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“the little song pulsing”: An Interview with Oliver de la Paz

[Continued from “Scaffolding”]

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When I read Oliver de la Paz’s poem “Diaspora Sonnet 25,” which the Academy of American Poets featured as its Poem-a-Day selection earlier this month, I knew I wanted to ask him some questions about its genesis as part of my ongoing investigation of contemporary sonnets, particularly those that are unconventional, innovative, or subversive, here at The Kenyon Review blog. Though I say that this investigation began with my excitement about Terrance Hayes’s new American Sonnets and their connections with Wanda Coleman’s American Sonnets, the thread goes further back than that; in fact, I actually already touched on Oliver de la Paz’s own connections with innovative form and the sonnet last September, when I paired his poem “Autism Screening Questionnaire – Speech and Language Delay” with Danez Smith’s sonnet sequence “Crown,” considering a reading of de la Paz’s poem’s fourteen sections as a take on the sonnet.

I mentioned earlier that “sonnet” comes from the Italian “sonnetto” – “little song” – and “Diaspora Sonnet 25” embeds that origin in a poem that seems to muse on the limits of our agency (as poets, as citizens, as individuals) in the face of both mortality and the machinations of power (an image like “Neighbors bourne feet first // through their door arches” could describe both corpses carried away and the still living dragged from their homes against their will), ending:

the little song pulsing its staccato
cannot explain the day and the day

and the day, like an arm and then
another pulled through a sleeve.

My questions and de la Paz’s generous responses are below.

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In a “Behind the Byline” interview with Angela Narciso Torres for New England Review, upon the publication of your poem “Autism Screening Questionnaire: Abnormal Symbolic or Imaginitive Play,” you said:

“I tend to seek form and structure when writing. Having a structure assists me in my composition because I have a readily available scaffold with which to craft my work. From project to project, and I’m not afraid to call what I’m doing a project, I build around shapes and designs and the shapes depend on what I’m working with.”

Can you go further in talking about formal structure? How do you feel like the forms you choose have informed your particular projects, or vice versa?

As I mentioned in that interview, I seek shapes and structures in my writing. Sometimes those shapes and structures are found in the traditional formal structures of poetry. Sometimes those shapes and structures are found in rhetorical forms often seen outside of poetry—menus, instructions, questionnaires.

There’s a way to respond rhetorically to a shape that influences my process of making. Whether my ambition is to subvert or enforce the rhetoric of a given shape depends on my intimacy with the actual materials I’m working with. I had been working on a tryptic of questionnaire poems based on an “Autism Screening Questionnaire” I had to fill out for my sons, both of whom are on the Autism Spectrum, and because the questionnaires seemed like they de-emphasized my intimacy and my sons’ dignity, I wanted to respond to the questionnaires as intimately as possible versus the questionnaire’s insistence on a clinical directness—the form’s desire for precision was upended by my parental responses which are full of error and love.

Your recent “Diaspora Sonnet 25” was featured as a Poem-a-Day selection by the Academy of American Poets in July, and I wanted to know more about the series or book of which this might be a part. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of this poem, as an individual poem and within a larger investigation?

I had started and abandoned a series of lyric investigations into immigration and exile a few years back because at the time I was writing them I just simply didn’t have a handle on what I was trying to say or what they were about.

The recent global climate urged me to reconvene and in collaboration with the annual Kundiman postcard writing project (a group of Kundiman fellows, faculty, and staff write and send each other postcard poems), I started writing these little lyrics. Postcards are remarkable places for sonnets. They fit perfectly.

The poems in the series are meditations on home and place and where one belongs—especially when one is not wanted on the doorstep. I’ve been thinking about the story of my own family’s flight from the Philippines. We left in 1972 when Marcos declared martial law. We were part of the brain drain where thousands of educated professionals left the country. Additionally, my uncle was on the Marcos Black List which marked him as a target for disappearance so our family was in danger. At the time, hundreds of people were disappearing. Now Dutarte is in power and the old stories are coming up again. My parents have always been political and have been absolutely vocal and critical about Dutarte and Trump’s enabling of him as a mass murderer because it’s the same story with different players.

