Back to Issue Forty-Six

A Conversation with Oliver de la Paz



Oliver de la Paz is the Poet Laureate of Worcester, MA for 2023-2025. He is the author and editor of seven books: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, Post Subject: A Fable, and The Boy in the Labyrinth, a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry. His newest work, The Diaspora Sonnets, is published by Liveright Press (2023). With Stacey Lynn Brown, he co-edited A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. Oliver serves as the co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Poetry, American Poetry Review, and elsewhere. He has received grants from the NEA, NYFA, the Artist’s Trust, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship. He has also been awarded multiple Pushcart Prizes. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.


David Roderick: I usually open interviews by plunging right into a poem, but I’m wondering if we might begin with some questions about how you developed as a poet. When did you first get the poetry bug? Do you have an “earliest memory” of poetry in your life?


Oliver de la Paz: Hey David. Great to be chatting with you again. My parents’ first gesture, when they finally found a place to settle, was to subscribe to Reader’s Digest, and I believe at the time one of the deals with a subscription was the choice of a book from their book club or catalog. This was in the mid-1970s. My father selected Robert Penn Warren’s Selected Poems, I think because he couldn’t find Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, which he knew about from the film made in the 1940s. Anyway, that book sat in my mother’s library, which was filled with medical books, medical magazines, and other medical-related texts.

There wasn’t anything else in that library that was “literary” in the eyes of most readers, only technical, so the Penn Warren book stood out. And what attracted me to the book had nothing to do with the words Penn Warren wrote down. I was taken by the visual impression the line breaks presented—the dynamic playfulness of words on a page was attractive because there was nothing like it around me. Of course, I attempted to imitate what I saw in that book with my mom’s electric typewriter, so there was a physical, kinesthetic sensation in writing poems that was invigorating to me. I was in the fourth grade at the time of this discovery and I’d keep writing poems on the typewriter all through high-school.


DR: Robert Penn Warren plus a typewriter in fourth grade! Such an amazing entryway into poetry. Was there also something artistic or literary about the way you inhabited the world as that 4th grader? Experiences away from that typewriter that you realize, today, informed your artistic inclinations? I ask because the new book, The Diaspora Sonnets, feels rooted in resonant childhood memories.


OdlP: I was a lonely kid then. An only child attending a small Catholic school where there were maybe twelve other students. Tapping away on the typewriter was a private thing. A thing that gave me a little bit of agency. I lived in my head and the landscape of The Diaspora Sonnets speaks to that. There was a lot of “nothing” in that place in Eastern Oregon, save farm plots and hissing sprinkler heads. There was a lot of driving past nothing and imagining that you could be someplace else. Writing truly let me escape.


DR: In your work, I’ve noticed a tendency toward building a whole poetry collection around a single form, which I imagine you obsessively working on over the course of years—testing it, interrogating it, seeing what you can say or risk saying in it. Your last collection, The Boy in the Labyrinth, mostly contained prose poems and echoed the format of a Greek play. Post Subject, if I remember correctly, was a sequence of postcard epistles all addressed as “Dear Empire.” The Diaspora Sonnets obviously explores the sonnet form, though there are a few pantoums and ballads mixed in as well. Can you connect this practice at all with your earliest memories of writing (or writing poetry)?


OdlP: It’s true. When I write, I’m often writing in a compressed amount of time so what often happens is that I find a poetic form that seems to fit the motif or obsession and then I write continuously in that poetic form in order to fully flesh out the idea while also keeping my thinking about the subject organized in a certain way. Both The Boy in the Labyrinth and Post Subject: A Fable were written around the same time, so the patterns and the structures of the two manuscripts were similar and much of my revision project involved differentiating them. It was important for me to think about the Greek Tragedy as a structure because I wanted to excise the notion of the tragic from being a father to neurodiverse sons. In the early writing of the book, there was indeed a type of grief I felt but as the drafts of the poems emerged I realized that these were my expectations and that my son has agency, so as I continued to write, I kept thinking about the expectations of culture and society, the failures in language that happen when we speak in a diagnostic way versus when we speak with love. And the form allowed me to pursue that conversation. Each element of the book is an examination of form, whether that be the episodic storytelling passages, the choral passages that are shaped like standardized questions, the story problem form, or the questionnaire form—all of the book is about form and language and the trouble with discourse when there is no room for new ways of thinking.


