Exploration and Connection: A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz
Parents, especially of younger children, are probably familiar with autism screening questionnaires, one of the pile of forms thrust into our hands during regular checkups at the pediatrician’s office, hastily filled out while trying to keep our children from tearing the otoscopes off the wall or tumbling off the examination table. For most parents, these forms are an inconvenience at most, a bit of tedium before the nurse comes in and administers vaccinations and the doctor provides an update. For Oliver de la Paz in his fifth collection of poetry, The Boy in the Labyrinth, they’re the basis for a series of poems from the perspective of a parent of neurodiverse children. In “Autism Screening Questionnaire: Social Interaction Difficulties,” one of the questions asked is “Does your child not seem to listen when spoken to directly?” to which the speaker replies “We call it dappled thoughts. He is constantly dappled— / here and not here. He is a thrush hidden in the sage.”
In other sequences in this collection, de la Paz places us in the labyrinth from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, but while the Minotaur is present, Theseus is not. And this story doesn’t end with the Minotaur’s death either, because what de la Paz is after here is exploration and connection with the worlds his neurodiverse children inhabit.
I’ve appreciated De la Paz’s poetry for years, but I was drawn to this book because I, too, am a parent of a neurodiverse child, and this perspective is one I haven’t seen much of in poetry yet. Oliver and I talked about this collection as well as the challenges of parenting neurodiverse children.
The Rumpus: I’ve seen you talk elsewhere about the challenges you feel about writing about your kids in particular, and in the opening poem, “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth” you apologize to them twice for writing about them. Can you talk about your thought process behind that?
Oliver de la Paz: I had been writing the prose poem sequences for almost ten years and only really and truly realized that I had been writing about being a parent to neurodiverse children late in the process. The realization took me aback and I immediately became concerned about the way I was approaching the narrative—taking inventory over what parts were ableist and what parts were completely inconsistent with my current thinking. You know, writing poems is pretty asynchronous—you write a poem and then you change. You then go back and you can’t. You really can’t because you’re a different writer and in my case my relationship to the work had changed and the relationship to my own parenting had changed.
I had evolved through having to do the advocacy work that I needed to do to fight for my sons’ agency in school. So as I was distancing myself from the labyrinth poems, Keetje Kuipers invited me to contribute an essay on failure to Poetry Northwest. And I knew that I wanted to talk about failure in terms of my failings as a neurotypical parent who so happens to be a writer and who also so happens to feel obligated to chronicle the archive of his life. Of course, in capturing the archive I have to acknowledge my vantage point and because my vantage point isn’t that of my sons’ there’s a bit of shame in endeavoring to capture their way of experiencing the world. And after all, who am I to think that I can succeed? So the apology more or less captures my overall feelings about this book. I’m really hyperaware of how this book in its current form captures my initial state as a neurotypical parent flailing around for understanding. In the process of misreading the encounters, I fear hurting my sons.
Rumpus: I also got the impression from that first poem that you were writing about the labyrinth for a while before you started thinking of these as poems involving your children—I’m thinking specifically about the line “Alicia Ostriker punched me sharply in the arm when I told her I wasn’t writing about my kids”—and I was curious if that was a moment of clarity about this project for you.
de la Paz: Yeah, I was working on the Labyrinth poems concurrently with Post Subject: A Fable and Requiem for the Orchard. So I was just giving in to the rhythm of my obsessive writing habits. I tend to write poems in series or sequences and my writing time is compressed so I generally don’t take inventory when I’m in the throes of writing.
Alicia Ostriker and I were teaching in Canada and my kids came along for that trip. I was mostly reading the poems from Post Subject: A Fable, so I wasn’t presenting work that was remotely about my own life. Requiem was really mostly about myself and my own past, and when Alicia punched me on the arm in an elevator heading up to our rooms, she was surrounded by my kids. The punch did make me think about my relationship to my writing a bit more. At least it made me go back into the manuscript to take inventory.
Rumpus: Did the Greek tragedy structure of the book come to you early on as well? The labyrinth and the Minotaur certainly makes the reader think about that literary tradition, but you went deep on it. I especially appreciated the way you played with the Chorus, changing their commentary into problems to be pondered over, though not really solved.
de la Paz: No, the Greek structure came after reflection a few years after the initial one hundred or so prose poems were drafted. I had been thinking about “blowing up” the prose poem structure for some time, mostly because there was a lot of stasis in the work’s progression when it was just the prose poems.
