The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show #6: Oliver de la Paz

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, and the recently published Post Subject: A Fable. He co-edited A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry, and serves as the co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. His work has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as the New England Review, Tin House, Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest. He teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

A one-time ambulance driver in Los Angeles, Oliver spends his non-poetry-writing days playing video games, going on hikes with his three sons and dog, and listening to eclectic music. Turn-ons include: talented people, funny people, and dog people, but not necessarily in that order. Oliver lives in Bellingham, Washington with his children and wife Meredith.

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The Rumpus: I still can’t believe we were able to book the following gentleman on this measly little show. Please give a warm welcome to one of our favorite contemporary poets here on Late Nite: Oliver de la Paz!

Come on over here and have a seat, Oliver.

Oliver de la Paz: Hey, man! Good to see you! Glad I bumped into you. This place ain’t easy to find, by the way. I would’ve gotten lost, but there you were.

Rumpus: It’s like a mousetrap maze from the green room to this chair here. We’re all about obstructing our guests. You look spectacular, by the way. Where’d you get that snazzy suit?

de la Paz: So there’s a story about this suit . . .

Rumpus: Let’s hear it.

de la Paz: My dad had it made for me way back in high school. I was dating a foreign exchange student from Germany. Her name was Tanya. She had a thing for Italian suits on Filipino guys for some reason. 

Rumpus: Whoa, Nelly! On that note, how are the wife and kids?

de la Paz: Glad you bailed me out of that. Fine. Asleep. Which is really great because I can play video games now. But here I am instead. 

Rumpus: We’re lucky you’re here, since it’s sweeps week. What’s your video game of choice?

de la Paz: I’m currently addicted to Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls.

Rumpus: Holy crap, Oliver. That’s some serious-looking game.

de la Paz: It’s totally nerdy, violent, and kind of like gambling. Basically you just run around hitting things or shooting things till stuff you want drops. Like a weird slot machine . . . only with joysticks.

Rumpus: I’m still stuck on Galaga. And Atari Ms. Pac Man.

de la Paz: Remember the Atari 2600?

Rumpus: Oh yeah.

de la Paz: I spent my youth doing chores and scrounging up enough scratch to get game cartridges. Worst game I ever played was that E.T. game which had no point. You should get a Playstation 4.

Rumpus: You think?

de la Paz: I’m thinking about getting one with all the money you’ll be paying me for this interview.

Rumpus: Good luck trying to squeeze your appearance fee from the network. You’ll be lucky to get a bag of Late Nite schwag.

Oliver, you’re a man of many talents. You’ve written four books of poems, edited an anthology A Face to Meet the Faces, and you’ve done incredible service to poetry through Kundiman and AWP. Plus you make time for video games and playing with your three boys. Tony, can you run the clip of Oliver with his boys?

Ain’t that a great dad, folks?

de la Paz: I’ve got mad skillz on the trike. Geez, where do you dig this stuff up? Oh yeah, YouTube. And I posted it. I’m a dummy.

Rumpus: So you’re here to talk about your new book: Post Subject: A Fable, just out from the University of Akron. 

PostSubjectdelapaz7de la Paz: Yeah, it’s a new collection of prose poems that are all in the form of letters to “Empire.” So they all start “Dear Empire,” and are supposed to mimic a postcard. Or postcards, rather.

Rumpus: It’s a radical idea… to give every poem the same title. But it works! And the subject is so broad you’ve still only scraped the surface of your subject. Had someone described it to me, I would’ve thought it impossible.

We’re going to link to the book’s first poem right here.

There’s also a very cool trailer for the book that features this poem, linked here.

de la Paz: I’m still trying to figure out if it’s possible. You know, you put a thing out there after grinding and grinding for a while and there’s always that little concern that people will think you’re a little off.

Rumpus: A little off in what way?

de la Paz: Well, besides the fact that I’m totally obsessive compulsive, off in a “he’s so CRAZY the way he does the same thing over and over again” way. Part of madness, I suppose, is the repetition. The repetition, you know. Repetition.

Rumpus: My first question was to ask you how you sustain an enterprise like this, but you just answered it. It takes a great deal of energy and persistence to work in a mode for that long. Courage too. Maybe it also helps to have a touch of OCD. I think there are about 100 poems in the book, all epistolary poems to this nebulous, elusive “Empire.” Could you have kept going? Did you have a lot of leftover poems that didn’t make the cut?

de la Paz: I sort of reached a point where the impulse petered out. I had an arbitrary goal of reaching 100 poems and decided that I would decide from there whether to continue, but it was clear I was done once I reached my 100-poem milestone. And no, there weren’t any poems that didn’t make the cut. They were either edited or cannibalized by other pieces.

