to write about gender, specifically male privilege and patriarchy. This grew out of my community activism and graduate studies.

In this poem I am attempting to dig into some of what I have learned and internalized about gender. The original qilu speaks to, among other things, the importance of filial piety, and encourages the males in our family to prosper together. (I also find it fascinating that the original qilu implicitly acknowledges that our family would make foreign lands home.) In my responses, I am attempting to juxtapose eight hundred years of differences in perspective about gender roles.

For example, Gong tells us “foreign lands will become home”, and later, “young men, prosper together.” In my response, I bring up the story of our family’s migration from China to Taiwan, engraved in stone at our ancestor temple. It reveals who is apparently important in this crossing. The generational count on the altar starts with the sons, not the mother who carried them over. This is why I use the pinyin for both mother and horse.

As an Asian American man, I can not assume that Confucian patriarchy is something left behind in Asia, because I see it at work in my own family and communities. I wonder how it influences my life, and so I write.

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Excerpt from “A Son Writes Back”

Stay on course crossing borders.
Uphold ethics where you dwell;
foreign lands will become home.
Recall your parents’ teachings;
every day burn fragrance to
venerate your ancestors.
Heaven bless the Liu household.
Young men, prosper together.

After you, we crossed many
borders. Eight hundred sun turns.
At one point, a pegasus
landed two boys in Taiwan.
Mā/mǎ carried babies but
boys carried our name, the first
compass. This bypass is our
family, is our paddle.

From “A Son Writes Back” | Kenji C. Liu | Issue 2, Lantern Review | pp 3-4.
Click here to read the poem in its entirety.

Process Profile: Michelle Peñaloza Discusses “Vestige”

Michelle Peñaloza (Photo: Janna Ireland)

Michelle Peñaloza grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Kartika Review, Mythium, Nashville Review and Birmingham Poetry Review. She was awarded the Women Writers Oregon Literary Fellowship for 2011.

For APIA Heritage Month 2011, we are revisiting our Process Profiles series, in which contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. This year, we’ve asked several Lantern Review contributors whose work gestures back toward history or legacy to discuss pieces of theirs that we have published.  In this installment,  Michelle Peñaloza discusses her poem “Vestige,” which appeared in Lantern Review Issue 2.

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I wrote “Vestige” in response to one of Geri Doran’s prompts in my first M.F.A. workshop at the University of Oregon. I enjoy prompts, particularly Geri’s: they stretch my imagination and lead me, sometimes nudge me, to subjects and structures I would otherwise never have considered. “Vestige” began from a wonderful prompt: “Write a poem of slow praise or meditation. Find a space free from all distraction. Turn off your cell phone, don’t check your email. Be spare, intense, quiet, alone.”

When I began the first draft of the poem, it was a very hectic time—the end of my first term of grad school. For nine weeks, had been writing two new poems a week—one for workshop and one for a forms seminar. I was utterly exhausted by the time I got this prompt and initially had a hard time sitting with myself in the quiet, letting the poem happen. At the prompt’s suggestion I read John Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” and was, as I always am with Donne, struck by his conviction and devotion. As I began writing this poem, I reflected on how my ideas of holiness and faith have changed since I was a child.

I was raised Catholic, but no longer claim that faith. Yet, I still find value in recalling the sensory experiences of my religious upbringing—the candles, the incense, the quiet interspersed with canticles and scripture, the rituals of mass. Meditating upon these experiences in tension with doubt and within the context of loss, inform the first thirty or so lines of “Vestige.”

I think there can be holiness in poetry. I find awe and a spirit of praise in the mundane aspects of daily living. The rest of the poem is a catalog, an accretion of those things in my life at the moment of writing the poem. One exception is the anecdote about the old man doing the dishes, which came to me third hand—when I heard Lawson Inada re-tell this anecdote of Thich Nat Hanh’s.

I wanted to close the poem by returning to the materiality of Catholic mass, but I wanted to place that materiality outside the context of church and juxtapose it with mundane yet vital things—buttered toast, the breath of a lover, the washing of dishes. My aim with the poem’s syntax, catalog and anaphora at the close was to convey the music of discovery and the conviction of what is holy for me.

