Vievee Francis is one of those poets who is often described as ‘visionary.’ Her poetry is deep and rich and so strong, and as a fiction writer I feel pretty inadequate trying to describe it. I was amazed to discover, when I sat down and spoke with Vievee in Bloomington (when she was in town for the 2nd Annual Blue Light Reading this past spring), that her voice in conversation is as complex, thoughtful, and passionate as it is in her poetry. You can hear the audio of our interview on The Bluecast page (forthcoming!), or read it below.
Vievee Francis: My name is Vievee Francis, I’m a poet, I live in the city of Hamtrammack, which is a small town—2.2 square miles—in Michigan, completely surrounded by the city of Detroit.
Rachel Lyon: Your poems have a distinct relationship to both city and a rural or country sort of landscape. Can you talk about landscape in your poetry a little?
VF: Landscape plays a strong role in my poetry. I’m from Texas originally—from West Texas, but I’ve also lived in East Texas off and on through my early childhood—but then, I’ve lived in cities as well—Atlanta, Detroit. And I think the play, back and forth, between the rustic and the urban, as well as what is Southwestern or Southern and what is Northern, those are always being juxtaposed in my work.
As far as landscape goes, particularly, when I write about Texas I often write about the sun, and the play of the sun on the land, because in West Texas, of course, there aren’t a lot of trees, so the sun is extraordinary in its height and in its heat. And so usually we think of the sun as life, or light, but in my case the sun felt quite oppressive.
And then when I talk about East Texas, I’m generally talking about the piney woods, the white and yellow pines and their density, and the darkness that moves between the trees out there, and I’m also reflecting on some of the historical darkness in that part of the state around racial issues. And when I think about the North right now, of course, the city of Detroit informs my thinking.
All eyes are on Detroit right now, especially on the visual arts. People are coming into Detroit, looking at its architecture, what’s rising and what’s ruined, and what it means. So there’s a constant discussion in some of my work around buildings and stone and brick, and this type of thing.
RL: You have one poem where you, or the speaker, as a young child, are there in this field and then there’s the sun, and there’s this connection between the child and the sun.
VF: Well, in a couple of the poems, the sun stands almost for the great indifference, you know—this huge thing, and it has all of this power, and yet it’s so indifferent—there’s nothing one can do to shift it or change it—we have no power over it, or something like that. And I kind of compare that to myself, in that I had so little power. No power at all.
I was very young, in an area that was predominantly white, and even though supposedly I had very little power—and no one looked directly at me, the way you can’t look directly at the sun—just my presence there seemed to shift the atmosphere, very much in this kind of Ellison-like way. Everything was shifted even as everyone ignored me. So there’s this odd play between the sun, and power, and myself, and powerlessness, and indifference.
RL: Can you talk a little bit about your theory about writers? You were saying a little bit yesterday that you feel that all writers write because at some point they weren’t heard. Can you talk about that a little?
VF: Well, I probably shouldn’t have said all, but I’m going to stand on most. Writing certainly is a way to communicate. It’s a way to negotiate our movement through the world. And it’s been my experience that when I meet a writer who is writing for their lives, if you will—that’s what they do, that’s what they’re committed to, that’s how they identify themselves—then yes, if I talk to them long enough I get to that point where they discuss not being heard. Where they’ve decided that this is how they’re going to make themselves heard. Even writers who claim that they’re just playing with the language for the language’s sake. When I meet the writer that isn’t trying to, on some level, say something about their own experience, about the world around them at some point in their lives, I’ll let you know. Hasn’t happened yet.
RL: What is that process like? What was it like for you, coming into writing from—I’m making an assumption here—but coming into writing from a position of voicelessness or invisibility?
VF: I don’t know if I could say the point at which I began to think that my writing was a way of being heard. I knew that I wanted to write poetry at about fifteen years old. I’d read Robert Browning’s “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister”—and there’s the word soliloquy, so again, you know, speaking—and the way he could take the interior voice—and here we were reading it, and hearing this voice—something happened, I think, in hearing that, and I started to cry in class. This was in high school I think, and my instructor thought, “Oh, how odd. What an odd woman,” or an odd little girl, or whatever, and I had to go outside of the room.
Maybe that was the point at which I thought, “I want to do that. I want someone to hear me the way I can hear what’s happening inside these monks inside of this poem by Robert Browning.” But I didn’t know how to do that. And then when I was nineteen I read the poet Ai—and, again, this was a persona poem—and she was making someone else speak. That really intrigued me. So I started writing my own pieces.
