Questions & Authors: Hal Prize Poetry Judge Oliver de la Paz

This spring, after the 2016 Hal Prize deadline has passed and the writing and photography submissions have passed before the pre-screening committee, a batch of poems will make their way from the Peninsula Pulse office to the desk of this year’s poetry judge, Oliver de la Paz.

De la Paz is the author of four collections of poetry, winner of the Akron Prize for poetry chosen by Martìn Espada, and co-editor with Stacey Lynn Brown of A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. He also co-chairs the advisory board of Kundiman, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion of Asian American poetry and serves on the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Board.

He currently teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University and in the Low Residency Rainer Writing Workshops at Pacific Lutheran University.

With the Hal Prize deadline quickly approaching, I reached out to Oliver to talk about his writing career, tips for budding poets and what makes a good poem. For more on de la Paz, visit For submission guidelines to the Hal Prize contest, visit


Alyssa Skiba (AS): When did you know you wanted to be a poet?

Oliver de la Paz (OD): I’ve always written poems, but I really didn’t know being a poet was actually a vocation until I was a sophomore in college when I was able to hear Mark Strand read at my college. And then I got a chance to hear Galway Kinnell that same year. It was a surprising turn of events for me because I was a biology major at the time. Hearing those poets speak publicly and meet with my classes probably stirred me to become a poet myself, though it would be years after my encounter with those poets that I actually thought I could go on and study poetry in a creative writing program.


AS: Was there anyone in particular who inspired your writing?

OD: Li-Young Lee’s book Rose was the first book that I read that actually made me realize that it was possible to write the kind of poem I wanted to write. Of course, as time went on the number of poets who’ve influenced my thinking on the subject has expanded, but that book and that author were the perfect combination at that stage in my life when I was looking for mentors.


AS: If you could sit down and chat with any poet, living or not, who would it be and why?

OD: I’ve never met Brigit Pegeen Kelly and her poems astonish me. She always finds a way to find the beautiful in the ugliness of the world and she does it in such a circuitous way. I want to experience what her mind is like firsthand through conversation.


AS: What is the single biggest challenge of writing poetry?

OD: Time, time, time. I’m a father of three young boys who occupy most of my waking life. I try to be a good husband and a good teacher as well. And sometimes, amidst all of those obligations, it’s poetry that gets left out.


AS: What is the most important part of your writing process?

OD: Time, time, time. With time, I’m afforded the space to read. I do my best work when I’ve filled up on poems and other reading materials.


AS: You will be judging the poetry contest for the Hal Prize. In your view, what makes a good poem?

OD: I love poems that are a synthesis between musical surprises and a good narrative. I always look for syntactical invention that doesn’t estrange a reader as well. In other words, I like poems to say new things.


AS: What advice would you give a budding poet?

OD: Read a lot. Read everything. Even books that you find disagreeable, there’s opportunity in trying to discern why it is you disagree with the text so much.


AS: What place do you think poetry has in this increasingly technology-driven world?

OD: I’m seeing poems more and more in everything and I think it’s a reaction to the disconnection that sometimes occurs in our technologically driven times. Poetry is all about intimacy. It’s about the human voice, frail and alone looking for community.


AS: Some people shy away from poetry because it may seem like “hard work” to understand. What would you say to encourage someone to give poetry a chance?

OD: It is indeed hard work. As is listening closely and intently. Think of a poem as an intimate conversation you are having with a friend. The poems that have the most impact are the poems that resonate in this manner.


AS: How are you celebrating National Poetry Month?

OD: I know a lot of people are writing a poem a day, but that’s not possible for me on my schedule. Instead, I’ll be trying to read at least five or six new books of poems for the month.

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