Obsession, Grace, and the Second Book:
An Interview with Oliver de la Paz by Diana Park

Oliver de la Paz was born in Manila, Philippines, and raised in Ontario, Oregon. He has a B.S. in Biology and a B.A. in English from Loyola Marymount University, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Arizona State University. He has taught at Arizona State University, Gettysburg College, Utica College, and he currently teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. A recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, his work has appeared in journals such as Quarterly West, The Asian Pacific American Journal, North American Review, and elsewhere. His book of prose and verse, Names Above Houses, was a winner of the Crab Orchard Award Series and published by Southern Illinois University Press. His second book, Furious Lullaby, will be published in 2007 by Southern Illinois University Press.
Diana Park is a recent MFA graduate from Arizona State University, where she co-edited the international section of Hayden's Ferry Review. Her work has appeared in a few journals, including Poet Lore and Tin House. This fall, she is headed to South Korea on two Fulbright grants.

Diana Park: How do you define obsession?
Oliver de la Paz: Boy, start me off with the hard question! This one, I file under the “I know it when I see it category.” I suppose I can attempt to define it through my process and through a narrative. For my second collection, I’d been gathering images by taking bike rides in the country while I was teaching at Gettysburg College. I was biking down a road near the battlefield cemetery when I saw a host of sparrows fly up from the ground and veer about in orbit like a single animal. I tried to capture the image through turns of phrase and sound patterns in a poem entitled “Messengers.” Later, I tried to talk about the wake of the image in my psyche, how it stayed with me over the years. I wrote a long poem entitled “Aporia,” in the hopes that I’d recapture my emotions on that day. Still, much later, I went back to the idea of the sparrows and wrote a poem entitled “Aubade with Bread for Sparrows.” I’m constantly looking for patterns in things, and I’m very deliberate when it comes to discovering these patterns in my writing. You could call these recurring images obsessions. I call them revisions.
DP: There are certain words--mouth, hand, wings, stars--that appear throughout the book. I wonder if you tried to avoid/excise or release/exercise those words during your writing process.
ODLP: Yes, there are a number of words that I’ve forbidden myself to write. “Mouth,” “hand,” “bone,” “teeth,” “wing,” “bird,” “star,” “moon,” “blue,” “ghost,” “light,” “dawn,” the list goes on and on. But I’m really bad at keeping such promises to myself when I’m creating. I fall in love with the sounds of certain words and I keep using them. One editor told me that I used the word “sparrow,” too much in my second book, and she’s right. When I hear a sound that attracts me, it’s like I’m stuck on a record track. There’s a stuttering of sound in my brain. Sentences containing that sound get repeated over and over again. Of course, this is at the moment of a poem’s inception. Given a little distance, I can be quite brutal during revision.
DP: I also like to consider the act of revising as threading or weaving. Would you please describe how you are deliberate about finding and creating patterns in a manuscript?
ODLP: It’s odd. Recently I’ve been writing directly from titles. After constructing a few interrelated poems, I take it upon myself to formulate scaffolding for a book. Usually that scaffolding takes the form of a tentative table of contents. I’ll notice patterns in the table of contents and I’ll also notice gaps. I often attempt to fill in the gaps of a tentative manuscript by creating narrative titles—something to work towards. Often, those narrative titles act as mere placeholders. Sometimes I try to work those placeholders into poems. I suppose I’m always looking for some type of symmetry in the poems I’m writing at a given time. Placing them within a narrative of a larger work is my very deliberate way of composing.
DP: Then how do you develop titles? In an earlier draft of Names Above Houses, I noticed that the three poems in which Fidelito speaks were all titled “Mental Note.” In your second book, Furious Lullaby, you have titles that follow two patterns: “What the _________ Said” and “_________ Essay.”
ODLP: Busted. Actually those poems are older poems that I’ve attempted to rework into the framework of a manuscript. Most of those pieces were written between 1998 and 1999, when I was trying to break out of my prose poem “habit.” Those pieces were all an attempt to reclaim some lyricism. The titles for “What the Ear Said,” “What the Eye Said,” and “Prayer Essay,” “God Essay,” etc., were placed upon them after the collection had taken shape. So my current M.O. of writing poems from titles still fits me. As for the “Mental Note” poems, when I originally envisioned the poems, I thought of them more as asides than central section breaks/transitions. After a few different orderings, I came to realize that the title, “Mental Note” was weak and that three poems that were more or less framing devices with the same title would be too “obvious.”
DP: Do you begin this process with a narrative arch already conceived or roughly outlined in your mind?
ODLP: I suppose that depends on the project. For Furious Lullaby, I started heading down a strict narrative pathway, came up with a few poems, and then abandoned that trajectory for something I thought was independent of my initial process. After I wrote a few more poems that I thought weren’t related to that initial impulse, I soon realized, that I was still writing about the same thing. The narrative arch evolved. However, for Names Above Houses, I had a concept after a few poems and structured the whole manuscript according to this concept.
DP: What I love most about this book is its story-telling, or myth-making qualities. Each story has a beginning. Where did this book begin for you?
