Under Pressure: Oliver de la Paz

Photo of author Oliver de la Paz alongside image of his latest collection, The Boy in the Labyrinth

Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, Names Above Houses, Furious 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 Boy in the Labyrinth (U. of Akron Press 2019), finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award.  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 is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

A recipient of grants and awards from the NEA, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Artist Trust, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, his work has appeared in journals like Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Poetry, 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. 


D’Agata and Tall stated, “The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.”

Dess responded to this definition, “Lyrical essays are often viewed as being closer to stream of consciousness or koan-like riddles than traditional essays. They are notably difficult to critique because of their association with poetry and the poetic license they claim as their due. When D’Agata and Tall wrote that the lyrical essay ‘partakes of the essay in its weight,’ they were pointing to the ways it draws from our common understanding of what an essay is. While a precise definition of ‘essay’ has remained elusive, readers can generally agree that the genre typically presents an author’s thinking about a particular subject; it involves an examination of a topic in the form of an argument.”

How might you respond to D’Agata and Tall’s definition from 1997, and Dess’ 2019 response?

Oliver de la Paz: I think that my manuscript does in fact have its toes in the genre of essay because it is “essay-ing” something, investigating something, exploring something. Of course, by nature, as a poet, it has its other toes in the lyric. So, between the two, I see what it is that I did as a fusion. In my investigation of being a parent of someone who is neurodiverse, I had to find a mode or a form that was acceptable for the mode of investigation that I was engaging in, which was primarily poetry. Then, what ended up happening was in trying to create a larger discourse, I had to find a shape for all of these pieces. That ended up being very essay-like. What ended up happening is my approach became multimodal, multidisciplinary. I don’t know if it sits rightly in the realm of poetry, but I think if lyric essay is the house for it, it’s the house for it. As far as genre is concerned, I don’t necessary set out to write in one genre—I just write.

By the very nature of writing about neurodiversity from my vantage point, as someone who is abled and who is trying to engage in a discourse, the only approach I could take was multidisciplinary and multimodal. So, that’s what you get, this work that plays with the play but also plays with the questionnaire as a form, plays with test taking as a form, plays with episodic narrative as a form. All of these things in combination are why I don’t think I can call The Boy in the Labyrinth a book of poems even though that was my initial intention when constructing the book, but then when I was trying to create or construct the larger, overarching piece it ended up being something like lyric essay.

In the opening poem of The Boy in the Labyrinth, “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth,” you openly consider your vantage point that you come from as a writer with your audience. What advice do you have for writers who come from perspectives, identities, or positions they do not occupy? How do various hermit crab forms assist in expression by providing the permissions, opportunities, or openings for people writing about perspectives, identities, or positions they don’t occupy?

de la Paz: It’s a fraught position. I have to be very upfront about that—I’m very self-conscious on my privilege in writing these poems, writing from my vantage of being neurotypical. The advice that I have for folks who wish to write from these positions is, first, do care. The perspective should be, first and foremost, informed. One should also be aware that there is the potential for harm, and that there is a historical position one also has to take on and has to understand. Research, empathy, self-awareness, self-acknowledgement are important. Even then, taking on these points of view, is still dangerous and fraught. You are going to potentially do harm to somebody. When you are going to take something like this on, you just have to be aware of that. You also have to be willing to change—you have to acknowledge that the position you were in when you wrote this is changing, you have to allow for that process of growth, and you have to acknowledge that sometimes in these public spaces where we’re doing performances, this isn’t a poem you need to be reading.

You have to know who you are, and you have to know who your audience is. When we are engaging in dialogue, it’s always a negotiation—we’re trying to understand who we are in the context of who other people are. The work you produce is a time stamp in a particular space, and you have to articulate that to whoever it is that you’re speaking to. Sometimes it’s still dangerous, sometimes you’re still going to hurt people and you have to understand that moving forward.

