A Look at Oliver de la Paz: A Massachusetts Poetry Festival Feature Poet

oliverdelapazOliver de la Paz is the next in our series of featured Festival poets, and we’re thrilled to have him speak at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in May!  He was born in the Philippines and raised in Ontario, Oregon, and he earned both a BA in English and a BS in biology from Loyola Marymount University, followed by an MFA from Arizona State University.  He is the author of four collections of poetry, Names Above Houses (SIU Press 2001), Furious Lullaby (SIU Press 2007), Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010) and the forthcoming Post Subject: A Fable (U. of Akron Press 2014).  Requiem for the Orchard was chosen for the Akron Prize by notable award-winning poet Martín Espada.

De la Paz is also the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry.  A founding member, he co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry.  He is also the Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP).  A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award, and a GAP grant from Artists’ Trust, his work has appeared in journals like The Southern Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, and Tin House, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry: The Next Generation. He teaches at the creative writing MFA program at Western Washington University.

Here, the poet explains his “nerdy” double major, how he came to understand that a lifelong pursuit could become a true vocation, and how excited he is to see old friends, make new ones, and buy a ton of books at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival, coming to the Commonwealth May 2-4, 2014!


A Few Questions for de la Paz

Who had the most impact on your writing when you were a beginning poet? In what way?
I discovered Li-Young Lee’s Rose when I was at a critical transitional point in my life. I had just finished college. I had just broken up with someone. I had a really difficult job as a social worker and I was a shadow for a schizophrenic man. Basically, I checked Rose out of the local library and read the book over and over for a period of two weeks. I finally got around to purchasing my own copy.

The book’s nostalgic tone and its haunted quality profoundly resonated for me and for who I was at that time in my life. I was invested in the high-seriousness of Li-Young Lee’s work, and I can’t tell you how many Li-Young Lee imitations went into the recycling bin while I was trying to shape who I was as a writer.

What convinced you that you had to be a poet?
I have always written poems. When I was in junior high, I remember typing poems on an electric typewriter. I loved the carriage return and physically having to move the carriage over with my right hand. Anyway, I didn’t decide that I wanted to pursue poetry until I was actually invited to join a number of MFA programs as a student. For a long time I was of a mindset that I had to do something in the sciences. I have a Bachelors of Science in Biology, and a Bachelors of Arts in English—I was a nerdy double major. Being actually recruited to study poetry was ultimately what made me understand that it was something I could conceivably do as a vocation.

What do you think is the most exciting development in poetry today?
I love how easy it’s become to include visual images to accompany the written word. I see a lot more interesting experimentation and hybridization with writers taking risks with the look of their art on the page.

What emerging poets do you find interesting? Why?
There are so many that excite me. So I’m going to name a few Kundiman Fellows who have recently published books and are doing tremendous things in the artistic community: Tarfia Faizullah’s book Seam was just published by Southern Illinois University Press and it’s getting some noteworthy press. Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental was published last year by Alice James Press and was a Lambda Award Finalist. Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines, also an Alice James Book, won the 2011 Kundiman Prize and is now in its second printing!  Cathy Linh Che’s book, Split, was the 2012 Kundiman Prize winner and has just recently been published. It got a very excellent review in Publishers Weekly. Sally Wen Mao’s Mad Honey Symposium won the Kinereth Gensler and will be published by Alice James Books in May. Eugenia Leigh’s Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows, is forthcoming from Four Way Books in Fall of 2014. Brynn Saito’s The Palace Contemplating Departure won Red Hen Press’s Benjamin Saltman Award and is making great waves. There are a number of other emerging Asian American poets affiliated with Kundiman. Their books and chapbooks are all listed here (online at the Kundiman’s Reading Room).

What are you most looking forward to at the Mass Poetry Festival?
I’m really looking forward to being a spectator. I want to hear Kim Addonizio play the harmonica. I want to hear Philip Levine, and I hope he reads “They Feed They Lion.” I want to hang out with my friends and meet new ones! I want to buy a lot of books!

One of His Poems

How I Learned Quiet
Begin with slowness—the drag of a candle’s flame
down to the guard, and the pump of blood into the heart
as it sinks in the rib cage. Everything was spectacle.
Mother pinched me for squirming. The timetables lied. The games
were un-winnable. The priest looked down upon me
and lo, I was a fidgeting thing. God was in the desert
feeding me cactus flowers and locusts. I sank
my cheek between my teeth and listened
to the helicopters above us. Someone coughed. Someone
held up their hands and let fabric slide down to his elbows.

(This poem was first published in the poet’s third book Requiem for the Orchard.  It appears here courtesy of Verse Daily.)