I think it was a period of about three or four years after the last of the prose poems had been written when I started tinkering with formal structures. I was reminded of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s construction of Dictee and how she structures that book’s sections as invocations to the nine muses and returning to that book granted me permission to interrogate the Greek tragedy form. I do think that there are a lot of ways I’m trying to resist a tragic reading of the work, especially with the opening and closing poem, but the bones, the framework, are informed by the tragedies.
And as far as the Chorus poems are concerned, I wanted to further trouble the idea of the language of the diagnostic. My boys are now of the state standardized test taking age. Here in Massachusetts we have the MCAS and I have a continual quarrel with the industry of standardized testing which is also analogous to medical diagnostic processes. There is a chorus of voices that resound in the culture of the diagnostic that I want scrutinize. The questions in the chorus poems don’t really have answers. They’re circular questions with possibilities that go beyond what’s offered.
Rumpus: You mentioned above about your writing time being compressed. As a parent of a neurodiverse child myself, I’ve found making time to write a major challenge. This is the kind of question that’s mostly directed at women writers, but I think it’s important to ask fathers this kind of thing as well. How do you make time to write while raising children combined with all the other stuff of life?
de la Paz: I’ve had lots of help. Meredith, my wife, isn’t a writer but she understands when I need time. My parents also live nearby. They moved with us when we made the trip from the West Coast to the East Coast and live a town over.
There’s a lot of turn-taking at our house as well as a lot of sacrifice. One of the sacrifices that I’ve had to make is restricting my writing time to a dedicated period in the summer. And even then I can’t write for much longer than a couple of hours. I can’t write when the kids are around because I’m pretty much on duty. Meredith and I give each other breaks and we prioritize our exercise breaks just to keep ourselves healthy. We can’t afford to get sick.
It’s particularly hard on the family when I have to leave to give readings, so I pick my spots and try to book local engagements. When I have to travel far I try to space out my dates.
What’s gotten a little easier is the rituals after school. We worked with an ABA for about a year to help us get our schedules and the kids’ schedules in sync. There’s a lot of regimentation and planning. I’m the meal prep, driver, and wake-up person. Meredith takes care of the appointments and a lot of the homework.
All that planning leaves little time for me, so I’ve made peace with my sporadic writing schedule. One thing that helps is that I have a nice cohort of poets I work with during the summer and we’ll post work in a Google chat without commenting on the pieces. Really it’s just a way to keep us accountable. As I said earlier, I only give myself an hour or two to finish a draft of a poem that I post. Of course, I’ll go back to it for revision, but really the writing group is about waking up the muscle memory.
Suffice it to say I have a ritual and I have a lot of help and support.
Rumpus: The first time I heard some of the poems from this collection was at a reading you did at a bookstore in Des Moines maybe three years ago, which was before my daughter had been officially identified as being on the autism spectrum, but after my wife and I were pretty sure she was on it. I believe the poem you read was “Autism Screening Questionnaire: Speech and Language Delay,” and I relived each moment we had filled out similar forms at our pediatrician’s office, and imagined what might be ahead. I know as writers we often aim for a wide audience, but do you think of this book as carrying particular weight for the parents of neurodiverse children?
de la Paz: I imagine so. I drafted most of the book in the throes of new parenting. I started drafting the work in 2008 around the time when my wife and I started filling out all the questionnaires for well-child checkups. Like many parents with kids on the spectrum, my kid met all the milestones until around the age of two. That’s when we started to fill out more forms and questionnaires—the task became gargantuan. Because the work started to gain momentum around that time as a series of tone pieces about parenting I’m sure many parents of neurodiverse children might find kinship. I hadn’t identified the fact that I was directly writing about my son on the spectrum, but the tone was there.
I have to also add that I’m very wary of the turf that I’m on. What I mean by that is during public performances I try to assert that the point-of-view of this work is from that of a neurotypical parent and that it’s important for me to acknowledge my flaws and gaps in my knowledge. There are times when the neurotypical parent attempts to speak for the neurodiverse child in the work that I’ve written and now as someone who’s learned more and grown more as a parent and as an advocate for my kids—those moments fill me with misgivings. I also have to assert that my experience with raising my kids isn’t the same as those of other parents. So while yes, it may carry some weight with parents of neurodiverse kids, I don’t pretend to imagine this book speaks to or for all that other parents may encounter.