Hyer: Whenever you are making these decisions and moving forward from your vantage point, who are the writers you look to for emulation?

de la Paz: A number. When I was starting to write, folks who were in my wheelhouse and who I learned from, were folks like James L. White with Salt Ecstasies. He was writing daring poems about queer identity and queerness back in the eighties—he was very bold. Li Young Lee was very brave for me, talking about faith and identity.

Of course, Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte were big models for me coming through, as they were unflinchingly talking about the self, identity, and the spaces one maneuvers through. I would also say Alicia Ostricker, who was doing a lot of bold work from her feminist position. They were all really big for me—they were permission granting, but also position granting me, by emulating a vantage point which was really well-informed with a lot of history behind it. I think my approach when writing these positions are to understand, know that there’s a history behind these positions, and be able to articulate my own self within that conversation.

Hyer: To revisit The Boy in the Labyrinth’s opening poem, “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth,” on the first page you write, “Two of my sons are on the autism spectrum. This pervades my daily life. We are supposed to ‘write what you know,’ and what I know and have known my ten years of fatherhood is that writing what I know is hard.” This is especially interesting in relationship to your articulation of your vantage point and position, because in order to “write what we know,” we sometimes, if not all times, have to expand the knowledge or our way of knowing.

de la Paz: Yeah, it’s one of those MFA axioms, “write what you know,” and okay, but that doesn’t mean that you limit what you know. You have to expand what you know—that’s why we’re in school, that’s why we read, why we explore, and why we engage in discourse. It’s important to know more.

Hyer: You’ve been a working writer for quite some time now—you published your first book in 2001, Names Above Houses, and The Boy in the Labyrinth was published in 2019, several years later. Not to remind you of the last two decades—though we are on the other side of them—how has your process of not only writing broadly, but also putting together collections changed as you’ve progressively expanded your written works?

de la Paz: I have a better sense of what a book or a collection looks like; I have a better sense of how to put one together. I still have a lot of my idiosyncrasies from when I was writing earlier, but the amount of time it takes me to write something is much more compressed and condensed. I can write pretty quickly now without needing to look back and having as many revisions as I’ve had in the past. I didn’t always have the habits that I do now—these are things which I’ve honed over a couple years. In the two decades since I’ve published my understanding of what a poem is has expanded. What the possibilities for a poem are also continues to grow. I have my favorites writers—many of my favorites were writers from the 80s and 90s, but I’m joyful that the work of poetry continues to be ground-breaking.

The poets now are much more interdisciplinary and are doing some experimentations with visual poems, shape poems, sound poems. All of these things are things that I’m trying to take into my own work in my own way. I think in the twenty years since my first book was published, my personal growth is gaining a better sense of what I can do as a poet, but I also staying excited about how there are so many more possibilities for publishing.

Hyer: With that being said, if there is one piece of advice you could give your young writer self now, what would it be if you could turn back time?

ODLP: One of my bits of advice to my younger self would be, don’t limit yourself to one genre. There are so many things you can learn from the other genres, be it playwriting, essay writing, or fiction writing, that can be material. I spent so much of my early years so singularly focused on the poem, and what I’m taking on now are new opportunities from other genres that I didn’t explore when I was just starting out. I wish that I had paid more attention to those other genres when I was learning because now, I’m really trying to take it all on. The poets now are doing multidisciplinary stuff and it’s really cool.

de la Paz: Yeah, so sometimes when I’m in the midst of composing, I’ll take a prose poem out of its prose poem structure and lay the sentences out singularly. It’s more of a visual editing mode that I’m in. So, for example, for some pieces in The Boy in the Labyrinth, I actually took them out of the prose form, and I single spaced and triple spaced them on my screen so that I could look at the sentences and see how the sentences were working. That helped me connect some of the internal rhyme that may have been in some pieces. It helped me to think about how the syntax of the sentences were working. It’s usually an editing feature for me, that I’ll change forms just to see how a thing works, or how a thing sounds.

