Interview: Oliver de la Paz

CONDUCTED BY MIKAYLA DAVIS,

TRANSCRIBED BY JACQULYN HARPER WEST

On February 22 and 23, poet Oliver de la Paz visited the University of Central Arkansas campus. During his visit, the Arkana staff took the opportunity to ask him a few questions about writing, publishing, and the importance of promoting different voices and aesthetics in teaching and publication:

Arkana: What is your favorite thing about writing?

O: I love that it’s a time machine sometimes. That you lose track of time when something is working really well. You look up, and an hour or two hours have gone by.

Another favorite thing about writing is just the sound of words, which is probably why I married a linguist—she loves the sounds of words.

I love music. And so this meditation or exercise of reciting poetry is kind of a musical thing to me.

A: How do you write big sequences versus an individual poem?

O: When I write the sequences, they’re often in response to long periods of reading. I’ll just crank out two or three poems in one sitting. I also go through long periods where I’m not writing. So, imagine that—the calendar year of course is twelve months—nine months out of that year I’m not writing. I’m basically reading and filling and refueling. And then there’s this period of three months where I’m writing frantically, and that’s why I’m writing in series or sequences. It’s just easier, it’s faster. I don’t have to start from a new page. I have an idea, a series of works that are working dialogically—in dialogue with one another. So when I sit down, it’s usually after having spent a couple of months not writing, just reading and filling, and then thinking about how all of these things are creating a language within a particular type of sequence or sequential organization.

A: Is that where you’re getting most of your inspiration, from reading?

O: Usually, it’s not that I’m not completely writing. Maybe I’ll take a journal and I’ll write a line, or a couple of lines. Or I’ll make a note on a page, or I’ll annotate in one of my books. But I’m not sitting down in front of my computer and committing a poem to the screen. It’s not that kind of writing. It’s a particular type of creative stew that I’m creating where I stockpile images and ideas, and over the months I worry some of those ideas into some type of shape.

A: How do you decide what forms your poetry takes?

O: Names Above Houses was originally a long poem broken into verse. I had taken a graduate class on the long poem taught by critic and poet Susan McCabe. She had us reading H.D. and “Paterson,” a lot of Moderns. One of the projects that she had us do was to write a long poem. So, I created Fidelito, the main character that’s in there, and I wrote a forty-page verse-lined long poem about him that was god-awful. [Laughter.] No, it was really terrible. It was tonally too self-serious, it was too self-important, uppity. I think the context is that we were reading these Moderns who were self-important and uppity, who were trying to solve world problems with their poetry, and so that Fidelito character tried to do all of those things. And what ended up happening is I took a class with Alberto Ríos, the poet. He was teaching a class on magical realism. It was a great class. We read Márquez and Pedro Páramo.

He gave us an assignment which was really simple and basic. He told me, “Take one of the pieces you’re writing now and just make it different.” So simple, right? It’s like, really?!

So I just decided to take that character and make a magical realist prose piece, and I really liked it. And I thought, “Oh! This sounds right—this sounds correct.” So the first piece in Names Above Houses, “In The Year of the Rat,” ended up being the first prose poem that I wrote, and it guided me, once I learned how to do that poem. Once I learned how to hit that note, I learned how to write the book. And then I would go to other resources.

I read this poet by the name of Zbigniew Herbert—he has these Mister Cogito poems. And I learned about the metaphysical from him and reading him. A lot of the poems in there are borrowed from Zbigniew Herbert.

I started cutting and pasting the influences into this book, and I think that the right way to navigate with that character was only prose poems because there was a tonal disconnect that was happening with the verse.

A: Other than your reading, from where do you pull inspiration?

O: TV. Video games. My children. The news. Trips. We have a really good museum in Worcester, of all places. I’m really surprised. I’m kind of a nerdy science guy, so I like reading science journals, like soft-core science stuff like National Geographic or Smithsonian as well. I’m a magazine junkie, and I subscribe to a lot of magazines. Anything that I can get my hands on as far as reading is concerned, I just fill up on stuff. Some of my craziest ideas come from magazine articles and that sort of thing.

A: Would you say that current events or pop culture influence you more?

O: Usually pop culture, although now, I’m pretty inspired. I’m finding it hard not to say stuff. Am I making poems out of that? No. Are they things that I’m committing to paper? No, not yet. Mostly what I find I’m doing is social media—Twitter, Facebook. These are weird outlets for my social justice bent.

