Beyond Boundaries: Neil de la Flor


An Interview by Jennifer Maritza McCauley

 "we come in peace"/ Neil de la Flor

"we come in peace"/ Neil de la Flor

You can’t put Neil de la Flor in a box. De la Flor says, “I don’t fit within a certain traditional genre…I explore the ‘in-betweens.’” Indeed, the celebrated poet, literary activist and photographer masterfully examines the “in-betweens” and gray areas of race, identity, gender and social psychology in his work and lifestyle.

De la Flor has written (and co-written) numerous poetry books, including An Elephant's Memory of Blizzards; Sinead O'Connor and her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds; Almost Dorothy, Two Thieves and a Liar, and the chapbook Facial Geometry. He uses poetry as a way to unpack relationships, bust open gender and sexual stereotypes and to express his own unique sense of humor.

De la Flor is also the founder of Reading Queer, a Miami-based organization that promotes queer culture in South Florida. Although Reading Queer actively reaches out to the LGBT community, de la Flor’s definition of “queer” goes beyond sexual orientation. To de la Flor, “… queer [is] an idea…Queers [are] a marginalized population. They’re the emo kids in the classroom. The weirdos. The artist or the hippies. All of those subpopulations are queer….”  For de la Flor, differences are more important than the labels

Here, Neil de la Flor talks about the writing life, subverting genre, and literary activism, among other topics.   

ORIGINS

Origins is interested in how identity informs the writing process. Would you talk a bit about what moved you to pursue creative writing as a profession? And in poetry specifically?

DE LA FLOR

In high school, I would always be writing for fun. Usually perverted, sick and twisted poems. I wouldn’t consider them real poems, but they were fun. After I’d transferred from George Washington to the University of Miami, and after I dropped out from the University of Miami, I’d gotten more interested in writing. I had a business for many years and while running the business I’d returned to Miami Dade College just to take classes. And I took creative writing with Michael Hettich. He’s responsible for me becoming a writer, in some ways. I started researching his work, getting into his poetry after I found out I’d be working with him. That was 15 years ago. I would take his classes over and over again, because you could take his classes for audit or credit. In 2003, I decided to go back to school to finish my degree. At that point, I had so many different credits in so many different fields, I had to choose something where I could round out my general studies degree and finish. I decided to choose creative writing because I’d taken Michael’s classes in the past and thought, “This is where I can fit.” I focused on CW to finish my degree at UM. As a result I met Maureen Seaton and Evelina Galang. I took Evelina’s fiction glass and Maureen’s poetry class. In both classes, I discovered this was something that could be legit or real. Both of them were very different teachers. Evelina is more critical which I appreciated, because she showed me what’s crap. Maureen was awesome because she just encouraged me to write no matter. After I finished my degree, Maureen and I became colleagues. She asked me to apply to the MFA program at the University of Miami. I thought OK, this is even more legit. I was accepted, went, and from then everything else came.

ORIGINS

And you specialized in poetry in the University of Miami’s MFA program?

DE LA FLOR

I did. To be honest with you, I have a hard time considering myself a poet. I chose poetry because I love Maureen and the way she taught. I liked the experimental approach. Plus, I didn’t really want to write novels. I like shorter work. I focused on poetry; I took one fiction form course and fiction informed my hybrid style of writing. I just consider myself a writer. I would love to do more formal fiction or memoir. When I look at my poetry, I see memoir in it.

ORIGINS

Speaking of Maureen Seaton, you've worked on collaborative poetry and co-authored Sinead O'Connor and Her Coat of A Thousand Blue Birds and Two Thieves and a Liar with her. Would you talk a bit about why you were drawn to collaborating on both books with Seaton?

DE LA FLOR

She is just one of the most awesome humans on the planet. There's something about working with Maureen that makes me better as a writer and as an individual. Before we began collaborating, her work really pushed me out of my comfort zone. It still does. Writing with her pushes me even father, sometimes to the point where she's probably like "Whoa, Neil, get back over here." But, that's the point. She would never say that. She's just like "keep on, keep on" and I do. And it's what makes collaborating with her magical.

 "lana del x ray"/Neil de la Flor

"lana del x ray"/Neil de la Flor

ORIGINS

Your work is often hybridic, you blend forms, create new ones. Do you consider your poetry experimental?

DE LA FLOR

I don’t classify my style. I’m sure people will. I don’t fit within a certain traditional genre. For me, the first book, Almost Dorothy, was my thesis, was just fun. It was just me experimenting with different forms. I wasn’t thinking it would look the same. If you’re reading it and expecting some sort of linear or semi-linear art, at least in the first book, you won't find it. 