Rumpus: Interesting. You’re a poet who has always been fond of modes. Your first book consisted largely of prose poems, if I recall. I notice too that you often get hooked on a motivating form or tradition: epistolary poems, prose poems, aubades, persona poems, etc. Can you talk about that pattern in your work? 

de la Paz: If I don’t make a set of rules for myself, I tend to get overwhelmed by all the possibilities. So I set up rules for myself that are, at first, arbitrary for the individual poem. But once I get rolling, a single poem soon becomes a sequence of poems. Then a section. Pretty soon I find that I have a whole bunch of little poems that follow the same rules.

Rumpus: Can you think of any other poets who influenced your approach, who obsessively attack a mode or form until they master it?

de la Paz: Well, John Berryman was sort of my model for this kind of stuff—his wacky sonnets and his personas. There’s also Marvin Bell’s “Dead Man” poems. I read those in graduate school and thought, “Man if he can get away with that, why can’t I? Oh, because he’s Marvin Bell.” 

Rumpus: Good examples. Really good. Can I ask you a few questions about this particular poem that opens the book?

de la Paz: Sure thing.

Rumpus: This is going to sound weird, but can I ask them in multiple-choice format? Care to run with me here for a moment?

de la Paz: Let’s go!

Rumpus: Okay. The Empire addressed in this poem is best described as:

A. America
B. A god
C. A flawed machine
D. All of the above
E. None of our goddamned business

de la Paz: Multiple-choice questions always remind me of grade school. And that always reminds me of how terrible I was at Scantron exams. Though I liked having sharp #2 pencils. Um . . .D?

Rumpus: Oh boy. This is going to be good.

de la Paz: Can I change my answer?

Rumpus: Do you have an eraser?

de la Paz: Your producer never provided me with one. Remember mimeograph machines?

Rumpus: Tony, can we get an eraser out here for Oliver? Oh, the hell with it. Here’s mine. But you’re on the clock here, de la Paz. We’ve got many more questions! 

de la Paz: Oh, ok. . .

Rumpus: So you’ve switched your answer to… Lemme guess, E, right?

de la Paz: D point five. Somewhere in between D and E. This is why I sucked at Scantron tests. 

Rumpus: Me too! How about this one: Which of the following dystopian movies most influenced Post Subject?

A. The Matrix
B. The Book of Eli
C. Children of Men
D. The Hunger Games
E. Planet of the Apes

de la Paz: Children of Men and maybe one that’s not listed here—Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. So “C” and “F” since I’m fond of screwing up polls.

Rumpus: Shoot, I can’t believe I forgot The Road! That makes total sense. Like McCarthy’s book and that movie, we get this sense that something has gone terribly wrong in the world, but we never learn what, exactly.

Here’s another: Who would be best suited to play the “Empire” in a film version of the book?

A. Anthony Hopkins
B. Pitbull
C. Whoopi
D. Amy Adams
E. Christian Bale

de la Paz: Hmmmm . . . Christian Bale’s kind of like a champion A-hole, so E. And he can use his weird “I’m Batman” voice.

Rumpus: Now we’re getting somewhere. The Empire is an asshole in the book. And maybe always an asshole in real life too. What gave you the idea to address a personified entity like that, and one that might not be able to or care to answer back these letter poems?

de la Paz: Empires are A-holes. That’s just the gist of the thing. But there’s a weird seductive quality that a lot of A-holes possess. Power is an attractive thing and when something or someone is powerful, we converge to the source of that power. Sort of like the A-hole quarterbacks I knew growing up. Christian Bale reminds me of an A-hole quarterback—an emperor of sorts, I suppose. Can we say ass? Will you get censored by the FCC?

Rumpus: Shit, I wish they would censor us—it’d be the best fucking thing that ever happened to this show!

I have a question about one of the lines in the poem: You write “We’ve kept your letters close to our chests.” Do you imagine that the Empire has written back, in some form? I think it’s interesting that all these missives from an anonymous narrator never get “answered” in any way. It builds wonderful tension in the book.

de la Paz: I think Empire has answered by leaving ruins in its wake. What’s sort of left in its aftermath are decrepit old buildings and nostalgia for the “better days” of Empire’s control. So it’s not a direct contact. It’s like a ghost being conjured during a séance.

Rumpus: So the letters are more metaphorical than substantial?

de la Paz: A little bit of both. There should be a little speculation as to when the letters were written. It’s not entirely clear at first, though over the course of the book through an accumulation of these letters, you hopefully get a sense of a very real narrative with very real people who had once played their part in some drama. 

Rumpus: There’s a surprising moment in one of the last poems in which you write, “You’ve said before you would like to keep us happy,” which is sort of a joke. But it also hints that the Empire has a voice, has intentions, though everyone knows those intentions mean keeping the subjects—his people—subordinated.

de la Paz: Yeah, there’s always some figurehead behind a nation/state/ideology. And at the crux of the control and influence they have over their people is desire.