DR: And Post Subject? When I read it a few years ago, I remember feeling that you’d found a great way to marry a form with another ambitious theme. 

OdlP: Post Subject: A Fable was very much about power, consumption, and empire. The epistolary form was something that I was immediately drawn to because of the legacy of colonialism with subjects who had been under colonial rule. Often, there is a fondness or a nostalgia for that oppression in the subjects who remain and I thought the epistolary, which is an intimate form, was a great way to interrogate that idea.

The book is also in alphabetical order. It’s arranged according to land and property, goods and services, and subjects, so that readers who read the book through will be able to see how Empire has itemized their holdings. I wanted the structure to project coldness and indifference while seeding the book with narratives about artists who struggle under this kind of rule. 


DR: How did The Diaspora Sonnets develop for you?


OdlP: The Diaspora Sonnets are, of course, sonnets that occasionally follow metrical and rhyme patterns of sonnets, but they are also jagged interpretations of the Western English-speaking tradition. I’m perfectly capable of writing a sonnet that fits the criteria of a Shakespearian or Petrarchan sonnet, but that wasn’t the exercise for the book. I wanted to work from immediate associations for my readers. That they would, 1) know that there are particular expectations in the form to 2) understand that these poems flirt with adhering to the tradition but ultimately 3) create an improvisation of what is understood to be the tradition.

The meta commentary is that of an immigrant family trying to navigate the landscape of a new country, and in that sense, the sonnets act as a stand-in for language difference and cultural  difference. There’s a poem in the collection that’s in the form of a lyrical ballad, titled “Chain Migration II: On Negations and Substitutions,” which is about finding substitutions for ingredients that are impossible to find in the community where I grew up but are necessary for the flavoring of a dish. I see that poem as a commentary on the larger formal conversation in the book. What does a sonnet look like when it’s crafted by someone whose first language wasn’t standard American English but was instead the English of a diasporic community?

Much of my work has long been about attempting to find a form or a shape for the close interrogation and examination of a subject. I suppose I have a bit of a taxonomic tendency. I want to classify things and put things in groups. I’ve always been a writer of order and organization. In a former life I was a biology major and went so far as to get a degree in biology. At the heart of my creative impulses is the desire to tidy things up by insisting on a pattern.


DR: I think you execute the forms brilliantly. They never feel stale or staid to me. And there’s lovely tension between the impressionistic memories of your family settling in America—so much specific detail there!—–and the rhythms. Your sonnets never feel compressive.

The book breaks down into three sections. Each one opens with a “Chain Migration” ballad, followed by a long string of sonnets (around 25 per section), followed by a closing pantoum. How did this macrocosmic structure come about?


OdlP: Honestly, it was a lot of trial and error. I worked closely with my editor, Gina Iaquinta at Liveright, on the organization of the book. She asked me a lot of good questions about narrative structure and pacing—whether a poem was moving a reader along. The pantoums were poems I knew I needed as transitions between movements. The same applies with the lyric ballads. I wanted a different poetic movement to serve as mileposts for the reader. There were so many sonnets that I felt readers might need a pitstop. But the pantoum and the ballad also serve as crucial setting and psychological cues. They work to tell the reader where they are in time and roughly what’s going on with the tone. 


DR: In terms of the book’s content, this is a collection largely focused on your father and his struggle to bring your family from the Philippines to America. Most of the poems are set in the U.S. and feature a family on the move, trying to settle and integrate into all facets of life here. It feels intensely personal to me, far more so than, say, Requiem for the Orchard or Post Subject. What led you to focus on this particular period of your life for your material?


