September 28–October 4, 2020
Vievee Francis is the author of three books of poetry: Blue-Tail Fly (Wayne State University Press, 2006), Horse in the Dark (Northwestern University Press, 2012, winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern University Poetry Prize for a second collection) and Forest Primeval (TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2016, winner of the Hurston Wright Legacy Award and the 2017 Kingsley-Tufts Poetry Award). Her work has appeared in numerous print and online journals, textbooks and anthologies, including Poetry, Best American Poetry 2010, 2014, 2017, 2019, and Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. In 2009 she received a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, and in 2010, a Kresge Fellowship. She serves as an associate editor of Callaloo and is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH. On Wednesday, September 23, Francis read online for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Leila Chatti and Dell Lemmon.
for Gabby & Jen
I never remember the knuckles, though
his hand was bare, though their hands were bare.
I remember the impressions left on this skin, the
wilting and the welting. I don’t remember the sound,
not one smack. I remember the falls, myself falling
to the floor or sidewalk, or against the brick wall
my head met after a push. There were many pushes.
Girls pushed. I didn’t push. I punched. Pulled one
down by the hair and kneed her as my head bled.
Girls didn’t punch until high school. I had always
punched. What kind of girl are you?
The kind who wants to live, I said, and I did want to
until I didn’t anymore. But I wanted the leaving
to be on my terms, so I hit my father back.
He owned me, like any good, country father, he
waited for a husband to tame what he couldn’t corral,
to throw a rope like fingers around my neck.
Fingerholds—I remember those, and me making a fist
wrongly, and punching the air when I missed a boy and
I didn’t mean to miss but to hit the line below the belly,
the beltline. W________ broke me in the snow
my first year North. I’m still afraid to say his name.
I wore shoes too thin for the weather (who had ever seen
such snow?) and had a Georgia lilt, like molasses
on a sore throat, sweet, raw, and he hated the sound of it.
He was black and I was black and I was so happy
to be in Detroit, and he aimed for my heart-
shaped mouth, my gapped teeth, my too-sweet tongue.
I felt the juvenile weight of him above me like snow after dark
falling steady and hard. I’m gone teach you to talk reg’lar,
and I stopped speaking at all. I kept my swollen mouth shut,
and a straight razor in my math book, and dreamt of a bat
cracking against his chest. A woman like me
with soft hands, not hands of the field, but
hands meant to stroke and soothe, needs a weapon,
so I studied The Art of War, and watched boxing and
where else was all this rage to go? Is this too dramatic?
Find another story. Find a lie. In love, body after body
fell beneath my own, though my own was broken,
and I made love like a sea creature, fluid as if boneless,
though my bones would rattle if not for the fat I cherish.
Wouldn’t you? How I grew to love the heavyweights,
myself with one in the ring. How I imagined him punching
me, and punching me again, saying I’m sorry, so sorry,
to have to love you this way.
—From Forest Primeval, TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press, 2016.
Tell us about the making of this poem.
I wrote “Taking It” after hearing a friend read an essay on boxing. In fact, two of my favorite girlfriends really enjoyed boxing. I thought it was because they, like myself, had dealt with a great deal of violence in their childhoods, but upon asking them they told me they had never had a fight with another person. Never gone fist to cuffs with anyone. I was embarrassed for myself and shocked that so many of my female friends had not endured that. So, I wrote what that violence meant to me. Where it came from. And my own complicity. That was the turn. Having to note the role I would play later in my life.
What are you working on right now?
I am currently finishing up my new manuscript The Shared World. The title is taken from a Naomi Shihab Nye poem. I wanted a larger framework to discuss and interrogate what I have always discussed and interrogated in my work, interconnectedness. Human to Human. Human to Nature. Human to Clime.
What’s a good day for you?
A good day for me starts with waking early. For almost a year I haven’t been able to wake early, so seeing the morning is thrilling. I like the starts of days because it feels like a chance to begin again, to start anew, or to complete what needs completing.
A good day would be one in which I did not have to endure an assault on my personhood advertently or inadvertently. Inadvertently (?), I have friends who are constantly shocked when I tell them about the (advertent) slights of the day, from a door being physically closed in my face, usually by male/female couples when the male decides to open the door for the female and determinedly close it before I might walk through so I know he does not think of me as a woman, which distresses me on so many levels (I don’t need a door kept open for me and certainly not for some gendered notion of roles, but I do need civility), to being yelled at from a car window to being stopped by an officer for nothing. The list goes on and on, but I frankly find the shock and disbelief around me to be disingenuous (who doesn’t know how American racism works?) and highly offensive. It is a way of saying, “I don’t want to be bothered by your issues. Let me stay in my bubble.” What an illusion. So, on a good day I feel the loving and eagle-eyed protection of friends. I am getting older and altercations carry a higher cost now than they did to my spirit and body.
I write daily. Not as a formula but because years ago writing for me developed as a compulsion. I can become physically and emotionally ill when I don’t write. So writing doesn’t determine whether or not I have a “good day.” Can I get to a safe writing spot? That may determine how the day goes. Illness can sometimes prevent my getting out of bed to get to a desk. And I have never been able to write from the bed, though now I have indeed begun to type poems on my cell phone held above my head at night. I have a small writing studio that requires I walk a set of stairs. I could not for some time, and now I am able to be there and that helps the day along.