ODLP: As a graduate student, I had taken a course with Susan McCabe dealing with the American long poem. We looked at Eliot’s “Four Quartets,” Merrill’s “The Changing Light at Sandover,” Harryette Mullen’s “Muse & Drudge,” and a few other collections. We had the option to write our own long poem as a final project, so I started a didactic narrative about Asian American identity politics. I didn’t show the poem to anyone but Susan. It was about forty pages in length and it took itself so damn seriously. I trashed the project right away, but I kept the idea of the character, Fidelito. Then I took a course from Alberto Rios entitled “Magical Realism.” He gave us a few prompts that were useful to me, but the earliest prompt that sent me on my way was to take a piece of writing that I had already done and write it differently. Very unspecific instructions, I know, but it was what I needed. From that prompt, I wrote “In the Year of the Rat,” which became the first poem of the book. It was a poem that didn’t take itself seriously, wasn’t in verse form, and was more parable-like than poem-like.
DP: What was attractive about the parable to you?
ODLP: I’d been raised on parables. I went to Catholic school from second to sixth grade. I went to a Jesuit undergraduate institution. My family is Roman Catholic and my mother and father still attend mass regularly. I, however, am the pariah in the family. I used to sing the responsorial songs in church. I enjoy the parable as a story form. It’s a compressed narrative that offers instruction, though often the instruction is subject to interpretation and thus, to misinterpretation. I like the possibilities offered in a parable.
DP: The parable also establishes intimacy between the narrator and the reader, who is welcomed into Fidelito’s family as a guest. You create another intimate space in Furious Lullaby, especially through the epistolary poems and the use of a second-person narrator. I wonder how you view your audience when you are writing.
ODLP: When I was writing the aubades for Furious Lullaby, I was imagining that the speaker was speaking directly to the beloved . . . that the beloved was right there in bed, listening to a story told with the utmost seriousness and tenderness about terrible things. Of course, the two of them in that conversational space knew full well that they’d be going their separate ways when the morning came. On a personal note, I began writing the poems of direct address in the collection after I had moved from the West Coast to the East Coast. For most of my life I had lived along the Pacific coast, or at least between Pacific and Mountain time zones. The move from Arizona to Pennsylvania in 1999 was pretty daunting for me because, in my mind, I was leaving my family, my friends, and the comfort of a lifestyle. I think I was struggling with becoming a writer outside of a writing community and so I had to write to someone.
DP: How did the prose poem lend or limit itself to the narrative of this collection?
ODLP: The form ultimately dominated my thinking for the better part of four years. T he sentence became my unit of rhythm. Short, simple clauses, which lend themselves to instruction, were the predominant musical notation for the prose poems in Names Above Houses. The cautionary tales of childhood became the prose poems of the collection. The only time I break away from the form in the collection is when Fidelito speaks. I didn’t see the prose poems working for his character’s speech because I viewed him as the subject of the parables. He needed to speak lyrically, and I attempted that in the poems that bookend the sections.
DP: Did you ever feel like you had painted yourself into a corner by creating a narrative? How do you free yourself during these moments?
ODLP: Of course. I felt quite trapped by the book project, so I consciously attempted to write short, obscure lyrics. Again, I gave myself a series of exercises. I had been browsing through Grey’s Anatomy, and I attempted to write a few ekphrastic poems from the anatomical diagrams. Again, I gave myself a very deliberate exercise to spring myself from the prose poem project. Those exercises eventually became pieces in Furious Lullaby. Now I’m working on another project in attempt to free my brain from Furious Lullaby.
DP: In one blog post, you stated that Rick Barot asked you if you would ever return to the characters in Names Above Houses. You wrote online that Manong Jose was a possibility. Is that still true?
ODLP: At one point, I had a trilogy in mind. I enjoyed writing Names Above Houses, so my initial impulse was to write another manuscript or two in a similar style. But I abandoned that idea years ago. I’m not the same writer and my interests have changed a lot. Although, I can say Manong Jose’s my Tiresias. And yes, it’s true that he’s popped up in some of my newer writing. I’ve started work on a few poems that look at the stories of Filipino migrant workers and he’s among them. He’s doomed to wander and talk story, though he’ll not be changing genders. This newer work is in verse, though.
DP: The ants in your book intrigue me. They appear in the beginning in “The Flood of Ants” and near the end in “When Fidelito Grows Up, Maria Elena Reads.” They seem ubiquitous and unrelenting—a big threat. Yet, ants can be the playthings of young children. How are they related to immigration or childhood in the book?
ODLP: On one of my visits to the Philippines, I had stayed with my grandmother. I was at her kitchen sink, washing dishes, when I saw a stream of ants coming from a crack in the windowsill to the counter. I told her about it and suggested that I spray a bit around the outside of the house. She protested, saying there’s no point and that they’d just come in some other way. It’s true. They were everywhere. They’re the subtle sign of things to come. They’re the inevitability of decay. They’re also militaristic, mechanized, and armored things. Sure, they’re small to the eye, but they’re persistent. That’s what intrigued me about the ants. My family left the Philippines with the Brain Drain in the early 70’s, the same time Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. You might say it was the military machine that drove us away.
DP: You speak of movement. Flight is a significant theme in both books—Fidelito’s ability to fly in Names above Houses and the various birds in Furious Lullaby. However, flight is treated differently in these two books. Will you comment on it?
ODLP: Well, I owe a debt of gratitude to Marquez’s story, “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” for the conception of the boy who could fly in Names Above Houses. I like his idea—that we wouldn’t know a miracle if it literally fell from the sky. I think in Names Above Houses, I actually say that Fidelito’s hampered ability to fly is an “awkward grace.” Fidelito, in my mind, is a failed or incomplete angel. His difficulty in flight is based on the idea that no one in his family or in his surroundings has faith, and I’m not talking about faith in a god or higher power. I mean faith in Fidelito. The name, “Fidel” after all, is “Faith.” “Fidelito” is the diminutive.