Rumpus: I wonder what the nurses and doctors would have thought if they got a questionnaire with responses like the ones in these poems?
de la Paz: I wonder that as well. I mean, the issue with the questionnaire is that it’s looking for a “yes” or “no” response, which isn’t nuanced. The questionnaire is looking for answers that are devoid of emotional meaning. But what about the pain or the joy? What about the fear or the understanding? The questionnaire doesn’t direct its respondents towards emotional meanings. It’s simply a diagnostic tool.
Rumpus: And I have to wonder if changing that might be helpful for everyone involved. Some nurses worked with our daughter and us before we saw the specialist, and it became clear after a while that they were trying to not say the word autism to us. I assume it was because they’d had parents in the past who blew up when they heard it, probably from fear or some sense that they’d done something wrong, been a bad parent, exposed their child to something harmful, whatever. Whereas for me, I can’t quite say I felt relief when they finally said it, but I felt power in putting a name on it, and in the doors it opened for her.
This has also made me think that family therapy should be part of any treatment plan for young children on the autism spectrum.
de la Paz: Well, I get where the health professionals are coming from. My mom’s a doctor and she’s had to say those things to many parents before. But I also have to acknowledge that they’re often as lost as we, the parents and advocates of neurodiverse children, are. I’ve been reading Steve Silberman’s book Neurotribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity and in his research he talks about how in the recent past parents were only given options that lean towards grief—grieving the child that you had wanted, grieving the neurotypical parental role that you had expected. Of course, all this was tied in with the notion that your child couldn’t be cared for by you and that they’d have to be institutionalized.
I think there are ways that we’ve grown as our understanding and expansion of neurodiversity has increased. We’re of course far from perfect in our discourse. And in many ways my own book was leaning towards a kind of grief work that I had grown more and more uncomfortable with as my distance from it grew. I learned a lot over the years since the work’s original composition and yes, therapy, counseling, training, and familial support were all folded into my growth as a parent. Also, it’s important to stress that my kids have their own ideas and are quick to give me their opinions. They’ve been in these sessions with us. They’ve led the way. They’ve grown as well, and they assert their needs and their positions—I’m getting a lot of sass from my oldest which I like because he’s fighting for himself.
Rumpus: Back to the book for a minute: I really liked how you moved away from the best-known story of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth by not only muting Theseus and Ariadne, but also by changing the quest involving the Minotaur. The boy isn’t here to slay the Minotaur or to be eaten by it. I’m thinking specifically of Episode 7, which felt like a turning point in the book for me. It reads to me like the boy is embracing the labyrinth and the minotaur rather than seeing them as dangers to be escaped from.
de la Paz: Right. I think right around that time in the sequence I started to get worried about what it was that I was doing—I started realizing that I was writing myself into corners and then actively started thinking about movements out of the labyrinth. That was also about the time I started to think about secondary and tertiary sequences as a way of moving past the “Labyrinth” sequences. And I also believe that I was starting to make decisions based on events that coincided with parenting milestones. I was making some real headway as a parent and was making big strides in my own process and my own understanding as a neurotypical parent of neurodiverse kids. I realized there was no point in grieving. That was all about me and not about the kids. So rather than writing grief-work, I sought solutions both in the manuscript writing process and in the lives of my sons.
Rumpus: That’s the eternal journey of being a parent, right? Seeking solutions? Which is why it seems really fitting that the penultimate poem, one of the “A Story Problem” poems, gives us all these unanswerable questions: “And what if there were no string but a wire? And what if that wire were nerves? A spasm of X if you’re solving for X. Then what kind of journey is this having moved so little? Having known the wolves are in the dark. Knowing the string is too short. What then? If then?”
We’re groping in these spaces as parents as much as our children are groping for their own understanding.
de la Paz: Absolutely! And here’s the thing… sometimes the problem isn’t a problem. The issue stems from trying to present correctives but really, if we acknowledge a diversity of experience then the correctives we issue may solve one type of problem but present other problems down the road. If there’s anything I’ve learned from this writing journey it’s that I’ve got a lot to learn and in my attempts at understanding, there will be missteps. Best to remain attentive and to listen first.
Photograph of Oliver de la Paz by Papandrea Photography.