But I suppose my best days are days when my friends “see” me, on my own terms, in a world that refuses to.
Where’s home for you?
I currently live in New England but I am from generations of Texans. Detroit became my home just after childhood. But it may very well be after a childhood spent in several places, moving and moving, that home for me will always be not one place but many.
How long have you lived there?
What do you like about it?
I like the political engagement of Vermonters. And I like the independent attitudes of the citizens of New Hampshire. It reminds me of rural Texas. I have a deep affinity for minding my own business and having few in mine. This affinity runs alongside my commitment to care and concern for the larger community.
How is it changing?
From what I understand, Vermont is certainly changing. Its progressive penchant has deepened over time.
As for me, the longer I live on the border of the twin states the more I grow to love the nature around me. However, I will always have a complicated relationship with the natural world. These mountains. Bears. But in a striking shift I cannot get enough of dogs now. I just love them. Not just the ones I know well, but the dogs of strangers.
How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?
Upper New England is most certainly not the Midwest. I find it much easier to talk to Midwesterners. I am still learning the nuances of this region, its lexicon and unspoken understandings. It was frighteningly quiet after living in Detroit where people laughed so fully and unabashedly, and shouted when necessary (or not). A big sports city! I got shhhed at a Starbucks here! A Starbucks!
In the tonier towns there is very little body diversity. On the one hand you could say all are healthy, but alongside that healthiness is an extraordinary amount of using a northern European body type as a model. And that is a model that few can use as a measuring stick. So slimness becomes equated with class, and conflated with issues of worth and will and so on. I question these things in my work.
In some ways this particular area reminds me of Asheville, NC. Organic, local food, that is delicious and wildly overpriced (except at the outdoor markets which are some of the best I’ve ever seen). Lots of Labs and Retrievers and a bear might stroll across a backyard.
Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.
Some—I began to visit Brooklyn long after having begun to visit Manhattan. I didn’t start my treks to NYC until my forties after receiving the Rona Jaffe. I didn’t know what to think! I was long in the tooth for such an experience. I’d traveled widely enough, but NYC is its own magnificent roil of a city. Poet Gregory Pardlo first introduced me to Brooklyn. He and his wife Ginger own a brownstone in Bed-Stuy. I’d only read about such brownstones. I loved it! I am quite communal and always knew I’d enjoy such a space. I was not prepared for Brooklyn. The diversity of it. The variance of backgrounds and shops and restaurants. So much great food. A cultural kaleidoscope. I can see why so many poets have made it home.
During my first few visits to NYC I finally stopped saying “Look” and “Oh my gosh did you see that” and “Did you know that this building … ” Most of my friends know how much I dig Manhattan, but Brooklyn has such cool backyard spaces. People seem to make their spaces their own. My favorite Brooklyn moment was holding hands with Gregory’s daughter Fita (then about five years old) walking down a Brooklyn street and she was so at ease in her world. She was keeping me calm! I was so excited to be there grabbing burritos from one of the smallest spots imaginable. Wow! was it good. And here was this child looking at me, smiling, like, “Don’t worry, you can just be happy, I’m here.”
What does a poetry community mean to you?
Everything. Absolutely everything. I have devoted my life to the field itself. Yes, to my own work, of course, but also to the work of others and striving to keep finding ways to aid other poets when and as I can.
Have you found that where you live? Why or why not?
It certainly became that way in Detroit. Activists, thinkers, poets and seamlessly so. More generous than competitive, and secure that the field has plenty of room. When I was first reading in Detroit it still felt locked into earlier trains of thought, but time itself opened up what was considered “black” and “black poetry.” As well as new generations of poets with some of the same questions but also different and unanticipated questions. I love the shifts. And I use the word love, because that is exactly what I mean.
New England is not so different a story in that some of the changes in poetry are generational changes. Not one generation to another but a generation or two that comes along and begins to rebuild the foundation. The family has grown. We need a larger house. However, New England set many of the early national ideas and conventions that are now being challenged. Who is a poet? What is poetry? There is deep history here and a premium is placed on tradition, but certainly many sites are meeting this moment, opening up, thinking of poetry in far more expansive ways. It is important to know when you’ve won. Then comes the next stage, after acknowledgement, then comes maintenance. Anything won can be taken without an eye toward maintenance. The field demands nuance now, and that we become more perceptive, more attentive, that we attenuate our ears to all manner of lyrics (music). We are poets. Why should we find this difficult?
Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.
I like Whitman. Whitman. Such an interesting name. Anyway, despite some misgivings around some pieces, there are several whose rhythms alone make me cry. And he had what I call a kind of (over)vision. Less paternal than curious and engaged.
And I am ever moved by contemporary poets. Too many to name here. Hey Brooklyn. I SEE Y’ALL. But in my personal life (which I don’t discuss much) I am grateful to Pardlo for being one of the first to “see” my work. And to David Martinez for helping me get through my first year in New England. It was quite a culture shock. Tyehimba Jess is there now, but I think of him as a Detroiter. ’Cause he is. There are many people I admire in Brooklyn, so many I bow down to.
Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?
I had no true mentor. Either I was already inside of poetry (the work and/or the field) by the time I met them, or they did not “see” me as a poet in the way they thought of a poet and made me no offer. This is part of why I in some ways have mentored others. And the mentoring relationship is a complicated one.
I have had advocates. That began to happen once I went to college at Fisk. I often think about poet Ron Allen. He was there for me before I went away to college and again when I moved back to Detroit and was doing some work in Canada. I would take the train and he’d give me all he had, which would be just enough to get to Toronto. He believed in me when no one did. And I have had those who were not advocates at all but that didn’t stop me from listening and finding a way to learn. I had an instructor in high school who laughed at the possibility of me being a poet. That wouldn’t be the last time. But it helped me not need affirmation in the way too many fine but unpublished poets do. The publishing is not the affirmation. You are the same poet you were the day before. Awards have certainly enriched my life. Sometimes making it possible to eat, but they do not make me a poet. The void of enough viable mentorship forced me to learn to affirm myself. But this does not replace the importance of mentorship.
Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.
I just read Zaina Alsous’s A Theory of Birds and damn near lost my mind. It was so well-wrought. It set me thinking in new directions. Both Nandi Comer and Nicole Sealey have written into this jarring and necessary moment poems that took my breath. I began to nod my head up and down. Actually I ran across the Sealey poem while scrolling for another poet’s work and I had to get up and walk it off. Hmm, now I am going to look that poem up again this weekend. Nandi’s poem “The Check In” was so real I had to send it to a few friends that keep asking me how I am. They know how I am. They don’t want to admit how I am. Also, rereading Cleopatra Mathis’s new and selected which opens with poems on long-term illness. I am in my recovery period after a major surgery and physical pain is my companion. May as well think of it as a companion, it’s not going away and it checks in on me morning and night.
What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?
I get to the poetry I want to read in the main. There are several books of current scholarship on my list. I read for comfort, stimulation and for the excitement of various challenges to my own opinions, but I also read to refute what I feel to be bogus assessments, or conclusions, as well as disingenuous alliance. But my hunger for the novel cannot be assuaged. The time is not there for me to get to the novels. And I am bereft.
Describe your reading process.
I read daily. I have been reading since kindergarten. And I began early with adult novels. I often read fiction from the back then the opening. I have a hard time with the tension. I will read about the film before I see it so I might enjoy it without tension. Yes, many are appalled by this but it is a life-long habit. A book of poetry I read from front cover to back matter. The order of the poems seems to me (intentionally or unintentionally) to be a poem unto itself. I cannot resist the unwinding. I became a poet because I loved to read the poetry of others. Their books were and remain of utmost importance to me.
Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books?
I read seven to ten books at a time.
Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random?
Do you prefer physical books or digital texts?
I much prefer physical books but don’t have the room for all I read, so digital is an acceptable alternative.
Are you a note-taker?
YES! A prodigious note-taker. All of my books are covered in marginalia. I have hundreds of notebooks. My husband has a poem in which he notes this.
What’s one thing you’d like to try in a poem or sequence of poems that you haven’t tried before?
Well, it hasn’t come to me yet. I like to invent my own patterns. I want to write a poem that gets as close to the music I love as possible. I am not the first to want this. So many feel, Oh God, there goes another black poet writing about or into music. To which I say, “So.” What’s the problem? Who said there is a time limit on writing about or into music. Music is one of the most extraordinary gifts “black” America gives to America at large. Our music is lauded and loved and not surprisingly appropriated all over the world for a reason. And black music forms are protean, thus always given to poetic interpretation. This is varied and rich. Would I give up what has informed my life and eased my sorrows and watched my bed because so many other black poets love music enough to reference it? Hell no. Besides, whether I write ostensibly about music or not it informs my poetry because it has informed my life. From opera to Cardi B. I’m there. Music is so immediate. I want to write work that immediate.
Where are some places you like to read and write (besides home, assuming you like to be there)?
I cannot write at home. Domestic spaces make me want to tend to them. Dishes. Laundry. Windows … I have a writing studio. A small space where I can be alone. And anyone who knows me knows I NEED coffeehouses. Take me to a coffeehouse and we’ll be friends fo’ sho’.
What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?
I love Pardlo’s backyard. He has two BBQ grills! One for meat-eaters. One for vegetarians. I am still discovering places in Brooklyn. Where are the coffeehouses? Let me know.
Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:
I celebrate touch,
And what I reach out for you may have,
For every thing that touches me as good deserves the care of you.
If you have time, write a nine-line poem using these end-words (in whatever order) from Jay Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard”: father, Dodger, jack, rob, sin, pen, love, Brooklyn, Biggie.
Well now, to write this would require time I cannot take and I refuse to do harm to Jay Z or Biggie by writing something less than worthy of the “Big Men” as my rural Texan family would call them.
Where else could so many varied and separate souls make the peace Brooklyn aspires to.