Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, including his latest book, The Boy in the Labyrinth (University of Akron Press, 2019). His work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Common, The Southern Review, and Poetry Northwest. He is a founding member of Kundiman and now serves as co-chair of Kundiman’s advisory board. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the Low-Residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
Cameron Finch spoke with Oliver about mythic metaphors, the problem with story problems, empathy in the digital era, and the role of poetry in the endless exploration of ourselves.
Poetry-Making as Empathy Play: An Interview with Oliver de la Paz
In Itaparica, the beach broods
under ruddy sky. Two fishermen
and I search waves spitting
shells: ribbed green, a crown
for a queen; a conch; an obelisk;
a whorled shell; a thin swell
pink modica of a disc.
I like to find quiet mountain cabins where I can read and write over the weekends, and I always take my dog Millie. She’s a 60-pound tan dog with pretty eyes. A mutt. I got her at a nearby shelter nine years ago, and now she’s eleven.
A couple of years ago, we started going to a cabin in Virginia, about an hour and a half from my home in central North Carolina. The cabin was built in the 1940s, and it’s a ways down a bumpy dirt road, with no marked street address. There’s a creek on the property and a one-mile trail behind the cabin to the New River.
In the early 1990s, as fighter jets flew over burning oil fields in Kuwait, the star wars of the Cold War relegated to recent memory, astronomers questioned the apparent emptiness of the outer solar system. There had been a long-standing presumption that the outer reaches were entirely devoid of the matter—the planets, the asteroids, the moons—that existed in abundance closer to the sun. What if, instead, out in that deep and dark expanse, items existed but only fleetingly? What if the gravitational pull of larger planets cut the lives of smaller objects short? Was it possible that there were more beautiful things to explore? But without the technology or means to prove it, the presumed void remained just that—a void.
Simon Marshall (interning tour guide, Art History, ABD) stands in the empty gravel yard of Donald Judd’s museum in Marfa, Texas. The sun dips below the high walls of the compound, illuminating a perfect half of the courtyard. Behind Simon a wide expanse stretches, interrupted only by Donald’s outdoor dining table, still holding two copper pots, as if the artist has just stepped inside to catch a call and has not been dead for decades. Simon, having shooed away the final tourist of the day, crosses the courtyard to lock the gates. The gate rears far above his head, solid wood aged to black and buttressed by iron. He feels medieval whenever he does this—who else but a feudal lord would need such protection? Tonight, there’s a moment of resistance before the door shuts and a figure, shadowed and slightly blurred around the edges, pushes through him. Literally right through him.
Dear friend, take me to where they dragged you.
Show me the plaza flanked by homes made
of hollow blocks, plywood, rusty tin sheets—
anything to keep rain and flies out.
Point to me the CCTV that followed you
across the basketball court with its torn nets
and kids scrambling home to screaming mothers.
A wooden chair, washed up on the beach between Nauset and Wellfleet. All drawings by the author.
“We will remember within what walls we lie, and understand that this level life too has its summit, and why from the mountain-top the deepest valleys have a tinge of blue: that there is elevation in every hour, as no part of the earth is so low that the heavens may not be seen from, and we have only to stand on the summit of our hour to command an uninterrupted horizon.”
—Henry David Thoreau, July 1842
The idea to follow Henry David Thoreau’s walks came plainly while I was standing in the shower at dawn one May morning, listening to the water drill my skull and lap my ears, wondering what I could do to stop the dreams of my past girlfriend. This was some time ago, when I couldn’t find a way out of the doubt, fear, shame, sadness, and pain that had arranged a constellation of grief around me. In this last dream, the one that got me into the shower at sunrise, she was in labor. Her husband—my dream had rendered him with dark hair in a cowlick, wearing a red shirt rolled to the elbows—stood bedside, holding her hand while she took deep breaths. I stood against the wall, touching a white handkerchief that I wanted to offer them. She looked up at her husband. He closed his hands over hers, something I must have seen in a movie. Though I wanted to leave the room, I stayed, because my legs weren’t working just then. I kept touching the handkerchief. The baby came. There were three of us in the room, and then there were four.