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Excerpt from “Vestige”

The creak of pews makes my knees ache,
my palms and fingertips kiss.
Phosphorus, censers, old mahogany,
old penitents close to death and God,
boxed wine, and candle wax work upon me
like the itches of an old collared jumper.
The poetry of worship seeps from memory to body.
I confess to the air.
Forgive me, Air, I cannot believe.
It has been three years since my last quiet.
I hold a rosary, count its beads
like the redolent string of rose petals
my Lola held close when she died.
After prayer, the attar of her rosary melded
with the garlic bouquet of her hands, bulbous
scents cradling, caressing my face.
I roll each pressed round between
my forefinger and thumb, keep count:
my guilt, lack of conviction, rage—
in this confession, my hands tell me
I am not free. I cup my tangled strand,
pass it between my hands. The attar
now lives in the leaf creases of my palms.
The quiet whispers, scent is memory’s companion.

From “Vestige” | Michelle Peñaloza | Issue 2, Lantern Review | pp 25-26.
Click here to read the poem in its entirety.

Process Profile: Neil Aitken Discusses “I Dream My Father on the Shore”

Neil Aitken
Neil Aitken

Neil Tangaroa Aitken is the author of The Lost Country of Sight which won the 2007 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and was published by Anhinga Press in 2008. His work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times and has appeared in Crab Orchard Review, The Drunken Boat, Ninth Letter, Poetry Southeast, Sou’wester, and elsewhere.
Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Neil grew up in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, and the western parts of the United States and Canada. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science from Brigham Young University, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of California – Riverside, and is currently working on a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, Neil discusses “I Dream My Father on the Shore,” the final poem in his collection The Lost Country of Sight.

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It was the summer of 2006 and I was attending my second Kundiman retreat at the University of Virginia. We’d been challenged to write a ghazal and when I sat down to work on the poem, I found myself linking the form’s tradition of exploring the ties between beauty and loss with my own memories of my father’s loss of his father. Although I’d written about that experience many years before, I felt that a different poem might reside in the space created by time and distance, and the way that dreams and memories alter our understanding of the past. I set out to craft something that would carry a certain dreamlike lushness, while reflecting the constant turn and return of the form.

The poem went through several drafts and gradually I realized that perhaps the ghazal was not the actual form it needed to take. I ended up trimming out most of the repetition, but tried to keep a sense of the original form present through sound and rhythm – like a ghost or an afterimage of the ghazal. Switching to free-verse opened up more possibilities, allowing the line-breaks to do more work and permitting me to extend images, phrases, and conceits over larger spaces in the poem.

As I worked on the poem, I found myself reflecting on my own relationship with my father and how he had once told me that he would not live a long life; that he would likely die young from one of the many health conditions he endured. His sense of mortality and the way he had offered the news to me before I first left for college all those years ago seemed in some way to echo a line from Wendell Berry’s “The Country of Marriage” and so I eventually included that line as the poem’s epigraph. By the time the poem was published by Sou’wester in late 2007, my father had passed away from an aggressive form of ALS and the closing lines of the poem suddenly became much more than dream or metaphor. When I assembled the version of the manuscript that became The Lost Country of Sight, I knew that this would be the poem to complete the book, and that those last images would be the ones I wanted to linger on when the final page was turned.

Below is the final version of “I Dream My Father on the Shore,” as it appears in Neil’s collection:

I Dream My Father on the Shore

What I am learning to give you is my death.
~ Wendell Berry

Outside, beneath the light of late October’s candled sky
the weave of ash and maple burns.  We stand silent on the graveled shore.
My father lifts his father’s ashes from its urn, a strangely heavy thing,
he seems to say, his arms swaying, then casting out into the long dark
as if to throw a line, while we wait for some sound, a wave,
whatever marks the distance between a father and a son.

And when night comes, it comes without a tread, without a word.

The stars flickering in their endless retreat, more distant and sure

than before, do nothing while the shadows continue to fill the trees
with their cast-off clothes.  The harvest is long past, the apples
have fallen to the orchard floors.  Even my father turning to go
is almost lost to the reeds already in his path, his figure no more
than a pattern of light – a memory of a road that winds
through the darkness to our waiting ride home.

Process Profile: R.A. Villanueva Discusses “In Memory of Xiong Huang”

R. A. Villanueva

R.A. Villanueva lives in Brooklyn. Recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Indiana Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, DIAGRAM, The Literary Review, and The Collagist. A Kundiman fellow, he is currently a Language Lecturer at New York University.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, R.A. Villanueva discusses his poem “In Memory of Xiong Huang,” which first appeared in the Winter 2009 Issue of Virginia Quarterly Review.

