By Millicent Accardi
Professor and writer David Oliveira, an American poet of Portuguese descent, is a native of the San Joaquin Valley in California, born in Hanford and raised in Armona-Kings County, thirty-five miles south of Fresno, CA. As a graduate of California State University, Fresno, he studied poetry writing with renowned poet Philip Levine.
Oliveira founded Mille Grazie Press in Santa Barbara, which published poetry by writers primarily from California’s central coast. Oliveira was also a founding editor of Solo, an award-winning national journal of poetry, and started, with the poet Phil Taggart, the long-running Santa Barbara Poetry Reading Series, which continues to this day. In addition, Oliveira is a recipient of an Individual Artist Award from the Santa Barbara Arts Commission, and he was Santa Barbara’s poet laureate from 1999-2000. In 2002, Oliveira moved to Phnom Penh, where he makes his home on the bank of the Mekong River with his partner, Vic Thong. He is a professor of English at Pannasastra University of Cambodia.
In this interview with Millicent Accardi, for the Portuguese American Journal, David Oliveira speaks of his Portuguese heritage with roots on Terceira island, Azores, his literary career and the expat experience in Phnom Penh, East Asia, where he lives and teaches at the Pannasastra University of Cambodia.
Q: You were born in Hanford, in California’s San Joaquin Valley and raised near Fresno. I have to ask first, what brought you to live on the banks of the Mekong River?
A: The short answer is my husband, Vic.
The longer answer is that in 1981, I left a teaching career and moved to Santa Barbara, working as a computer programmer, programmer/analyst, and IT manager. In 1988, my love of poetry turned to writing poems again, something that had laid dormant since college. In the late 90’s, the electronics company where I worked was caught in a corporate taken over. Gradually, the new company began to close down our operation and my job went away.
Facing unappealing options, I decided to change the trajectory of my life. My husband and I decided to retire to Cambodia. My husband, Vic (Vichheka), was a Cambodian-American, born in Cambodia, where he still had family and we both had friends.
We calculated being able to live comfortably on our resources while still being young enough to explore more of what life offers. For me, that mostly meant the luxury of free time to write my poems. Part of the calculus was that I was moving away from the friends and connections I had developed in the poetry world, a significant loss. We would lose some things and gain some things—that’s just life.
Q: Can you describe a typical day (for you) in Phnom Penh?
A: There is no typical day. There are typical mornings. I wake up very early, usually 4 to 5 AM (I don’t use an alarm clock). I make a cup of coffee, check email and then turn to the US news. I usually try to work on writing or reading while it’s still early and cool. Breakfast comes in at some point.
The rest of the day can go off in myriad directions, some planned and some not, probably not unlike your days.
Q: Were you able to move your library when you relocated?
A: Yes. I’m confident that I have the best English language poetry collection in Cambodia. That’s not as big a brag as it might sound. I built a small room in the house to keep my books, my library, something I always wanted in California. I’m old-fashioned. I love holding a book in my hands—the musty smell of paper. That said, it’s hard to get books here, especially poetry. I don’t like reading off Kindles and such, but electronic books are just a click away and the convenience compensates, a bit, not a lot, for not being able to hold the book.
Q: What about being Portuguese-American informs your writing?
A: I suppose a lot, besides a predilection for sibilant sounds. My parents and grandparents spoke Portuguese. I spoke some as a small child, almost completely lost now. Language affects neural connections that establish thinking patterns which inform our writing patterns.
I am an American poet of Portuguese descent. That’s my identity. I am immersed in American culture and the English language. I mention being Portuguese occasionally in some poems because that’s part of me. To be honest, other than those infrequent mentions, the Portuguese influence is invisible to me. It’s only in the past twenty years or so that I have met a few persons, scholars, with a foot in both cultures who have pointed out things in my writing and thinking that are evidence of a Portuguese ethos—things I previously thought were just random characteristics unique to me or my family.