OdlP: My parents are in the late stages of their lives, and in my mind, their departure from the Philippines under the circumstances they left was heroic. I felt the need to mythologize my parents for my children. I wanted to create a monument of my parents’ story, which is, to my mind, in the epic tradition. And additionally, as a father of three sons, I felt it was important that they knew our story, which was a story of movement but also a story of loneliness. I wanted to teach them about what my parents sacrificed and what the stakes were with the choices they made. 


DR: It’s so pleasing to hear you use the words “heroic” and “epic” here. I had intuited those elements but couldn’t put my finger on the ways in which you reimagine and reframe the epic tradition especially. One thing I noticed is how often this family is in transit, presumably moving between jobs and homes as your parents hunt for a stable living situation for your family. The titles tell us a lot about this lifestyle: “Diaspora Sonnet with the Prairie Humming through the Seams of a Car Door,” “Diaspora Sonnet in a Hotel Parking Lot at Break Time,” “Diaspora Sonnet Heading to the Horizon’s Edge along I-84.” Can you talk about writing using these snapshot sonnets to piece together an overall narrative? 


OdlP: I write in sequences and in series. I’m not one to write a discreet poem, so a lot of these poems were composed at roughly the same moment in time. Clumps of sonnets were written about the landscape of the sage desert while another clump of sonnets were written about my family’s time in San Francisco when we had just arrived. They were all initially given the title “Diaspora Sonnet” and then a number as a placeholder. When I went into the manuscript to revise, I knew I needed more descriptive titles as a way to guide readers, so I bunched the sequences all together and created titles that would help establish the setting of the sonnets. 


DR: It’s also clear that you unsettle the notion of reading the sonnets as a sequential narrative. One of the most memorable sonnets in the collection is “Diaspora Sonnet Imagining My Parents Departure,” which, in a way, is the beginning of the story, though fully imagined by the speaker (you). That poem appears near the end of the book. I guess I’m curious about how you use a lyric form (the sonnet) to tell a story.


OdlP: I chose to distribute many of the longer sequenced pieces so that they were not adjacent to each other as a way to suggest a more episodic journey through the story of immigration. I wanted to end with “Diaspora Sonnet Imagining My Parents’ Departure” because I wanted to convey that even though the physical manifestation of departure was limited to a specific time, the journey continues in the minds of those who have embarked on that journey. The immigrant is forever immigrating. 


DR: It’s very effective, the ebb and flow of experience and memory in your poems. One element I noticed that contributes to the sensibility of this book is your frequent use of sentence fragments that drop in a concrete detail or pull away from a scene when it approaches melodrama or too much sentiment. It’s hard to illustrate with a single example, but I’ll share the first eight lines of “Diaspora Sonnet as My Father Thinking Aloud about the Wastefulness of Rice Tossed at at Wedding”:


Someone explained the blues
was suffering from political despair.

And yet it is hard to fathom art
from the unshielded body. Handfuls

of rice tossed into the air. Arc of the grains
rain their parabolas across the sky. Father

wondered at this ritual, the waste a type
of savagery. Is this a celebration or toil?


The fragment in the passage, “Handfuls // of rice tossed into the air,” is concrete and specific enough to ground the reader in a very deep memory. It feels actual and yet also symbolic. It gets at the truth. This is a nerdy poetry question, but are the fragments a new tool for you, perhaps necessitated by the fact that the experiences you’re trying to describe are from so long ago?


OdlP: Oh, dear fragments! They’re an old tool for me. It’s how my mind processes things. My mind moves from association to association. I think about choppy film edits moving the viewer from jump cut to jump cut. I think about the positioning of the speaker and the vantage point that is taking in the scene. It may look different in this book because I imagine each book as establishing a different vantage point. So the way the look of a poem changes from book to book is conscious.

The fabulist, parable-like vantage point of Names Above Houses, my first book, is actually syntactically more akin to this book even though the forms are widely different. That book is mostly prose poems, but the transitions between sections are sonnets. And I do think that your observation about the mythic distance is important. I’m defining what you’re calling “fragments” as the fracture of mythic distance which creates, in the experience of the reader, a sense of scenic lacunae. Exposition comes in to fill those gaps, so when the question about “celebration or toil” comes in, that is the speaker filling in a missing portion of narrative. And the way the speaker fills that portion is highly romanticized—mythic, if you will.   


