By BRYAN THAO WORRA
AAP staff writer
Oliver de la Paz is the award-winning author of three collections of poetry, Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), and Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada.
He is the co-editor with Stacey Lynn Brown of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press 2012). 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.
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 Western Washington University. You can visit more of his work at http://www.oliverdelapaz.com.
Asian American Press recently had a chance to catch up with him.
AAP: We often talk about how artists got started, but what keeps you going?
Oliver de la Paz: I’ve got different ways of approaching this question, so I’ll try my best to give you something coherent.
I’ve had the pleasure of being involved in two writing communities. One community is Kundiman, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to the discovery and promotion of Asian American poetry. I’ve been involved with this group since 2002, which was the year of its inception.
Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi were the founders of the organization then and got me involved with it as a founding member. And since then, I’ve had a growing community of Asian American writers who keep me going with their brilliance and their dedication to poetry. It’s not easy to write alone — it’s definitely much easier when you know lots of your friends are going through the same types of struggles you’re going through with your own work.
My other writing community is my online writing group. It’s very similar to what takes place during NAPOWRIMO where you’re tasked to write a poem a day for National Poetry Writing Month, but since April doesn’t work for my schedule, a handful of us write in August. There’s nothing quite like being accountable to someone, and in many ways understanding that there’s an audience who won’t judge my work in its rough form spurs me to continue the writing.
In terms of a larger answer to your question, though, I think I have always had a natural tendency towards attempting to find order in things. Writing poems helps me figure out how the world works, or at least it helps me understand how I think the world works. As a father of small children, coming to an understanding of such things is important because of how much you want to protect your children from the unknown.
AAP: What’s been a satisfying project for you recently? And where do you feel you’ve pushed yourself in your latest work?
ODLP: Right now I’m working on a manuscript currently entitled Nocturnes. They’re very dark poems dealing with our ability to objectify people, places, things.
As I mentioned in the previous question, I’m constantly trying to figure out how things work in the order of the universe, and such is the case here, where I take on dark subjects with dark motives. I would say what’s truly satisfying about this project is that it’s purely fantasy. It’s pure escape.
In many ways, I liken the process of writing these poems to method acting. Especially the type of method acting that an actor uses to embody villainy. Ultimately the actor must find a bridge into the villain’s humanity in order to find a performance that is both horrifying and filled with a type of pathos. Mind you, I’m not saying that I enjoy going there. What I enjoy is the rhythm of the work . . . how it urges me to explore a depth.
AAP: What’s changed for you over the years in your process of developing new pieces?
ODLP: Well, I’ve learned to embrace the fact that I’m a serial writer. I can never write a singular poem. I have to write bunches of poems that relate to the same subject. Earlier in my writing career, I was terrified of this because I was worried readers would get bored. Now I’m not so concerned about that. Or rather, I’m not concerned about the entertainment value of any single poem, I’m more concerned about instigating an idea through accretion. From the sheer volume of poems that I am writing on a given obsession, surely the reader will come to know my obsession too.
AAP: How do you balance family life and your art?
ODLP: Easy. I have a fantastic partner who understands that I’m an artist and gives me the time to be an artist. Meredith will take the kids to outings and whatnot if I’m feeling particularly antsy about needing to write something. We’ve been married for six years. She’s figured my moods out. My folks have moved nearby after retiring, so they help out with the child care. But ultimately, I’ve come to an understanding that my family always comes first, and that I can find time during the day to be an artist. The kids go to bed, you know.
AAP: What’s your next project you’d like to take on?
ODLP: I’m writing another sequence of prose poems roughly based on Theseus and the Minotaur. What intrigues me about the story is the backstory of the feeding of young Athenians to the Minotaur—how it’s a metaphor for feeding a war machine. So far I’m thirty poems into the project and I’m finding out a lot about the two characters: the boy (Theseus?) and the beast (Minotaur). We’ll see what comes of it.