Vievee Francis is the author of three books of poetry. Her latest, Forest Primeval (Northwestern University Press, 2016) follows the poet’s move from Detroit, Michigan to Swannanoa, North Carolina and explores themes of race, gender and agency through personal narrative as well as reimagined fairy tales. It lends voice to the her belief that “there are still women on the margins who have more to say that we must hear.”
Francis’ work has appeared in numerous publications including Best American Poetry, Poetry Magazine, and Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. She is an Associate Editor for Callaloo and the recipient of a Lannan Fellowship, a Kresge Fellowship and the Rona Jaffe Prize.
Ms. spoke with her about discrimination, writing on her own terms and her hopes for the women’s movement.
Allergic to fish (shellfish or otherwise)
my sister shouts Watermelon!
when surprised by a fruit dinner
at the resort where she and I are sharing
sister time, something we rarely do.
I am old enough to be her aunt, or
even her mother. Fifteen years older
in fact, and like a mother, I take delight
in her delight. She won’t be hungry
this evening, the chef has prepared
something especially for her, having
no idea what she looks like, only that
a temporary resident needs something
beyond seafood. Only the fruit is untainted.
A gentleman from Georgia sits with us
as we wait for our dinner. He, from “a good family”
“strong values” “can go back several generations”
looks at me, directly into my black pupils, and
I know what he knows. A whole history rides
the vehicle, a mule train, the wagon, the dust
track of my sister’s outburst. And we begin
to laugh, hysterically. He for all the expected
reasons. And I, I laugh because somewhere
I want to cry. The landscape under my breasts,
topography of pines, clay bottomland, roofs
of tin…and the lie of it. The fruit so sweet, so
red, and now seedless. He and I both know
how delicious such things can be, but he can eat his
without shame, without notice.
And my sister in all her Yankee naïveté, or
innocence, knows only that she is being served
a treat, something that won’t swell her throat,
noose her breath, while he and I share
our secret through grins, giggling
until we damn near choke.
“Salt” appears in The Rumpus and Forrest Primeval, TriQuarterly Press, 2016.
You’ve mentioned that you often move through the world feeling both hyper-visible and invisible. Can you share more about that?
I now live in upper New England where there are very few people who identify as African American or black, so people notice me. Most of the time they glance, occasionally smile, then look away. But at least once a week—always someone older—just can’t stop staring. Wide-eyed, open-mouthed stubborn stares. Some responses to my hyper-visibility are very kind, even empathetic. Those who genuinely want to know how I am, and ask, aware that I am in a space where I seldom encounter in the towns and villages many like myself. And there are those who have courageously stepped into spaces where I was being subtly, or not so subtly, maltreated and defended me.
Hyper-visibility carries risk, as happened recently when I found myself the only black person at a BBQ restaurant. The restaurant was packed, I was against the far corner ordering a meal and the three man band paused, the long-haired, graying band leader said one word, “Dixie.” In that moment I realized where I was and who I was. The band didn’t play “Oh I wish I was in the land of cotton…Dixie;” the band played that song by The Band, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” A Canadian songwriter’s paean to those Confederates, poor and disenfranchised after the Civil War. Just before I left, the restaurant band played “Mr. Bojangles.” I was not thinking I am a black woman at a white restaurant. I was thinking, it would be good to have brisket for dinner. All of this to say, there is danger in hyper-visibility—but there is equal danger in invisibility, which is most evident in my life as a black woman in interactions with white women.
The poem “Salt” illustrates this tension even in moments of joy. How is the poem in conversation with history?
The tension is not constant for me; perhaps more accurately put, it is random. I can either unnaturally keep constant guard, or I can in my humanness, let my guard down occasionally and allow for the distress of surprise. I get surprised far too often. In this case my sorrow was around the history, yes, but I—and in this poem, there is only the thinnest skin between myself and the speaker—was also in that moment happily surprised that my sister, 15 years my junior, had a separate understanding. She is not burdened in her generation in the locales she has chosen to live in. Like a cliché, it is overly familiar language no longer tethered to the source. Why give any more weight to such things outside of the stereotype as artifact?
The older gentleman from Georgia and I “knew” the shared history in a way that had impacted us both. A stereotype that narrowed both of our options. I cannot be seen accurately through such a scrim, and he cannot see through such a scrim, and in our brief interaction. I thought, we may both be on the other side of being seen as or seeing someone as a watermelon eating coon, but the scars are there. Just under our laughter, shame, anger and relief at least that the rhetoric and the rude-slash-rustic and pathological imagery of a particular region’s era. If it’s not completely dead yet, at least it is distant to a younger, self-identified, more emotionally cosmopolitan, far less given to binary stances and stridently global generation.
Your collection Forest Primeval marks a change from persona poems to more autobiographical work. What has it been like to write from your own experiences?
I first loved poetry in the approach of persona poems. In them I found an empathy that society had not extended to me as a child, so I began there. Over time the need to place myself in the narrative, to tell my own story overwhelmed me, and I finally did say, and continue to say what I need to. In my life poetry does not provide “healing” but it does allow for expression and it markedly demonstrates that I cannot be silenced. I explore my interior and I relate it. Black women aren’t encouraged to do that. We are encouraged, even among progressives, to tow certain lines. My eccentricities don’t allow for that.
Those areas where I don’t meet social, aesthetic, gender or age expectations don’t allow for the kind of self-interrogations I do, but I do them anyway. Some of my poems are “loud” and some less so, but all of them say, “I” exist and here is who “I” am, and I will put forward this “I” before you can deny, reduce or erase “I.”
Is there a sense of power that comes with this kind of art?