In Furious Lullaby, the birds were signs. Think Hitchcock meets Noah’s Ark. You get the scary crazy homicidal birds in Hitchcock’s film and cross them with the dove that carries the signs of nearby land. Part of my winged obsession probably has to do more with my feeling unfinished with what I was attempting to say in Names Above Houses. In some ways, I see Furious Lullaby as another attempt at coming to grips with grace . . . a darker, more agnostic view.

I suppose my artistic obsession isn’t exactly with flight, it’s with the idea of attaining grace. There’s the idea of grace in the Catholic sense that’s symbolized by the dove—the “Holy Spirit.” Well, what if those symbols were misinterpreted. What if the way in which we think about the world and each other is a series of misreadings? My lapsed Catholicism is coming through . . . I can hear it audibly now. My mother will probably call me today and ask me if I’ve gone to church.
DP: Roman Catholic images are also found in both books. Will you talk a little more about how your Catholic upbringing influences your work?
ODLP: And there it is—I somehow knew this question was coming. I’ll try to answer fairly and honestly. Much of my early educational life was spent in Catholic school. I went to St. Peter’s Catholic School from second grade to sixth. Every week, we’d have to go to mass as an elementary school. I had a very brief stint as an altar boy (I kept messing up, so I was “demoted”). I sang in the choir. I was a reader during the masses. In the classroom, we’d have a daily lesson from the bible. Many of my teachers were nuns.

After a hiatus from Catholic schools (my hometown only had public school for junior high and high school. I imagine that if there was a choice between public school and Catholic school, my parents would’ve enrolled me in the Catholic school), I ended up at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles where one of the “core” requirements was a course in theology. I, of course, took “Belief and Unbelief.” There was something about being young, independent, and in Los Angeles that was conducive to my straying away from the church. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I was a science major, or maybe it was just my coming into consciousness. Whatever it was, my Catholicism lapsed. It’s funny, because the poet Joseph Legaspi was my classmate at LMU. We both went to church regularly, and I’d see him there almost every Sunday. He’s kept me up to date on some of our more devout classmates and many of them have morphed from Catholics to agnostics (one particularly devout classmate has become a Wiccan).