Q: You are friends with the wonderful poet and organizer Phil Taggart, who was a featured reader in my Loose Lips reading series (in Topanga)—how did you meet?
A: Phil is one of my greatest friends. Moving so far away from proximity to him has been one of the biggest losses in moving here. I first became public with my poetry in Ventura-Oxnard, not Santa Barbara where I lived. This was just a circumstance of poetry friendships. Phil was one of two poetry impresarios in Ventura County and we shared a friendship with the other, Jackson Wheeler.
The story of the poetry scene in Ventura is too complex to tell briefly, but our paths, Phil’s and mine, crossed often and we became friends. Our views on poetry, poets, and building community are not far apart. Phil often came to Santa Barbara to attend local readings or to go for long walks with me, and I would go to Ventura to reciprocate.
I became a fan of Phil’s when he ran a major weekly series at Café Voltaire, a coffee house hangout in an arts complex in downtown Ventura. He created a lively, edgy and younger experience there than any other venue in Ventura or Santa Barbara. Phil is a great host with sharp and playful exchanges and running gags with his audience, all of whom he gets to know.
For a long time, I had wanted to create a reading series of my own in Santa Barbara, something to build community where the various factions in town could come together. On one of our long walks, I began to tell Phil my ideas. All Phil said was, “Set the date. Set the date right now for the first one!” I faced one big problem in getting it off the ground in that I didn’t want to be the MC, a job I’m not suited to do. Being an MC is fun for Phil (something I just don’t understand). Phil agreed to do that job for me, which freed me to watch and run the show from the back, where I was happy.
So, we’ve worked together, supported each other’s projects, and enjoyed each other’s company—what good friends do.
Q: As a professor of English, at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, what courses do you teach? Do you include any Luso work?
A: I retired from teaching in the fall of 2020. Over time, I taught a little of everything related to language, including some English as a second language classes (and a handful of subjects not related to language). Toward the end of my tenure there I had learn to maneuver things enough to be able to just focus on my major interests: literature and creative writing. We are an English language institution, but English proficiency varies wildly. I concentrated mostly on the American and English canon. My main objective was to help my students feel the beauty and majesty of English, especially in poetry.
Q: Where is your family from (originally in Portugal or The Azores or another Lusophone country? When did they settle in Central Valley?
A: My maternal grandparents came from Terceira Island in the Azores, as did my paternal grandfather. My paternal grandmother was born in Massachusetts of immigrant parents. I don’t know from where in Portugal her parents came. All the grandparents were in California sometime before 1920. My mother’s parents settled in the Snelling Valley near Merced, California, and my father’s parents settled in and around Hanford, California.
Q: What Portuguese traditions (if any) do you celebrate? Honor?
A: Some Portuguese things were mixed with American things, and it wasn’t always clear which was which. This was especially true of holiday foods. For example, we always had corn pudding on holidays which I thought was a Portuguese food. As an adult, I learned it was actually a Massachusetts dish from my grandmother. The most outstanding Portuguese memories came from the annual Holy Ghost celebrations in the Central Valley (festas). I recently learned that this a tradition from the Azores more than Portugal as a whole. Throughout childhood and adolescence, dad and/or mom would come to say goodnight and we children would say “bless you” to them in Portuguese. My mother would always make Portuguese donuts for Ash Wednesday. My grandmother always made Easter breads. There was an annual killing of a pig, an all-day event from which “linguica” and “morcela” sausages were made (a family and friends affair). One grandfather made wine every year.
Q: You were the publisher of Mille Grazie Press in Santa Barbara, California for many years, what books did you publish? What was your most proud achievement?
