By Ryan O’Connell
The English Department and Arts & Ideas hosted Oliver de la Paz - poet laureate of Worcester, professor, and author of seven poetry collections - for the 6th annual Alan Feldman Week of Poetry Oct. 17.
Paz, who teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the low-residency master of fine arts program at Pacific Lutheran University, read from his two most recent titles - “The Boy in the Labyrinth” and “The Diaspora Sonnets,” his latest book.
He first read a poem from “The Boy in the Labyrinth” - a finalist entry for the Massachusetts Book Award - which he said chronicled his experiences as a father of neurodivergent children.
“I’m the father of three children on the autism spectrum. I likely have autism myself. I know for a fact my father is autistic,” he said. “And this particular book is about what I thought - at the time - was my neurotypical self, and how I navigated being the father of neurodiverse kids.”
Paz then read excerpts from “Autism Screening Questionnaire: Abnormal Symbolic or Imaginative Play,” which he said was written as a dialogue between a neurotypical parent and an autism screening test.
He added the poem becomes a quarrel between the parent and the questionnaire.
Paz read, “Does your child flap his hands? Does he self-stimulate?
“In ecstatic moments it is a kind of remembering the body is the body. For example, these arms for grasping. These hands are capable of holding and touching the known and unknown. And how remarkable it all is - scintillate the way wonder surges towards the filaments,” he read.
The rhythm of his poem continued through his reading, the questionnaire asking, “Does he self mutilate? Does he toe-walk? Does he arrange his toys in rows?” with the parent’s responses breaking between, illustrating his son’s actions.
Paz then switched to “The Diaspora Sonnets.”
He said the preamble to the book details his family’s emigration from the Philippines after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos rose to power in 1972 and declared martial law.
He added his father’s brother had been blacklisted by the regime due to him being a leader of student protests against Marcos.
“My father, naturally fearing the safety of the family, decided we needed to go,” Paz said.
He said his father waited outside of Camp Crame, a military base authorizing citizens to leave the country with a line of people miles long in order to get his family out of the Philippines.
Finally, he said, his father marched to the front of the line after waiting days and threw his papers at the person sitting behind the desk.
“And then he went out to lunch,” he said.
“And he came back, and he found the papers on the desk and they were stamped. And it was a miracle,” he added.
Paz said his family left the same day, taking very little with them to the United States. The first poem of the book, “Chain Migration 1: Airport Coin-Op Food” reflects the experience of being at the airport with very little, he said.
Following the reading of “Chain Migration 1,” Paz said “The Diaspora Sonnets” chronicles not only his family’s departure from the Philippines, but also their homelessness in the U.S. and eventual residence in Ontario, Oregon.
He read “Diaspora Sonnet with My Father in the Desert, Seeing the Valley Before Him, and Nothing Else” next, reflecting part of his life with his father in Oregon.
Paz said he lived in another town in Malheur County, Oregon for a time before Ontario.
“In French it’s ‘malheur,’ which means bad luck,” he added, and read “Diaspora Sonnet on the Occasion of My Father, in Late Summer, Seeing the Grackles of Malheur County.”
Paz then spoke about his upbringing, and how he describes himself as being a “latchkey kid,” responsible for keeping himself busy while his parents worked.
He said he spent a lot of time watching TV shows of the ’50s and ’60s like “F Troop,” “Gilligan’s Island,” and “Leave it to Beaver,” and didn’t ever see people who looked like him on television.
He wrote “Diaspora Sonnet on the Glossy Cover of ‘TV Guide’” about that lack of representation, he added.
“We weren’t // chosen for the dance with kings and senators. / We’re blades of grass; while luminaries, fat // on roasted pig and ribs on spits, enhanced / their looks with hair products that let them shine // beautifully above us in orbit - / whole galaxies of the gorgeous on TV,” he read.
Paz then returned to his father’s attempt to leave the Philippines, reading “Diaspora Sonnet Imagining my Father in Line at Camp Crame,” an imagining of what his father felt like at the base, the imagery of soldiers, and the forfeiture of his “field and nation.”
He said a few years ago, he was commissioned to write a poem for the Institute of Contemporary Art’s exhibit titled “When Home Won’t Let You Stay,” which featured his work among other artists who all contributed under the themes of migration, immigration, and exile.
He added he found a piece in the installation by Indian artist Reena Saina Kallat particularly stunning - a map of the world in vibrant colors, composed of electrical and barbed wire, that would chirp and sound alarms at the viewer.
Paz said this piece inspired him to write a pantoum, a poetic form originating in Malaysia and popularized in the western world by France.
“[The pantoum] was ‘adopted’ by the French - just how the French ‘adopted’ a lot of things from Southeast Asia,” he said.
He added the form is originally more like a dialogue, which materialized in English by having a series of repeated lines.
He then read “Pantoum Beginning and Ending with Thorns.”
Paz said since he was very young during many of the life experiences he wrote about in “The Diaspora Sonnets,” much of his father’s character is imagined, and he felt the need to make him “epic.”
“The epic tradition which is sacred in western culture, and important in our culture and our stories needed my family and their story to be sort of epic,” he added.
He read “Diaspora Sonnet Imagining My Father on the Streets of Marikina, Metro Manila,” which he said he wrote about his father in his 20s and in a heroic way.
Paz said he wrote “Diaspora Sonnet Sent Par Avion with an Ink Blemish from a Broken Pen” about his father preparing to send money internationally to relatives still in the Philippines.
“There were these envelopes that basically had these red and blue stripes, and then on them had ‘par avion’ which means ‘air mail.’ And that was how my family communicated with their relatives, and mostly we were sending money back and forth to them,” he said.
Paz concluded with “Pantoum Beginning and Ending with a Big Sky,” which referenced a colloquial name of the location they ended up living in Oregon - “big sky country, … where the horizon and the plains form a sharp line” - and reflects on his father’s expectations of him.
“I think he dreams of change, of me / driving out of this desert, setting fire to the road - / imagines who I’d become or other possibilities / that are, maybe, just within reach of the interstate,” he read.
He read, “I’d drive out of this desert and set fire to the road, / I’d emerge from the earth like a prayer, unheard. / I’d take the offramp and ease off the interstate. / I’d see where the horizon and the plains form a sharp line.”