Anyway, I’m over fifty poems into the sonnet project now and I do see it as a bigger manuscript but I want to polish the work a bit more. “Diaspora Sonnet 25” is based off of one of the stories my folks were describing—a tenant in an apartment had died and had been dead for several days before someone came around to checking on them. The tenant had no people in the country. They had lived quietly and anonymously and I wondered to myself how many more immigrants lived that life?

Do you see the formal or thematic choices of “Diaspora Sonnet 25” (or the series) as a specific variation on the sonnet form, like Wanda Coleman’s “American Sonnets”? Can you talk about the specific parameters of that form, and how it engages with (or subverts) the traditions of the sonnet?

Wanda Coleman was actually a professor at Loyola Marymount back in the 90’s when I attended. I never got a chance to take her classes (I was a biology major), but I did attend a number of her readings and lectures. And yes, Wanda’s American Sonnets and Gerald Stern’s American Sonnets were the first models that gave me permission to subvert the form—then came Terrance’s remarkable sonnet sequence.

Wanda’s American Sonnets pay close attention to the rhythms and cadences of a musical syntax—I’m thinking of “American Sonnet (10)” where she uses heavily plosive words like “bones,” “embarking,” “pilgrim,” and “bitter.”

And then Gerald’s meandering short lyrics which always arrive at a punctuated moment, very much like a volta or a heroic couplet, depending.

I imagine the Diaspora Sonnets to be a combination of both Coleman and Stern mixed with the political modes of Hayes’s immediacy.

Many of the Diaspora Sonnets start in meter and then devolve as the closing stanzas arrive. They are in couplets because the idea of a room and a home in a diasporic community is a suspicious place and you can’t really hide in a couplet. There are end rhymes that are buried or in some cases end-rhymes that are sight-rhymes. I wanted to challenge the safety of the sonnet.

I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about innovative sonnets, so I’m now seeing them everywhere. This may just be a case of seeing what I want to see, but do you think there’s something about our aesthetic, cultural, or even political moment that’s inspiring poets to engage with and subvert traditional forms?

I think this goes with my idea of challenging the safety of the sonnet. The perception of tradition—that we can all live nicely within a tradition—is a perception that’s in flux. I’m not necessarily commenting on whether a tradition is bad or good but that traditional modes are being challenged and many are adapting to fit a more contemporary consciousness. I’m married to a sociolinguist and a language variationist who is ever preaching to me that language is in flux and malleable and so what I think we’re seeing is a number of writers are recognizing the familiarity of the pattern-making found in many of these traditional forms and utilizing those remnant traits in a mode that’s efficient and artful for their idiomatic expression in the present moment. And I also think that there’s an expediency that’s taking place with the language that is reflective of a particular political climate. These changes in language happen based on what’s taking place in the world. There’s a directness that a sonnet provides based on its rhetorical structure that’s fitting for political commentary, but what’s also notable—because of the deep tradition of the form—the echo of what the sonnet had represented in tradition is meaningful, not necessarily in conflict with but in synthesis/conjunction with the contemporary mode.

The resonance of Terrance Hayes’s “American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin” is the iteration of both the past and the future as a feature of his titles. Hayes names his traditions which immediately alerts us to a common language and a common expectation. He has us where he wants us as soon as we read his title and approach his poems with our historical and cultural memories.

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Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, Names Above HousesFurious Lullaby (SIU Press 2001, 2007), and Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press 2010), winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada, Post Subject: A Fable (U. of Akron Press 2014), and the forthcoming book Labyrinths (U. of Akron Press 2019).  He is the co-editor with Stacey Lynn Brown of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (U. of Akron Press 2012).  He co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American Poetry and serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board of Trustees.

A recipient of a NYFA Fellowship Award and a GAP Grant from Artist Trust, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review, and in anthologies such as Asian American Poetry:  The Next Generation. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.