Oliver de la Paz in conversation with The Poet SalonSpring 2020
Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry and a co-chair for Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting the work of Asian American poets. A recipient of grants from the NEA and Artist Trust, de la Paz teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
In 2020, de la Paz went on The Poet Salon podcast to discuss poetry, community, and his latest book, The Boy in the Labyrinth, which draws from myth, science, and his own experiences as a parent to explore autism, language, and development. The Poet Salon is hosted by Moss poetry editor Dujie Tahat along with Gabrielle Bates and Luther Hughes. The conversation below is edited for form and clarity.
Let’s get into this conversation. As someone born in the Philippines myself, I grew up in Eastern Washington. You also came from the Philippines and grew up in Eastern Oregon, which is like the country of the Pacific Northwest—very different from Seattle and Portland. I’m curious how you arrived at poetry, and at what point you realized it was a profession.
We arrived in the country in 1972. My parents left the Philippines after Marcos had declared martial law. And part of the reason why we had to leave the country was they were political refugees. My uncle on my father’s side was blacklisted by the Marcos regime. Anyone who was blacklisted was basically a target for assassination or murder.
My dad took the temperature of the room and just said, “we’ve got to get the hell out. We have to get out of here.” How that came to pass is an interesting story. He basically stood in line. There’s a camp in the Philippines called Camp Crazy, where there was a queue about a mile long.
He waited in that line almost a week to get his visas stamped. And he finally got fed up and just threw it at the guy who was stamping visas, left, went home, got lunch, came back and found his visa stamped. We left basically that afternoon. He got a ticket to America. We packed what little we had and we flew into San Francisco, and that was it.
My mother at the time was a physician so she basically dropped her practice. She dropped everything, and she had to start over. What ended up happening is she did her residency in Virginia after San Francisco, then did her internship in Connecticut, and then purchased a practice from a lady who was retiring in Eastern Oregon.
Part of the deal back then was that in order to get her credentials, she had to serve an underserved population. So we ended up in Eastern Oregon, and basically, my father wept when he saw what the landscape looked like. And I have to say that, because of the landscape, because there was no community, that’s where I retreated into books, where I retreated into my imagination. And I’m an only child, so I was always writing. Most of my time was spent by myself creating, inventing, reading.
How did your parents take it when you told them you were going to be a poet?
Uh huh. Well, Filipino to Filipino: Not well at first. I mean, my dad still asks me, “Hey, why don’t you take the LSAT? Why don’t you get a business degree, or something like that,” after all this time. I’m like, “Hello? I’m almost in my fifties. I mean, this is not going to happen, Dad.”
My mom, who was a physician, took it well. She understood. She knew that I didn’t really have the temperament. I had to sort of make peace with myself. You know, I did all the pre-med stuff. I did all the medical stuff. I was trying to be the dutiful son. I was an EMT for two years, in L.A. County. That was right around ‘93, ‘94, right around the L.A. riots, the Rodney King beating, all of that. It was a wild time.
You have a new book out that’s very exciting, The Boy in the Labyrinth. I wanted to talk a little bit about that. The book opens with this almost preface piece, where you really lay the context of the book bare and talk in a pretty plainspoken way about being the father of these two boys who are on the autism spectrum.
I was wondering if you would talk about, if you’re comfortable, how what you’ve learned about autism has affected how you think about poetry?
I think it’s changed my relationship with the metaphor. My children don’t think metaphorically—they think in terms of causation. If this, then this. With the metaphor, there’s a transference. And for them, that transference doesn’t happen.
But I think that it’s changed how I approach writing, too. That opening piece is my way of saying, “OK, I need to back up away from the metaphor and metaphoric language and be direct here.” It serves as an anchoring piece for the book, because it’s so metaphorical that I think readers who don’t have that context won’t know that that’s what I’m talking about.
So, in a nutshell, it’s made me consider and scrutinize the way I’m using language. The way I’m speaking, the use of repetition has become really important, the use of clarity. So instead of metaphor, I’m using syntax. Instead of using these deep images, I’m using clarity of language, but maybe a little bit more repetition or insistence.
I’m curious about your process for organizing and sectioning the book. How did ordering play a role in working through all these things?
I think that is something I came to late. The initial impetus for the book was those labyrinths of prose poems—there were a hundred of them, which was sort of an unwieldy thing to manage, and I didn’t know how to approach or engage it. And so that’s where that imperative came in: “I don’t know how to organize this. I don’t know what I’m doing.” This feeling of disorder came in, and what ended up happening is, I gave it some time and distance. I walked away from it for a while. I started writing the book in 2008, so it’s been on the burner for some time.
And while that was cooking, I was working on two other things, so I had an outlet to go to, but I kept being called back to this. And in terms of the organization or the structure, I didn’t come to the ode structure that you might see in this until the eleventh hour.
And why the ode? I wanted to structure it in a way that was argumentative, if that makes sense. I think that the book is an argument. The book is a type of discussion that I’m having with myself and that includes whether or not I have permission to have this conversation about the subject. That’s sort of what’s underlying in the book. I’m arguing with myself as a father, primarily.
Was there a clarifying moment for you, where you gave yourself the permission to be explicit? At what point did that first poem enter?
I went to a writing retreat residency where I was one of the teachers up in Canada, out in B.C., and Alicia Ostriker was one of the other teachers. My kids were there, and they were running around, having fun, and basically being part of the retreat experience. And Alicia Stricker knew that I wasn’t writing about them or I didn’t think I was writing about them.
And then she socked me in the elevator and was like, “Why aren’t you writing about these kids?” And I basically asked myself that question after I left, “Why? Why am I not writing these things?” That sort of issued fourth from me a charge that I’m going to start writing about my kids. I’m going to start engaging in the personal in ways that I hadn’t before.
So that’s where I started unpeeling the mask, if that makes sense. I was definitely using a mask to write these poems at the start. I think it just took a punch from Alicia Stricker.
A literal punch.
Sometimes a literal punch.
There’s a line in The Boy in the Labyrinth—“The boy does not know home. Only its omission”—that makes me wonder what you think of when you think of home. And if it’s something that you also think of in terms of negation.
It’s about comfort for me. I’m a person of ritual. I like my routine. My boys are very much beings who require ritual. Part of their diagnosis and what is expected for them, and what is sort of tracked in kids who have autism, is that they need a particular type of routine. There’s safety in the routine and there’s a particular type of comfort in the routine.
And I need that routine, too. I need that particular type of comfort. So that’s home for me. And the understanding or the expectation that things will be as they are, I kind of like that. I like the expected. I don’t like a whole lot of surprises.
It’s funny because we started the conversation with you talking about, you know, being in the country of Eastern Oregon. Not having a sense of community. I think that’s an interesting place to think, too, about your role with Kundiman, and your role as a community builder. Is there a relationship between having had a lack of community, and the role that you see yourself in now and how that feels like home to you?
If you ever have the chance to see what Kundiman does, I think that you know, the community that Sarah and Joseph have built over the years is really foundational for a lot of artists. One of the things that having a community that’s like a home for folks does is that it grants them permission.
I think that in the Asian American community, in particular, there’s a lot of trauma that isn’t talked about. I mean, if we think about it, particularly the newer immigrants—say the Cambodians, the Vietnamese, the Hmong population—they’re the children of war. And so the space that we provide in Kundiman, that Joseph and Sarah have been providing for years, has been a space that often allows people comfort, routine, ritual, all these things that we talked about. The expectations of home in the sense that you belong.
The other thing with the Asian American community is that some-times,because we’re sort of a newer immigrant population, there’s a misunderstanding that resides in the artist. We don’t understand the artist in the community. It’s not practical. It is not something that say,
first-generation immigrants expect from their children.
I also bought into that. And I think that as I’ve developed in the community, I’ve also found a particular type of home in that kind of work, in that kind of community building.
One of my obsessions is the ethics of witness, and particularly in relationship with family. And The Boy in the Labyrinth is a deeply autobiographical book, about your two sons. But the actual poems have very few first-person pronouns, right? And the poems are very allegorical and mythic like we’ve talked about. The speaker is omniscient and often sort of disembodied. And I’m curious, as I think about the poetics of witness: the way to maintain a certain kind of ethic, at least for me, is to sort of have your body at stake. To be in it. And so I’m curious for you, how do you wrestle with the ethics of witness? With a disembodied voice?
That’s a great question. I think that it is still something that I’m struggling with in this book. Gabby, you noted that there’s sort of a preface that opens up the book, and I think that is functionally the place where I offer my body, but I don’t offer it anywhere else in the book. And I think that’s a conversation I’m still having with myself as I perform the work. I think what’s particularly fraught for me as a neurotypical person is talking about issues of neurodiversity.
What I know is that the work is asynchronous with how I think and how I am now as a parent. And that’s okay, right? That’s okay that in my process of being a parent and being a poet and learning and growing from this process, I understand that there are moments where this mask is problematic. I mean, it is, and I have to own that. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love the work that I did and that I don’t embrace it. But I have to acknowledge that there are moments when I’m worried that I might hurt my son, I might hurt my children, I might hurt somebody from the neurodiverse community.
I think that I’m attempting in the opening and in the closing to say, “look, I understand the limitations of myself as witness”—and I think that it’s just a gesture, right? It’s just a gesture. It’s not going to solve everything. But it’s more or less an assurance for myself that I’m trying to learn. I’m trying to do good. I also think that it’s important to educate yourself. There’s some really great work by neurodiverse artists out there. There’s a series of chapbooks called Unrestricted Interest, and it’s put together by Chris Martin. He basically publishes a lot of neurodiverse artists who are non-verbal, who are just amazing artists.
