by Julian Diaz
It’s a difficult thing to try and distinguish where John Phillip Santos resides. If you were to ask him where he lived, he might say right at the center of the world. If you were to try to find the answer in his writing you would see how his mind is constantly traveling backwards in time, not just delving through the histories of his ancestors, but the histories of his entire lineage, grasping backwards as far as is possible. You see, Santos lives in the city of San Antonio, but that is a much too simple answer to the question. It might be better to say that he lives throughout San Antonio and all of its history. Through his nonfiction, his poetry, his documentarian work and his journalism, even if San Antonio isn’t at the forefront of the work, it is always there for him personally.
Santos was born in 1957 in San Antonio, and, with the help of his family, he quickly gained a fervor for the city that continues to this day. Of his family he says, “It was a beautiful blessing to be born into that group of people who were so endearing and endeared,” a love that shows up frequently in his writing. This eventually led to the publication of his two books, Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation and The Farthest Home is an Empire of Fire, which are split among family lines, his father’s and mother’s, respectively. In his books, Santos writes of how as a child he would constantly be listening to the elders and their stories of his families’ histories, particularly his uncle Lico. As he grew older his interests in these histories developed into something that would essentially reach further back than most people try to go.
Of choosing not to only talk of his family he says, “There are important books that can do that, that should do that … but I wanted to do something slightly different. As a poet I was always interested in cosmic time, so deep time, and in deep time you have these contexts of thousands of years and millions of years.”
While this pursuit of such lengthy ancestral knowledge routinely led to more questions than answers, Santos has scarcely been put off from this journey. He does recognize the scale of the endeavor, saying, “The floor really dropped out underneath me in terms of the possibility of something almost like an infinite recall of ancestral stories.” He adds that this revelation has made him appreciate his lineage and the opportunity to be where he is now. As he puts it, he is the “arrow point of this motion through time over many generations, many lives,” and his appreciation for this is seen time and again in his writing. He is happy to be entrenched in this “human mystery” of origin and ancestry, and while he’ll likely never get the chance to get all of his questions answered, to simply be cognizant of this vast epic seems to be enough for him.
Aside from giving him respect for his heritage, this vast epic of lives has also put some things into perspective for him. For example, he chooses not to write of the struggles of the Chicano, not because he doesn’t respect what they’ve gone through, but, in his opinion, “the period of time in which we have been Mexican Americans, Chicanos, marked by the experience of exclusion and marginality and inferiority in American society has been such a tiny micro blip of an instant in our epic story.”
Santos believes there are enough other writers that choose to cover that period. Santos wants to get at the larger picture, and in the large scheme of things this oppression is largely overshadowed by the successes of the culture and people. This has led him to question why the good aspects of these ancient people aren’t studied nearly as much.
Santos asks, “Why is it that it’s legitimate for us to be fascinated to learn from the Greeks or the Romans or the Mesopotamians etcetera, but if we want to learn from the Aztecs or the Olmecs or the Teotihuacan civilization [it’s] regarded as overreaching and not really legitimate area of knowledge to reach towards?”
As a result of his foraging through the annals of time, more than anything, Santos has found similarities between people. While much of his focus in his works are on history, he tells me that more than anything he reads science. Through his reading and his interests, DNA has been a subject he has found himself fascinated with. Through his research he has found, “We’re not the products of a lineage we are more like the products of a fractal cosmic array of beings … So to pull out one thread in that incredible fractal, expanding fractal array, seems to me really to miss the more profound mystery that we are kind of like this inverted pyramid of ancestral origins, and the farther back we go the more and more humanity we are connected to, the more and more humanity whose lives in a sense ultimately implicate us … We’re always going to [have] cosmic origins and so any claim to being one thing or another, Mexican, German, Irish, etcetera, fails to reckon with this kind of cosmic image of ourselves. Which is sort of in the larger project in what my stuff is about.” Santos recognizes that there will always be divisions between people, but he believes it is the connections between us that are most important.
Santos’ life seems to mirror the long and nearly nomadic histories of his ancestors. He tells me that after he finished graduate school he decided the life of a conventional academic was not for him, and instead sought to be a sort of “poet documentarian.” This decision resulted in him receiving an Emmy nomination for his documentary work and along with it an invitation to come to New York.
