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Oliver de la Paz: Navigating Unspoken Worlds

News, Reading

By Joshua Garcia (Poetry ’21) and Dakota Reed (Poetry ’20)

On Thursday, September 26th, visiting poet Oliver de la Paz read from his new book, The Boy in the Labyrinth, at the College of Charleston for the first Crazyhorse reading of the academic year. Second year poetry MFA student Gardner Dorton, who introduced de la Paz, spoke of the masterfully complicated corners of de la Paz’s book, which invite readers to lean in and listen rather than rush toward absolutes. He invited de la Paz to “lead us, torch in hand, into unspoken worlds”—and the audience was indeed taken into disorienting and clarifying spaces.

De la Paz began the evening similarly to how he opens his newest collection, by inviting his audience to understand Labyrinth as an allegorical exploration of fathering two neurodiverse sons and his perceived experience of his sons’ autism. “I wanted to understand my sons as well as a neurotypical parent with his own limitations and his own biases can understand a neurodiverse child,” he writes in Labyrinth’s opening poem. “I am full of flaw and misconception. I am full of error. // And so is the language at my disposal to articulate an experience not mine.”

De la Paz’s voice was tempered and gentle as he read from a sequence of Labyrinth’s untitled prose poems, which explore neurodiversity through the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. One could sense the fatherly affection while he read lines rich with sensory detail: “There below the surface of the world, the boy cannot shake his transitory feeling. How the image of the birds fading into the light does not involve him. Wave after wave of liquid images, the spectral waters on a steaming horizon. The boy touches his skull and feels the minerals of his bones.”

Interspersed throughout the collection are poems reflecting the language of diagnostic tests. “Much of what I’m really interested in is examining the language of diagnosis and the language that is used to describe and inscribe,” de la Paz noted before reading a poem mimicking the structure and rhetoric of an autism screening questionnaire. Brief poems function as responses to sets of questions ranging from “Does your child flap his hands? Does he self-stimulate?” to “Does he have a savant ability or a restricted skill superior to his age group?” De la Paz’s reply to the latter is nothing less than stunning: “His mind teems with magical thought— / the possibilities of every moment: if the clock were a cicada / winding down; if the rain were an unfurled scroll of lost voices; if the sky held all the animals everyone had loved, then / the absolutes holding us here with our grief are not sovereign. / That this alchemy, scratched with debris and errata, these waves / sweeping our houses loose from their pilings, all of it is soluble in the swirling cacophony of his mind.”

After reading from Labyrinth, de la Paz answered questions from the audience about his writing and craft. Inquiring about Labyrinth’s structure as an ode, one audience member asked de la Paz what he perceived to be the collection’s central argument. “I was arguing against, like I mentioned, diagnostic language,” said de la Paz. “But I was also arguing against myself as one who often employs ableist language, [. . .] so I wanted to explore my culpability in a way. It was an argument I was having with myself, and with the type of diagnostic language I found myself guilty of applying to my kid, who is in the process of becoming who he wants to be.”

The Boy in the Labyrinth is da la Paz’s fifth collection of poetry, following Name Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard,and Post Subject: A Fable. His honors include the Akron Prize in Poetry, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship Award, as well as a GAP grant from Artist Trust.His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, North American Review, Tin House, Chattahoochee Review,and Poetry, among others. Currently, de la Paz teaches at the College of the Holy Cross as well as the low-residency MFA Program at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also a co-chair on the board of advisors for Kundiman, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian-American writers and writing.