Oliver de la Paz
Possession: What the Ear Said
Nothing to hear in that hollow. Not boats,
not the cadence of boats and their oars.
Not wood and water and the ferry
to island in a storm, not rain. Not
the repetition of rain and the often loved
sound of trees. Or the sea.
Or the open mouth receiving. Not the lean
of the grief-struck against an ox-cart or the low
of the dog caught in that rain. Again
the sound of the heart in the throat, and the too soon
lapse of breath. Again the beat of the foot
against the floor--the speech of the bed-creak
or the priest. Not to hear a cloak or some ghost.
Not moon. Not door. Not the entered shoes of a beautiful
stranger and her door, her moon.
-from Furious Lullaby
BIO: Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry, Names Above Houses, Furious 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 Labyrinths (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 serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board of Trustees. 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, Chattahoochee Review, 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.
An Interview with Oliver de la Paz by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: “What the Ear Said” is a lyrical poem that operates within a larger narrative structure in your second book, Furious Lullaby. Can you talk a little bit about this sequence: what it’s about, how a sequence of poems works in general, how this poem came to be a part of it?
Oliver de la Paz: I wrote the poems for the middle section of Furious Lullaby right after I had completed Names Above Houses. “What the Ear Said,” and the other accompanying poems in the section were a way for me to depart from the character-driven Names Above Houses which I had been crafting for three years. It’s hard to stop writing prose poems, especially prose poems that had a central character. I read a lot of Paul Celan to reprogram my brain back into the short lyric. So as an exercise I sort of mimicked Celan’s poetic gestures. I’m sure you can still hear and perhaps even see a lot of Paul Celan in the pieces.
The sequence, ultimately is the “dark night of the soul” for the manuscript. So much of Furious Lullaby is about wanting nothing more than to remain with someone, whether in bed, at a dinner table, or searching with someone for a lost object. The middle section functions as the fulcrum of the book—it allows the inertia of the narrative to move forward now that it’s understood what’s at stake.
I sort of knew I had stumbled upon a sequence because 1) they were drafted as a sequence and 2) syntactically and tonally, they were all similar pieces. “What the Devil Said,” “What the Eye Said, “What the Ear Said”--the naming conventions came after I had a sense of the rhythm for each of the pieces. Once I placed the naming conventions “What the ________ Said,” that was it. The titles were a declaration that the pieces were, indeed, part of the same sequence.
As far as how a sequence works, it depends. I’ve told my grad students that I believe in three things when putting together a manuscript of poems (I imagine what applies to the manuscript is a macrocosm for what applies to the sequence) 1. The poems should be balanced, and by balance I mean according to length, according to the visual shape of the poems 2. The sequence of poems should should so some tonal consistency, and 3. the poem sequence should provide inertia—in other words, there should be some kind of development that occurs over the course of reading the sequence.
I knew my Aubades were saying the same thing in different ways, so I needed the middle sequence to challenge what the Aubades were saying in the first and third sections.
AMK: “What the Ear Said” does so very well. How did you accomplish this feat?
OP: I wrote “What the Ear Said” in conjunction with a number of the poems in that middle section of Furious Lullaby. For as long as I’ve been writing, I’ve been writing in series or sequences. So in the case of this particular poem and the companion poems around it, I begin writing them in the Spring of 1998, after I had completed Names Above Houses. I had been writing prose poems for such a long time that I felt I had forgotten how to line break. “What the Ear Said” was more or less an exercise in line breaking and enjambment for me, as were the other pieces. And because, tonally, they were all so similar, it was natural to place them together. The real big issue came about when I felt I had a whole manuscript, but I also had these little stitches of poems here and there that didn’t seem to fit in style or temper. Eventually the sequence wound up in the middle of Furious Lullabyas the “dark night of the soul” moment for the book.
So in a nutshell, I had to live with the pieces for some time and I had some really fabulous editors giving me advice about order. Any semblance of skill or grace in the seamlessness of the poems in relation to one another is purely the work of editors who were my guiding angels.
AMK: I love this poem’s use of sentence fragments, such “Or the Sea.” and “Not moon. Not door.” Why use the hardstop of the period rather than a less abrupt comma or semicolon?
