Oliver de la Paz still "profoundly" misses the Northwest

Our May poet-in-residence, Oliver de la Paz, is the first Seattle Review of Books-published poet who does not currently live in the Pacific Northwest. We wanted to spotlight him because for well over a decade, he was one of the best-respected writers in town — one of those rare selfless authors who would show up as a sign of support at book launch parties even when he wasn’t scheduled to read. You always get the sense from his work and his enthusiasm that de la Paz is honored to be a part of a community that is greater than he is.

De la Paz’s work is inquisitive and bold and formally strong, which is likely a reason why he is such a wonderful teacher of poetry: the thoughtfulness and intent he brings to his work is inspirational to young writers who have yet to formulate their own discipline. We talked on the phone last week about his origins, his technique, and what he misses about the Seattle area.

When did you leave Seattle?

I left in July 2016.

And how long were you a writer in Seattle?

Well, I actually lived in Bellingham, Washington, and the surrounding area from 2005 to 2016.

Whoops, yeah, sorry. Sometimes I use “Seattle” as a catch-all for the state and then Bellinghamsters and Spokaniacs get very mad at me ...

Spokaniacs? Is that really what they're called?

I don't believe so, no. I just made it up, but I'm going to stick with it. So for eleven years you were a really devoted member of the writing community. You were one of the most-liked poets in town, based on my conversations with other poets. And you left the area for a teaching job, correct?

Yeah, now I'm teaching at the College of the Holy Cross, which is in central Massachusetts.

I was wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about what it’s been like moving across country, because you were so well-known in the region and well-loved in the community.

I'm a Northwesterner. I was raised in eastern Oregon, and I have a lot of family members who live in the Portland area. So Seattle was relatively close by, and we would sometimes meet up in Seattle. So I actually had a lot of family members living in or around the greater Northwest metropolitan hub.

And all of my children were born in Bellingham. As far as the poetry community is concerned, there were a number of close friendships that I made and that I still hold that were fostered by being in that I-5 corridor, and driving up and down the I-5 corridor to attend readings, or to be a participant in some of the readings. I miss that greatly. I miss the folks over there a tremendous amount. I had a community that was readily on hand in the Northwest.

And I'm in the process of building a community here. Really, it's just my family and I here, and most of my friends are in New York, so it's still a bit of a trek. I've been trying to reach out to folks and learn about the literary community here.

When I was in the Northwest, each moment, each reading, was a big event, and they were always quite well attended. It may be that I just don't know my way around the community [here] yet, but it feels like, because there's a very large concentration of writers and poets, it's a big pond and I'm a little fish. And in many ways, that's okay. I like that. I kind of like some of the anonymity that's going on here.

But I also miss — you know, it circles back to the community. I have a pretty strong poetry and writing community in the Northwest who I just profoundly miss.

Since we’re on the subject, can you talk about the importance of community, as a poet? Because a lot of people on the outside, I think, view writing as this sort of solitary at best — or misanthropic at worst — sort of lifestyle. And do you teach community to your writing students?

I believe art and the making of art is actually a collaborative exercise. I think that, you know, so much of the belief in writing is that it is indeed a solitary exercise. And part of that is true. Part of the endeavor of writing is being alone and delving deep within one’s own self.

But then there's that other part that, once the writing is done, in order to elevate it to the level of art, you have to celebrate it in the public sphere. And that is something that I'm trying to, you know, build back up for my own self here. But it was definitely something that was fully abundant in the Northwest, with that community of writers.

Communities are really, really essential, because there are ways that art can get lost if it's not performed or it's not shared in that public sphere, in that communal air.

I do want to add, Seattle is really, really fortunate to have a center like the Hugo House and the Jack Straw programs and Artist Trust and, of course, the Seattle Review of Books. There's some really great communities and networks for writers to get a handle on in the Northwest that I'm glad that I was able to take advantage of when I was there.

That first poem [published on the Seattle Review of Books in the first week of May], “Diaspora Sonnet,” that was a part of piece that was written in collaboration with Kundiman Fellows. Kundiman is an Asian-American literary arts organization that I have been a part of for quite some time now. And we were actually writing a number of these postcards and sending them out to each other; “Diaspora Sonnet” was one of the poems originally on a postcard.

The idea of community has been foundational to my pedagogy, my teaching. Part of the writing of art is also the celebration and elevation of art in the communal state, so that you are not just an artist, you are an artist-citizen. I find that family essential to the making of art.

