Curated Prompt: Oliver de la Paz – “The Fourteen-Hour Sonnet”

Oliver de la Paz
Oliver de la Paz

In celebration of APIA Heritage Month, we’re continuing our annual tradition of asking respected teachers and writers of Asian American poetry to share favorite writing exercises with us on successive Fridays during May. This week’s installment was contributed by Oliver de la Paz.

When you’re a parent of three children under the age of 6, you have to be very deliberate in finding time for yourself to commit to the page. My family lives in the country, and it’s a 40-minute commute from my house to the doorstep of my workplace. In addition, all my children are in daycare. You’d think that having the kids in daycare would afford me some time, but it doesn’t. When they’re in daycare, I’m either teaching, thinking about teaching, preparing to teach, or administrating on some committee that has to do with teaching. Needless to say, my writing time comes in pockets. Slivers. Little flares. My relationship with the page is no longer routinized. I used to have ample time to dedicate to writing, but that was before children. Now my writing time is broken down into excursions. Mini-trips. Little rendezvous. I understand that this is my life and rather than succumb to long silences, I challenge myself everyday, to think about a poem. In order to cope with my hectic schedule, I developed a process that fosters obsession.

An obsession is not a terrible thing to have when you’re a writer. It can be a motivator—generative beacon. I try to dedicate increments of five to ten minutes throughout the day to the composition of a line. I also attempt to write a line every hour for fourteen hours, so by the end of the day I have a sonnet-length collection of lines. My poem “Requiem for the Orchard” was composed under these particular conditions. During the hectic weeks of Christmas vacation (who’d have thought Christmas vacation would be hectic?) I had a sense that I needed to craft a “spinal” poem for a collection of poems I had nearly completed.

During the Kundiman Retreat in 2007, I assigned the Kundiman Fellow cohort the following assignment. I give it to you now:

1) Write a single line every hour. Write no more than a line. Even if you feel you wish to write a second line, restrain yourself from doing so.

2) Set an alarm to go off every hour.

3) At the top of every hour, write a new line, adding to the collection of lines you have written throughout the day.

4) Do this for fourteen hours.

Here’s what happens, at least to me, when you set up these particular circumstances—you wind up thinking about the poem all day. Sure, you’ve spaced out the time you get to the page, but in the interstices of an hour, a poem begins to take shape from its first line to its next line to the line that follows. Of course, you’re going to want to be sure that you are in a safe locale for this. One Kundiman fellow was driving when the fellow’s writing alarm went off and she nearly sideswiped a car. Don’t do that.

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of four books of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, and Post Subject: A Fable, forthcoming from the University of Akron Press in 2014. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poems and the co-chair of Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz

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.

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Staff Picks: Holiday Reads 2010

Last year, we asked our staff writers to recommend books that they’d read in the last year and thought were worth passing on.  This year, we’ve decided to continue with this tradition.  In light of that, here are our holiday staff picks for 2010 (poetry, prose and more—yes, we read more than poetry!)

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Race and the Avant-Garde: Experimental and Asian American Poetry Since 1965 | Timothy Yu | Stanford University Press (2009)

Recommended by Mia: “This is one of the key critical texts on my reading list for the holidays.  I’ve only skimmed the first few chapters, but thus far have found Yu’s argument compelling, his analysis rigorous, and his wide-ranging knowledge of Asian American and Language poetry in the United States to be informative to my own work—not to mention useful in historicizing these two movements/moments in contemporary poetry!

From the Tinfish Editors’ Blog: ‘Using a definition of the avant-garde that has less to do with aesthetics than with social groups composed of like-minded artists, Yu argues that Asian American poetry and Language writing formed parallel movements in the 1970s. […] Both presented themselves in opposition to the mainstream; both were marked by questions of form and racial identity. Both meant to create art out of social groups, and reconstitute the social through the reception of their art.'”

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Radiant Silhouette: New & Selected Work 1974-1988 | John Yau | Black Sparrow Press (1989)

Recommended by Mia: “Yau is one of the two major poets that Timothy Yu addresses in Race and the Avant-Garde (Theresa Hak Kyung Cha is the other), so I’ve been reading through his New & Selected Work for an introduction to the thematic and aesthetic scope of his early career.  He’s a fascinating figure in Asian American poetry and, as Yu points out, ‘might best be read as a restoration of the links between politics, form, and race that characterize the avant-garde Asian American poetry of the 1970s [… providing] the first opportunity for most readers to recognize […] the presence of that avant-garde back into the very origins of Asian American writing.'”