ORIGINS

Do you see your literary and poetic interests shifting from your first book Almost Dorothy, to An Elephant's Memory of Blizzards, to Sinead O'Connor and Her Coat of A Thousand Blue Birds to Two Thieves and a Liar?  

DE LA FLOR

No. For me, each book is unique and deals with a certain set of circumstances, aesthetics, etc. For example, my two collaborative books—Sinead O'Connor and Her Coat of A Thousand Blue Birds and Two Thieves and a Liar—emerged from a place of play. My collaborators and I love to play writing games and just be together even if we can't literally be together, which I think was part the motivation for those two books. We want to be together in our nerded-out universe playing writing games, but sometimes we just can't because we're working and, most importantly, living in different cities. Those books gave us the opportunity to connect. Kind of like a long distance relationship. 

ORIGINS

When you’re inspired to write a poem, how does the idea come to you?

DE LA FLOR

It depends on my mood. If I’m reading, not reading, whatever. It could be a line that comes to me, a line I come upon, it could come from images I see, it could come from a voice that tells me to start typing. I don’t have a clear distinct process. I know when I’m busy and just want to write something I’ll look at an image, and I’lll use that to start.

ORIGINS

So if you know you wanted to write something today, you’d look at a piece of art to inspire you?

DE LA FLOR

Sure. Or I’ll look at an interesting phrase or word, and go with that. Or I’ll just write. When I’m in the mood, I’ll try ways to stay in the mood. I can get bored. I like to write when something seems important, or when I should be writing. Sometimes I get ideas from Facebook. I’ll post something on Facebook and they’re ideas for something. 

 "the streaming (or how I spun webs around you"/neil de la Flor

"the streaming (or how I spun webs around you"/neil de la Flor

ORIGINS

Your Facebook posts are poetic too. You could definitely collect all of those statuses and put a book together.

DE LA FLOR

Maybe.

ORIGINS

As writers, we often hear that we tend to “write our obsessions.” Your work returns to these ideas of blurred and subverted gender orientations and identity. 

DE LA FLOR

Yes, but really most my work deals with relationships, regardless of gender. I deal with relationships around certain orientations. In my last book, I had this Steve character. I don’t know why I wanted to mess with his gender. I had a character in Almost Dorothy who dressed up as “Almost Dorothy” and has an issue with his brother. After I wrote the book, I created a blog that had to deal with Almost Dorothy. 

It was fun, to play around and force myself to try to conceal his identity. I think the work does deal with relationships first. Gender and identity are ways in which the characters and I express myself best.

My relationships—gay or straight—have affected my reality and those relationships are connected to my work. Relationships are interesting and complicated in my life. Gay or straight relationships are beside the point to me. My writing deals with relationships, with people, with my identity first. 

ORIGINS

Right. Many of the characters and themes in your poetry resist barriers and go beyond the traditional boundaries of gender, race or sexual orientation. Your poems often explore the "almost" or "somewhere between." 

DE LA FLOR

My work often plays with gender and sexual orientation. The in-between. Being "almost" this or that. The simple answer is that I don't fit into simple. None of us does. We're wonderfully complex beings and I like to celebrate the richness of our personalities. 

ORIGINS

That’s awesome. When you’re writing are you thinking about the themes or messages you want to transmit—sexuality, abuse, relationships, for example—or do you write with a line or an idea in mind? 

DE LA FLOR

I don’t think consciously in the moment about those kinds of themes. But I’m sure subconsciously they’re there because they’re things I’m always thinking about. I don’t think consciously about themes. If I do, it’s very difficult to write. I have a bunch of outlines for novels, but it becomes a roadblock. It’s good because I come up with ideas, but I haven’t executed them. Because too much of that work goes into theme ad organization. For me, that’s work, and not fun. As a writer, I like to have fun.

ORIGINS

So poetry is fun?

DE LA FLOR

No way.

ORIGINS

More fun than a novel?

DE LA FLOR

I think writing is the combination of frustration and fun. Which I enjoy.

ORIGINS

I like that. That’s really true. The writing process is definitely frustrating and fun.

DE LA FLOR

If it’s only frustration, it’s horrible. If it’s only fun, it might become stupid. 

ORIGINS

Speaking of fun…you’re fun. And very funny, in real life and on the page. In some of your poetry—I’m thinking Almost Dorothy in particular—many of the poems have humorous wordplay, despite this undertone of sadness or contemplativeness. Do you intentionally use humor in your work?  