DR: This passage is also a good example of the cultural and economic differences you explore in Diaspora Sonnets, especially from your father’s point of view. That question, “Is this a celebration or toil?” is immediately followed by the line, “He could never tell.” That’s a heartbreaking truth. 


OdlP: It’s true. I think my dad mythologized the U.S. when we first arrived. A lot of immigrants do, and it was always something that my father repeated over the years—that there were opportunities stateside that would not have been available in the Philippines had he stayed. It was kind of a mantra for him. He’s a practical dude. Things that are impractical, like tossing rice at weddings, were seen as wasteful. He was the oldest of eight siblings. His parents were shoemakers. When he was old enough to work, his parents quit their jobs. So, at a very young age, my dad became the sole income generator for a very big family. And yet, here we were in the U.S., where there was so much abundance that it seemed to short something in his brain. The extravagance didn’t make him angry, just confused.    


DR: From there, the poem moves toward an image of your father whistling and then singing between his many menial jobs, though the singing seems imagined. You write, “…it is hard to discern the art / coming from the whistle passing between / his lips.” In other poems you suggest the father has some kind of musical talent suppressed by his new circumstances in America. Can you say more about how he’s characterized?


OdlP: My dad would love to be remembered as having musical talent. He has none. But that never stopped him from whistling constantly. Badly, even. I would wake in the morning and see him and hear him whistle as he was getting dressed. When he was doing the accounting for my mother, he’d whistle while bookkeeping. It’s something I do as well (only better). I suppose it speaks to my memory of him as always trying to whistle through whatever toil he was dealing with. Sometimes, when you whistle in the dark, the spirits are held at bay. Even if you can’t carry a tune. 


DR: How does your dad feel about the poems and how you’ve characterized him as a young man?


OdlP: He’s genuinely supportive of what I do, though he does admit to not understanding all of it. He understands that I’ve constructed a mythic version of him, one that is folded together with fact and epic truth. He also understands that this is my truth and this is my understanding of his journey. My mother took on the task of putting together a spiral-bound notebook detailing their journey to the U.S. and my upbringing in Eastern Oregon and into adulthood, so a lot of that material ends up in this book, told through my lens. They’ve made peace with the fact that their son’s livelihood is slowing the framerate of their lives sometimes. 


DR: The last thing I want to say is that I felt deep envy when I read your titles. I especially love the ones that list a poem’s contents, like “Diaspora Sonnet in the Great Sage Desert with Thistle, Pyrite, and Nothing Else,” and “Diaspora Sonnet with Grandmother’s Nettle Tea, U.S. Citizenship Petitions, and Nothing Else.” I think eighteen titles end with the phrase “Nothing Else,” or “Nothing Special.” There’s something important going on here, clearly. Something both comic and tragic.


OdlP: Yes. I wanted to impress a couple of things upon the readers with those titles. First, I wanted them to think of the titles as landscape photographs, so what is detailed within the frame of the photo is the landscape but also an editorial voice that imposes a tone on that landscape. Second, I wanted to pursue a theme of boredom. I think it’s important to talk about boredom when we’re dealing with immigrant families with no community.

“Nothing Else,” “Nothing Special,” and all the other negations that occur in the titles hint at something that’s missing in the lives of these people who are traversing a vast landscape in search of work. And when they find the work, that’s it. It’s just the work. There’s no community. No friends. A whole lot of nothing. Third, I like patterns and motifs. I never write an individual poem without thinking about how that poem affects the poem that is adjacent to it. I also think about pacing and juxtapositions when I’m putting together a collection. I think of these little inserted negations as spliced segments of a particular color that set a mood for the reading of the entire work. 

David Roderick​​ is the Director of Content at The Adroit Journal and an NEA Creative Writing Fellow for 2021-2022. He has written two books, Blue Colonial and The Americans, and he lives in Berkeley, California, where he co-directs Left Margin LIT, a creative writing center and work space for writers.

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