Oliver de la Paz: Father, poet, teacher

Oliver de la Paz. Photo courtesy of Caleb Young

Oliver de la Paz teaches a creative writing class at WWU. Photo by Michael Leese | University Communications intern

Oliver de la Paz teaches a creative writing class at WWU. Photo by Michael Leese | University Communications intern

Matthew Anderson
University Communications

Oliver de la Paz is a winner, plain and simple. Want proof? Well, there’s the $1,500 GAP Grant he was awarded last year from Artist Trust, which supports artist-generated projects in Washington. There’s also the Crab Orchard Review Series in Poetry award he won in 2000, the prize for which was publication of his first book, “Names Above Houses.” And in 2009 his poetry collection “Requiem for the Orchard” was selected from 502 contest submissions for the Akron Poetry Prize, which is rewarding de la Paz with $1,000 and publication, this March, of the collection.

The poet

The book will be the third for de la Paz, an assistant professor of English at Western Washington University. “Furious Lullaby” was his second.

Serious writing for de la Paz – and consideration of writing as a career choice – came in 1995 when he entered the Master of Fine Arts program at Arizona State University. But he’s been a writer at least since middle school.

“Writing is one of those things that I was always good at,” he says. “From the sixth grade on, I was telling stories.”

He continued writing into high school, primarily in a journal he kept. He didn’t quite have the patience for writing longer stories, though. Poetry was a much better fit.

“Poetry is quick, precise,” he says. “I like the compression of poetry.”

Don’t think his work doesn’t tell a story, though. In fact, “Requiem for the Orchard,” comprising 52 poems in all, is just that.

“The poetry,” says De La Paz, “is centered on the speaker’s recollection of working in an orchard in childhood, and bridging those memories with his newfound fatherhood.”

The father

The work is somewhat autobiographical for De La Paz, certainly the first of his books to be that way.

“My other two books were written kind of behind masks,” he says. “This collection is very much about me. It’s a little riskier.”

The author became a father himself not too long ago (Lucas, now 2), and he and his wife, Meredith, now have a second child on the way (Nolan, due in May).

“Being a father changes how you deal with work, how you deal with your outside life,” he says. “You really start to think about what you’re doing, how you react, what you say. This book is me trying to figure out what kind of father I’d like to be.”

Indirectly, a lot of De La Paz’ son ends up in the book.

“I was really nervous writing about him,” De La Paz says. “One, writing about your children is just not cool. And two, there’s always that danger of being sappy.”

Sappy? Not by the standards of Martín Espada, the final judge for the 2009 Akron Poetry Prize. Known as “the Latino poet of his generation” and “the Pablo Neruda of North American authors,” Espada praised the reality of the poetry in “Requiem for the Orchard.”

“These are vivid, visceral poems about coming of age,” Espada wrote. “These poems are the stuff of life itself, ugly and beautiful, wherever or whenever we happen to live it.”

The teacher

What makes a good writer? Point one: Read. Point two: Read.

“Anyone interested in writing is a reader first,” says de la Paz. “My role as a teacher is to introduce my students to people they should read. Seeing what other authors have to offer serves them well, as does the ability to find additional authors to read.”

Students are hungry to find their voices as writers, sometimes even worried about it. That’s precisely why de la Paz forces his students to read.

“I just think it’s too early to decide what your voice is going to be for the rest of your life,” he says. “In college, you try on different acts, different faces, masks. They’re learning what they want to become.”

It’s advice de la Paz follows religiously in his personal life. He reads. Not as much during the school year, of course, when teaching and grading compete with his young son for his attention, but he reads nonetheless. It was the book of fellow author Li-Young Lee that kindled the spark of his own creative interest; Lee’s 1986 book “Rose” – a “nostalgic book about immigration and exile, about the relationship between fathers and sons,” says de la Paz – seemed in some ways to de la Paz that it could have come from his own pen.

“As a writer, you want to be like the person you admire. You either tire of your favorites, or they change, you change or you get exposed to something new,” de la Paz says. “As professors, we try to instill this love of reading by sharing new stuff that we’re really into. That bears out in what we teach, what we assign.”

The person

Somehow, de la Paz still manages to find time to write. He posts regularly on his blog, Pugnacious Pinoy, about teaching, poetry, entertainment and anything else on his mind. For example, from Jan. 29:

“So, I bought Mass Effect 2. Cinematic. Very cinematic. Do I have time to play the game? Hell no, but like I said in the previous post, I bought the first game, got hooked, and enjoyed myself for the months that I played. Sometimes, when the kid’s asleep, I need a little ‘me time’ outside of letters.”

Another post, from September 2009:

“I'm trying to blog with my toddler sleeping soundly in the crook of my arm. I'm finding that the spacebar on my laptop is entirely too loud. He's been asleep since 11:30AM. It's 1:39PM right now and Meredith, my parents, and my aunts and uncles have gone shopping, leaving me with L. and Jake in my parents' B'ham abode.

Uh . . . little baby twitch. I'll type slower.”

He uses Twitter, too; like poetry, it’s a quick, precise form of writing. One recent Tweet: “[Oliver de la Paz] dropped a 25 lb iron plate on his ankle at the gym, but, because he is a writer, came up with adjectives to deal with the pain.” Another: “[Oliver de la Paz] will, in the time of a toddler nap, pay bills, grade papers, fold laundry, and take a shower. Toddler permitting, he will also eat lunch.”

“The book is only one way to connect to an audience,” he says. “People will encounter my work in various ways. It’s up to us as poets nowadays to open up those venues, to allow people to discover our work in other forms.”

And though de la Paz does put artistic thought into the structures of his Tweets and the prose on his Facebook page, he doesn’t confuse it with poetry, his first love. He likens it to letter-writing, to corresponding with friends.

“These online social networks are good for community building,” he says. “It’s a great way of meeting people, and not just as contacts, but as real people.”

Online, as in real life, de la Paz has no pretense, no artificial self.

“I try not to be different people,” he says. “Online I’m goofy, funny. I’m a real person.”

He’s connected, too. His recently redesigned Web site at http://www.oliverdelapaz.com/ includes links to his Twitter page, Facebook account, blog, Flickr account and Goodreads profile. Oh, and there are links to his works online and a few audio clips of him reading his poetry, too.

“I didn’t initially see the Internet as a tool for marketing myself,” says de la Paz, who has been blogging since 2004. “I saw it as a tool for building community.”

He still largely feels that way. Very few poets have agents, and the rest of them – de la Paz included – make do by supporting each other. They invite one another to readings, they read each other’s books. In short, they form communities.

And certainly, de la Paz’ online presence has helped him make contacts and broaden his community.

“Since I started blogging, I’ve made a lot of friends who are also bloggers and poets and book authors,” he says. “I find that people are less afraid of approaching me if they’ve seen my work online.”

Oliver de la Paz, who was born in the Philippines and raised in Ontario, Ore., says his parents don’t really understand his work.

“My own folks are not so much into creative writing, not into making up stories,” de la Paz says. “They’re very factual people. They don’t really understand what I do; they think it’s my thing. They are supportive, though.”

In addition to the master’s degree in fine arts that he earned at ASU, de la Paz has bachelor’s degrees in biology and English from Loyola Marymount University. Before taking his current position at Western, he taught at Arizona State University, Gettysburg College and Utica College. A recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, his work has appeared in journals such as “Quarterly West,” “The Asian Pacific American Journal” and “North American Review.”