An Interview with Dyer-Ives 2017 National Judge Oliver de la Paz
The Dyer-Ives Poetry Competition, now in its forty-ninth year, offers Kent County residents the opportunity to submit one original poem for a chance at publication, a public reading, and a cash prize. Created by the Dyer-Ives Foundation, and now hosted by the Grand Rapids Public Library for the first time, the competition employs three local preliminary judges and one national judge for the adjudication process. Submissions take place each year during the month of February, and poets of all ages and levels of experience are welcomed to share an original piece.
As one of this year’s preliminary judges, I took the opportunity to reach out to the 2017 National Judge, poet and professor Oliver de la Paz, for a brief correspondence interview. His responses are inspiring and insightful, and offer a bright perspective on the spectrum of possibility available to any of us who are zany or courageous enough to call ourselves poets.
How were you first drawn to poetry? Was there a particular poet you admired?
I’m an only child and my family moved to Eastern Oregon in the 1970’s. It was a very isolating experience—we were the only Filipino family for many miles around, so much of my childhood was spent reading. My parents, as new immigrants, did what they could to adapt quickly. They subscribed to Readers’ Digest and ordered books from a catalog that came as one of the perks of membership.
One of the books was Robert Penn Warren’s Selected Poems, which fascinated me because of the spacing on the page. It was visually appealing to me. Also, typewriters were still “in fashion,” and I loved to play with the carriage return, so fiddling around with poetry on the page came about through my discovery of that Penn Warren book and the typewriter as a young, lonely kid.
My first real poetry love, though, was Li-Young Lee’s book Rose. His book was the first by an Asian American poet that I had ever read and immediately I understood his family’s story of exile and longing.
Poetry is as much about place as anything. In your book “Names Above Houses” you follow a young boy whose family emigrates to the U.S. Is this, in part, a reflection of your own journey from the Philippines as a youth?
Kind of, sort of. It’s really a composite portrait of several narratives. Yes, the family in the narrative are a trio, much like my family, but we didn’t live in San Francisco for longer than two years.
I did know about stories from other folk who were brought up in the Bay Area, but a lot of the work is fictionalized accounts spliced with a bit of magical realism springing from sayings, aphorisms, and stories that my grandmother would sometimes nonchalantly utter.
Poetry often does cultural work that other mediums cannot. To what extent has your experience as an immigrant to the U.S. informed your poetic instincts? Is poetry, for you, a vehicle for mutual understanding or a monument to what makes us different? Or both?
Well, it’s the only experience I have—that of immigrant who left a country during martial law and a dictatorship. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t reach out and try to reach an understanding with others whose narratives are different from mine . . . I mean, poetry works there, in those spaces where parties are attempting to make meaning from a series of signs and symbols that are at first blush different, but through story and imagery are made universal.
Immigrants such as myself have had to make metaphors constantly to articulate our self-hoods in the face of a society who may not understand or at times may not accept what they bring to the country.
Poetry operates there—making immediate an emotional understanding. Even though there are distinctions in the story, there is still a story and there are people at the heart of this story.
Like this one—the day I left the Philippines we had two hours to pack and make it to the airport. My father had waited in line for two days in order to get a working visa. The line to get his papers stamped was two miles long. My job as writer then is to make explicit the sounds of that line. Whether it was hot. Whether my father brought his lunch with him. Whether there were men with guns. Whether he was afraid. The tenors of the drama are universal—desperation, fear, anxiety. It’s just the vehicles [that] are idiosyncratic, and if we’re doing our job as poets those idiosyncratic moments are resonant moments.
Names Above Houses is a poetic novella. What made you decide to explore that format? Do you have any tips for poets who are interested in pursuing a similar project?
I read a number of books with a similar structure. The poet Zbignew Herbert has a sequence of “Mr. Cogito” poems that inspired me. They were surrealistic and philosophical in nature. I also read Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, which is a series of brief parable-like prose poems. Finally, the work of William Kloefkorn, particularly his sequence of “Ludi Jr.” poems, inspired me. They were based on a character who is a fool but is also profound. All of those works gave me the idea to structure the work as a novella. Originally the poem was an overly-serious long poem, but the three poets mentioned granted me permission to loosen my line.
As far as tips for other writers are concerned, sometimes work from titles—if you have a consistent titling nomenclature, sometimes that can help you generate thematic threads. It helps me generate new work.
When sitting down to revise, what do you try to hold foremost in your mind while editing? Is there a central ideal (pithiness, rhythm, structure, sound, or something less tangible) that you feel is the keystone of your creative goals?
I usually revise for sound and synthesis with a larger project. I view my discreet poems as part of a bigger whole, always have. A lot of poets whom I admire can’t operate with such large canvasses and are more comfortable working from poem to poem, but I can’t think of poems as singular. They’re always dialogic structures—works that speak to other works. So usually I read my poems aloud messing with a line here and there, all the while considering where the work fits within a current schema.
What is your favorite writing prompt when you’re feeling stuck?
I give myself elaborate restrictions. I call my restrictions part of my “Rube Goldberg” poetics. Rube Goldberg, of course, was a cartoonist who drew elaborate machines whose sole function is to do a simple task but the task is made complicated because simple tasks are performed through quirky processes. For example, let’s say I wanted to write about a childhood memory having to do with my first encounter with desire. It’s quite simple to go from A to B, but with my Rube Goldberg poetics, I create impediments like having to include the color “Burnt Sienna,” the refrain from Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” a neighborhood dog, and a kitchen tool with multiple functions.
Dyer Ives is open to poets of all ages, and one of its goals is to encourage poetry among grade school students. What advice do you have for students who are just beginning to write? Are there any poets you recommend specifically to young people?
Read. Read. Read. Anything and everything, really. Draw inspiration from the language and also understand that language is malleable. The best way to learn that writing can also be play is to read widely. Poets I love right now are Natalie Diaz, Cathy Linh Che, Tarfia Faizullah, Ocean Vuong, and Ross Gay. They range in modes and methods but all of them are exquisite poets.
This last question is one I ask all my guests on Electric Poetry, and you may answer it as literally or ethereally as you like: where does poetry come from?
In the morning. From the tendrils of steam coming off of the first cup of coffee. In conversation. On a walk with the dog. In the quiet of your favorite chair with the tiny crackle of a book’s spine opening up.
For anyone in search of new reading material, I highly recommend picking up one of Oliver de la Paz’s four collections of poetry; my favorite is Requiem for the Orchard (U. of Akron Press, 2010). The writing is superb. The poems are precise without becoming sparse. The voice is vibrant with nostalgia, but avoids succumbing to sentimentality. The cyclical nature of the poems’ progression is evocative of the remembering, restructuring, and renewal with which we approach the reckoning of our pasts with the possibilities of our futures. It’s an emotional process accessible to everyone and relevant to anyone.
The winning poets for this year’s Dyer-Ives Poetry Competition have been announced on the Grand Rapids Public Library webpage. Additionally, a reading will be held on Saturday, June 3rd at the library’s Downtown Branch from 1-2 pm to showcase the winning poems. The event is free and open to the public, and guests may take home their own copy of Voices, the Dyer-Ives Competition’s annual publication, which anthologizes the winning poems as well as runners-up.