DE LA FLOR
Yeah. For that first book, Almost Dorothy, I’ve had a lot of people say it’s funny. Humor is part of my personality. I can get very angry or sad or depressed, and twenty seconds later I can come up with some sarcastic remark to balance it out. I have a weird, dark sense of humor. I can make little jabs. When I write, the things I write can get heavy, and the humor makes it less serious, but less self-conscious. When you’re writing and it’s very deep and heavy, it can be too much if it’s too serious. I think humor helps. The last book I did, that’s one thing that disappoints me about it. I wish I had more humor. But I guess I wasn’t feeling humorous just then.

ORIGINS

Your work has been highly regarded in the LGBT community, you’ve been regarded by critics as a voice of the LGBT community. You’re also heading the Miami-based organization Reading Queer. Are you comfortable being considered a mouthpiece for gay literature and culture? 

DE LA FLOR

Yeah. I guess. Really, I didn’t have a choice, my books are often called LGBT writing. I didn’t care either way. I don’t care, but [the label] isn’t the most important thing in my life. I really just want to be a better writer, regardless of where I stand. When I call myself queer I’m thinking beyond gender or sexuality. For me being a queer writer is beyond sexual orientation. Queer is weird. I like being told I’m a weirdo. That it’s okay to be weird. 

ORIGINS

I love that. I love that you see being “queer” as being outside the norm, as a more inclusive term. So how would you define the word queer? 

DE LA FLOR

For me, it’s the original definition. Queer is being odd, quirky but with positive connotation without the negative connotation it’s been given. My definition is involving Reading Queer and a conversation I had with Maureen Seaton and Julie Marie Wade. Their definition was queer being a dial you can dial up and dial down as a way of accessing your creative capacities.

Today, I want to be super queer, let me turn this up. Let’s tone down the queer and do something less odd and traditional. I see queer as an awesome term. A creative capacity. It’s also being weird and different. That can also encompass being LGBT or gender queer. It’s embracing all the possibility that queerness can exist in multiple parts of your life. 

ORIGINS

How so?

DE LA FLOR

We shouldn’t let society degrade or scare our weirdness out of us. I think of queer as an idea. I also think about “queers” as a marginalized population. They’re the emo kids in the classroom. Or the weirdos. Or the artist or the hippies. All of those subpopulations are queer. Instead of saying that’s an artist or an emo, and using those terms as insults, saying those terms are awesome. That’s an artist. That’s cool. For me there are important populations that are suffering creatively and intellectually. Because a lot of people are scared of interesting, creative people who tend to be far out and goofy. 

There’s also a difference between weird and queer and being a lunatic. Sometimes they coexist. Like me. I’m queer and I’m a lunatic.

ORIGINS

Man, we all are. You also founded Reading Queer, an arts organization that’s very popular in South Florida. Would you talk a bit about how you came up with the idea for Reading Queer? 

DE LA FLOR

Sure. I’d written a proposal for the Knight Arts Foundation to do a “queer school.” I was talking to them about the community, what Miami needs, what we lack, so one day Maureen and Paula, we were all in the apartment writing poems together and I think during a break, we talked about the Knight Foundation and the challenge grant coming up. We said, maybe we should do a proposal. That’s how Reading Queer started. We started doing the initial short proposal and then we fleshed it out. We won a challenge grant for $30,000 and from then on the organization has changed and morphed. As a queer writing community.

ORIGINS

How did your vision of Reading Queer change from just a fledgling idea to where it is now?

DE LA FLOR

Good question. I think the biggest change was moving away from having a festival that was focused on writing workshop to a festival that was focusing on performances. Originally it was going to be a concentrated workshops like VONA or the Miami Writers’ Institute. I’d spoken to Lissette Mendez at Miami Dade College, and she said it’s very difficult to schedule workshops in a short period of time. It’s still a niche market. So that’s the difference going from a workshop model to a performance. But I still wanted to keep the workshops. So that was the big change. I also didn’t come at this with a queer theory or gender studies background. I didn’t have that language. I only had the language of my own writing. So I became more familiar with the complexities of gender queer and gender identification. So I learned a lot. I wouldn’t have learned without the organization. 

ORIGINS

Reading Queer has definitely taken off. 

DE LA FLOR

It has. Keeping it together is easy and not easy. It’s easy to come up with the ideas, but it’s not always easy to execute the ideas. 

ORIGINS

As a half-Latino, raised in South Florida, do you find your background or culture influences your writing in any way?

DE LA FLOR

I’ve never identified as a Latino writer. In my head, what disqualifies me is that I didn’t really grow up as a traditional Latino. My father was Americanized. There wasn’t a huge Latino community in Broward County when I was a kid. Spanish wasn’t my language. I didn’t go to school to write in Spanish. My father was very assimilated. 

ORIGINS

That’s really interesting. From my experience in South Florida, a lot of natives want to know “where you’re from?” and they really mean “Where are your parents from? What’s your culture?” So when someone hears your last name in South Florida, I’m guessing they assume you’re Latino.

