Arriving at the Mystery: A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz
I first met Oliver de la Paz in 2011 when he gave a reading from Requiem for the Orchard at the 21C in Louisville, Kentucky—the city where I was living at the time. I often attended readings at this hotel, but I was especially curious to meet Oliver because I had read in his bio that he was teaching at Western Washington University in the same program from which I had graduated several years before.
Hearing Oliver read his poems and listening to his responses during the Q&A, I could see how much I was missing by not having studied with him. Happily, though, over the last decade, I have been able to learn from him—not only through his five innovative collections but also from this conversation for The Rumpus.
In summer 2021, Oliver spoke with me about writing persona, fable, and fatherhood in poems that sometimes break the line but never toe it.
The Rumpus: As it happens, Oliver, my summer poetry students and I are about to begin our unit on persona poetry, and the beautiful and capacious anthology you edited with Stacey Lynn Brown, A Face to Meet the Faces, will be a touchstone of our conversations and emulations. In a past version of this class, one student asked, “So is the speaker still considered a persona, even when you’re writing from your own perspective about things that actually happened to you?”
I said yes, but as I began to explain why, I felt my answer was inadequate/insufficient. So, let me turn this question over to you: how do you think about yourself in relation to the speaker in your poems? When working with explicitly autobiographical content, do you still consider the speaker a persona? Is it helpful to do so? Perhaps some ideas about performance and craft and artistic distance also come to bear here?
Oliver de la Paz: Yes? And I’m putting an emphasis on the question mark. Let me walk you through my thinking process that allows me to arrive at the mystery. I always consider the vantage point of the speaker in the poem. Whether that vantage point involves the speaker immediately in the action and whether that vantage point is a stand-in for Poet with a capital “P.” It’s easiest to explain what’s going on with my thought process when it comes to talking about my own work.
My third manuscript, Requiem for the Orchard, was a book that was about my upbringing in the Great Sage Desert of eastern Oregon, but it was also about mortality and renewal. A lot of the moments that happen in those individual poems are autobiographical and yet the actor of those poems is a self that I no longer can claim. In that sense, the Poet (me) is wearing a mask that is shaped by the hazy recollections of the past. Because of the distance and because the actions of the self, rendered creatively in the form of the poem, are not necessarily accurate but are a performance of accuracy, that speaker is a persona. In the same way that John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich is performing the person that people expect John Malkovich to be.
Further, a persona operates as a symbol or shorthand for the reader. The me in Requiem for the Orchard is necessarily a symbol for youth, informed by crises—my cancer diagnosis and the birth of my first son. I needed the person who I was, constructed in a violent and hyper-masculine setting, to contextualize the stakes of the manuscript.
In writing from a vantage point of the past self, I think we always don a mask of who we were or who we thought we were.
Rumpus: Who were you expected to be when you were growing up? I have asked a version of this question to a lot of writers and other artists I know, and it’s so rare that anyone tells me they were expected to be a writer or artist. So if you weren’t expected to be a writer—or even if you were—how did you come to recognize yourself as the writer you are, and even more specifically, as the poet you are? What early steps did you take to nurture that gift? (Does it feel like a gift, or am I presuming?)
de la Paz: I grew up in eastern Oregon. My mother was a physician in the Philippines, but we left when Marcos declared martial law. We were part of the “brain drain” of the country, when people of the professional class left the country, which inevitably left Ferdinand Marcos to rule unopposed. We ended up in eastern Oregon after my mom’s US training because many immigrant doctors were encouraged to serve underserved communities in exchange for citizenship. So, after she had to go back through her medical internships and residencies, we ended up in a remote part of Oregon.