I spent a couple of years doing what young people do, writing about myself, and I wasn’t able to get to myself. I had been speechless for so long, I couldn’t speak for myself. But I found, writing persona poems, I could speak for myself. Suddenly I could be braver. Suddenly with this mask, I could allow these others to speak for me. So I did that for many years, and my first book is a collection of persona poems around the Civil War.
But this book, the one coming out [Horse in the Dark], is really the first time I’ve written in my own voice about my own experience, and I’m hoping that there’ll be some people who read it who can take something from that experience, who might find echoes of their own experience. So I start with myself—how I feel about being from rurality and now living in urbanity, having the voice to speak—there are a lot of poems about speaking—and I’m also discussing ideas around [the ideas of] what is a beast, and how much of man is animal. And so it moves from just my individual experience into a larger kind of Ovidian crisis. At least I think it does! When readers read it they can tell me if it was effective or not.
RL: Can you talk about the process [of] starting with these persona poems in your early work and this development that’s happened lately? So in between your first book and your current book?
VF: I did the MFA later in life. I did it in my forties. I already had my first book out, but I felt that there were gaps in my knowledge. It’s really interesting, too: Sometimes I’ll tell poets that I basically learned to write on my own, and it unglues them. They get very upset, like, “No you didn’t! You couldn’t have!” Because they themselves did not. But I did! I read poetry, like everyone else, in high school. And in college I was an English major. But I was a literature major, so when I went to college I didn’t study writing. I read. And the way I learned to write was to read, and kind of reflect upon it, and try my hand at it. And once in a while I’d meet a poet, and I’d ask them about their work, and they’d give me some feedback, and eventually I did a workshop called Cave Canum, but I was in my late thirties when I did that. And prior to Cave Canum I did an extraordinary workshop, Callaloo—and I now work for Callaloo. Callaloo is a two-week workshop, so I did that, and then Cave Canum’s a week-long workshop which I did two or three years later. And that was the extent of my training before the MFA. But I’d been writing on my own for years.
So I started this book around the time I started the MFA. But I think that between Callaloo and Cave Canum, the people that were there around me—one of them actually called me out, and said, “Oh, you’re a coward.” (And you’re saying, “Are you still friends with them?” Well, we’re frenemies!) He said, “You’re a coward. You’re writing poems about your experience in the third person.” I’d finally started writing about my experience, but I still couldn’t be direct with it. And that shocked me, actually. And so I tried to write as myself. In the first person. Of course there’s always some masking, but I tried to get close to myself. And then I just kept trying. And then stopped trying.
In that same workshop, someone told me, “The sun. Look at how you’re using the sun in your work.” And at that time I had no idea that I had this huge symbol in my work, because I was so terrified to look directly at my experience. It’s ironic: No one looks directly at the sun; I couldn’t look directly at it in my own work.
And then I went to Cave Canum and I met some Appalachian poets, black poets from the Appalachian area. And they helped relieve me of, I think, shame that I felt around being a Southerner but living in this large, urban area in the North. And I didn’t know I felt any shame about it, but I have no accent. I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was trying very hard to be a successful Yankee. And in the course of coming to my “I,” I had to face the things that had pained me as a child.
There’s nothing wrong with Texas. Texas is rich in history and extraordinary and, as most Texans, I’m proud to be Texan. But at the same time it was a difficult state when I was living there when I was young. I’m born in ’63, so Jim Crow was still present, it was still active—something else my Northern friends have a very difficult time taking in. They actually don’t let me talk about it very much. When I start to talk about it they say, “Well no, no, you’re too young. You couldn’t know what that feels like.” And I tell them, well, I definitely do.
So the last few years have been spent being more courageous. Looking at the sun and its effects. Allowing myself a kind of blindness to gain further insight, if you will. And coming to the “I.” I think being able to do that in my forties, it’s very different than doing it in your twenties. It feels very freeing, so I have a lot at stake with this book. And it’ll be nice to be free of it too. So I think now that I’ve done this, my writing is changing again.
RL: What do you hope your readers will take from this new book?
