Oliver de la Paz is the author of six poetry collections, most recently The Diaspora Sonnets (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2023). De la Paz is the recipient of multiple Pushcart Prizes and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Artist Trust, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. A founding member of Kundiman and a co-chair on its advisory board, De la Paz is an associate professor of English at the College of the Holy Cross and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.
Poets.org: Many poem titles in this collection end with words of negation, particularly “nothing else” and “nothing special.” In one poem, “Chain Migration II: On Negations and Substitutions,” you go deeper into interrogating what negation and absence can mean for those who are creating new homes. Can you speak more about investigating the notion of nothingness?
Oliver de la Paz: I grew up an only child in the plains of Eastern Oregon. That’s the other side of the Cascade Mountain Range and, contrary to what many people think of the Northwest, it’s very dry and underpopulated. My family moved to a small town in Eastern Oregon in the late 1970s so that my mother could work as a pediatrician for an underserved population. We had been traveling around the U.S. for some time while she was pursuing her medical license. My father took on jobs here and there as we traveled.
The “nothing” that comes up repeatedly in the sonnets and other poems deal with what I perceived as a lot of emptiness around me as I was growing up. For one, we had no Filipino community. For a sixty-mile radius, we were the Filipino community, and my family, after working, stayed home. There was a lot of “nothing” in the desert, so boredom was physical. People worked on the farms and in agriculture because they were bored. I did, too, for a few summers. Every day was about creating something out of nothing because there were no community supports and because we were so very different from the locals in that town. My mother and father told me that the reason I stopped speaking Tagalog was because I had no one to speak Tagalog to, and it’s true. As my parents worked, I was often left alone or with a family of Latter-day Saints who lived next door. So there was the “nothing” coming out of my mouth as I attempted to speak in my parents’ native Tagalog.
My world back then was full of nothing. But I do think that part of growing up in such a place at such a moment forced me to be industrious, inventive, and comfortable in solitude. The poem “Chain Migration II: On Negations and Substitutions” is about my mother attempting to create a Filipino dish but having to reinvent the flavor of tamarinds from what she had on hand. Similarly, in those hours of boredom, I dove into books and my imagination. Confronting “nothing” eventually led to “something,” but back then, boredom was an impediment and not a potential.
Poets.org: The sonnet, although known for its strict form, has endured over the centuries due, in part, to its flexibility. In this collection, the sonnets are sometimes haunting and often both strictly attentive to form, as in the metered “Diaspora Sonnet Imagining My Father’s Uncertainty and Nothing Else,” and less conventionally formal, as in the twelve-line “Diaspora Sonnet at the Feeders Before the Freeze.” In what ways might the sonnet reflect the idea of diaspora? Do you view a poem’s form as being integral to the meaning that it seeks to convey?
OP: The sonnet carries an idea of perfection for me. There are aspects of it that remind me of the sharp facets of a diamond, cut precisely at the right angle to gleam in a particular way. I also love that the sonnet can be both an argument and an oath of one’s enduring love. My training as a sonneteer stems from working briefly with Wanda Coleman when I went to Loyola Marymount University in the early to mid-nineties, and from my prosody courses with Alberto Ríos at Arizona State University. They couldn’t be more dissimilar in their approaches to teaching the form, but I distilled from both teachers the idea of possibility.
I wanted my sonnets to be malleable, striving for a diamond-like quality of precision yet acknowledging that there were limitations. Sometimes the diamond-like ideal is impossible, and to my immigrant family who was trying to form a community, there were missteps, adaptations, compensations. I’m glad you found that twelve-line “sonnet” tucked away in the middle of the book. I knew it was only twelve lines and I was thinking, “Should I go back and make it fourteen lines?” And then I realized, no. That poem needed to be short because it was signifying that there was an impending winter freeze and, in such cases, sometimes it hits you unprepared. It also needed to announce itself as a sonnet so that readers may question its ambitions towards “sonnet-ness.” Some will say it is not a sonnet. And they would be right. Some will say it is. And they would also be right. I know Wanda would be okay with it.
As a commentary on the diaspora, I imagine the sonnet to be very similar to what my mother attempted in creating a recipe while lacking essential ingredients. Sometimes you must adapt. I was interested in looking at the sonnet tradition and using it as a commentary on my immigrant family’s attempts to pass and then having those shortcomings either subtly or readily apparent in the face of the dominant community culture. Readers would look for the volta that would either change or enforce an idea within the sonnet, and in the case of my poems, that volta sometimes comes. Sometimes it arrives in unexpected ways, as a realization or a subtle gesture.