People imagine the Northwest as green and mountainous. Eastern Oregon is neither of those. It’s basically prairie and sage desert. I’m telling you all this because the remoteness of the place made me a writer. For the longest time we were the only Filipino family within a seventy-mile radius. And mind you, it was the 1970s and only three years after the US withdrawal from Vietnam. There were a couple of military bases within the vicinity—Umatilla Army Depot, Mountain Home Airforce Base—subsequently there were several veterans in the area as well as military families. We stuck out. My parents retreated into their work because there wasn’t much of a social network for them. I retreated into books, and I often journaled to pass the time. I never considered it a gift. I was a lonely kid who felt misunderstood. In time, of course, we’d become a part of the community, but I always felt—dislodged.
My parents, as new immigrants, subscribed to Reader’s Digest. As part of their subscription, they could pick books from the Reader’s Digest catalog and among the books was Robert Penn Warren’s Selected Poems. I think my dad wanted to get All the King’s Men, but that wasn’t offered. Among my mother’s medical books, Penn Warren’s book was a curiosity for me. I was less interested in what Penn Warren was saying and more interested in the physical space the line break occupied. To pass the time, I’d write poems on an electric typewriter to imitate the line breaks I was seeing but not understanding.
Still, for the longest time, I expected to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a physician. I pursued a lot of science courses. I was a Biology major. I was an EMT in Los Angeles County. Up until my early twenties, poetry was something I wrote on the side and not as a “full-time” pursuit. I had some brilliant writer friends like Joseph Legaspi and Kristen Tracy as an undergrad at Loyola Marymount. Gail Wronsky was a wonderful teacher and was very supportive of me as I was figuring things out. Eventually, I took more writing classes and found that I really enjoyed myself and felt embraced by my peers. Taking writing workshops as an undergraduate was the first time I ever found kinship and validation for what I had done for the longest time in private.
Rumpus: I know many of my own students come from families, as I did, that don’t recognize creative writing, let alone poetry, as part of a valid career path. How did your family respond to your decision to place poetry at the center of your professional life?
de la Paz: I think I’m still very much on my journey of discovery with my family and what it is that I do to sustain myself. My father, who’s eighty, still encourages me to get a law degree, for example. There’s something about my being a poet that he’s struggling to connect with still, when it comes to the viability of someone being an artist and being able to sustain a livelihood. I imagine that this is a particularly large source of familial tension in immigrant communities and families. I mean, it’s still difficult for my folks to conceive that someone who writes poems can earn a living. They have a surface understanding of what it means to teach for a college—that economical aspect of what I do doesn’t challenge their concept of making a living—it’s the part of me that’s art-making that baffles them.
And I know it’s something that a lot of immigrant artists contend with in their families—the permission to pursue such a thing is often seen as frivolous or audacious. Not that such a thing isn’t seen in a similar way in the mainstream, but I think it’s amplified in communities that are newer to the US. Perhaps it’s the idea of telling stories or preserving a culture’s memory—being able to pinpoint a moment of emotional resonance that, in their eyes, isn’t product-centered in the economic structure they have striven to participate in. The very foundation of our immigration to the US is founded in the notion that my father and mother believed that I would have more opportunities in the US is also what makes it difficult for them to imagine that one of these opportunities would be to become an artist.
I struggled with imagining myself as a writer for quite some time. I didn’t come to the realization that I wanted to make art the rest of my life until I was almost thirty. For the longest time I believed I wanted to be a doctor because that’s what everyone around me told me I’d become. But it really wasn’t me. I had a need to write because of my loneliness and my need to converse with an imagined someone about what it was I was feeling, growing up in a remote landscape. And I imagine that some, not all, students have similar urgent calls to create. I’m seeing more and more artistic endeavors becoming relegated to “specials” in schools when it’s vital for people to have a way to articulate their interiority.
The way I accessed poetry was through teachers who encouraged me as I was proceeding through my undergraduate work while I was questioning my pursuit of a medical degree. My teachers were great about recognizing my interests and engaging me with book recommendations and a fair dose of cheerleading. And, you know, sometimes students need to hear that they’ve got talent and that they have a story that needs to be told. Sometimes you have to make the direct connection with a student who doubts themselves but whose work is clearly exciting and new. I do think, looking back at my path, I had so much doubt about myself as an art-maker. But I had people on my side who really spurred me on. And I do try to insert myself into that role with my own students.
