Poet and professor at Western University in Bellingham, Oliver de la Paz was a recent recipient of a Camano Island Residency sponsored by Artist Trust and the Hafer Family Foundation. With it, he finished his latest book entitled “Requiem For the Orchard” (University of Akron Press, 2010). The book won the Akron Prize for poetry as chosen by Martin Espada. Our writer talks to the poet about his latest book. Following are some excerpts.
– Alan Lau – IE Arts Editor
“Requiem for the Orchard”, winner of the 2009 Akron Poetry Prize, is Oliver de la Paz’s third collection of poetry. The book’s poems are concerned with small town life, which wavers between bucolic, golden beauty and desperate—often violent—restlessness and hardship. Its themes touch on fathers and sons, the “average tragedies” and triumphs of adolescence, and a new parent’s nostalgia and self-reflection. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Oliver de la Paz about his new book.
Writer: I admire the delicate balance in your poems, particularly the tension between the dangers and violence of small-town life hidden beneath the perhaps more expected description of pastoral beauty. How do you experience the duality of these poems of place?
Oliver Del La Paz: To be honest, I was initially apprehensive about writing work that was so straightforward about the pastoral. The pastoral is a topic that has a countless number of poems evoking the idea of the self in direct conflict or in harmony with the environment. Many of the pastoral poems I kept recalling are so heavily laden with tradition and history, that during my process of writing the poems of Requiem, I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder. So in terms of my experience with these poems, I wrote them fully conscious of the tradition of the pastoral poem. In considering the tradition of the pastoral, I attempted to revise the position of the speaker with respect to their response to nature and the agrarian lifestyle. And, I think the speaker fails to move the earth in this regard, but what winds up happening is something honest and perhaps a little sentimental.
Writer: I noticed three primary recurring “types” of poems throughout the book. There are 12 “self-portraits”, 3 “eschatology” and 12 “requiem” poems. How do you see these “scatter-fire of selves” in relation to the book’s themes of death and the final events of the history of the world?
ODLP: I’ll give you a prosaic explanation first, and then I’ll try to speak more artfully. Many of those titles you list are artifacts from my composition process. I often write with a title “tacked” to my imaginative wall. So when you see a number of similar titles in a book of mine, it’s a carryover from the creation of the work. Ultimately, what happened with this book was I had given myself a series of assignments — the self-portraits. What wound up happening was I had a whole bunch of these self-portrait poems with nowhere to go. So I attempted another writing exercise where I devised poems that would center or create a landscape for them to exist. Hence the ancillary poems like the eschatologies and the requiems. That’s the nuts and bolts explanation of how I generated the work.
Now, as far as how they echo the themes of the end of the world, as I was composing the early work I was diagnosed with cancer. It was a “mild” form of cancer, but it was still enough to make me worry and the medication to help me, in many ways, had even stronger effects on me. The eschatology poems were a result of my diagnosis and recovery. The cancer poems that are scattered throughout the book are not just the eschatology poems, but the poems of simile, such as “Ablation as the Creation of Adam,” and “Colony Collapse Disorder in Honey Bees as Eschatology.” A world was ending for me. My sense of invulnerability was drawing to a close. Couple that with the birth of my first son and my concern that I would not be well enough to watch him grow — worlds were collapsing.
Writer: Many of the poems address themes of creation: “I, too, am/ a boy and therefore, a camera…” And “…the ear is the beginning of the world”. The act of capturing details, and then telling someone else about them later, seems to be a foundational act of creation. Can you talk about this a little?
ODLP: Right, the idea of creation permeates the book — I favor the idea that as writers, the fabric of our world is partially woven or rent by our own imagination, particularly when it comes to a book of poems loosely based on one’s personal life. I think it’s important to acknowledge that the act of making art out of one’s biography allows for the artist to throw sequins at the painting if the painting needs sequins. Those little moments in the poems where I mention little bits of Genesis are nods to the creative act.