Worcester and The Diaspora Sonnets: An Interview with Oliver de la Paz

Thank you so much for taking this time for answering a few questions. First, I would like to congratulate you on becoming Worcester’s new poet laureate! I read that one of your first initiatives would be in conjunction with the County Poetry Association’s “Rain Poetry: A Walk in the Woo.” Currently there are thirteen poems written on the sidewalks at bus stops using a special paint—the pieces only becoming visible when it rains. What other locations do you hope to have the poems stenciled in?

I’m really excited to assist the Worcester County Poetry Association (WCPA) in this initiative! It was something they started in 2020 and they targeted specifically bus stops because of high pedestrian traffic. Some of the sites we’re thinking about as we expand our outreach are schools, high-volume event locales like theaters, public libraries, and other public buildings. In coordination with the Worcester Cultural Coalition and the WCPA we want to expand the number of poems from thirteen to twenty and possibly more in the future.

Even though there’s a beauty in this type of ephemerality, especially since the paint lasts only 2-3 months, you plan to create archive of all these rain poems. You even said that you’re thinking of “hiring videographers to capture the creation of the work and display of the work.” What other big initiatives do you have planned for the community? Are you hoping to find/help discover a better longer lasting paint?

Thanks for your question! Worcester is experiencing a cultural boom. I think that the arts that get the most visibility are often the visual and performing arts. I want to make it known that the literary arts are just as significant to the cultural legacy of a city. Writers are the emotional archivists of such times, and I want to empower and highlight a community that has already a strong cohort of writers. So among the tasks I’ll be taking on is enlivening the literary arts scene by including the youth of the community. We have a very talented youth Poet Laureate, Adael Meija, who is a dynamic spoken word performer. I want to celebrate his work as well as the dozens of poets and spoken word performers in the community by offering my position as a loudspeaker for the events that are taking place. There are organizations that have long been creating programming for the community, but they don’t get the shine they deserve. I plan on offering workshops in conjunction with other arts organizations in the community like the Worcester Art Museum or the Hanover Theater.

Jumping into your newest powerful collection, one of the themes that I found fascinating was movement: escaping martial law, immigrating to the United States, going from Oregon to Idaho, the coast to the desert. Even from the title itself, readers are signaled to a type of movement—a displacement. Was this theme already present in your mind when you set out to write the first sonnet to possibly include in your book, or did this emerge after you wrote several pieces?

It was always a firmly defined point on the horizon as I was composing these poems. The funny thing is that the series started as physical postcards that I had written to members of Kundiman a few years ago. Kundiman puts together an annual postcard poem exchange and I decided to participate, sending various members on the roster poems. A lot of the poems were echoing the gesture of writing someone who was far away. The move helped me get the sense of the tone of the work by providing a sensibility of longing and distance. The physical act of constricting the language to the size of a postcard helped me envision the sonnet structure. I eventually rewrote the pieces in more stringent sonnet form, imagining the sonnet as a type of argument with my father and his decision to flee the Philippines at the onset of martial law in the Philippines.

The sonnet is the most well-known Western poetic form. Even people who don’t like to read poetry probably remember learning about Shakespeare’s sonnets in their high school English class. The form has been reinvigorated as it used to explore topics other than what is typically associated with it —the romantic beloved/unrequited love. In your case, you use sonnets to express recollections, nostalgia, and an immigrant family’s longing for “home”—both within the United States and the Philippines. Why did you choose the sonnet (and also the pantoum) to be the basis of your collection? At the craft level, what was the benefit of these forms? Did you feel limited or was it liberating? Why not The Diaspora Haikus or The Diaspora Villanelles?

I wanted to channel the familiarity of the form with the discourse of displacement. On the one hand, there’s a comfort in immediately seeing and recognizing the shape of the poems. On the other, the breakage of the structure creates uncertainty–maybe frustration. The poems, when I recomposed them from the postcards, were more stringently formal. Over time, I made the choice to alter the poems so that the reader might get a hint of a rhyme scheme, but instead of hearing end rhymes, the rhymes are internal. I wanted to adhere as closely to iambic pentameter in spite of some the rhyme alterations, but I eventually let myself be a little looser with the meter in revision. Ultimately, the goal was to give the reader an immediate sense of recognition but also an understanding of disjunction. I also chose the sonnet because, as I mentioned earlier, I liked its rhetorical structure–the form working as a sort of syllogism for a generational argument.

I also noticed how you’re able to create beautiful poems from fragments of memories, objects, and the mundane. You have several pieces that have “and Nothing” or “and Nothing Else” in their title that reinforce this. I related to many of the lines such as the opening couplet for “Diaspora Sonnet with a Wok and a Broken Vent and Nothing Else” (“My mother soaked her aching feet because / the disrepair of workdays left her rooted) and the premise of “Diaspora Sonnet as My Father Thinking Aloud About the Wastefulness of Rice Tossed at a Wedding.” What’s your writing process, particularly when writing about the small things and nothing else?