Rumpus: In your relationship with the prose poem you inhabit this form beautifully across your body of work. In fact, you and Holly Iglesias are the two poets whose work with the prose poem consistently incites my own impulse to return to it. What does working outside the line (and inside the box, as it were) do for you? What possibilities does the prose poem hold that are not accessible, at least in the same way, in lineated poetry?
de la Paz: I’ve been working on prose poems since the mid 1990s. It’s a form that Beckian Fritz Goldberg, one of my professors at ASU, introduced to me when I was a graduate student. She was really excited by many Eastern European poets and had introduced me to a few books, including works by Zbigniew Herbert like his Mr. Cogito poems. While I was reading this work—basically devouring everything I could get my hands on—I was also taking the previously mentioned magical realism course and the course on the long poem. What attracted me to the form was its close resemblance to the parable, which was a form/style I was familiar with, growing up Catholic and living amongst many myths and folktales told to me by my grandparents.
I adore the prose poem because I enjoy how it makes me think about the sentence as a musical unit without a reliance on the line break. Now, don’t get me wrong—I do like working with the line break, but I often work in couplets, while also composing works in prose poems. Working concurrently in both modes helps me “hear” the language in different visual contexts. I tend to think about how my poems in couplets would function if I didn’t have the line break as a sonic tool. I edit and revise accordingly—crafting couplets to more fully use the visual stanzaic space versus crafting the syntax of a prose poem to accommodate that lack of a visual pause.
Rumpus: In fall 2021, concurrent with your visit to our creative writing program at FIU, Denise Duhamel is teaching The Boy in the Labyrinth in her Graduate Poetry Workshop. But as it happens, I’m also teaching The Boy in the Labyrinth in the next iteration of the Graduate Lyric Essay Seminar. I added it to my book list the day I finished reading it. Do you ever think of your poetry as belonging, simultaneously to other genres? And, with regard to The Boy in the Labyrinth specifically, how do you feel about my characterization of the book as a lyric essay collection? Would it be fair to describe this book as a memoir? As a hybrid form?
de la Paz: Yes, yes, and yes to all of your inquiries. I didn’t really think about genre when I was putting the work together for The Boy in the Labyrinth. I was writing the work for the book concurrently with other pieces, so I wasn’t really shaping the work with an intent towards genre. I was merely taking up the daily task of writing. As a book, it confronts several issues—a neurotypical parent learning to parent neurodiverse children, the systems of communication that are unaccommodating to many communication acts, standardization as an expectation towards “norms,” and mainstream culture’s inability to accommodate multiple ways of thinking. Because of all the directions the work was pulled in, it was impossible to construct a conventional book. It chronicles and also does not chronicle my struggles as a parent. It acknowledges and revises myth and allusion. It also owes allegiance to and rebels against form—the work is an iteration of particular forms like the questionnaire or the multiple choice questions found in standardized testing, but it also loudly protests against those forms.
Now, the book wasn’t always this. First, it was a sequence of prose like those found in Post Subject: A Fable. The two books were written concurrently. Right around 2016, I had finished my hundredth “Labyrinth” poem, but I knew that I could not duplicate the cataloging that took place in Post Subject. (If you look, the works in that collection are in alphabetical order.) I knew I had to erase the sensibilities of that manuscript from The Boy in the Labyrinth, and that’s when the first of my “Autism Spectrum Questionnaire” poems came about. We had received our son’s diagnosis of Autism right around 2010, and I hadn’t connected that the poems in The Boy in the Labyrinth were actually poems about my relationship with my son. But it finally clicked. I was in my campus office, reading a set of questionnaires for our son’s schooling, when I decided to respond to the questionnaires as a poet. The result was the hybrid questionnaire responses that are both essay, poem, and fable. That poem then helped shape the greater concept of the work.
Photograph of Oliver de la Paz by Papandrea Photography.