I Prefer Swimming: A Conversation with Victoria Sanz
Victoria A. Sanz is a native Miamian living in New York. She is an M.F.A. Candidate in Poetry at New York University, where she serves as a Goldwater Writing Fellow, and holds a degree in Creative Writing and American Sign Language from Columbia College Chicago. Feel free to contact her at email@example.com.
And you can read her excellent poem published in Phantom, "Dear Son" which was nominated for the 2015 Best of the Net anthology. I spoke to Viki over email about her process, memory, and how sense of place figures into her work.
— Laura Creste
LC: Victoria, what's your writing trajectory been like? Do you remember the first poem you ever wrote? Do you keep a diary?
VS: I started writing poetry in the seventh grade, during Mrs. Byrd's Language Arts class. I think it was fourth period. She allowed me to skip certain assignments if I turned in a poem instead, or finished a reading quiz early or something like that. She was truly an extraordinary teacher — bizarrely supportive in a life altering way. And I just kept writing. Somewhere near senior year of high school / freshman year of college I started experimenting with prose poetry / lyric essay / poetic short story. That was the furthest I ever veered away from recognizable verse. Although, as I look back at my files now, my memory has failed. It seems I was working on a novel in 2003. The first poem in that folder is one dedicated to my mother — a love poem. This novel is telling though! It was titled Doomed (a poet in the making, hah!).
"My name is Shadow. I find it sad. On a daily basis I think about my shadow. I don't follow a routine, not always anyway; it all depends on how I feel."
Jesus, that's depressing. As for a diary, not so much. I keep notebooks. Lots of notebooks with lots of notes in them, but I rarely sit to write out my thoughts. I find that intellectualizing my emotional landscape hinders verse later. It forces me to travel away from the organic shapes and toward geometry. Let's call the emotional landscape "sea" and the intellectualization thereof "continent." I prefer swimming.
LC: Swimming is a perfect way to describe your process, because there is so much water imagery in your work. Probably because you're a Pisces and you grew up in Miami. Can you talk about that? How important is sense of place and home in your work? And is living New York coloring your poems any differently?
VS: The water imagery—My images tend to come from dreamscapes / day-dreams. I guess that because there is such a rich log of color and shore in my conscious and subconscious mind, those dreams manifest a lot of where I'm from.
Home! Home is big for me. It's funny (but sad, mostly)—I did what most first generation kids do. I grew up in my parents' and city's culture, then I rejected that culture, and then I ran back to it like I was running for my life. My mother is Cuban and my father is Spanish, and being from Miami means that I didn't grow up like any first generation Hispanic in this country. I say this all the time (you've heard me say it plenty)—Miami should just be annexed. There is nothing about my city that rings American, but I didn't know that till I left. I moved to Chicago and I experienced my first bout of culture shock. That was weird, and I could talk about it at length, but it's these tensions that do enter my work even when I don't mean for them to. You've also heard me say (and it's in a long poem you've read) that I'm culturally homeless. In a lot of ways, I can't get away from that. English isn't mine; Spanish isn't mine (though Linguistics says I am a native bilingual). I will say that Spanglish is mine, and that in that way, Miami is mine. That doesn't manifest in my work though. See! There it is. I don't write poetry in Spanish. Not that I never have, but it rarely happens. I can't explain that. Really, I can't. I've sort of stopped trying to explain it. It just is. I write in English. And that is a tension I've caused between me and Home. In a layered way, they don't have access to this thing I am dedicating myself to. Guilt about home, shame, fervor, volume, flavor—I write about all of these things through individual relationships with Home's inhabitants (family, friends, people in my life). New York is doing what New York tends to do—it's challenging me. Grow or leave. That's how this place affects my work. Also, the question of identity here (and in a writing program) becomes first priority. People want a sense of your history, quickly.
LC: That reminds me of a line of yours I loved, from a poem in Matt Rohrer's workshop. When a professor or someone says "this is America." And you or someone speaking responds "no, this is Miami." That was a great moment. Remind me of it here, so I'm not butchering it?
And, speaking of memory, can we talk about that? I feel like it comes up often in our conversations. What is your relationship to memory like — and does it connect to your writing?
VS: Oh yeah, that's from "Ode to My Selves." You're memory is pretty on, as always.
"I've lost the context to a screen door memory.
Professor Lipoff said This is America, speak English.
Us a room full of women
all turned into one sharp eyebrow.
No, professor, this is Miami."
We do talk about memory a lot! I think because I'm so fascinated by yours. The ease and capacity you have. I've recently promised a friend that I would stop being self-deprecating about this, so I won't make my usual jokes and I'll try to be a fair judge. My memory is not reliable in some ways that would make my life easier. It's just like I call it in those lines — a screen door. I can see through it, but not a whole lot gets in. I'm terrible with names, remembering things I've read... this sort of thing. But then, I have an oddly excellent memory for other things. Strange details. And an especially excellent memory for dreams. I remember my dreams every morning, though I do build an artificial narrative. I'm so attached to remembering my dreams that I prefer to have a nightmare and remember, then not to remember anything at all. It isn't a restful night if I don't recall what was happening on the inside. I mentioned that dreams inform the images in my poems pretty often. I think, also, this relationship to memory I have makes it so I operate from a place of fear — fear of forgetting. There tends to be a lot of repetition in my poems, and that has to do with making an effort to remember. I've trained my ear to be tied to my memory somehow.
LC: I like what you say about operating from a place of fear. I think that gives your work its urgency. What does it mean to write a brave poem?
VS: Oh buddy! That's such a great question. I think there are different ways a brave poem manifests. One-sided-ness can be brave (and obviously limited, but accepting limitation can be brave). Directness, I think, is the thing I sweat to accomplish. A fresh-seeming direct and honest line is a difficult thing to write. Truth is brave. And vulnerability is brave. And those two things take a lot of practice and thoughtfulness — like a life time of practice.
LC: Is there a poem you're afraid to write?
VS: Um, there are spaces I'm afraid to go to in poems. And, actually, there are poems I'm afraid to write. A year and a half ago something really terrible / traumatic happened in my life. You've read the only three poems I've ever written about that time, but it had only been three months since the event when I wrote those and I was completely numb—writing out of that numbness. I've recently revisited them in order to revise and I find myself weeping. I can barely read them, let alone revise them. I realize that I am afraid to write those. Something about distance that makes it sharper. Does that make sense?
LC: I remember those poems. Maybe the degree of distance matters. I hope in a few years you can look at them again. They were powerful.
Are there any poets or lines of poems that you return to in times of crisis? (For me, for a long time, it was Ovid. Be patient and tough; someday this pain will be useful to you. Now for some reason it falls flat, but at 20, it helped me a lot.)
VS: Oh no. What does it say about me that I like that line at 24?!
I think of Whitman often enough. "I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you, and you must not be abased to the other." It's actually my refrain when I'm attempting a prayer-like meditation. I think it's more central to the way I try to live my life, which is no different from how I am in my work. A lot of overlap there, at least so far.
LC: The Ovid is still a good line, I just wore it out for my own purposes.
How close is the "I" of your poems to the other roles you have in life, the person I see at the bar, the persona you have within your family etc.?
VS: My "I" should not be in quotation marks, haha. It's me. It's mostly me daydreaming possibilities. I'm fascinated by what I'm capable of in these alternative realities—things no one would believe I'd actually do, because I would never actually do them, but it's in me. So the person who drinks with you at the bar is a lot like the "I" that enacts daydreams / wishes / fears / anxieties / etc. She's just really vulnerable, which I think is part of the goal and part of the relief.