And we're kind of moving backwards here, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your journey into poetry. Did you always know you were a poet, or is that something that came to you later in life?

When I started out in writing and letters, it was really by accident. My parents were immigrants — they immigrated from the Philippines in 1972. One of the first things that they did as new immigrants was they subscribed to Reader's Digest. And one of the benefits or perks of being a subscriber to Reader's Digest was you would get access to their book catalog.

And my father, who is pretty literate, and literary, and a reader, selected a whole bunch of books. And one of the books that he selected was The Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. Which is really bizarre.

I think that he picked Robert Penn Warren’s selected poems because All the King’s Men was sort of making a splash in the 70s and, you know, my father wanted to buy into that. That was my first poetry book, and it was bizarre. It was a very curious thing.

Flashing forward a little bit, I decided not to be a poet but to be a doctor. I was a pre-med student, and I was taking all these science classes at Loyola Marymount University. And you had to take classes in the humanities.

One of my classes was a poetry class, and I dug back into my memories of going through the Robert Penn Warren book and trying to experiment with poems on a typewriter. I wrote some poems for that class, and the teacher liked them and really encouraged me to keep writing. And eventually I got a minor in English, which ended up becoming a second major. And then I just decided, hey, this is what I wanted to do. This is what I wanted to pursue.

But honestly, I didn't really take it seriously until I was admitted into grad school for it — for the writing, for poetry. I just thought, “this is something to tide me over while I try to get into medical school, or while I pursue my degree in microbiology.”

Quite honestly, I was a scientist. I was deeply entrenched in the scientific field.

There’s obviously precedent with William Carlos Williams, as a doctor who's also a poet. Was that something you considered?

At the time, I had no idea. The weird thing is I was an EMT while I was writing, in Los Angeles County. And while I was an EMT, the LA riots happened. And so storefronts were getting burned out, and I had a horrible time, and it kind of turned me off to the whole endeavor.

I felt that I didn't have the temperament for the medical profession. And I think it was an extreme case, but it was just something that turned me off from it.

I just found I didn't have the temperament. I couldn't stomach it.

Wow. Sorry to do this, but circling back a minute, I don't think I realized that Robert Penn Warren wrote poetry. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like? Did you like it? Do you like it now?

No. No, not at all.

It was really odd and folksy, and he did a lot of experimentation with lineation and line break. There's a lot of white space.

I honestly don't remember much of it. It left that strong of an impression on me. All I remember is the physical space of the poems on the page, and that was what I was trying to duplicate.

I was really interested in the dynamic quality of what a line break looks like, and what a typewriter can do, and what pushing back that carriage return does to my wellbeing. So it was more of a physical response than an actual aesthetic understanding or an intellectual understanding, if that makes sense.

Do you still write on a typewriter?

No, I don't. I’m one of those terrible people. I write everything on a word processor, and I don't even save old drafts. I used to. I used to be pretty compulsive about that, but I just stopped because I was creating so much clutter.

I was the last generation in my high school to learn how to type on a typewriter, and I kept one around for a while. And my writing is very different on a typewriter — more aggressive and clipped, I think in part because of the mechanical nature of the carriage return.

Yeah, it was something that hummed in the body. You type, then you reach that end of the line, and then you would take your right arm and just shove that thing over to the left, pushing it all the way back, and it would make that great sound. That was writing to me when I was growing up: physical, kinesthetic.

I don't have anything to duplicate the physical interaction with the typewriter now, other than I actually listen to a lot of music and I kind of zone out when I'm writing. That's kind of the closest thing that I can think of at this moment.

So do you listen to music with lyrics when you're writing?

No, no I can't. That would drive me crazy. I listen to the band Explosions in the Sky, and some others. I like a lot of lot of fuzzed-out stuff, and even classical jazz that has no lyrics and no speaking.

If there was speaking or the human voice [in the music], I think it would mess with what I was doing on the page — or I should say the screen, since I'm not using a typewriter.

I wanted to thank you for sharing your poems with our readers. I think that it's an interesting mix of poems. You've got the Prince elegy and the story problems — there's a lot of humor in there. Do you think that this sampling, these five weeks, are representative of your work? Or what would you want someone who doesn’t know your work to know about these pieces?