Rumpus: Sort of like Oz then, but the vision is post-apocalyptic rather than dreamy or surreal. That was my impression anyway. Let me backtrack to that earlier multiple-choice question. You answered that the Empire could be played by Christian Bale. Does that mean the Empire, in your imagination, is more male than female? Is there a female lead out there who could play the Empire on the big screen?

de la Paz: I don’t think so—and I don’t want to discriminate. Most of history’s assholes were men, so I imagine we’re sticking to this trend.

Rumpus: Whoa… listen to the women in our live audience. The VIDA contingency hears you, brother!

This first poem from the book—did you have it in place right away? It really sets the tone nicely for what’s to come.

de la Paz: No, there was a lot of mucking about for an order for quite some time. I don’t think I’m giving away anything by telling you the section titles as well as the poems in the sections are in alphabetical order. 

Rumpus: Yes, another unusual architectural feature in the book. For example, poem #2 begins This is your atoll. #3: These are your battlefields. #4: These are your boardwalks. #5: This is your breeze. And so on. Very cool. And obsessive! You’re very detail oriented… structurally and especially visually. By visually I mean one of your strengths has always been that you use imagery and sensory details to suggest a mood.

de la Paz: I showed my table of contents to some people online and they thought it was a little nutty. I suppose it was or is, but it reined in a really tough project. 

Rumpus: I envy that kind of long-term, stubborn pursuit. 

de la Paz: I fail at math, so I’m glad you like my alphabetizing skills.

Rumpus: For example, I love how this opening poem ends with the sentence, “A garland of flowers dries on marble.” That rich, concrete detail encompasses the balance of death and beauty characteristic in this book.

de la Paz: I was thinking of the laurels one receives and how they can’t truly accompany you in death.

Rumpus: Mmm… it’s nice. Puts me in mind of T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative. Speaking of Eliot… it struck me today that your book might be a post-modern answer to the Old Possum’s “The Waste Land.” Did you have that poem in mind at all while you were writing this book?

de la Paz: I actually had Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities in mind. I think it’s fair to say that I riff on that book quite a bit.

Rumpus: I briefly wondered about Calvino too. Yours is a darker post-apocalyptic vision of the world, but your speaker, like Calvino’s, is so good at imagining that world. The sensory details I just mentioned play a part in this. 

de la Paz: Well the relationship between Marco Polo and Kubla Khan in that book isn’t adversarial or reverential. There’s a deception going on in Invisible Cities, but there’s no deception taking place in what I’m doing. My book’s more of a catalog while Calvino dips more into an imagined space. The parameters of the relationship are just different as reflected in the tone. 

Rumpus: Those are important distinctions. But here’s another similarity. Despite the dark vision throughout Post Subject, your poems, like Calvino’s writing in Invisible Cities, look as if they were damned fun to write. Am I correct about that?

de la Paz: Oh yes. The poems actually started as postcards. Real postcards written to real people as part of a postcard poem project. After the 2007 Kundiman retreat, a group of us corresponded with each other through these postcard poems. At month’s end, I had a whole bunch of little drafts.

Rumpus: Did you actually send the postcards?

de la Paz: I did. I took pictures of them before I sent them off. 

requiemRumpus: Your previous book, Requiem for the Orchard, is so much more autobiographical than Post Subject. I can see why you’d crave a new mode of expression, and especially new vocal techniques. The person speaking in Post Subject, the person directly addressing the Empire, is full of sensation but lacks strong feelings of nostalgia. One dominant tone here is one of resignation. Can you talk about that tonal quality? 

de la Paz: Yeah, the speaker is kind of like a clerk or a secretary of sorts. There’s a certain taxonomic impulse he exhibits. So basically you get these descriptions but no feeling about those things described. Rather, you get a classification. The whole point of the alphabetical order of the book was that I wanted to give the sense that someone was in the business of listing his assets. “He” being Empire.

Rumpus: It’s creepy though for those of us listening to the speaker. One speaker throughout the book, right?

de la Paz: It’s not really clear. If not one speaker, a group of speakers working in the same space.

Rumpus: No matter who the speaker is, he/she has panoramic vision, an incredible visual sweep. There are no personal concerns expressed, just collective ones. Which in turn are “small” in the context of a paragraph like this one, from page 53:

These are your nights. The bats are delicious pirouettes against the moon. We are elemental in the dark. We are out of our skins with our mouths pressed to the ground.

That sense of the collective, disembodied self—or selves—how unique.

de la Paz: Yeah, this poem is one of the reasons why I don’t believe it’s a single speaker, but rather a collective. Maybe a group of indoctrinated voices, but not a single entity.

