Vincent Standley: Repetition is central to all of your work. In Prelude to Air from Water, it operates not only on the level of the line but of the structure of the work as a whole. It would be easy to say each piece is a variation on a theme, but that usually excludes the idea of repetition by assuming each variation extends from some kind of master iteration of the theme. In Prelude, rather than extending from something, the pieces are set side-by-side in a sort of static refusal of their origin, making repetition the thing by which we understand or don't understand their similarities and differences. I'm curious if there's an implicit questioning of the idea that knowledge, like progress, develops over time toward a better or more complete condition?
Sandy Florian: Well, if you are asking ask whether I think knowledge might be tied to an origin, tied to some knowledge event from which it rises like an optimistic stock price, or whether I think knowledge in its static repetition is more like the skyline of a city of identical buildings, then I would answer that the book is a sort of stupid skyline, or that doesn’t believe in knowledge at all. None of the "moments" that are encountered in the book lead to epiphany, cumulative or not. And those episodes where The Moment doesn't appear, when small epiphanic moments can be said to occur, well, those episodes are actually dream episodes, or episodes that are submerged in the unconscious that has no real sense of time, even though that's not necessarily meant to be clear to the reader. So, in that sense, the book refuses awareness of its characters, though it is hyper aware of itself, and with this hyper awareness, it permits the reader a knowledge that is separate from any literal knowledge discovered in the book.
But it’s funny, this question of repetition in my work. Because I never intend to use repetition. Prelude started as one little episode with The Moment in it. After I wrote it, I realized it was done, but not done - finished, but incomplete. So I wrote another only to find the pair was finished but not complete. So I kept writing them over and over in a sort of meditation until it taught me something about itself, about the vanity of knowledge, its ludicrousness or its hubris. But I had to learn it, I suppose, and therein lies the tension of knowledge.
VS: The space of not knowing while writing is very powerful and necessary. It's as if you must first learn from the work before enforcing a set of objectives, even though in practice that order is often reversed. How do you negotiate between what the work teaches about itself and what you want it to do?
SF: I know this is probably weird, but there is usually no "me" in my books. Okay, I take that back. I am in the work, but only to kink out the phonetics, to smooth out the sentences, to hear it out loud, and make it sound. But in terms of content, I don't ever start out with any objectives. I learn entirely from the writing what the writing wants. My books inform themselves, and I completely trust them. Even The Tree of No, with its "knowledge event" and seemingly strategized narrative. I did some research, yes, and toyed a lot with dictionaries and the bible, of course, but I toyed only because the book informed the process. So, in that sense, all I carry to the page when I write is faith.
VS: This reminds me of something Maurice Blanchot writes in "The Essential Solitude": "To write is to make oneself the echo of what cannot cease speaking - and since it cannot, in order to become its echo I have, in a way, to silence it. I bring to this incessant speech the decisiveness, the authority of my own silence. I make perceptible, by my silent mediation, the uninterrupted affirmation, the giant murmuring upon which language opens and thus becomes image, becomes imaginary, becomes a speaking depth, an indistinct plenitude which is empty. This silence has its source in the effacement toward which the writer is drawn."
I noticed that Francisco Aragon interviewed you a while back for the Institute of Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. In response to the question "Are you comfortable with the label Latino Writer?," you say the work would be dishonored without the identity of your Latino heritage, while personally the identity is less important. Can you expand on this distinction between work and author?
SF: Well, yes, I can try to expand. I think my work is hugely informed by my heritage, but my heritage is distinctly not homogeneous. Yes, my heritage is Latino, but it’s a hybrid between Colombia and Puerto Rico, two lands that have distinctly different cultures. To complicate matters, I was raised not in Colombia or Puerto Rico but in Venezuela and Mexico and Panama. And because my father worked for a French company when I was young, I spent my summers in France. I went to college in London. It sounds fancier than it is because it wasn’t necessarily fancy. Still, who I am is informed by where I’ve been.
Yes, my work tends to draw, I think, from the magical realism of writers like Garcia Marquez, the Kafkaesque attitudes of writers like Borges, the problematic proesy of Galeano, but this isn’t because I’m a big follower of their styles, per se. It’s more, I think, because the Latino culture is markedly fanatical. Distinctly involved with the impossible, the invisible, the peripheral, the intensely problematical, and these are borders I enjoy crossing. So yes, I think my work is distinctly Latino.
As far as my own identity, though, I’m not sure. This is possibly because it’s more difficult for me to look at myself than it is to look at my work, and even in my work, every time I have characters who can look at themselves, they tend to incriminate themselves, or to dismember themselves, as many of my characters in On Wonderland and Waste. Perhaps I prefer to reside in the interstices of culture, navigating my way to myself. But perhaps this interstitial preference too is Latino. That I wouldn’t argue against for a moment.
VS: What are you working on now?
SF: It’s called Boxing the Compass, and it’s a winner! It’s a pro-feminine, Virigina Woolfish, character driven, event disclosing, creative nonfictionesque novel/novella with progressive narrative and sequential chapters galore. It focuses on science, on the ecological devastation of the oceans and how it affects the psychology of my everywoman character. I'm in the middle of it and hope to finish it by September. Stay tuned.
The other book I am working on is a collaboration with Robert Savino Oventile called Sophia Lethe Talks Doxobox Down. And it's turning out to be a fantastically morbid collection of dialog, each using specific rhetorical devices. It's a gas, and I love both of these books.
Sandy Florian is the author of 5 books of prose poetry: Telescope, 32 Pedals & 47 Stops, The Tree of No, Prelude to Air From Water, and On Wonderland & Waste. She lives in San Francisco where she is an affiliate artist at the Headlands Center for the Arts and one of the "other" editors for Tarpaulin Sky Journal.
Formerly the editor of 3rd bed, Vincent Standley's fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, Encyclopedia, Esquire, Parakeet, Post Road, Quarterly West, and Salt Hill Journal. Essays have appeared in Rules of Thumb: 71 Authors Reveal Their Fiction Writing Fixations and Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature.