Ashlie Kauffman: Since you know what it’s like to enter contests and win an award for a manuscript, I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on the process and what it’s like. (Any advice?)
Oliver de la Paz: I’ve had the good fortune of having a judge select my manuscript in two open poetry competitions. It is, however, a bit of a stressful endeavor. I actually had a separate savings account I had used to pay for entry fees and postage (which was useful for tax purposes). My one big bit of advice is to be familiar with the titles a particular press has been publishing. By reading and researching what kind of books a press has been known to publish, you’ll get a sense of the tone and tenor of the books the press likes to publish.
AK: I’d like to ask you some questions about your writing, as your work is remarkably varied. Your first book, Names Above Houses, is a sequence of poems about a character. We were lucky to publish several poems in our Winter 2013 issue from another sequence you’ve been working on, called “Labyrinth.” What kind of effort does it take you to write poems that congeal around a central character and topic, that’s different from how it is for you to write poems otherwise?
OdlP: To answer your last question first, I write predominantly in sequences and in series. It has been my mode of writing since graduate school, and it’s a process that I’m comfortable in. The big issues that come with writing in this fashion are the high possibility that discreet poems do not function independent of their cohort. I’ve learned to not worry (too much) about this over time. Anyway, I find that writing in this way allows me to sustain an idea or a sense of purpose over time. It’s far too difficult for me to encounter a blank screen or a blank page without any context. But when I come to the work desk with a map, a blueprint, a guide . . . then I feel it’s much easier to take up the task once again.
AK: The “Labyrinth” poems and most of those in Names Above Houses are prose poems. I was struck, though, at how much Names Above Houses reminded me in its form of Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s novel Madeleine is Sleeping, which is written in short lyrical passages. I’m wondering what your thoughts are about the differences between prose poems and lyrical prose, and what prose poems afforded you in developing a sequence about a character. Does character seem more suited to the form of the prose poem to you?
OdlP: I’ve been reading a lot of “hybrids” lately, because they seem to afford me a type of access to rules and principles that allow me to solve a particular type of narrative problem. I can’t write a novel. My attentions are so attenuated that I can only focus on moments and instances, so when I come upon a character that interests me, my recourse is the default sequential/series type of writing that I’ve adapted over the years. I’m teaching a class on the prose poem at the moment and, hell, I don’t know what the differences are between things because, to me, genre is a fluid thing. I’ve never felt bound by the limits of genre because the term is itself a mystery to me. So when you ask me what’s the difference between prose poems and lyrical prose, I don’t have a great answer for you. I figure things out by tinkering. I’m still very much in the process of tinkering. If you give me a few more years I may have a better answer.
AK: Do you have other thoughts you’d like to offer about what you admire about poetic sequences?
OdlP: I’ve always admired the process of painters, particularly when they engage in prolonged studies while attempting to commit a large painting to a grand canvas. I liken what I’m doing with poetic sequences to be a similar type of process. A lot of paint gets spilled. I like the mess . . . the recognition of an imperfect/flawed act.
AK: Your second book, Furious Lullaby, contains ten aubades. What draws you to that form, or what do you admire about it?
OdlP: Those poems were written while I was transitioning from the prose poems of Names Above Houses to shorter lyric poems. I was finding that I had forgotten how to write lines. Anyway, I initially devised the poems as exercises for myself. They were attempts at reconciliation for disparate ideas, tones, and objects. But such attempts, I found, were too broad. So I had to create a frame within which I could work. The Aubades created an endpoint–a place the poem needed to go. Without the coming of the dawn, the poems would’ve been too ethereal for me to handle.
AK: So much of both Furious Lullaby and Requiem for the Orchard seems influenced by the need to tell, especially in the poems that are spoken to your son(s). In Requiem for the Orchard, these poems to your son(s) serve as a kind of frame for the rest of the poems, implying that all the poems are a kind of dedication. What do you think about the purpose of writing in regards to this? Where does your need to write come from?
OdlP: I suppose I started writing poetry because I was a lonely kid. I was an only child. An immigrant child. A child who was left alone quite a bit. I spent most of my hours reading by myself. And I imagine that I am still that kid in my poems. I’m that kid who wants to tell someone something amazing or sad or hopeful. So I often write poems that have someone, an “other” in mind. There are some things you really can’t do alone, like conspire or form a mob. The same is true with writing poems. That there is some kind of audience in mind when we set about writing these things that tell other people that we are sad, lonely, outraged, or horny. That we feel deeply human emotions and that despite it all, when we write we are fighting our loneliness.