VF: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I’ve asked myself that, really. I’m hoping that they’ll wrestle with some of the questions I’m wrestling with in the book. I’m thinking in personal terms about the black female body politic: How we’re viewed, how we’re seen. I think we’re still often seen as superwomen, überwomen, strong and constantly there—which is a kind of servitude, I find, a kind of oppression, to be looked at as the one in the room who can handle it all. And I don’t think we can handle it all. I think a lot is put upon us. And I think that might result in some of the illnesses that so many of us have, of body and spirit. It’s almost a kind of bestial servitude. And I still think that black women are very much burdened by that kind of view of us.
So I want to talk about that in the book. I’m hoping that it jars people into rethinking that. I hope I bring a fullness—as so many other marvelous writers do—I hope I can even come close to bringing a fullness to what our bodies are. And then larger questions, ancient questions: How much of the human being is beast? We’re all mammals, we’re all animals, right? What does that mean? And what does it mean to be of the field? A rural person? A person whose mother knows the land? Does that make me closer to nature? Or farther away from nature? So I want to play with all those ideas, and by playing with those ideas I’m hoping that the reader is jarred a little bit and begins to rethink some of these things.
RL: Is that where your fascination with the mule comes from?
VF: Yes, it is, actually. I’ve always loved mules! For some reason they’re just such funny creatures to me. I like their ears, and I like their tempers—you know, they have tempers. And I have a little temper, so I like that. So of course I’m playing with Zora Neale Hurston stating, “The black woman is the mule of the Earth.” It’s just a haunting idea. I’ve often felt that I was unduly burdened by people around me because they would look at me and think, “Oh. She’s able to take this.” So the mule is very much central to my thinking.
Doing my MFA, I would talk about the mule, and it was confusing to some of my cohorts—“Why the mule? Why not the noble horse?”—and explaining to my cohorts that we get to bring in symbols and tropes from our own cultures, our own regions, [that] there’s not one group of symbols but several groups of symbols that we can all tap into, especially in a culture as pluralistic as the United States.
There are other animals I play with, too: the mule, the horse, swans and ideas around swans—I’m not fond of swans—and I also deal a lot with mythical creatures. There’s a line from Lucretius—I think it’s Lucretius—who doubts the existence of mythical beasts, that man and beast can’t coexist in one body. And so I write about centaurs, and all these types of things—medusas—suddenly, a head full of snakes—so there are all kinds of references like that in the book as well.
Questions of memory: That’s also huge in the book. Alzheimer’s moves in my line, woman to woman, mother to daughter. I experienced some traumas in my childhood, and wound up losing months and months of memory. And then, of course, I was in Texas, born there, but I went back and forth. I wasn’t there steadily—a year or two, then I’d move, and then back—my father was in the military. My mother is always asking, “Well, how can you remember that? How can you know that?” Well, I do remember. But there’s slippage. There’s slippage of memory. So a lot of the poems are ambiguous. I’ll state something and then, in parentheticals, something else. I’ll state the opposite, just to constantly remind the reader that this is a grown woman looking back at the childhood.
RL: Is there anything you’d like to say before we conclude the interview?
VF: I think I’d like to say something about “Say It, Say It Any Way You Can.”
[Check out the Indiana Review Bluecast to hear Vievee read “Say It.”]
I don’t always read that poem. I actually asked my mother’s permission after I wrote the poem. It was a difficult poem to write; for me it was the poem that took the most risk. I was asked to write a praise poem for James Brown, but James Brown was not a perfect human being, and as I kept writing, another poem was presenting itself, pushing itself through. And I allowed that other poem to come through. So you see, in the poem there are bits and pieces of lyrics, which form the background music for my childhood. But they also tell a story of a domestic issue. Pain within a family, and a kind of youthful wrestling with it.
For me, that kind of work—it’s marvelous to see writers younger than myself who are able to take that kind of emotional risk in their twenties and thirties. I absolutely love the work coming out right now. I love contemporary poetry. It’s extraordinary. It’s not all the workshop poem. I think that’s all ridiculous. I feel that this is one of the richest times in American poetics. Every time I pick up a book I’m getting thrilled—but partly because so much risk is being taken, risk that I’m taking now in my forties.
So I think that’s what I wanted to say about it. It’s a difficult poem, but it’s good to read it, and every single time I read it, I’m right back in that space. And that lets me know, in some way, that there was some kind of lyric authenticity, you know, that I stayed true to myself. That sounds a little essentialist, but I’m going to let it stand.
RL: Thank you.
VF: Thank you.