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Ars Poetica with Illuminated Bodies

1.

At the heart of Michael Paterniti’s “The Most Dangerous Beauty” is a description of the Topographische Anatomie des Menschen that is, by turns, lyrical and grotesque. Truth be told, Paterniti’s cluster of renderings and pivots is less a “description” of Eduard Pernkopf’s life work and more a walking tour of his Anschluss abbatoir-made-studio.

Paterniti offers an unfurling litany, a conjuring of Pernkopf’s Anatomy that reckons with how “page by page” these medical illustrations grow increasingly “stunning, bombastic, surreal.” He affirms that it is “bone-and-muscle evidence, the animal reality of who we are beneath the skin” before doubling-back: “what if a number of these paintings have been signed with swastikas, what then?…Do the secrets revealed in the Book count less than the secrets kept by it?”

What starts as an unveiling of an atlas of the body thus becomes for us a visceral interrogation of how we reconcile our ethics with our want to see, our need to know. By essay’s close, beauty is everywhere cut with casualty and grief.

Continue reading “Process Profile: R.A. Villanueva Discusses “In Memory of Xiong Huang””

Process Profile: Ching-In Chen Discusses “Olivewood Cemetery: a haibun of Riverside, California”

Ching In Chen (photo by Sarah Grant)

Ching-In Chen is the author of The Heart’s Traffic, a novel in verse.  She hearts street food, the zuihitsu & other “hijacked forms” and gets lost easily. Daughter of Chinese immigrants, she is a Kundiman, Macondo and Lambda Fellow. A community organizer, she has worked in the Asian American communities of San Francisco, Oakland, Riverside and Boston.  She is the co-editor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities, forthcoming from South End Press in 2011. She can be found online at www.chinginchen.com.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication. Here, Ching-In discusses her poem “Olivewood Cemetery: a haibun of Riverside, California” which originally appeared in the 10.2 issue of Diagram.

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This poem began at a Ching Ming (grave-cleaning) ceremony for the Riverside Chinese who hadn’t been sent back to China and didn’t have descendants to take care of them.  I felt a chill — of history, ghosts, untold stories, communal energy — as we gathered to read the names of the dead.  The list also consisted of death causes, occupations, ages.  As the roll call continued on in my head, what became clear was how much I did not know about these people.  At the time, I was teaching sections for Creative Writing and we had to read Rick Moody’s “Boys,” in which he repeats the same sentence over and over, adding in different meanings by adding layers over the sentence.  This made sense to me for my Chinatown dead.

Continue reading “Process Profile: Ching-In Chen Discusses “Olivewood Cemetery: a haibun of Riverside, California””

Process Profile: Tamiko Beyer Discusses “In this metropolis”

Tamiko Beyer

Tamiko Beyer’s poetry has appeared in The Collagist, Sonora Review, OCHO, and elsewhere. She serves as the poetry editor of Drunken Boat and has led writing workshops for homeless LGBT youth with the New York Writers Coalition. She is a founding member of Agent 409: a queer, multi-racial writing collective, and is a Kundiman Fellow. She is pursing her M.F.A at Washington University in St. Louis. Find her online at wonderinghome.com and blogging at kenyonreview.org.

In our Process Profiles series, young contemporary Asian American poets discuss their craft, focusing on their process for a single poem from inception to publication.  Here, Tamiko discusses her poem “In this metropolis,” which first appeared in The Progressive in February 2008.

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I think it was April. I was writing a poem a day and running out of ideas. I turned to Charles Bernstein’s Experiments and chose the first one: a “homolinguistic translation,” a translation from English to English. I chose to “translate” Ilya Kaminsky’s poem “A Toast” because I was obsessed with his book Dancing in Odessa and wanted to live in one of his poems for a while.

The result: a whole new realm of diction. And a tone of contemplative urgency from Kaminsky’s poem that infused itself into my own, even when I eventually let go of the constraint.

Themes of home and community (ones I return to again and again) also echo from the source poem. Early on, it became clear to me that I was writing about gentrification. Living in a dynamically shifting part of Brooklyn, I am hyper-aware that what I do and how I spend my money isn’t just about me. There are ramifications across the neighborhood. I would have never set out to write a poem quite like this in tone and voice, but the exercise brought out a persona that gave me a strange kind of permission to push hard into this reality.

Continue reading “Process Profile: Tamiko Beyer Discusses “In this metropolis””