In a class at Immaculate Conception grade school, the nun had a classmate memorize and present “The Creation” by James Wendon Johnson. It was 1956 as she prepared us for poetry and literary contest. My many educational years that followed never included exposure to minority writers, let alone a Filipino one. Our educational system was severely lacking.
In the late ‘60s, I stumbled across America’s in the Heart, Carlos Bulosan’s famous semi-autobiographical novel. It ignited an interest in discovering other Filipino American poets and writers.
Mining the Internet many years later, a book called Names Above Houses by Oliver de la Paz appeared. His work had received the Crab Orchard Award in Series Poetry. I ordered a copy. I found he taught at Arizona State University, where he’d received his MFA. I called, only to find he was now teaching at Western Washington University. A Filipino poet in my backyard! He wasn’t the only one.
Roy Flores, my late great friend, asked if I would put together something for the Pagdiriwang Festival he curated. The year was 2006. I agreed, saying it would be a literary event. Maria Batayola and I met. Our major questions: Where were our poets and writers? Why had our community never heard of them?
So, Kultura Arts was born.
de la Paz agreed to read at the festival along with several other Filipino American writers. They were magical. He and other wonderful writers like Rick Barot, Oscar Penaranda, Michelle Peñaloza, and Emily Lawsin have generously appeared at Kultura Arts literary events throughout the years. They’ve brought the music of language and heritage to the community and the public.
de le Paz currently teaches at the College of the Holy Cross in Boston and is the Poet Laureate of Worcester, MA, for 2023-25. He’s authored of seven books: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, Post Subject: A Fable, and The Boy in the Labyrinth, a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry. His newest work, The Diaspora Sonnets, explore his family’s trek from the Philippines to Eastern Oregon. I was fortunate to take a workshop from him in prose poetry, offered by Jack Straw Cultural Center. He hasn’t abandoned the Pacific Northwest. He returns during summers to teach in the Rainier Writing Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
Robert Flor: I’ve always admired your poetry since encountering Names Above Houses. The Diaspora Sonnets continues as beautiful contribution. How did your talent for poetic expression develop?
Oliver de la Paz: It arises from attempts to explain myself and my family to others, and in my failure to make initial sense of these attempts. I’d have to create metaphor so that people would understand my point of view. Essentially use of poetic expression developed as a survival mechanism for my immigrant family. I’d often have to “translate” to others on behalf of my father or mother or grandparents. Sometimes I’d have to construct metaphoric ways to explain my parents’ desires to others in a very white and agrarian landscape. We were often misunderstood so it was often my task to represent my parents and my grandparents.
RF: The landscape and life in Eastern Oregon influences much of your poetry, in you and your family’s journey from the Philippines. Tell us about your vision and how it was conceived?
OdlP: I lived in the high plains desert from the mid-1970s into the early ‘90s. It’s where my identity and my value systems initially formulated. So it’s only natural that my work is haunted by it — the aridness. The flatness. And imagine my tropical family moving to such a climate! What’s also important to note is that we moved there in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. My hometown was situated between the Umatilla Army Depot and the Mountain Home Airforce Base. My mother cared for the children of people who served in the Vietnam War, so the climate of her arrival as one of two pediatricians in a 60-mile radius left an indelible imprint.
RF: The Diaspora Sonnets go beyond the traditional sonnet form. It reminded me of artists who master a style then display their creativity extending to other possibilities.
OdlP: I consider myself to be a formalist. My obsessions have to do with order and organization. In my first book, Names Above Houses, I looked at the structure of the parable and utilized the prose poem as a way to model parable-like story structures. In Furious Lullaby, I was interested in the structure of the aubade, which is a love poem that ends with the parting of lovers at daybreak. The feature of the poems was an inevitability — a deadline, if you will.
For my third book, Requiem for the Orchard, I was interested in the self portrait as a form and I investigated the structure of one’s personal narrative within the confines of said structure. Post Subject: A Fable was obsessed with taxonomic structures. It was a book that was about naming, categorizing, and ultimately owning. The Boy in the Labyrinth was obsessed with the structure of tragedy and so it fashioned itself in the form of a Greek tragedy and was organized in sections that mimicked those plays. Finally, The Diaspora Sonnets is ultimately about form and the types of allegiances one has towards pattern-making when one doesn’t quite fit the pattern. In the case of the sonnet, what does it mean when a Filipino American writes in a Western European form?
RF: You employ another Italian form with “Pantoum Beginning and Ending with Thorns.” This work concludes the initial section “The Implacable West” of your tryptic about your family’s journey to America. This provided closure of one foreboding door and the opening of another.
OdlP: Yes, the pantoum with its Malaysian roots is important to the collection because it was originally a communal and dialogic form before it was “adapted” by Western Europe. It was important for the sections to close with a communal voice that had its origins in Asia for me. There’s a meta-textual conversation that I wanted to have about how such forms or patterns come about and the idea of an “Implacable West,” a West that is never satisfied “feeds” into that conversation.
RF: The second panel “Landscape with Work, Rest and Silence” opens with “Chain Migration II: On Negations and Substitutions” appear as a collection addressing your family’s migration and cultural losses and adaptations for survival. Remittances, for example, maintain connectivity to family. Did you envision these behaviors as universal experiences for immigrants?
OdlP: As I mentioned earlier, there are things we did as a means of survival. My metaphor-making was a way for my family to adapt to the social dynamics of Eastern Oregon. In terms of “Chain Migration II: On Negations and Substitutions,” there were no Asian groceries where I grew up, so my mom had to make do. To make sinigang, which is a soup base requiring tamarinds, we had no access to tamarinds. But rather than depriving ourselves of sinigang, we adapted. I think it was certainly much more challenging in the ‘70s to come upon these kinds of sundries for Asian dishes, so I’m certain other immigrants had to adapt by substituting things.
RF: The third panel of sonnets “Dwelling Music” opens with a focus on settling in to chores. Your mother does laundry on a Friday evening before she goes to work Her use of a coin-operated machines echoes your father use of coin. You introduce us to life’s everyday struggles or the wonderment of taken-for-granted rituals in American life. The work fills one with appreciation and hope for immigrants. Would you comment on this as a major theme?
OdlP: I wanted to focus on the quotidian in this book versus the sensational. The things that are sensational — our actual departure from the Philippines as Marcos was rising to power and the subsequent brain drain of the Philippines which included much of my family. But the things that also need to be revealed — the aftermaths. How boring things are. How few of us there were and how there was no community. Everyday struggles are still struggles and to people without community or resources, those everyday struggles are magnified. Throughout the book I have titles that suggest “nothing special” is happening, and that was a very conscious decision for me. I wanted to convey that while there’s this sensational story, the small details of existing are just as significant.
RF: What advice would you give young poets who look to you as a prominent poet? How should they prepare in a practical sense?
OdlP: Prominent? Ha! I mean, the whole practice of writing poetry is on the margins and I like it there, on the peripheries, only accessed in the moment when the emotional need is greatest. The advice I would give young poets is always the same: to read and to pay attention. Listen and watch. Read and think. The important artistic moments often happen in silent contemplation.
Robert Francis Flor is a noted Pacific Northwest Filipino American writer, playwright, poet and a vital force in local Filipino American arts.