It should be no surprise that my figurative language toolbox is filled with symbols from the church. Catholicism has been such a presence in my early life, though I never intended for either book to be read as a religious text (maybe more as a critique). I don’t go to church. I haven’t been to church for a long, long time. I’m critical about that period in my life—critical of its stance, its influence, and its history. But yes, it’s undeniable that the signs and symbols are in my work. Catholicism is also a big part of being Filipino. We have a long history as a colonized people under Spanish rule. And of course the Catholic church has had such a profound effect on the colonized. I suppose it’s natural that I still carry the signs and symbols of the church in my psyche.
DP: While reading your book again, I found myself thinking a lot about Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space. Both books explore childhood and daydreaming. I wonder how much daydreaming is a part of your writing life?
ODLP: I daydream when I’m reading other books. Reading allows me to be unashamedly romantic, pathos driven, and fully disarmed. Otherwise, I’m pretty uptight, self-conscious, and completely miserable with myself.

Reading allows me to get outside of myself. If that’s a form of daydream or reverie, then it’s an essential part of my writing routine. I’m most prolific when I’m afforded the time to read without deadline, schedule, or pressing need. I invariably write most after I’ve had the time to read for a few weeks straight. Nowadays, the opportunities to daydream with a book come during the summer months when I’m not teaching.
DP: You have a BS in Biology and a BA in English from Loyola Marymount. Did you experience an aha! moment that helped you decide to pursue writing only?
ODLP: Sure did. Of course it took me a few years to realize what I needed to do. As a child of immigrants, I had always believed it was my duty to find a practical profession. My mother’s a physician, so I naturally had an interest in the sciences. I was a pre-med student, and I did quite well in the sciences. I TA’d some chemistry and biology courses, got good grades, made the dean’s list, I did all that stuff you’re supposed to do if you want to become a doctor. I even took the MCAT. As part of my pre-med regimen, I was an EMT in LA for a couple of years. During that time, I could tell that the medical profession was clearly not for me. I got tired of getting puked on. I got tired of the late night calls. I was nervous about having someone else’s life depend on me. It was all quite nerve-wracking. Later on, my EMT license got me hired to do some social work at a group home. I was in charge of some difficult clients, but one of my main charges was a large schizophrenic man. He slept a lot, and while he slept, I read books of poetry: Li-Young Lee’s Rose, Kinnell’s The Book of Nightmares, Cathy Song’s Frameless Windows Squares of Light. I decided to apply to a few MFA programs and I was surprised when I got into a number of them. My parents were pleased, and they supported me, though I had been worried about becoming their “unemployed poet son.”

And I do have to say one thing about the transition from Biology to Poetry . . . it wasn’t that big of a change. I mean, I’ve always enjoyed problem-solving, patterns, and closely observing the natural world. I don’t see the two disciplines as being that far apart. Ultimately, they both try to make order out of the chaos of the world, right?
DP: Right. And both fields have a compulsion for identifying and naming. Do you have any sage or encouraging words for younger poets who have struggled with this sense of filial duty?
ODLP: Boy, I was lucky. It was a long journey for me, and I was torn about which direction to go in my life. My family recognized my dilemma and supported me every step of the way. It’s one of those conversations a young poet must have with their family. And, of course, sometimes those conversations lead to some negotiation. My father still hounds me about law school or PhD programs. I guess I would tell a young poet that filial duty must be amended in his or her own mind. They need to realize that it’s less about an actual duty and more about a genuine concern for your future livelihood—an expression of love.
DP: I really admire how you strive to be a poet-citizen. One of the ways you do that is through your work with Kundiman. What are a few of your hopes for Kundiman?
ODLP: I hope that it becomes self-sustaining . . . that the fellows from the Kundiman retreat leave the retreat after their three sessions, and return to the retreat in other ways. I hope that more and more educators see Kundiman as a resource for their students. I hope that the community spirit of these first four years can continue long after I’m no longer an administrative part of the organization. It’s funny, but starting a not-for-profit is much like teaching—you’re striving to make yourself obsolete in a way. By the time you’re finished directly mentoring a student, you hope that that student will be able to navigate through the world without your help. I want the same for Kundiman. While I know the organization’s still in its infancy, (The leadership of Sarah Gambito and Joseph Legaspi has been invaluable—Kundiman wouldn’t be Kundiman without them as it is now), I hope the fellows will carry the traditions of the organization into the future.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761