That's an interesting question. I honestly don't ever think of myself as a humorous writer, or that what I'm doing is humorous. Except for the Prince poem. I thought that I was being intentionally cheeky with that poem, even though I wanted to elegize him. That was a poem that I had written immediately after finding out that he had died.

The story problems were never intentionally humorous, although I do think that they can be smartly funny or taken ironically in some regard.

And as far as a representation of my work, I'm constantly shifting what I'm doing. Out of boredom, or out of an understanding that sometimes a project needs a different set of principles or guidelines to push forward.

The story problems are actually a way for me to solve a problem I found in a current manuscript that needed some type of interruption — to keep it from being so much of a one-note thing. So I tried to shift direction, there. And the Diaspora poems are closer to the type of lyrics that I like to write when I'm writing shorter pieces.

But honestly, I still can't pin down what it is that I do, because often what I'm doing is in response to stuff that I'm reading. I read a lot — constantly.

We talked about how writing takes place in the community. I believe in a community of writers. Every time I write, I'm constantly responding to work that I'm reading, and sometimes that changes the shape of what I'm writing.

Okay. That's very interesting to me, obviously, since I co-founded a book review site. And also because a lot of poets seem to find their groove and then stick to it, but I don't know if I can pin a distinctive style on you. So I feel like that's some interesting insight in that your writing is in a relationship with your reading life. Do you read broadly, or do you read along certain avenues, or do you just happen across books?

I will look at who's winning the NBCC and the Pulitzer and the National Book Awards. I'll look into all of those books and I'll read all of them.

But I'll also dig into Small Press Distribution, stuff that's maybe a little more edgy and more experimental. And a lot of times when I do that, when I dig into some of the more obscure or experimental works, I'm hunting to find a way to solve a problem that I'm encountering in my own work that is not solvable by conventional means. Just to see how other writers are approaching analogous issues of writing.

Do you read a lot of poetry or prose, or both?

I read a lot of poetry. I basically read at least a collection a week, if not more. I just read Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary, which was a collection of lyric essays. She makes use of a lot of white space, which is attractive to me. That was something that was exciting to me as a poet, seeing how a nonfiction writer tackles long forms.

I've read a lot of Maggie Nelson; Bluets in particular was something that I loved. I look for nonfiction folks who write lyric essays and that's the other thing that I've been reading.

But I do read quite a few novels, and I listen to a lot of books on tape. I just read The Underground Railroad by Whitehead. If I could show you my library — it's so crammed with stuff right now, and I'm reluctant to give any of it away.

How much of it came across the country with you?

Almost all of it, which is insane. I tried to have a thing at my house where I was giving away books, and nobody took anything of great note. They took maybe like 200 books, but that didn't put that much of a dent into my collection.

I have a lot of books. And so I basically hauled them all across country, and that was the bulk of my freight cost.

What are you working on now? Do you have a break from school from teaching?

I do, yeah. It's now summer.


Thank you. I'm so happy to have summer.

The story problems are part of a book project. It's a sequence of prose poems based on my son, who's on the autistic spectrum.

Part of what I'm attempting in that collection — the problem is, I'm trying to find a way to write about him, while allowing him the dignity of his selfhood. And that was one of the more difficult things to consider when I was writing these. For a long time, I was really reluctant to even start writing about it, but he gave me permission.

There's an allegory that's running through the book, but then I needed some type of interruption from the allegory to make it biographical. That's where some of these mathematical problems are coming in, and that's where the story problems come in.

Can I ask how old is your son is?

He's nine years old. And he is quite a dude. He's interested in science. He's a hell of a mathematician.

You know, he's a total iPad junkie and video game nerd, which is kind of my type of people. And he's genuinely interested in the world, which couldn't make me happier.

It's interesting to me that you say you're a video game person, because I would think that would get in the way of the reading. I had to make a conscious decision to not get into video games because I wanted more time for reading. So, I'm impressed that you can do both.

I can barely sustain it, Paul. I mean, I can really barely sustain it. But in the summer I'm good — really well behaved.

Is there anything that you wanted to express to the readers of this site?

No, except that I just miss the Northwest terribly, and I miss my colleagues and my friends. And I will be back in late July/early August for the Pacific Lutheran University low residency.

Okay. And are you doing any readings in that time?

Yeah, I think I'm going to be reading for PLU's faculty reading — I believe it's the first Tuesday of the residency.

Okay, please let me know when you confirm it, because I would like to let people know about it. I know that you are terribly missed here as well.

Thank you, Paul.