I’d say there is a definite sense of agency. I am determining my own narrative, not just letting others fill in the blanks. It took me some time to come to the “I.” I found my personal history painful and complex and could not look at it head-on. I never thought my story wasn’t important, or worthy, I simply couldn’t face the events of my own life nor could I fully understand them. I am not ashamed of that. For some it takes more time than others to look at one’s self. Jim Crow marked my life in a way my parents and some of my friends could not understand. I began primary school at the near-end of it. But near-end is not “end.” I am that transition generation. And out of Jim Crow grew a set of ideas and devastations that infiltrated every aspect of life, familial and societal.
What poets are on your desk right now?
I enjoy a truly broad spectrum of poetry. But in the last decade I find myself most drawn to work that transgresses, work that subverts the blanching norms and dares to upturn our staid, narrow, and still Victorian ideas of the feminine, like work by Morgan Parker, Aziza Barnes and Airea D. Matthews. All very different writers but all game-changers. I found Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s poem “Shave,” from her book Rocket Fantastic to be one of the best I’ve read in this vein. I also need, and it is a need, to read works that explore the long arc of history, that could mean of a region or of a people, or of a nation, much the way Hayden’s American Journal does, and I am further moved by work that goes deeply into a specific place and we see the personal impact—read: reward/cost—of that place as with Pardlo’s Digest. On my desk now is Cynthia Huntington’s Tera Nova and it does both; we are on the Eastern Seaboard but we are also moving through the histories of man, considering lineage and longing, and we come really to this moment in America. “Oh terrible forebears/ the cost of exile is exile.” It is master work. At the same time, it moves through the masculine frames of various chronologies, there is female vulnerability here met with undeniable agency which gives it an extraordinarily intimate power. Its contentions challenge me, but isn’t that what great art does? Isn’t that what conscious women do?
What do you keep in mind when writing a poem about what is not said?
Sometimes, one’s life depends upon the telling. To write is to speak, to give textual voice to, and I have found that when I speak up, just as I often find inspiration to speak through what others have said or written, I may inspire others to do the same. In this way, all of our stories, women’s stories—and I am speaking of the wide body of women because one group cannot tell, inhabit nor encapsulate all of our stories, our questions, our revelations—expand our opportunities to be heard and throw off the narratives placed upon us to put forward our own. To write is to speak, to give voice to what would be unknown, perhaps even to the self, without writing it. I often come face-to-face with what I would not have faced when I begin to write it.
The writing may be a return to events through memory or a means of investigation as well as disclosure. To say what has been unsaid is to risk shattering the former narrative, a narrative that may or may not be of the author’s making, but it also means liberation from it. Something I consider is that I may be silently holding on to something that has me trapped in a set of agreements with those who don’t wish me to speak. Perhaps I have been convinced I don’t have the right to speak, so I keep in mind that I have the right to speak, to say it, and just as importantly on my own terms.
So the poem is a form of disruption.
This is connected to what is “not said” in that when the poet/poem speaks out there is an opportunity to stop a received narrative, one that we have been given with neither our consent nor our agreement, in its track. To divest it of power one poem at a time. No, not all poems will do that, but far more do than we realize. A woman’s poem can speak to male power, a woman of color can speak for herself, a woman coming into her own understanding of herself as a woman can explode in a stanza the perilous norms of gender. Poetry, particularly poetry written and published in America, is protean, constantly changing, and we are in a watershed moment. We have emerging poets powerfully questioning and revealing and as they write they bring more and more of themselves and fresh eyes to the conversations. They are not tabling craft, but taking it on early and putting it into their arsenals because they mean to disrupt. Honestly sometimes just “being” alive and meaning to thrive when the world doesn’t want to hear you, makes every poem you write “disruptive.”
Are only certain types of bodies considered in the public sphere?
I have found myself in so many conversations of late that privilege and mean to protect the white female body, while my body is seldom considered or seen and my own concerns of the body are denied, ignored or dismissed. From the shock and disgust of those, whom I would otherwise deem fairly progressive, when told that I like so very many black women my age and older from southern, southwestern and rural backgrounds don’t shave my legs to the insistence that pussyhats be pink even if we certainly are not; which should lead us to ask, whose flag are we waving? In what ways are we complicit in our reductions, and how in this age can we not be aware of each other’s nuance of body? The idea that there is nothing I bring of broader interest or value to the conversation of body is an insidious kind of erasure.
With that experience of erasure in mind, are there hopes that you have for the women’s movement?
I said to a woman last month, the women’s movement has opportunities for exchange that continue to go unmet. African American women are doing exemplary and complex research, studies, papers on sexuality and identity. We have particular takes on “sisterhood” alone that could provide models for what is mouthed but often lacking. I cannot walk beside someone who has no sense of who I am at the level of the body proper beyond my skin, who believes in the iconicism of their own bodies to the blindness to all others, or who pretends to not understand what I am saying.
Parity. Parity is what is lacking. The respect of parity. Simple as that. A letting go of the ego that prevents it. What do each of us have to offer? What do we have to say? Those of us who have gone unheard must speak. I do not seek permission. I want my differences accepted without the accompanying reduction of racism, or the pretense of ignorance. Hell, I want my differences lauded. And I want my similarities, those areas where lives and language intersect to be sites of exchange and more nuanced discussion as well.
There is a conversation needed between diasporas and even within variegated diasporas that has always been mediated by white cultural interests in the U.S. Now, we have an opportunity to talk with each other without such mediation for the first time. This is happening in poetry faster than many anticipated. Speaking for myself, as a black woman I don’t need any lessons in inclusion. I know how to share power. I want to give and be received on my own terms and I want those terms trusted.