I really am trying to negotiate my positionality. I know it’s fraught—I understand that. It’s fraught. I understand that I’m vulnerable, that I’m liable to hurt people’s feelings, but I think that part of my efforts to talk about it, including having this conversation, is to say, look, there’s work that’s being done by some really fantastic neurodiverse people. We should pay attention to that. We should really jump on board for that, for that wonderful work.
I’m curious too about the choice to not name your sons in the book.
I had them named, and then I took it out. In several places they were named, and then I struck them. Part of that was editorial, there were just some inconsistencies. But another part of it was that I wanted at least the veil of protection. It’s hard to write about family. It’s really hard.
I did talk to them about this, that I was writing about them, but not for them. And I think that my oldest understood. He says, “I get it. It’s fine.” He may have a different answer at 16. He may have a different answer when he’s 21. I have to acknowledge that we are, as people, in flux too. I have to respect his interest in his interiority. He also certainly understands where I’m coming from as a writer. He doesn’t block me or prevent me from writing certain things. But again, he’s still young, so that may change.
I’m hearing that this book has taught you something about a poem as a gesture—and the intention behind just doing a poem, how that can sometimes fail, and taking ownership in “the failure of the gesture.”
This book is entirely about failure. I think that it’s important to say that it opens with an essay about failure. I understand that there are ways in which I’m not going to reach the community that I want to reach. That said, myth is one way to access or attempt to access a community.
Who has access to that community, a particular type of community? Who knows Theseus in the Minotaur myth? That’s a particular community, right? And so immediately, because I’m using this allusion, I know that I’m not going to reach certain people. I know that I’m not going to reach my kids. I think that trying these particular types of skins is a way of stepping into different vehicles. Here’s the tenor. I’m going to try different shapes to express that tenor in a way that maybe you’ll understand.
There’s a particular type of labor that happens between us when we’re trying to understand, or when we’re trying to negotiate the terms of our discussion.
You mentioned trying on skins, which made me think about the anthology that you edited, A Face to Meet the Faces, which is all about persona poetry. And that was years ago. But I’m wondering how you’re thinking about persona poetry maybe differently now than you did when you were putting that anthology together.
Can we talk about Keats? I might get in trouble here. There’s this idea that Keats grants you permission, the negative capability that you can inhabit all these selves. That you can aspire to write. It’s this particular type of permission. I don’t know if that works in this era. You know what I mean? I don’t know if that works without a particular type of informed consent, if that makes sense. There has to be some level of understanding.
I think it’s the same understanding I had when I developed the anthology with [my co-editor] Stacey Lynn Brown. There’s a particular boundary, a particular type of negotiation that you have to do when you’re trying on a face. And then you’re trying on a skin.
There are two things that you’ve got to consider when you’re thinking about persona. You’re thinking about accuracy, conveying this person accurately. But then you also have to think about whether you’re attuning yourself to that particular persona. And attunement is kind of the bigger, broader category of—“Have I read and understood the history? Have I looked at that community and understood the community in my limited capacity? What are the boundaries of territory that I can’t cross? So, if we’re juggling these two ideas, accuracy and attunement, I think in a lot of ways attunement and centering yourself and the skin is far more important.
I’m curious about failure. I think it’s really interesting to propose that this book is about failure. And I think, I guess we’re probably being honest, a lot of us start writing poems from a place of failure, but never get to that self-realization. As a matter of craft, how do you then know that your poem isn’t a failure?
I ask my students this: “How do you know when a poem is done right at home?” I just send them out. Sometimes I let someone else make that decision and then I come back to it, and then I renegotiate my relationship with the work. I always view publication not necessarily as an end, but a part of the editorial process. I think that’s a healthy way to think about publication, right? Sometimes you just have to surrender the work. Sometimes you have to let it go. I’m very much in process. I’m thinking about this book, and how I think about it is constantly changing. Robert Lowell was constantly revising his work. I’m still noodling and taking out words as I read.
But in a lot of ways, performance—when you perform the work—that’s a different type of revision, right? You’re changing the work so that it performs well in front of a particular audience. You’re changing the way in which the art occupies a space. Certain poems aren’t going to work as rendered, so you have to change them. And I think that that’s okay. That’s part of the process.
I mean, isn’t every poem a failure in a way? Every poem is somewhat of a gesture, and a gesture is just leaning towards the actual thing. In some ways, poems are… it’s the closest sort of thing to what you want it to be, but it’s still not going to be done. Everything’s a failure.
I mean, we’re getting into some philosophical conversations now. But the language itself is a failure. And therefore, how can poetry, which is the art of language, not also be a failure?
I think that part of the thing that we’re negotiating with is we’re trying to represent—in our best way and in our best space at this particular time or this particular moment—an emotion or a belief or a feeling. And you’re not going to feel that ten minutes later, you’re not going to feel that an hour later, but someone else might.
And that’s the negotiation of art, right? You create this thing and then you move on, because your feelings and your moments and your being is asynchronous with the art that you’ve made, but it might be synchronous with someone else.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Seven.