An Interview with Oliver de la Paz

By Gabriel Lee Bass

West Virginia University had the pleasure of hosting Oliver de la Paz as our Sturm Writer in Residence this Fall. While he Zoomed with us, I had the opportunity to ask him some questions about his most recent book, The Boy in the Labyrinth. This powerful collection follows the experience of being a parent to a neurodiverse child. The work centers on a series of prose poems that trace a boy’s navigation of a labyrinth and serve as an allegory for the experience of the speaker’s son. I was drawn to the way de la Paz incorporated formal and dramatic elements to support the work of the labyrinth poems, as well as how they break conventions to create space and language for the characters of the poems. We also discussed the process of writing The Boy in the Labyrinth, as well as how to make the best of a bad year in what made for a great virtual conversation.

Cheat River Review: The Boy in the Labyrinth felt very familiar to me, having personally seen similar diagnostic questions, especially “Autism Screening Questionnaire: Social Interaction Difficulties.” Did you have a certain reader in mind when writing this collection? Have you been surprised by who the work has resonated with?

Oliver de la Paz: The process of writing the book was organic. I was keeping a notebook and writing a poem almost every day during my early years of parenting. In particular, when my oldest son turned three we started getting feedback from his daycare facilities, suggesting that he needed neuropsychological tests. My journaling/poem writing was in response to my anxiety, so it was deeply personal at the time. My audience was me. Of course, the endeavor of transitioning from a personal journal to a book for a more public audience is a different process, so when I started to consider the shape that would contain the work, I started to think about other neurotypical parents. I learned a lot in the years that the work was circulating in journals and when the book was coming into the shape that it would have. One of the revelatory moments was when one of the Questionnaire poems appeared in Poetry, which has quite a following. It was shared by a lot of parents, but it was also rebuked by some neurodiverse artists and writers. I was surprised because I was in my own parental headspace about what I was going through and, consequently, I’ve learned a lot about advocacy and writing about my neurodiverse kids, and I’ve thought long and hard about who gets what say about whom. And in this regard, I’ve learned, and am still learning, that I need to let my kids speak for themselves. 

CRR: I’ve been thinking a lot about care as resistance over the last few months. The Boy in the Labyrinth is an excellent example of empathy’s power to challenge institutions that marginalize people we care for, even as we acknowledge the gaps in our understanding, such as in “Twenty-Eight Tiny Failures and One Labyrinth.” Do you see this work as an act of care? One of resistance? Both?

de la Paz: Yeah, it was a piece written long after all the other pieces were written and I felt that the book needed to open with a preamble of sorts. A declaration that does not excuse the vantage point, but ultimately acknowledges the vantage point’s flaws. I saw the work I was doing, more as a search for my own personal understanding and for community, rather than directly trying to initiate some political or social justice position. I was writing as a concerned father who acknowledges that he didn’t/doesn’t have the answers. And sometimes, acknowledging that you don’t have the answers—the easy solutions, sometimes that is an act of care.

CRR: Your book spends a lot of time reworking larger forms, such as the minotaur myth, diagnostic tests, and Greek plays. What was the process of synthesizing all these re-seeings like? In other words, how did you revise this book given its formal range?

de la Paz: I spent a lot of time thinking about the structure of the work. There were so many disparate elements that the bigger puzzle, beyond writing all the poems, was figuring out a way for them to cohere and to tell a story altogether. At first the book was merely the “Labyrinth” prose poems, but then as I tried to figure out an order for those prose poems, a larger story started to emerge. And within that story, there was the necessity to build in transitional elements, asides, commentaries. So what ended up happening is I imagined the work to be structured like a play. At first it was five acts, then I distilled it down to three, and because of the nature of the mythic subject matter, I immediately thought of Greek artistic and rhetorical structures like Pindaric Odes and also the Chorus in the Greek Play. So the formal considerations you find in the book were a response to real structural strategies. I had to find a way to move a reader through a labyrinth of poems that begins to sound formally and tonally similar, while also telling a story that actually has an arc.

CRR: Did you always understand the book as a work of mythic reinterpretation, a world-making for your sons?

De la Paz: Not at all. At least, not directly. I was, at first, working with tone and language. I wanted to duplicate the language of the parable, so I suppose, indirectly, I was operating with the instructional mode. But then the work kept accruing until I found myself somewhat trapped in the formal structure that I had devised to foster my writing in the first place. And so the labyrinth came about. And so, the minotaur followed. And so, the allegory that came to represent that portion of time in my life. 

CRR: In episode six, when the boy hears the minotaur’s song, the language runs across the page like the echoing drone of the song itself. Throughout these episodes the line achieves a kind of freedom through its great range of motion in the confinement of the page’s margins. It’s a great mirroring of the boy’s life in the labyrinth. How did you decide that the prose poem best suited the work you wanted to do in this book?

De la Paz: I already mentioned above that I was leaning towards the structure of the parable. The other thing that I should mention was that this work was written at the same time that the book that preceded it was written. So while I was writing Post Subject: A Fable, I was also writing The Boy in the Labyrinth. Both collections have similar rhetorical features. Slowly, I revised some of the idiosyncratic methods that made the two collections fairly similar, but what stayed was the prose poem structure.

CRR: For many poets, myself included, adapting has been hard enough in the midst of this pandemic and the news of so much state repression, let alone working on new poetry. Has our current situation begun to make its way into your work? How has staying at home affected your process?

de la Paz: Honestly, I’m not putting any pressure on myself to produce new work. I’m actually trying to read and slow down a bit more as a way to cope. I’m not always in the best space when I’m writing—I’m anxious, cranky, and a bit needy. So I’m trying to be my best self while living at home with my children who are all learning synchronously online. I’m trying to do my best, of course, but sometimes doing my best means setting down the pen.

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 The Boy in the Labyrinth (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 is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

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, 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.

Gabriel Lee Bass is the Media Editor for Cheat River review. Their poems have been nominated for an AWP Intro Journals Award and can be found in publications including Argot, Into the Void Magazine, and more.