It’s not writing in the type of way that I should be writing. But this level of political discourse is very natural to me. My family were political refugees, and so there’s a language in engaging the politics that I find really inspiring and strangely familial and familiar.

I’m having discussions with my parents in ways that I had never had discussions with my parents, learning all kinds of things about why we left and what was going on in the Philippines at that moment when we left.

It’s all coming back, dealing with what’s happening in the world today. There’s a level of discourse that I’m engaging in that is not necessarily creative in the sense that we like to believe is creativity, but it is a type of discourse that is just as vital.

A: Let’s talk a little bit now about the contemporary literary landscape. How do you decide where you publish your work?

O: I have an answer from when I was starting and an answer for now. When I was starting, I basically did sort of a shotgun approach. I sent to almost everywhere that I could. My very first publication was the Asian Pacific American Journal. So I kind of targeted places that had published some people that I really admired. So, as a graduate student, I looked at the acknowledgements pages of their books and looked at where they were publishing and started sending that way.

And then that targeting got a little narrower. Now, I’ll send maybe three or four batches to the bigger journals like Poetry Magazine or Kenyon or Ploughshares, and then I’ll send more batches to journals that are run by graduate students like Cream City Review or Hayden’s Ferry Review. But a lot of times nowadays I just get solicited, which is a big change because before I would have to knock on people’s door. But now, they send me little email notes asking for some things.

And nowadays more often than not, I just don’t have anything because it’s either all out or because I’ve been too busy.

A: What have you found to be the biggest struggle publishing your work?

O: The biggest struggle with me is that I tend to write in series or sequences. The thing with writing in big chunks of series or sequences is it’s either feast or famine. They’ll either take all of it or none of it. And rare is the occasion where they’ll take one item. They’ll usually take two, or three, or nothing at all.

That’s the struggle—finding, not necessarily a middle ground, but a consistent way to get the new work out there while relying on the individual poems as strong enough to exist on their own.

A: What would you say is the biggest downfall of the current writing community?

O: Do we have a downfall? One is that I can’t read it all. There’s just too much. So what ends up happening is that I tend to go into my comfort zones. I think that there is a value in moving outside of one’s aesthetic comfort zone. One of the difficulties it that you just have to acknowledge that you can’t get to it all. And that people are out there who are doing interesting things that you may not get, but that it’s out there. It’s not for lack of trying. I mean, I try to read everything.

I also know that I am informed by a particular type of education, that my education is a little more formal and canonical, so there are ways that I approach reading that may not permit me to engage in a dialogue with some of these other people who are doing really fantastic things. One example is Doug Kearney. He’s a fantastic writer. He’s exceptional. If you haven’t seen Doug Kearney’s work, you have to see it on the page. It’s really crazy! For lack of a better word—crazy! It’s visual. I don’t get what he’s doing! On the page, I don’t get what he’s doing. In performance, I get what he’s doing.

He’s trying to reenact his performance in a visual space, the visual, two-dimensional space. I just don’t understand it. And I understand that I’m limited as a reader. That’s something that I’m struggling with. That there’s so much good stuff out there that’s challenging publishing.

A: Are you seeing a lot of different aesthetics in Kundiman, the foundation dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American literature, where you serve on the Advisory Board?

O: We are, and that’s another challenge. There are Asian American poets who are writing works that are beyond my comprehension, but I understand that what they’re doing is important. The question is: will they fit in the community that we’ve constructed, or will they feel alienated?

There’s this balance when you’re constructing these communities of artists, you want to have a community where there is aesthetic diversity, but also aesthetic community.

This is the challenge of a space like Cave Canem or Kundiman where we try to have these communities of writers come together and share, but also, we have to acknowledge that there’s a lot of differences in how we come at the word.

One of the things we do at Kundiman is we always hire, as part of the staff, a spoken word person. We always try to hire someone who’s more on the fringes with avant garde work. Then usually somebody who’s more typically narrative. But there’s still other people who are doing visual stuff—can we put them in a workshop space? Will they feel included? Will they be getting what they need? These are some of the questions that arise when you try to formulate these communities.

A: Speaking of having different aesthetics, for those of us who would like to teach creative writing and are not poets, what advice would you give for teaching poets and poetry?

O: For the nonpoets, how do you teach poetry? I always advise people to make a game out of it.

I think that there are several word games that you can learn to sort of co-opt in a workshop. Of course at the most basic level, the Exquisite Corpse as a game is really wonderful because it’s collaborative and forces group members to think critically immediately, where you’re getting a line from somebody, and then you have to respond to that line, and then you have to pass it on—you have to surrender. That’s always a good game.

