This Is My Name: A Conversation with Vievee Francis


IN FOREST PRIMEVAL, winner of the 2017 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Vievee Francis summons a wilderness — equal parts the wilderness of America and the wilderness of the interior — that takes us off center. I know and love that particular North Carolina wild that Vievee has described, having lived in the Blue Ridge Mountains myself for a stint, too. Vievee and I have both since left those mountains, and during our conversation we laughed about living in a place where there might be snakes on the porch or stinkbugs nestled in the curtains. That is, a place where that wild thing in the world and in the self feels nakedly present and abundant; one has to face it. And it is so, in this book: a segue from Vievee’s vivid persona poems, those extraordinary masks, into an articulation of her own personhood — a speaking of the black female body, this marvelous, terrified, joyful assertion of her name in a broken country that would otherwise un-speak it.

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NOMI STONE: The first line of this wonderful book is: “I want to put down what the mountain has awakened.” When I read that for the first time, it felt to me almost like an undoing of the romantic sublime. I was thinking of that idiom of the white male poet who stands on top of the mountain, taming it and painting it and writing verse about it. But instead, you say that nature “will have its way” — that we “build only way stations.” How do you think about wildness or wilderness?

VIEVEE FRANCIS: What I was thinking about while living in the mountains of Western North Carolina is how vast the wilderness is — too vast to truly tame. And too vast to claim that one has tamed it. I was coming from an extraordinarily urban environment. They couldn’t have been more different, Detroit and outside of Asheville. The wilderness unraveled me — those boundaries of self and the performance of the self. And I had to confront myself in the wilderness — who I thought I was, and then there was the person I was becoming as I was there. The wilderness is so much larger than man.

It took me off center, and I’m glad it did. It forced me to explore not just the natural world but the wilderness within me. Why was it unraveling me? That really was the starting point. I had to negotiate what the wilderness was doing to me, and there was no pretense that I was taming it. It was un-taming me!

Amid this un-taming, you write about falling from a dream of progress and into your own nocturne. Ed Hirsch talks about the nocturne as a kind of threshold genre: being on the edge between worlds. I wondered if that resonated with you, and how you feel about the nocturne.

Absolutely, it resonates with me! I often find myself looking toward Hirsch’s prose, his discussions about poetics. The nocturne: as a child, I lived off and on in the piney woods of East Texas. They are dark woods — thick and dense, and they hold secrets and pain and mystery, a history of lynchings. Being in the mountains again in parts of the South, it drew me back to my childhood — a childhood I had run from. I would go back and visit Texas and see my grandmother. However, I wanted to live in the North. I developed a Northern dream. I wanted more and more to be inside the urban — and what I felt was the urbane. I have friends who live such lives; they live in Boston and New York, and they have potted trees. And I can’t say I don’t feel marvelous there! I do. ­­­[Laughs.] I feel this odd and false sense of safety. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel good. It does. I never once felt a sense of safety in the Appalachians. What I felt instead, after the initial unraveling, was a growing, a kind of understanding. A growing strength. The mountains gave me the strength to face the childhood I had turned from. As you might say — the nighttime of the childhood.

Oh, that’s beautiful!

I was just in those woods recently. My mother died two months ago.

Oh, I’m so sorry.

Oh, thank you. We buried her in those Piney Woods — a few feet from where she was born.

Wow.

My husband was with me.

So much of the woods are receding, because the city places its form on the woods. But these woods are so powerful. I don’t know how to explain that — it becomes rather metaphysical. These are wild places. They leave traces, and we decide to not negotiate those wild places at our own risk. I had decided not to negotiate the wild places within me. I had decided to turn away from them, and it hurt my life to do that. And I found my life renewed when I left the idea of safety behind, and just embraced the interior wilderness.

The nocturne also seems connected to elegy. The forest you make in this book is a forest of broken lamps, it’s an already ruined world, and an already ruined America. There’s a line in “White Mountain”: “Something has snapped in two. Something has been lost that won’t return in this life. I want to find the source.” I felt that as a through-line.

I want to address danger and how we see danger. Sometimes we walk right into things we don’t see as dangerous, but they are. My decision to strip myself of my rurality and live only as an urban person was dangerous; it was profoundly unwise. And yet that’s exactly what I did without realizing it. And I think part of the reason why the wilderness undid me was because the city I built within me was fragile, and it could easily fall. Which is why I say nature in the end has its way. I think particularly so here in North America. No matter how many cities we place on it, there’s something so wild and ferocious about American nature.

Yes! And something happens around naming in this book that feels so crucial amid the wildness of nature. From the beginning there’s the naming of the bird — the nightjar, the plover. And moreover, in the book as a whole, there’s this sudden appearance of words that seize the heart amid ferocity and violence. I was thinking of this poem toward the end, “The Small Poem,” with this gorgeous word that I had never heard before: “coloratura.” And then another poem about the deliciousness of language is for your husband, Matthew. I guess I’m wondering about the relationship between naming and the wilderness; and also, relatedly, naming and love.

When we want to want to know something, we hunger to name it. When we think of various religions: when we want to wrest control of something, or try to, we have to wrestle the Angel in the night and name it in order to save ourselves. I wanted to understand the world around me. I began taking walks with my friends and asking them the names of things. I find that when I’m out here in California, I don’t know what 70 percent of the plants are. So I keep taking pictures of these trees and asking, What are these called! What are these called!

Naming is a powerful thing, and, for me, it’s a spiritual thing. A mature mouth loves language. And then on top of that, accents and dialects. So language itself is a playground for me, but it’s a playground I walk cautiously.

