Tell us about your new project, these "Empire" poems. How did the idea come about and how is it coming along?
The poems are all part of a 101-poem sequence that make up the body of my forthcoming collection entitled Post Subject: A Fable. In many ways, it's a speculative collection that takes the form of epistles written to a character named "Empire." I started writing the prose poems in 2007, as part of a postcard-poem prompt by Timothy Yu at the end of the Kundiman Retreat. The premise was that we were to write a poem on postcards and send them to Kundiman Fellows who had attended the 2007 summer retreat. At the end of July (which was the month when this exercise took place), everyone on the mailing list should have received at least a postcard from each writer involved. Initially, the individual poems started off as ekphrastic pieces--pieces inspired by the art on the postcard. I was using a set of postcards inspired by photographs from Magnum photographers. There were 50 postcards in the set. I eventually ran out of postcards.
All of the poems are addressed to an empire. Do you have a specific empire in mind or is it more abstract than that, an amalgamation of various empires throughout history?
The latter part. As I mentioned, I envisioned Empire to be a concept and as a concept, its extension of itself was, in my mind, supposed to be timeless, generational, permanent.
Each poem begins "These are your x" where x is an object (laws, bondsmen). I'd like to know about your creative process in selecting the objects you target, because some seem vaguely political while others (salt flat, atoll) are more geographic.
Well, even geographical places are political places. The latest issues between Oklahoma and Texas, going to the Supreme Court for water rights for example. There are more vivid and violent allusions to geographical disputes that I can certainly reference, but you get the point. The opening sentences of the prose poems are carryovers from the postcard assignment. At the time, the pieces directly corresponded to the postcard image. Gradually, through revision, the references changed. But I also liked the tone that a statement of ownership suggests. Eventually, through the sheer number of these entries, I wanted to give readers a sense of accretion. That the sun will forever shine on the X Empire.
How do you advise a reader to approach these new poems? With a dictionary? A suspended sense of reality? A bit of history? I would not really call the poems conceptual, but they do have traces of post-modernism and LANGUAGE poetry. (You are welcome to disagree). Now is you chance to speak to readers who find this kind of work foreign.
Imagine that each poem is a postcard written in secret to someone whom you love and loathe in equal measure.
You were born in the Philippines and raised in the United States. How has this affected your writing in ways that aren't obvious, in ways that might not be apparent to the average reader? The person addressing the Empire, is he or she an outsider looking in?
I think that I wouldn't be a writer if my family history wasn't one of immigration. My first language was Tagalog, but that has since faded into my rudimentary understanding of a few words and sentences. English was the tongue that my family stressed to me when I was growing up. There were two languages--the language of business, which was English, and the language of home, which was Tagalog. Business informed so much of our lives that Tagalog was rarely spoken. I grew up speaking the language of business. The person addressing Empire in these poems is an insider. I envision the narrator to be similar to the one found in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. That narrator is Marco Polo, describing to Kublai Khan, the vastness of the Khan's empire. Only, the tone of my "Marco Polo" is much different than Calvino's. The narrator of my "Dear Empire" pieces acts as the conscience for those who have none.
What is your most recent source of inspiration?
Lately, I've been looking at the work of Eadweared Muybridge, inventor and photographer whose work has been credited as being the pre-cursor to motion pictures. His "animal locomotion" studies are fascinating because they look to be photographed in sequence, but what much of the scholarship says about it is that he actually manipulated the order to make many of the images appear to be in a contiguous order. I've been really interested in ekphrastic work these days, trying to move my poems beyond literal translation into something unique, but some pieces are more successful than others.
What are your writing rituals?
I have to have a clean writing area. Usually a few minutes are dedicated towards getting my desk in order. I always have a mug of coffee nearby as well as 3-6 poetry books for "problem-solving" purposes. I have music playing--something ambient and non-verbal. I spend a few minutes going over already written drafts for revision purposes, and then I spend no more than an hour drafting new work.
When do you write?
I mostly write in the summers--I dedicate a whole month to my writing. That month is generally August, though sometimes I start writing in June. When I start writing, I write every day until the end of August. My best writing times are in the morning, but with the children at peak operation during the morning, I've had to shift my writing operations to the evening.
KIN focuses on international poetry. I am not sure if you pay attention to Filipino writers outside of the US, but if you do, name names and tell us who we ought to be reading.
Absolutely. In my visits to the Philippines, I bought collections by Ricardo M. de Ungria, Edith Tiemp, Gemino Abad, Marjorie Evasco, and Alfred "Krip" Yuson. Find books by these folks!
What are you reading now?
I'm currently reading Eduardo Corral's Slow Lightning and Traci Brimhall's Our Lady of the Ruins.
What books do you come back to?
I keep returning to Larry Levis's Elegy and Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's Nest. They're both books that deal with longer forms and as of late my work has been dwelling in the realm of the sequence or the long poem.
Finally, if you could be a sea creature, what would you be?
A limpet. They're stubborn, clinging to rocks with great ferocity to keep themselves from washing away into the sea.
Oliver de la Paz is the author of three books of poetry: Names Above Houses, a winner of the 2000 Crab Orchard Award Series for Poetry, Furious Lullaby, and Requiem for the Orchard, winner of the 2010 U. of Akron Prize for Poetry. He is the co-editor of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry and a founding member of Kundiman.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to the creation, cultivation, and promotion of Asian American poetry. He is the recipient of grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and Artists' Trust, and he teaches creative writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.