The twenty years he spent there seems to be a bittersweet time in his life: “I always thought of San Antonio as the center of the world, I mean I still do, and even during the time in New York … I often refer to it as a time in exile. It was a literal exile, but it was a kind of spiritual exile of sorts.”
New York was “where the gig was” and while he was able to do a lot of work there, starting at CBS News, then PBS, and then the Ford Foundation where he was able to help other documentarians with grants, San Antonio was always with him. It was in New York where he started to work on his first book, which ended up receiving a national book award nomination. The stresses of his work almost took away from the success however.
As Santos puts it, “It was a little bit like a twilight zone episode like where you get the wish that you’ve always dreamed would come true…but I had this very heavy job so it was like almost a side bar to my life at that point.”
He tells me that in the 40 films or so that he made for CBS, there was little of his voice in them and he grew tired of that fact. In 2003 he decided to do something about the situation and make his personal work his life. He moved back to San Antonio in 2005 and as if the city itself was pleased with his homecoming, his first book “rose from the dead [and] was named this inaugural one book one city selection.”
Santos looks back at this time fondly, saying, “That first book is a kind of a love poem to San Antonio. I’d never fully been able to engage San Antonio about it so that whole year was this amazing dialogue with the city.”
With San Antonio being such an inspiration for him in such a myriad of ways, I chose to ask him if he thought inspiration could be found in any place. He replied with an “emphatic yes. Everywhere and anywhere you find yourself.” To him, place is a complex, multilayered assortment of experiences and history, and it’s something he has dealt with almost his entire life. He brings up his love of geomancy here, saying of it, “[it] is in a sense the magic of a landscape, so how do you use the landscape as a medium upon which and with which to conjure things?” From his first book that talks of his father’s family in Mexico, and his second that traces his mother’s lineage in Spain, place is just another piece of the vast puzzle Santos is putting together that ties everything and everyone together.
In regards to what medium Santos uses to convey his story or message, Santos says he’s very opportunistic about what he uses. Be that poetry, journalism, documentary work, or his nonfiction. In fact, despite his successes with his books he seems to take a more lackadaisical approach to his writing. He doesn’t write with an intendist mindset, or “intend it into being” but instead he wants to practice what he calls “inadvertentism.”
As he puts it, “I want to be more like weather patterns. They’re very unpredictable…but the cumulative impact of the rain on a surface weathers it, so I’m interested in how I can weather my own work.”
Santos doesn’t write for the act of writing. He’s actively trying to engage the audience, and it just so happens that he has decided that prose is the medium with which that message will get across best.
“I see [books] as artistic texts. They’re evidence of something that I want to bring people into rather than saying, ‘This book is it, this book is the thing.’ I want the books to draw people in to this deeper space.”
Throughout all the accolades and the places he’s been taken to because of his writing, he treasures the relationships that have been fostered through writing the most. In fact, he tells me his most treasured experience happened as early as age 14 when he met Naomi Shihab Nye.
Nye visited his high school teaching poetry and he tells me that the chance to meet another writer was groundbreaking: “We had the chance to discover the possibility of writing together, and so it became a life changing experience…to take ourselves seriously as writers.”
The opportunities afforded to him because of his pursuits, be it writing or the numerous other ventures he’s undertaken, have broadened his world considerably, but San Antonio still remains right at the center. He left me with a recount of his adventures throughout his life, and the irony of learning more about yourself and the world around you, even when you thought that world was simply your hometown:
“I loved San Antonio, center of the world, didn’t really have much use for the rest of world, and I kept getting thrust out into the world. So I had the chance to go to college in Notre Dame, and then I went and came back to San Antonio, and I got a scholarship to go to England, and I got thrust into England and Europe and the wider world. Then I leave graduate school and I’m thinking, I gotta go back to Texas and read the great Texas literature, and then I got taken up by CBS news and set out even farther into the world. So that experience kind of going out into the world and finding a way to connect those experience to the world of San Antonio has been a pivotal part of my work just still slowly coming into focus for me.”
John Phillip Santos, born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, is the first Mexican American Rhodes Scholar whose awards include the Academy of American Poets’ Prize at Notre Dame and the Oxford Prize for fiction. His articles on Latino culture have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and the San Antonio Express-News. Writer and producer of more than forty television documentaries for CBS-TV and PBS-TV, two of them Emmy nominees. His books include Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation and The Farthest Home Is in an Empire of Fire.
For a full transcription of Julian Diaz’s interview with John Phillip Santos, click here.