And yes, I consider myself someone who is always aware of the shape and container a poem resides within. I’m often attuned to patterns and motifs as I write and read. I’m a big organizer and categorizer when it comes to my poems, and I suppose this comes from being the child of a physician and an accountant. I try to map order and organization into my work so that I can derive meaning from my messes. This book of poems is structured chronologically, though there are episodic interruptions throughout. My previous books have different sorts of maps. Post Subject: A Fable is formally a catalog while The Boy in the Labyrinth is a Greek tragedy. For those books, the immediate form of the prose poem had different intentions. The prose poem in Post Subject is a line-item while the prose poem in The Boy in the Labyrinth is a scene. The sonnets in The Diaspora Sonnets function as episodic moments, with the pantoums and the lyric ballads serving as structural transitions. So, I’m always thinking about form, not only in regard to individual poems, but also the ways in which those individual poems serve a bigger purpose.
Poets.org: Many of these sonnets are told from the first-person perspective of family members—a mother, a father, a grandmother—relaying to the reader their private thoughts, their dreams, and worries. How did you approach writing from the point of view of a loved one?
OP: It was essential for me to attempt to understand my family’s thoughts and motivations as they were trying to settle in the West. My father and my mother were young when they left the Philippines, in their late twenties, and I often think of who I was in my late twenties and I can’t fathom what it must’ve been like to make the choices they had to make. So, naturally, I did what a writer does and tried to envision the thoughts they had as they were traversing the landscape of a new country, young, with an infant, attempting to find a place to call home. It was easy enough to think about motivations—the motivation to flee from [Ferdinand] Marcos’s martial law. But what about the smaller things? Having friends? Losing friends? Or just trying to fit in? It was a way for me to reconnect with my family.
My grandmother, for example, was petitioned by my father to stay in the U.S. as my father tried to get his younger brother who had been blacklisted out of the Philippines. It was easier for my grandmother to petition her unwed son. But she had to live in the States for two years before being allowed to do so. And she was always afraid. She never left the house and could barely speak English. She often muttered in Tagalog that there was nothing to do, so I immediately knew that she was bored and thrust into a place where she had no community. Her story fed into the larger story of my family on a bit of an island amid onion fields, sugar beet plots, and potato fields.
I often thought of my father as I was writing these poems, from my perspective as a father, and I thought about all the choices he made as we went from state to state in the early seventies. My mother told me that my father cried when he first surveyed the landscape that they would call home for more than twenty years because there was very little there. I think he expected to live in a city. It felt necessary to voice them because much of my perspective is skewed by time and by my own sense of my childhood. By voicing the adults in these episodic sonnets, I was hoping to gain insight into what seems to be my lifelong pursuit of making order out of these moments.
Poets.org: While writing this book, which explores the intricacies of intimacy and family, did you develop a new understanding of closure or did you end up having more questions about family dynamics?
OP: Closure, no. I have a lot of questions, though, and if anything, the poems are affording me more opportunities to have conversations with my parents. They’re in their eighties now, and I dragged them all the way to Massachusetts to live near me. They have, in their retirement, chosen to live wherever I live, so it’s comforting to have them nearby. I know that I won’t have them near me for long, and writing the book impressed upon me the urgency to hear their story, to try to learn from it and share it with my sons.
Poets.org: What are you currently reading?
I juggle lots of books, but I’m currently rereading Patrick Rosal’s The Last Thing: New & Selected Poems, Rigoberto González’s To the Boy Who Was Night: Poems: Selected and New, Kathy Fagan’s Bad Hobby, and I just finished Carl Phillips’s My Trade is Mystery: Seven Meditations from a Life in Writing, and Sunita Puri’s That Good Night: Life and Medicine in the Eleventh Hour. I love revisiting the career-spanning work of Patrick and Rigoberto whom I consider friends and contemporaries. We started at roughly the same time, and here we are now. It’s wonderful to see how their work has evolved. Kathy’s book is remarkable and it includes truly touching work about a father who is experiencing dementia. I truly sympathize with the speaker’s struggles as I am caring for my mother who is dealing with Parkinson’s. It was a touching read. I enjoyed Carl’s book on audio because it was Carl reading it, and hearing him talk about the poetry life as I was walking the dogs was somewhat spiritual! Finally, Sunita’s book about her work as a hospice care physician was insightful. As I mentioned, my mother has Parkinson’s and her health is slowly deteriorating. We’ve had good conversations about her plans, but Sunita’s book was very helpful in guiding chats with my mother and father.
Poets.org: What are your favorite poems on Poets.org?
Is it cheating if I said that I love my picks from October 2019? It was so fun to choose poems for that month and so challenging because there are not enough days in a single month to include all the poems I wanted.