A: Mille Grazie Press was founded by myself and my friend, the poet, Cynthia Anderson. We published three full-length books together: Jackson Wheeler, Glenna Luschei, and Kevin Patrick Sullivan. After Cynthia left the press, I decided to keep it going to publish “Poet Cards” (like baseball trading cards). After that, I started a chapbook series to publish primarily Santa Barbara and Ventura poets. I wanted to create a kind of archive of poetry in our time and place. Some of the poets in the series included Joyce La Mers, Elnora McNaugton, John Ridland, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, Phil Taggart, Valentina Gnup Krup, Dian Sousa, and others. You might not recognize the names, but there’s a lot of great poetry there. My most proud achievement? Well, the press broke even.
Q: You also founded Solo, an award-winning national journal of poetry and the still-running Santa Barbara Poetry Series, what role does community and “Po-Biz” play in your writing career?
A: I was one of two founding editors of Solo, with Jackson Wheeler. Solo was founded and published by the remarkable poet, Glenna Luschei. We set the policies with Glenna, and she allowed us free rein to select the work for the journal. I worked on the first five issues before moving to Cambodia, and I’m very proud of that work.
The Santa Barbara Poetry Series was founded as an exercise to bring the poetry community of Santa Barbara together. I worked on refining my concept for the series for nearly a year before talking to anyone about it. Santa Barbara has many very talented poets. I wanted those poets to understand that and come together as a community of creative artists. I wanted them to feel they were an important part of the whole Santa Barbara’s art community, and for Santa Barbara to recognize that too. Without spelling out all the details and rationale, I think it was a success. The series still continues.
I think to call what I have in poetry a “career” really pushes the definition of that word. What I have is an art—a pleasurable, purposeful, sustaining, enormously fulfilling art—and the company of artists.
Q: What’s your favorite Portuguese food?
A: Linguica and festa sopas.
Q: Your mentor was the incredible writer Philip Levine at Cal-State Fresno—Can you share a story about studying with him?
A: I can tell you that he was the best teacher I ever had at any level, and I had many good teachers. He was very funny in class, and his standards were high. The comedy softened the blows from the honesty of his criticism. He didn’t coddle us, but treated us as equals. He expected us to be serious about poetry, to treat poetry with the importance he did. He didn’t want us to write like him, but to write at the highest level our talents could take us. He was a great teacher not because he taught us skills to use in our writing, which he did do, but because he transmitted his passion for poetry to us.
Q: Who are a few writers who have influenced you?
A: Most importantly, my teacher, Philip Levine. There are many, many others, some I’ve known, some I’ve only read. Two with large followings and to whose books I often turn for pleasure and study are Larry Levis and Eavan Bolan
d. The great majority of those who influence me are friends, dedicated poets who wrestle words with me and with whom I’ve spent countless hours sharing poems and ideas and sweat to improve our poems.
Q: Is there a particular poem or book that impacted your life? Can you share a line or passage?
A: “Not This Pig” by Philip Levine. A poem in that book titled, “The Midget,” left me speechless and first showed me how powerful poetry could be to elevate the most ordinary lives and human failings to heroic heights.
Here is how the poem ends (poet and midget are in a bar in Barcelona):
…He sits in my lap
and sings of Americas,
of those who never returned
and those who never left. The smell
of anise has turned his breath
to a child’s breath, but his cheeks,
stiff and peeling, have started
to die. They have turned along
the bar to behold me
on the raised throne of a turn
plastic barstool, blank and drunk
and half asleep. One by one
with the old curses thrown down
they pay up and go out,
and though the place is still
except for the new rumbling
of the new morning catching fire
no one hears or no one cares
that I sing to this late-born freak
of the old world swelling my lap,
I sing lullaby, and sing.
Q: Do you read PAJ? What would you like us to add or do “more of”?
A: I have read it from time to time, mostly book reviews and interviews. Not surprisingly, I would like to see a regular poetry section included, both in English or Portuguese with translation.
Q: Do you visit Portugal?
A: I’ve been to Portugal twice. The first time, for a week with my husband-to-be in 1992. We traveled by train from Paris through Spain, crossing into northern Portugal and down to Lisbon. The second trip was in 2019, when I traveled with one of my sons. We flew from Paris to Lisbon, where we stayed for several days before traveling north to Coimbra, Aveiro, Porto, and then flying to the Azores.
