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The City and the Writer: In Worcester with Oliver de la Paz

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Worcester as you feel/see it?

From certain vantage points you can see the bones of the old city. Graying old buildings. Brickworks. Row houses stacked up on the hill. The narrow streets crisscrossing into a labyrinthine display of one-way streets. I came from the West. Was raised in the West where the streets were all very symmetrical and laid out in neat organized rows. Kelley Square, one of the most confusing and energetic locations where seven roads come together, also serves as a type of endearing metaphor. There’s a convergence of people here in Central Massachusetts that affords new energy. It’s a city of immigrants with a vibrant and growing community of businesses with Brazilians, Vietnamese, Ghanaians, Albanians, and Chinese. Just recently the Pawtucket Red Sox, a minor league baseball team formerly of Rhode Island, decided to pack up and move to Worcester, changing their name to the Woo Sox. So there’s energy and friction here. Real change with convergences of culture that are palpable on the street, and I feel fortunate to be here during a time of growth and renewal.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

I’m still very new here, having lived here for only three years. Sometimes I greatly miss the West Coast where I was raised and where much of my extended family resides.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I’d never seen a triple-decker house, but there seems to be a prevalence of them in Worcester. Most of them were constructed in the late nineteenth century as a way to house immigrants who were working in the nearby factories. If you drive around the main streets you’ll see a number of houses that are also quite beautiful and well crafted.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Elizabeth Bishop is buried in Hope Cemetery. I made a pilgrimage to her grave when I first moved to town. Stanley Kunitz’s family home is also in Worcester, and several of his poems pay homage to the home on Woodford Street. I’d also like to claim Christopher Gilbert, who wrote Across the Mutual Landscape. He attended Clark University in Worcester and resided in nearby Providence, Rhode Island.  


Is there a place here you return to often?

The Worcester Art Museum. Yes, there are notable artists like Warhol, Renoir, and others. But there are always surprises. I like to go to the foyer and see the giant murals right over the floor mosaics. It’s also a lovely place to watch people plan weddings.


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I already mentioned Elizabeth Bishop’s grave, but Worcester also houses the American Antiquarian Society, which was founded in 1812 and houses books and print materials up through 1876. They give tours and host lectures and performances.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Just outside the city there’s a reservoir that I cross quite regularly. It is the site of what once was the town of Dana, which was disincorporated in the 1930s. The ghosts of houses can be seen here and there, with old cellars poking out of the ground or bits of housing awash on the reservoir’s shore.


Where does passion live here?

In the hope of the new.


What is the title of one of your works about Worcester and what inspired it exactly?

“At Dusk in the Playground, Truth and Fiction Taking Turns.” My sons were playing in a playground at the EcoTarium, which is a children’s educational center. They were making up elaborate worlds and were forgetting just about everything and everybody around them in their play.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Worcester does an outside exist?”

Worcester is a city with a chip on its shoulder. It can’t help knowing there’s an outside and it’s doing everything it can to prove itself.


Oliver de la Paz is the author of five collections of poetry: Names Above Houses, Furious Lullaby, Requiem for the Orchard, Post Subject: A Fable, and The Boy in the Labyrinth. He also co-edited A Face to Meet the Faces: An Anthology of Contemporary Persona Poetry. He is a founding member of Kundiman and the co-chair of its advisory board. His work has been published or is forthcoming in journals and anthologies such as The Pushcart Prize Anthology, American Poetry Review, Tin House, the Southern Review, New England Review, and Poetry. He teaches at the College of the Holy Cross and in the low-residency MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University.

Published Jul 10, 2019   Copyright 2019 Nathalie Handal

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