AK: Again you turn to a loose kind of form, in Requiem for the Orchard, in the poems that are self-portraits and requiems. How have these approaches served you in your writing?
OdlP: I always set about making rules for myself when I sit down to write, mostly because I can’t work from nothing. If there are too many possibilities, I get overwhelmed, so much of my writing process is sorting rather than generating. When I sit to write, I often find that I have accumulated a ton of data–the germination periods of particular seeds, mating rituals of particular birds, all of it–so I need to create a scaffold where I can stand, have a vantage point, and make logical choices for poems. The Self Portraits were such occasions. My memories were filled with instances that I could’ve recounted as stories, but discreetly, they didn’t amount to anything except a disparate collection of stories. So the titles suggested a larger connection which actually stemmed the writing of more pieces. The Requiem poems were actually a single, eight-sectioned poem, originally published by Guernica entitled “Requiem for the Orchard.” I struggled with the idea of chopping it up for a long time, because in Requiem for the Orchard, the manuscript, I saw the long poem as creating a tonal weight that halted progress through the narrative of the whole book. I sacrificed the long poem for the good of the book as a whole. I think the poem works better as a long poem, personally, but having the sonnet-like pieces sorted throughout the book allows the rest of the poems to build and grow.
AK: Can you tell us something about your book that’s forthcoming?
OdlP: Sure, it’s another sequential book of prose poems entitled Post Subject: A Fable. The poems are addressed to “Empire,” and are short epistolary pieces that catalog a place that may or may not exist. I was thinking of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities when I was writing it, but also of Teresa Cha’s Dictee. A number of the poems are also ekphrastic poems, generated from a series of postcards from magnum photographers, published by Phaidon. The project started after the 2007 Kundiman Retreat. Poet and scholar Timothy Yu suggested the fellows and staff members write and send poetry postcards to each other for a month. So that’s more or less how the project got started, but then I couldn’t stop writing the poems. A few years later I had over a hundred of the things and set about constructing Post Subject.
AK: You’ve graciously given a lot of time to the poetry world through your service to Kundiman and to AWP. Can you tell us how those organizations are important to you?
OdlP: In a way I grew up having both of these communities guide my growth. I attended my very first AWP Conference in 1997, when the Conference was held in Portland, OR. It was so puny then! The entire book fair was probably, 50 exhibits, and you could hold the thing in a small ballroom. I remember being able to see and read peoples’ name badges from across the room. In many ways, my participation in the conference taught me how to navigate the very messy world of poetry and academia. I don’t want to say that my involvement in the organization has “professionalized” me. It hasn’t. Rather, it has taught me a lot about the writing community, how the community needs its own members to care for the arts, and how important taking responsibility for the literary world is for a writer as they begin to find their way. Further, it’s taught me that I also need to model what it means to be an artist-citizen for my own students.
Kundiman is a profoundly important organization for me, and I am deeply proud of what I see and how I see it changing the landscape of American poetry. I remember when it was difficult to find resources that spoke to my Asian Americanness. When Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi came to my apartment with their idea for the retreat, I thought they were crazy! But I also thought that if they could pull it off, they would be doing something that a lot of Asian American poets need–they would be creating a community where an Asian American writer could write without having to constantly explain themselves. The persistent feeling of responsibility for one’s context could be put aside for a moment because that context is understood. Anyway, I wish I had had an organization like Kundiman when I was just coming into poetry. The fellows who are out there in the world, doing great things, are fantastic inspirations to one another and to me.
AK: And finally, as the father of three boys, plus having a teaching career, how do you find time to write?
OdlP: Magic. Her name is Meredith. She makes me write, even when I don’t want to. There are lots of days when I don’t want to write. When I’m exhausted, but I manage. And my proclivity to write in sequences or in series helps me feel like I’m making progress. My opportunities to write are not very frequent, but nowadays I find that I don’t waste as much time as I did when I didn’t have children. Plus, I find that I can do far more with a poem in 30 minutes nowadays than when I could before children. I suppose a survival mechanism has kicked in. You hear of those stories when people who are in great peril can lift automobiles. I suppose its something like that.
Oliver da la Paz is our judge for our inaugural 2013 poetry chapbook, deadline October 1, 2013 (entry fee: $15). You can submit your entries here.