Oliver de la Paz and I met when we and other Boston writers volunteered for the 2019 Writers for Migrant Justice movement. An efficient organizer, he moved swiftly through every task with the most affable demeanor. While there wasn’t time then to learn his backstory, I wanted to know more about this well-published poet who cared for migrant justice and worked so hard and amicably.
More recently, in a corner booth at a tapas restaurant in Worcester, we filled ourselves, and talked about his latest book, his formative experiences, and his vision for poetry communities. Not only did his welcoming and cheerful presence shine through again, but so did all the ways that he is a poet who deeply values service.
Oliver de la Paz describes himself as an introvert happy to work behind the scenes, but he nonetheless sets out on multiple-city book tours to “support his family’s immigrant story.” Facing poverty and political persecution when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, his parents immigrated with Oliver from the Luzon island in the Philippines to eastern Oregon in the United States in 1972. Over the years his father was “savvy enough” to petition for multiple members of their extended family to join them in the United States.
Although his grandparents, aunts, and uncles lived close, de la Paz was still plagued by loneliness, the reality that no other kids looked like him, and so many moments in which nothing happened. His story consequently harbors a sense of isolation: In Ontario, Ore., in Malheur County — French for “bad luck” — his family came together to watch TV “bored together,” he half-joked. In de la Paz’s sixth and latest poetry collection, “The Diaspora Sonnets,” “nothing” repeats in multiple titles; nothingness insists on being a crucial part of the tapestry.
This new collection, which received the 2023 New England Book Award for poetry and was longlisted for this year’s National Book Award, travels deep into his family story, sharing his parents’ and grandparents’ experiences alongside his own. While his readers may find the orchard landscape familiar from former books, in this one we meet the workers who tend the orchards: migrant families de la Paz knew in Eastern Oregon, and his own young self working in the orchards from fourth to sixth grade, able to fit into small spaces and stay low to the ground to weed. In the poems, his attention to labor recurs in his father’s clocking in, and in the ever-important coin one acquires from labor to feed the family.
Why poetry? I asked. De la Paz remembers the first poems he read by Robert Penn Warren in the one poetry book in his house, part of their Reader’s Digest collection, a strange outlier among medical and auditing books. In the thrill of encountering these strange lines in the sixth grade, he started “imitating them, messing around” on a manual typewriter and writing his own poems.
In college he majored in English and biology, and headed for a career in medicine. After graduation, he worked as an emergency medical technician during the tumultuous events of the Los Angeles 1992 uprisings and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, subsequently realizing that the adrenaline-pumping atmosphere was not his “tone.” He then switched to a job as a social worker in assisted living housing.
Throughout all of this, his love for poetry remained. Though he rarely encountered Asian American writers in his college course readings, eventually, while applying to MFA programs, he found personal resonance in the books of then-newly published Asian American poets: Li-Young Lee’s “Rose” and Marilyn Chin’s “Dwarf Bamboo.” Those poems, he said, gave him even more permission to pursue his own poetry writing, and to further honor his family’s history.
“My family’s story is about fear and worry, yes,” he said. “But it’s first a story about love and wanting what’s best for those you love.”
“The Diaspora Sonnets”’s origin story reaffirms the devotion to service and connection I noted when I first met de la Paz. The sonnets began as postcards he wrote to people in the Kundiman community, an organization that has supported hundreds of Asian American poets and writers since 2002. (He is a founding member.) As he participated in the postcard exchange, sending out 30 to 40 postcards in 2016 and 2017, he also took photographs of them. His musings later formed the basis of the collection. Revising them into sonnets, he said, required less narrative detail but a deeper focus on creating a mood and atmosphere.
De la Paz, a father of three boys, is an associate professor in the College of the Holy Cross’s English department, and also teaches in the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. As Worcester’s current poet laureate, he seeks to extend visibility, access, and funding for programs already in place, such as the Worcester County Poetry Association and The Poet’s Cauldron; and to collaborate with others such as the New England Botanic Garden at Tower Hill. In this, as in his life and other work, his poetics bloom in the service of others.
Cheryl Clark Vermeulen, poet and translator, is visiting associate professor at MassArt and poetry editor at Pangyrus.