Q: Who are your favorite Luso writers? What do you like about their work?
A: In America, besides myself (it goes without saying), I admire yourself (it goes without saying), Frank X. Gaspar and Dian Sousa. In Portugal, I admire Manuel de Freitas and Ana Paula Inácio. In all of them, I admire their artistry, that is, their manipulation of language and the surprise of their turns.
Q: What do you think are the hallmarks of Luso-literature? In your opinion?
A: I think that the hallmark of Luso-literature is something it shares with Irish literature, that is, the high esteem and appreciation with which poetry is held by the general populace within these respective cultures, even by those who don’t write or read it.
Q: What do you think writers can do to enhance communication between America and Portugal?
A: Visit each other and share poems over bread and wine.
Q: Have you participated in any Luso-themed literary events?
A: In 2001, I was invited to participate in a colloquium at Yale University, “Portuguese-American Literature: The First One-Hundred Years”; In 2009, I was invited to edit a portfolio of Portuguese-American poets for Prairie Schooner; and in 2012, I was included in The Gávea-Brown Book of Portuguese-American Poetry.
Q: What are you working on currently?
A: I have recently completed a new book, Still Life with Coffee, coming in April 2022 from Brandenburg Press in Santa Barbara. I also work a bit on poems nearly every day.
Q: Can you share a line from the new book or something you are working on right now? So PAJ readers can get a flavor of your work?
A: Artist are usually unaware of things the subconscious throws into their work. I am aware of themes concerning loss, aging, and unknowing, perhaps just things naturally occurring as we grow old. Here are the closing lines of my poem, “On the Cusp of Reason”:
For all the words which fill our languages,
for all the ways those words find order,
for all the millennia passing,
reason and understanding still elude us,
and the weight of obligation remains only
to tell each other what we see.
Q: What has literature taught you about life?
A: Humans share a common path regardless of our native culture(s). Poetry is a way we can talk to each other about that path.
Q: As a writer, what is your first priority to readers?
A: My first priority is to my first reader, myself. That is, to honor the art of poetry, and to be truthful, if not to facts, to the human experience.
Q: Was there another topic you want to discuss that I did not mention?
A: I want to mention the Fresno anthology, for which I was lead editor, How Much Earth: The Fresno Poets. It is the poetic accomplishment of which I am most proud. The concept was to make an anthology of all the poets of note who had studied poetry at California State University-Fresno from the time Philip Levine first arrived (1958) to the present (2000).
I enlisted two good friends to co-edit with me, Marty (M. L.) Williams and Christopher Buckley. The three of us came from different periods, with different associations and experiences. It was a wonder, even to us, that so much good poetry and influence could spring from a mostly agricultural, small town region far from the nation’s affluent cultural centers. The book was published in 2001 by Roundhouse/Heyday Books, and included 54 poets, 7 no longer living at the time of publication, and 5 who had been teachers. The book launch was held at the Fresno Art Museum auditorium to a standing room only crowd, with 33 of the included poets reading.
Vic died 3 years ago, but I am not alone here. Over time, Vic and I adopted 5 young men (no longer so young) and built a family.
All of them married and now I have nine grandchildren. So, I am here with a wonderful family on which I rely to keep joy and help me navigate this life.
Millicent Borges Accardi is the author of four poetry collections, most recently, Through a Grainy Landscape (inspired by Portuguese writings) and Quarantine Highway (FlowerSong Press 2022). Among her awards are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, CantoMundo, the California Arts Council, Foundation for Contemporary Arts (Covid grant). Yaddo, Fundação Luso-Americana (Portugal), and the Barbara Deming Foundation, “Money for Women.” She founded the popular Kale Soup for the Soul reading series and has written over 50 interviews with Luso writers, artists, and musicians. She lives in Southern California.
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