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Man on Extremely Small Island | Jason Koo | C&R Press (2009)

Recommended by Iris: “Jason Koo’s style is very different from my own, but this book (his first collection) managed to completely charm me with its quirkiness.  The voice of the book’s primary speaker manifests a world-weary exhaustion that is, on the surface, darkly melancholic and painfully self-deprecating.  He obsesses over his dirty apartment while eating a tuna sandwich, dreams about floundering clumsily through an encounter with Lucy Liu, envisions himself stranded on an island in the middle of an ocean, worrying about the size of his nose.  But beneath the speaker’s (at times endearingly hyperbolic) self-consciousness lies a striking vulnerability and a luminous ability to evoke the fantastic within the mundane: BBQ chip crumbs echo the ‘fine grains / of my slovenliness,’ becoming ‘barbecue pollen,’ and later, ‘orange microbes’ (9); Lucy Liu becomes a motherly goddess figure who guides him through a secret mission, ‘pulling you after her diving into the stage,’ which becomes the arena for an undersea showdown complete with battleships, lingerie models, and harpoons (22) , the island transforms into the kneecap of a giant woman who ‘has no nose. Just a space where mine / can fit’ (77). Part Frank O’Hara, part tragic hero of his own sardonic comic-book series, the speaker’s sense of humor, whimsy, and wonder, as transmitted by Koo’s craft, paint a picture of a world that reinvisions the now-archetypal image behind John Donne’s famous ‘No man is an island’ with simultaneous irreverence and tenderness. ”

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Review: Oliver de la Paz’s REQUIEM FOR THE ORCHARD


Requiem for the Orchard by Oliver de la Paz | The University of Akron Press 2010 | $14.95

Oliver de la Paz’s third collection, Requiem for the Orchard, is a poignant reminder of both our inability to escape our pasts and our ability to re-write our histories through what we choose to remember. The pieces in this collection are interconnected by the speaker, a young man reflecting on his disenchanted youth. Part meditation on the ways our experiences inform who we are today, part meditation on the ways we cannot shed those experiences despite our efforts, the collection centers around the speaker’s youth spent in a small Oregonian town where he worked a summer job in the orchards.

De la Paz’s tone is often deceptively simple and conversational, as he considers the complex love-hate relationship of the speaker with his hometown as well as the realization that the hate of his youth has dissipated into fond memories. The first poem, “In Defense of Small Towns”, opens with, “When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there.” Later in the same poem he writes, “But I loved the place once.” As the collection progresses, the reader begins to get deeper glimpses into the process of self-discovery that accompanies the process of reminiscing. In “Self-Portrait as the Burning Plains of Eastern Oregon” he writes: “A blacked-out soda can. Maybe a plastic lid fused to stone. A refusal / to forget childhood’s scald. But also a kind of forgiveness.” As the speaker remembers his childhood, even as he previously resented or denied it, he finds some forgiveness for himself. By the last poem, “Self-Portrait with What Remains”, the speaker reflects on what has stayed with him:

And this? This is what’s left—my night coughs. Slips of news


clippings from the old town sent in the mail. The know-how

of tractor management. 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.

De la Paz shows that what lasts through time may not be what we expect, but may instead be the mundane or everyday, and that the speaker’s bitterness has disappeared as he reaches peace with his past. His descriptions of his youth are factual and concrete; the absence that now replaces his anger is beautifully captured in the image of the flapping wing. But to reach this acceptance the speaker must also mourn what is gone. Throughout the collection are a number of poems entitled “Requiem” that truly sing of loss. Although they are ostensibly about the loss of the orchards, they powerfully capture the loss of youth itself. One of these opens with a series of questions that succinctly show the way the loss of the orchards is intertwined with the loss of youth, how the memories for one are tied with memories of the other: “Where lie the open acre and all limns? Where the shade / and what edges? What serrated blades and what cuts? / Where are we, leather-skinned, a spindle of nerves / and frayed edges? What spare parts are we now / who have gone to the orchard and outlasted / the sun and the good boots?” (page 71).

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