I also like cutting and pasting games where you take magazines and you cut out lines and those sorts of things. Essentially what I’m getting down to is the fact that you want to devise exercises that are about the pleasure and joy of combining words and sentences as opposed to forcing a lined poem.

You want to have in this experience of teaching a reassurance, on one hand, that this is fun and that you’re doing ok, and on the other hand, this sense of joy and fun and pleasure that comes about when you have scissors and you have a magazine and you’re finding a great line from National Geographic, or you’re finding a great line from the newspaper. There’s a lot of pleasure in that. So when you’re making that connection with students, even though you may not be a poet, it’s about the pleasure of the language, first and foremost.

A: One of our goals in highlighting new voices is to incorporate translation in this issue. Translation is on the rise, but it’s still fairly niche. How does Arkana distinguish itself from other journals in presenting translation, and how does translation itself become more integral to literary culture? How do we make translation more important to people?

O: I think this is a distinctly American issue. Honestly. If you go to Europe, people are reading in multiple languages and across languages. One of the questions that you’re posing to me is how do we value other languages—how can we increase the value of, say, Spanish, in our everyday idiom. These are big questions.

How can we make a place for this? We have to value it in our education. We have to value the discourse across languages. And right now, I’m not seeing that in public education or any education for that matter. And more and more MFA programs are not requiring a language requirement. Which, I understand, for bureaucratic reasons, is practical. But again, this is a distinctly American question.

A: Are you reading any literary journal that is getting it right or in which translation is not getting lost in all the other material?

O: The Poetry Foundation is doing it right because they have this gigantic budget and they are devoting large pockets of space to it, and they’re doing it regularly. They’re basically devoting a month to it—this month, we’re going to have this series of translations for this person. And you can expect that from the journal. I think also Beloit Poetry Journal from time to time does a pretty good job of it, but the format of that journal is such that, because they have so many issues, it allows them to do that.

A: Do you have any advice for the all-white editorial staff who is running a magazine about mysteries and marginalized voices on how we can show that we’re sincere, trustworthy, and actually doing what we set out to do?

O: A good way to filter blame—[Laughter.] No, I’m doing this for your sake—is to have a guest editor. That way the guest editor who may be dialed in to the communities you’re trying to seek out can then direct these manuscripts to you, and then you guys can vet them. And you guys decide what you want to put in, and then let the guest editor have a final say for a handful.

I think that strategically, what you’re telling me is you’re acknowledging that this is something you’re concerned about—that’s good—and you’re wondering what level of authority you have in this regard. It’s always good to ask a guest editor to special edit this one issue, or a couple. Have a few voices in there who solicit from their communities’ work. Jericho Brown (who visited the UCA campus in 2014) would be great.

***

Here are a few other words of wisdom about writing and publishing from Oliver de la Paz’s campus visit:

  • On the anthology he co-edited, A Face to Meet the Faces: “The most rewarding part about putting it together was the people. The least rewarding part about putting it together was the people.”
  • On a particular childhood teacher: “Her name was Sister Mary Anne, but we called her Sister Mary Elephant. She was kind of racist. She took one look at me and assumed that I would be some kind of math savant because I was Asian. I was terrible at math… so I took it upon myself to show her that writing was kind of my thing.”
  • On his son, Lucas, who has an autism spectrum disorder: “One of the challenges that I faced with writing about Lucas was trying to find ways to do him the honor of acknowledging that he is in a process. It’s so often that scientific studies posit that folks on the spectrum have difficulty reading social cues, but I feel like it’s the opposite. People on the spectrum feel things so immensely and tremendously that they have to keep away from it. It’s too overwhelming.”
  • On growing up after fleeing the Philippines with his family as political refugees: “My mother was placed in Ontario, Oregon because she was a physician, and at the time, right around the early seventies, there was a shortage of doctors. Our family occupied this higher end of socio-economic class, but we were also kind of strange in the community. It was lonely, and I spent my time reading in that town. I had a very active imagination. I was an only child, so that was another complication.”
  • On political poetry: “I can’t stop writing political poetry. Even when I’m writing about my son, I’m writing a particular type of political poem. Anytime I’m talking about an affirmation of selfhood as a writer of color I’m writing a political poem.”
  • On writing: “Writing questions who you are, explores who you are, affirms who you are.”

Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry, Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada, and Post Subject: A Fable (U. of Akron Press 2014). He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry and serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board of Trustees. A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.

Image Credit: Caleb Young

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