NER reader Angela Narciso Torres chats with poet Oliver de la Paz, author of “Autism Screening Questionnaire: Abnormal Symbolic or Imaginative Play” (NER 39.1), on the origins of his current project, form, and his early inspirations.
AT: In the July/August 2017 issue of Poetry, you published a poem that also uses the nonliterary form of the autism screening questionnaire as a framework for these intensely lyrical, associative poem-responses, similar to the piece that appears in New England Review. Are these part of a larger series, and could you tell us about the origins of this project?
OD: The poem that appears in New England Review is the third of three sections of a long poem. The poem is based on a questionnaire a number of parents are given when their child is being screened for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Two of my sons fall under the Autism Spectrum. For awhile I had been reluctant to write about the experience, but recently I felt braver with sharing what the process was like. Surrounding these poems are prose pieces that are structured as allegories to describe the process as analogous to navigating a maze.
AT: Henri Cole once said of form, “A poem is like a bottled genie. The bottle makes the genie stronger.” Could you talk about your relationship with form in your work? How has it changed over the course of writing four poetry collections?
OD: I tend to seek form and structure when writing. Having a structure assists me in my composition because I have a readily available scaffold with which to craft my work. From project to project, and I’m not afraid to call what I’m doing a project, I build around shapes and designs and the shapes depend on what I’m working with. So in my previous collection, Post Subject: A Fable, I was interested in the intimacy of correspondence, so naturally the epistolary form assisted my composition. For this recent project, I’m interested in the failure of communication, and the form of the questionnaire allows me to probe at meaning and the failure of meaning within a confining structure.
AT: Who were some of your early writing influences that continue to inspire you today?
OD: My very first poetry book was a Readers’ Digest deal—the Selected Poems of Robert Penn Warren. I was intrigued by the shapes of poems in that book, though the contents were way over my head at the time. My “ah-ha” collection was Rose by Li-Young Lee. I was reading his book while I was serving as a care provider for a special needs residency aid. My client slept a lot and so I read a lot. While I was reading Li-Young Lee’s work, I made the decision to pursue poetry (I had been a pre-med student). Of course, all my teachers in graduate school were influences—Norman Dubie, Alberto Rios, and Beckian Fritz-Goldberg are poets I always go back to when I’m feeling stuck.
Oliver de la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry: Names Above Houses (Southern Illinois University Press, 2001), Furious Lullaby (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007), Requiem for the Orchard (University of Akron Press, 2010), and Post Subject: A Fable (University of Akron Press, 2014). He is a co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry (University of Akron Press, 2011), and a founding member and co-chair of the Kundiman advisory board. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the low residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University.
Angela Narciso Torres’s poetry collection Blood Orange won the Willow Books Literature Award. Her work appears in Colorado Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Jet Fuel Review, Water~Stone Review, and other journals and anthologies. A graduate of Warren Wilson MFA Program and Harvard Graduate School of Education, Angela has received fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Illinois Arts Council, and Ragdale Foundation. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she serves as a poetry editor for RHINO and a publicity coordinator for Woman Made Gallery Literary Events. She currently resides in Southern California.