The titles were the last thing added to the poems. When they were published in various journals, they were initially entitled “Diaspora Sonnet #___.” The titling convention that I started with was a way for me to continue generating work. I was worried that if I pinned down the poems with a particular title, I would lose writing momentum. But putting together a book of poems requires a different strategy. I wanted to capture the tone of the poems and in a way, I wanted to de-sensationalize the immigrant travel narrative by noting there was a lot of boredom and silence. So, the tag lines “and Nothing Special” or “Nothing Else” also comment on a lack: the lack of community, the lack of common language between family members, and even the lack of understanding between family members. The brokenness of any sort of continuity or closure that is implied by the “Nothing” also speaks to what is expected in a sonnet’s volta–that the poem turn towards some kind of resolution or a gesture towards resolution.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of your book is that, in many ways, it is a love letter to your father.  In “Diaspora Sonnet as a Photo of My Father, Posing Near the Columbia River Gorge,” you write that he is a notion searching for “another source and yet he is aging / and his body yearns to meld into / something it will never become.” Could you tell us more about your father and his story?

I don’t often tell my father what he means to me, so I want to honor him in these fragments and snippets. He had ambitions and dreams and I wish to acknowledge them here in this collection. He’s heroic. His insight into the politics of the time and his shrewd planning over years allowed him to petition his brothers and sisters from the Philippines to better lives in the US. Many of my uncles now live in Oregon where they live and work. There’s a whole new generation of my extended family born in the U.S. because of his intuition and his worry.

During the late 60’s to early 70’s, there were several student protests in the Philippines as many people started marching against President Ferdinand Marcos’s regime. My father was an avid reader, and he followed the politics. He was able to discern the peril we were in. He knew that his brother was involved in some of these student mobilizations and was branded as a communist and a traitor. So fearing that the backlash would reflect back on the family, my father joined the thousands of people who wished to flee the Philippines.

There are sonnets in the collection that comment on his wait at Camp Crame for the stamping of his papers allowing the family to flee. He waited several days in a line that was miles long. Sometimes what’s heroic isn’t loud. Sometimes what’s heroic is a matter of showing patience.

You’ve mentioned that your parents subscribed to Readers Digest and were able to choose books from their catalog. This exposed you to the poet Robert Penn Warren. In what other ways did your parents influence you into the writer you are today?

The Robert Penn Warren story is such a funny one, because I didn’t understand a bit of what was going on in the book. I was reacting to the visible qualities of the poem as expressed in the linebreak and stanza break. But Robert Penn Warren wasn’t the only book in our library. My parents were avid readers and they believed in books and learning. They often brought me to the public library–ours was the Malheur County Public Library–and I would check out stacks and stacks of books. We would go every week and it’s where I discovered Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, James and the Giant Peach, and other books. I was (and still am) a big Star Wars nut, and my dad bought me the novelization of the film. I had my dad read it to me aloud while recording him with a cassette recorder. They valued language and knowledge and they wanted me to value my education.

The Diaspora Sonnets is quite timely. Fifty years after martial law was declared and your family immigrated to America, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. became the 17th President of the Philippines. History appears be repeating itself, especially after the controversial presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, which served as a premonition of sorts towards what many have viewed as strongman populist politics not only within the Philippines but around the world.  What are your thoughts on the current president of the Philippines? What role do you think poetry—and the arts in general—has in times of division and political instability. What dangers does it face? 

I’m sick. I’m quite literary sick. I am astounded by the way an honest accounting of what happened during the first Marcos regime is seemingly being swept under the rug by his son. Fifty years is not that much time, and it is remarkable how so many of the structures that are created to create community were used to erase a collective memory. Of course, I’m speaking about the expediency of social media platforms in disseminating misinformation that allowed for both the new Marcos regime and the previous Duterte regime to govern in an information fog. There are still many who remember what transpired.

Poetry and art offer offramps from the expediency culture–that the reading of a novel, poem, the viewing of a painting, the seeing of an artistic performance–all of these offer crucial ways that we can return to a moment or moments, allowing us to see the long view of what’s at stake. We have time to linger in the elusory instant so that, rather than be swept by that instant, we have time to gain insight. Alas, poetry cannot necessarily offer a reprieve from one’s regret, but it can give us the opportunity to learn from it.  

Lastly, I know you’re busy with the upcoming release of your book and your new role as Worcester poet laurate, but is there anything new in the works or new pieces forthcoming? Is there any book or writer you’re currently reading that people should know about? Where can people find and connect with you?

I’ve been in the throes of editing and revision, so I haven’t been as productive as I had hoped with new work. I’ve also busying myself with scheduling talks and readings at local schools and colleges. I can, though, recommend some new books by authors I admire! Poet Jane Wong has a new memoir entitled Meet Me Tonight in Atlantic City which is a look back at her life as the daughter of a restaurant owner. I’m also reading Rigoberto González’s For the Boy Who Was Night which is a Selected and New volume of his poems which have been true touchstones for my work over the years. Finally, I just got my hands on Janine Joseph’s book Decade of the Brain and I’m excited to read her poems.


The Diaspora Sonnets published by Liveright is now available on pre-order here.

Oliver de la Paz is the author of six poetry collections, including The Boy in the Labyrinth, a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Award. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, he teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and lives in Holden, Massachusetts.

William Pagdatoon is the son of Filipino immigrants. Born and raised in New Jersey, he is an MFA candidate in Poetry at Queens College and is the co-Managing Editor of Armstrong Literary. His interests include Filipino American identity, history, film, music, food, and anything else that catches his senses.