For many students at Western Washington
University, Professor Oliver de la Paz is the
amiable and quirky character often seen walking
the halls of Humanities building, bobbing his
head to his tunes, his large, friendly dog Beau in
tow. An encouraging, accessible figure who pushes
his students to explore while remaining true to
themselves, he amuses his students with funny stories
about his children, and once commented in a
prose poetry workshop that he might have a “kitten
shaped hole in his heart” to explain his belief
that kittens and poetry should not be mixed.
But contrary to his easy going manner and
good humor, the professor has a lot more on
his plate than most of his students would likely
guess. De la Paz is an award-winning poet, a
founding member of an organization called
Kundiman, which supports and promotes Asian
American poets, and the music editor of At
Length Magazine. He is also the vice president of
the Associated Writing Programs board, and the
chair of the AWP conference committee — something
that is keeping him very busy with the
annual AWP writers’ conference coming up in
February. Writers across the country are looking
forward to an exciting line-up of presenters
at the conference, which will be held this year in
Seattle. De la Paz is busy procuring sponsorship
payments and handling other financial concerns
to prepare for the event. One might think it frustrating
for the author of three volumes of poetry
and winner of the Akron Poetry Prize in 2009 to
have his hands full with administrative tasks. But
he says it is normal for him to dedicate his free
hours to administrative work this time of year.
“I am not one who engages in writing anything on my own while the school year is going on,” de
la Paz said. “When it’s summer and I’m not teaching
I write every day. I tend to use the school time
where I have some dead time or when I’m not
grading to do administrative stuff because that’s
where my brain is at.”
La Paz has just published a book of prose
poems titled Post Subject: a Fable. De la Paz says it
is different from his previous collections. “If anything,
it could be compared to my very first book,
which is also a book of prose poems. But it’s completely
different in terms of tone, it’s much more
obsessive I think,” de la Paz said. “It’s very different
than the two previous books, which were
lineated and broken in verse, a little bit more
emotional, these are a little bit more intellectual,
I would say, let me add political too.”
De la Paz has received numerous awards,
including the Artists’ Trust GAP Grant, the Akron
Poetry Prize, the New York Foundation for the
Arts Fellowship, and the Crab Orchard Award.
But he does not measure his success in terms of his
own recognition. Though he hopes to contribute
steadily to the art of poetry, his greatest passion
is for teaching. “I’m not interested in a Pulitzer
though that would be great. The awards that
I want are the awards that my students achieve.”
I asked him if there was any way to summarize
the most important lesson he hoped to teach his
students. “There is, and it’s also one of my favorite
words,” he said. “The word is onward.” He
then described his recollection of seeing the word
onward in a rejection letter. “Persistence is what
this about. Understanding that there are failings,
and some of those failings are not quite failings
but discoveries. So. Onward.”

"The faucet’s slurred talk: a hair the drain could not swallow, the sounds of a wetdeck’s sway as sea-storms rock iron ships like empty plastic cups in the wind."