DE LA FLOR

People don’t usually ask me.  guess because I look white. White is my skin color, and Latino is my culture. For me, if I don’t speak the language, I don’t feel like I’m really Latino. I only think that way because of my upbringing. I live in a very Latino centered cultured now. I don’t know if I “became” more Latino as time went by, actually. All of my boyfriends and partners are Latino. Even then, they feel Latino. I know I’m half-Latino too but it’s not the same to me. 

ORIGINS

That’s an incredibly honest and fascinating answer. And the Latino label is pretty complicated. There are white Latinos. There are black Latinos. Then there are Tainos and mixed Latinos and all sorts of other identifications. But for you, it’s your familiarity with the traditional culture. So if you were identified as a Latino writer, would feel comfortable with the label? 

DE LA FLOR

For me that’s a more complicated question than “do you feel comfortable with being called a queer writer?” Identifying as queer is easy for me, because I can say yes or no. I was asked to be on a panel of AWP Latino writers for 2016, which I thought was funny, because I thought I’m not [Latino.] Or I didn’t feel I was, enough. Yet, language and culture are very connected. I think that’s part of it, for me. I don’t speak Spanish. I learned Spanish. My skills are still limited. If I spoke more fluently I’d have more confidence. My father and grandmother are German. My father’s father is from Spain.  So that makes me even more uncomfortable with claiming the label. Because my family is European and white, even though they speak Spanish. I ate American food. No frijoles. Just basic shit. Latino culture is something that came on later on in my life. When my grandfather and his brothers came we at ceviche and all that. That food became part of my culture as time went along. But there are far more Latinos in Miami I see now that are white. And the culture has shifted. People thought it was just Cuban or South American down here. The possibilities for being Latino have grown for me, now.  

ORIGINS

For marketing purposes, sometimes writers who are “different” in some way are identified as black, LGBT, trans, etc. writers. I know some writers don’t like being called black or Latino or queer writers at all. 

DE LA FLOR

Yeah. I wouldn’t pick a label.  Sarcastic and twisted is a more appropriate way to describe me. Seriously, I would never say I’m a queer or Latino writer, but I wouldn’t reject it. It’s all part of my life. And I can always connect with being a Latino writer, even if it’s in a disconnected way. And that can be another way of approaching that dialogue. Discussing the gaps, the disconnect between cultures. I would just go with the cliché, I’m a writer. The reason I’m more resistant, though, to those labels is if I say I’m a queer writer, that means I can only have queer characters. And I’m like, no. Straight writers can have phenomenal queer characters. Just like I can have awesome straight characters. And I can write straight stories. That’s the trick. I wouldn’t take myself seriously if I only saw myself as a queer writer. Or a Latino writer. Because then I would say to myself, I can’t write that story because that’s not me. I’m a guy who just happens to be queer and Latino and writes whatever he wants.

ORIGINS

That’s awesome.

DE LA FLOR

It’s complicated. At AWP, I see people go to different categories. I see these labels manifest clearly. On one hand it’s awesome. At the same time I’d like to see an über straight mystery writer, a trans poet, and a turtle all on the same panel. That’s what queer is to me. Everything mixed up together, instead of separated into categories. 

ORIGINS

That’s the goal of Reading Queer too, right? In Miami, the organization has brought together people from all walks of life, gender, and backgrounds to write. To get frustrated and have fun, all at once. 

DE LA FLOR

Absolutely. It’s a safe space for queer writers but everyone can come. Everyone should be able to share time together, without fear of judgment or fear of critical judgment. There are an incredible number of straight people who support us and vice versa. It’s more powerful when everyone can come together and hang out and realize they can have a lot of fun together. The world can’t be peaceful if we’re stuck in corners all the time. We’re all just here to have fun. And to get frustrated, and to discuss the important issues. 


Neil de la Flor is a writer, teacher, photographer and Executive Director of Reading Queer, a Miami-based organization that fosters and promotes queer literary culture in South Florida. His publications include An Elephant's Memory of Blizzards (Marsh Hawk Press, 2013); Sinead O'Connor and her Coat of a Thousand Bluebirds (Firewheel Editions, 2011), co-authored with Maureen Seaton and winner of the Sentence Book Award; Almost Dorothy (Marsh Hawk Press, 2010), winner of the Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize; Two Thieves and a Liar (Jackleg Press, 2013) and the chapbook Facial Geometry (NeoPepper Press, 2006), both co-authored with Maureen Seaton and Kristine Snodgrass. He can be reached at www.neildelaflor.com.

Reading Queer will be hosting its annual festival at the Miami Book Fair International this November. To find out more information, please visit us here

Posted on November 7, 2015 .