OP: I imagined the musical arrangement of the poem to be much like wave motion or a sine curve. Without the hard stops, the arrangement from one concern to the next would seem too gradual for me. I wanted the poem to veer. The cadence of the lines needed to sound more like marching than a gentle unfurling.
AMK: “What the Ear Said” certainly makes wonderful use of rhythm, particularly in the opening few lines (Nothing to hear in that hollow. Not boats, / not the cadence of boats and their oars...”) This sets a sort of tone for the poem, a setting within language of sorts that immediately communicates the poem’s lyrical style and, in a way, its subject matter. Do you think it’s important to open a poem this way; to indicate the basic form/tone of the poem from the word go?
OP: For this poem, yes. It was important for “What the Ear Said” to announce that it was going to be a lyric poem because its concerns were about the perception of sound. But of course, if I were writing a poem that were going in some other direction, say a poem of rhetorical argument, or a poem spoken from the voice of a persona, my strategy to open the poem would probably be different.
AMK: Is this loosely metered rhythm something that comes naturally to you or is this an element you make use of in the process of revision?
OP: When I write, I write to music. So it’s natural that some of the music finds itself—at least rhythmically—into my poems. But I also read my work aloud as I’m composing.
AMK: It’s really interesting how “What the Ear Said” takes on the point-of-view of the ear but not necessarily its voice— it’s not exactly a personae poem but, then again, it’s not just about the ear either. What sort of poem do you think this is? Does it matter?
OP: Well, through force, I tried to make it a persona poem by placing it adjacent to some clear persona poems (the poems in the voice of the devil littered throughout). Would I call it a persona poem? Sure. Why not? The title makes it so.
AMK: We talk all the time about voice and personae in poetry but not point-of-view. Can you talk a little bit about these elements, how they work, why we use them, etc…?
OP: You know, so many of my students are concerned about finding their voice. They want to have a recognizable style/voice that is unique to them--that can be understood as theirs and theirs alone. (I use style and voice synonymously because my students equate them.) I have an understanding about student anxieties, but I dislike this idea that they must find their voice at such an early stage. I believe such thinking, the narrowing of one’s range, could possibly deprive a writer the chance at some really intriguing explorations. And, in fact, I’m contending with this very same issue in my introduction to poetry class right now. What I always tell my students is to be true to the poem. If the circumstances of the poem dictate that the poem will become a narrative, so be it. If the circumstances dictate lyricism, then go that way. If the poem asks for them to switch personas to confront the material, then they need to switch those personas.
As far as personae in poems go, I always saw the idea of moving into the intellect/concerns/emotions of another speaker as a possibility for true empathy. What’s more intimate than understanding that a character has a desire and has barriers that are put before them, preventing them from getting what they desire? Personae are also wonderful masks to adopt to allow the writer to explore “dangerous” subjects. Without danger in art, it’d all be rendered banal.
Now, as far as point-of-view is concerned, if you’re talking about the point-of-view found in a poem, then I think a writer shouldn’t confuse this so much. The poem should be articulated from that point-of-view, and if that point-of-view should shift or change, then the writer should provide an adequate transition towards that change. Now if you’re talking about a larger idea of point-of-view, and are applying that idea to what the artist/poet believes, then yeah, such positions tend to be a little more entrenched, though I also think that one’s point-of-view as an artist should be fluid. We should be open to changing the way we think and the way we write, based on the source materials we have around us. It’s never the same river twice.
AMK: Do you think personae and point-of-view are naturally occurring elements of poetry or are they elements we’ve created to make poems in the first place?
OP: Both. Sometimes the narrative of a poem requires/demands the poet distance her/himself from the tale. Sometimes there is a compelling character who drives the impetus of a poem.
AMK: If you could only have five books (aside from your own) on your bookshelf, what would they be?
OP: A good dictionary. The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary—I like the way they’ve laid out the words. 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die—by Tom Moon. A local phone book—if I was on a desert island, I could also use the names and places as characters and settings. Plath’s Ariel—her order.
AMK: When is your next book coming out?
OP: Requiem for the Orchard is scheduled to be released in early March of 2010.