Rumpus: There appears to be a very thin narrative though—an artist and her son appear every so often—painting in wild flourishes despite the desolation around them. What function do you see them playing in the book?

de la Paz: The artist and her son really are the heart of the book. If the voice of the speaker is without conscience, the desires of the artist and her “progress” through the book stand in for that lack. Something awful is happening to someone in the Empire and so you have a stand-in who is affected by all the turmoil beneath the surface.

Rumpus: Well it’s a fascinating book. I highly recommend it to our audience. Would you do us the honor of sharing some trade secrets or writing tricks?

de la Paz: So, one of my trade secrets is that I always spend a few hours revising older work before trying to create new stuff.

Rumpus: Why’s that?

de la Paz: That way I don’t feel like I’m working from scratch. Another trick is that I always write poems as though they have a second or third poem attached to them. In other words, I don’t ever try to land a single, perfect poem. I see a single poem as one among others in a long dialogue. That often helps quiet the angry editor inside me. 

Rumpus: What we really want to know about is your weirdest habit. We’d love it, for example, if you took a few laps around the garage on your tricycle before writing. Or maybe you’ve got some D. H. Lawrence in you. He’d strip naked and climb a tree to write a verse or two before his lunch and nap.

de la Paz: I clean the house. I clean every single room of the house. And I also get on my hands and knees and sponge the floor of the kitchen. Everything needs to be spotless before I write.

Rumpus: That sound impossible, sir! With three kids and all…

de la Paz: Toilets too. I scrub all the toilets before writing.

Rumpus: I have a touch of that condition myself, actually. That’s a winner right there. Scrub the john, then slip away to the nearest notebook to produce Grade A literature. Amazing.

de la Paz: You have to have clean toilets.

Rumpus: Agreed. I clean every toilet in this building before we go on-air. All 93 of them. 

de la Paz: I have a problem with using toilets outside of my house.

Rumpus: TMI, my friend. TMI. Before the FCC storms the studio and shuts us down, I think it’s the time our live audience has been waiting for. Are you ready to be obstructed?

de la Paz: I’m kind of nervous about this . . .

Rumpus: You’re going to rock this assignment. I know it.

de la Paz: I’m glad you have such confidence in me. Let’s do this. 

Rumpus: Here you go. Make some magic out of this:

1. Poem titled either “The Empire Writes Back” or “Dear Umpire”
2. Use the same 3-paragraph format you use in the poems from Post Subject.
3. The poem must include: a tricycle, Batman, Italo Calvino, Scantron sheets, and a toilet.

de la Paz: Oh, ow. Ok.

Rumpus: Which part intimidates you the most?

de la Paz: Probably the video of me on a tricycle coming back to haunt me in a poem.

Rumpus: I’m sure you’ll rise to the occasion, Oliver. You’re off!

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Rumpus: We’re back from commercial break, and Oliver, I understand you have a poem for us.

de la Paz: You really didn’t make this easy for me. I slapped this together in 15 minutes while watching sports highlights. Perhaps it helped. 

Rumpus: Fantastic. You might be the first poet to claim ESPN as your muse.

de la Paz:

“Dear Umpire,”

These are your blown saves. Because of the blinders you wear, the crack of the ball against the skin of the mitt is an intimacy. And the bat man stands adjacent to your “because,” spitting into your mask the frizzed out blames of a stadium. Thinking you are the grand legislator of our pains.

Here, each time you punch the air, a little circle fills in the scorekeeper’s Scantron card. A nerve fires. A scoreboard light clicks on. But in some distant country where there is no baseball and only Italo Calvino novellas read on trains, your gesture is the silent part of an astronomical equation. The “If/Then” of an exhausted night.

So go back. To where your mask is the expressionless face of tricycle spokes in a single revolution. To where diamonds are just sleepless names flashing along a highway’s nerves. Where toilets of an arena sing their stingy calculus of “to be” between innings. Where the corners of the plate are licked clean by a spitball’s heavy thread.

Rumpus: You’ve still got the touch, man. Somehow you’ve managed to spoof your own work without desecrating it. The concept is silly, obviously, but you’ve produced a winner, I think. Sly move with “bat man” too!

de la Paz: I can be sly. Like I said, you didn’t leave me many options so I had to bust out the “clever” utility belt. Yeah, silly little poem. Thanks for allowing me to sound a tad ridiculous which is really my natural mode.

Rumpus: That’s what we do best. Thanks for your generous spirit and for flying all the way out here from the West Coast.

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Stay tuned for Episode #7 of The Rumpus Late Nite Poetry Show, with guest Erin Belieu.

You can find out more about Oliver de la Paz at http://www.oliverdelapaz.com/ or by tracking him on Twitter at @Oliver_delaPaz.


David Roderick’s latest book of poems is The Americans. He also has a website and can be followed on Twitter. More from this author →