Hyer: Speaking to your thoughts on form, in the same interview with Julie Marie Wade, you mention several issues that your book confronts, including “a neurotypical parent learning to parent neurodiverse children, the systems of communication that are unaccommodating to many communication acts, standardization as an expectation towards ‘norms,’ and mainstream culture’s inability to accommodate multiple ways of thinking.” Later on, you say, “It acknowledges and revises myth and allusion. It also owes allegiance to and rebels against form—the work is an iteration of particular forms like the questionnaire or the multiple choice questions found in standardized testing, but it also loudly protests against those forms.” I found this to be very inspiring, especially because of the political nature of poetry. What are your thoughts regarding form as protest?

de la Paz: For this book in particular, standardization is an attempt towards norming. I was playing with how one responds to such expectations. So, in a standardized test, there is sometimes an expectation of a good outcome or a bad outcome. In the discourse I was engaging in with the standardized forms, I wondered what if the answers were a little more mysterious? What if the answers were a little more unpredictable, multimodal, or heavily layered? I was, in a way, critiquing the form by laying out multiple ways of approaching it, or answering it, I was problematizing it by saying: This does not necessarily reflect our reality. This does not reflect who we are or our personages.

de la Paz: Sometimes, when one handles material that is sensitive, you have to put on the hazmat suit. You have to put on the gear that protects you. It can be hard to write about this stuff—you have to write from an angle, or “tell it slant” as my friend Brenda Miller would often say. So, coming at it from an angle whether that be a hermit crab essay, or whether that be persona, or dramatic monologue, sometimes grants us access to materials that we would otherwise not write about.

Allusion, mythology, and the Theseus and the Minotaur myth was a way for me to handle material that was tough for me. That was the stuff that I wrote first—I wrote about a hundred poems from that vantage point without taking away the mask. Then, the next thing that I wrote were the autism spectrum questionnaires. That was the key for me to tear away the veil. That was how I knew I had to approach this material in a novel way—one warrants mask, or it showed a mask, or showed an approach that was protected, safe, or alluding to something—though, as a reader, I have to invite you in. I have to say: Hey, this is me. I’m really talking about me. I’m really talking about something that I’m going through, to give you a vantage point, an actual and real vantage point.

Hyer: How do you take care of yourself when writing this challenging material?

de la Paz: I’m one of those poets and writers whose space needs to be clear of clutter, whose mental space needs to be pretty much clear voiced, so that I can sit down and write. Because I live in a house with four other people, there’s cleaning to do. I honestly can’t sit down and do anything unless my chores are done and my work is finished, which is why I predominantly write in the summer. I’m a writer who believes in finding the mental and physical space, and if it needs to be neatened, then you need to clean it up. That is because committing yourself to the page, and committing yourself to the desk is hard work. It does take a mental and physical toll. If you don’t have space for it, then you don’t have space for it. Sometimes it’s okay to go ahead and bake cookies instead of sitting down and writing the poem. In terms of self-care, I am not somebody who believes in writing yourself into pain. I don’t think that’s a great idea.

You are the filter for that pain—you are the filter and translator of that pain, but you also need to protect yourself through it. In my case, it means taking care of family and taking care of myself first and foremost—the poem is not the god, it is not your god. Living and breathing and taking care of your friends and family is really primary. It involves cleaning the house, making sure there’s order and organization for my family, and then I can take on the work. Then I can take on the responsibility of cataloguing the histories and the lives, both emotional and factual, that I do catalogue in my work.

Hyer: Do you have anything exciting that you’re working on?

de la Paz: I mentioned that I was working on sonnets. I’m working on a manuscript tentatively called The Diaspora Sonnets. It’s not just sonnets, so I probably need to change it. It’s entirely in form, which also might need to change. It’s a chronicle of a family, mostly my family, traveling to the US and basically driving across the landscape of the US as they learn about themselves. While there’s sonnets, there’s also pantoums, villanelles, alongside other forms. I’m also working on a collection of poems that investigates looking and seeing. So, there are a lot of poems that are ekphrastic or that have conversations with works of art. I’ve been working on that project for a couple of years now.

Hyer: Whenever you’re looking to send your work out into the writing world, which publications do you typically look toward—especially the ones which might accept hybrid form or lyric essay?