Your wielding and play of language are just extraordinary. And I was thinking of the palpability of language and the mouth when you were just talking right now. There’s the wonderful play, both beautiful and violent, around consumption in the book. The mouth feels so important.

I’m discussing America, womanhood, and race. I’m a woman of appetites, unabashedly so, and it’s interesting because I now live in New England, and one thinks of Puritans, and one does not think of appetites! [Laughs.] I think the Southern predilection for well-spiced food and generous portions, and food that the eye lands on that one may not immediately think edible has everything to do with Slave culture and hunger and cessation of hunger. And in New England, I find there’s an odd class divide. The higher the class, the more one seems to find hunger. I want my hunger sated! I want my hunger met!

The wilderness was so rich with animals, so rich with things that were going to have their appetites met. In my unraveling, I really wanted to discuss appetite and desire and not hunger but satiation. How do we do that but through the mouth? The mouth is the measure. I was thinking about what I take in — language, what I eat, what I have the right to eat, what I have the right to take in. And I really wanted to write a text that pushed those boundaries. Part of that is a child’s curiosity.

Yes! And for a child, it’s also the space of experiment, the mouth. How you encounter the world for the first time.

Absolutely! And I was reexperiencing the world and not giving myself any conventional boundaries. I allowed that craft to take me places that I was still afraid to go!

And with extraordinary results. This book is full of these deep forms of time and imprints: of love and of violence. You feel links to other generations: climbing on the grandfather’s lap, “being a beggar for stories to counter the dusk,” and the poem “Imprint,” a memory with the father. There are fables, fairy tales, the myth of progress, the time of the land, racial violence of America. And I wondered: How does this connect to keeping a record?

There’s a long history that’s still to be told and that’s being told of the relationships between those who identify as African-American and record-keeping. Historically, we come into this country as a number. Reduced to paper. Our names are taken from us; we’re renamed. So we have a challenged relationship with ledger-keeping and accounting. For many reasons, we don’t want to speak to the census keeper. In parts of the African-American South and the rural South, there’s a resistance to the listing of items the way one would list people. So, why would I write and move outside the safety of orality, the space where secrets can be kept? Why have it all out there on paper? Because I want to get the story right, I want to get my story right. I’m going to do something that terrifies me. And yet I feel compelled that if anyone lists my name, I list it. I determine who I am and how I am and what my name is. And for me, in many ways, writing poetry is telling you my name. And saying this is my name. I don’t give it up. I want you to get it right because I’m telling the story.

At this time in African-American history it’s particularly important that we people know who we are. Never before have we had such a time when African-American poets are speaking about who they are and how they negotiate this world and their right to negotiate this world. And their reinventing of history through their own eyes, as opposed to what was given as history. It’s dramatic. And I love it. Every second of it, every dangerous bit of it. I love it and want to see myself as part of it. This is why I had to go beyond the persona poems and face my own personhood.

It’s such exciting and crucial work you’re doing. From this ledger you talk about, refusing colonial and slave ledgers — spaces of erasure and management and ownership of bodies — to one’s own joyous self-naming and self-accounting!

Oh my gosh, thank you for saying that. It took me 30 minutes to say what you put so well. You’re going to make me cry! You don’t get to make me cry.

Oh, Vievee! What a blazing book you’ve made. I also want to ask you about this other extraordinary motif that moves through the book: skin. And it moves through these many registers. And the book itself feels like it begins with a kind of molting. There’s the shedding of skins, being a paper hive. Then through the book we see skin in all sorts of ways — there’s the softness of skin and the violent impressions that are left on it in “Taking It” and of course the poem “Skinned,” which is just extraordinary. You say your grandmother “is skinned, so to speak” and that “her skin was so often examined and found wanting.” I want to hear more about how violent scrutiny is a kind of skinning.

I feel there was an imprint of the Jim Crow South on me, and I had to fight that imprint most of my life. In the year I was born, and the state I was born in, and later, I couldn’t have married my husband legally! And why not? Because of my skin. And those ridiculous miscegenation laws applied to almost everyone who was nonwhite in one time or another or in one state or another. The miscegenation laws in California were particularly egregious. So that I couldn’t have married my husband. That always stays in mind. I’m quite for anyone marrying anyone! Without these false boundaries. But why? Why couldn’t I? Because of my skin? How insane is that?

I have not had a day of my life when my skin was not looked at and judgments made about me because of it. So how does one learn to live in one’s skin and love one’s skin, particularly when one is inside of a darker skin? Across the world, there’s a problem with colorism. And when one carries the melanin I do, erasure is the call of the day. I will not be erased. My grandmother was very much lighter than me. But she still felt dark. I had a teacher who committed suicide who found herself to be very dark inside of her culture. And for me, she was golden-toned and beautiful. She felt herself to be ugly and dark. We take these things in. And this book was my way of spitting them out. And in many cultures and in some Western African cultures, spit is a powerful thing!

Yes, how do we eject violence?

Yes, I reject the way my aesthetic is viewed. The book is very much telling others to reject these conventional boxes. I loved my grandmother’s skin. She was the prettiest to me. Her skin was so soft! Thanks to her, I have unusually soft skin, and I know it! [Laughs.] It took a long time for me to understand my personal beauty. We have to be skinned in some ways — we have to find out what and who we are. Recently at AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs], an older woman suggested a feminist motion of all women walking together hand in hand. Well, I love that notion. I said to her: when you know me, when you know who I am, then sure!

Yes, that seems fair!

At this point, I want you to have the humility and grace to ask me who I am. And there was a kind of rumbling in the room, “Well, I do know you, and I love you.” And I was like, “You don’t know me.” And they said, “How?” And I said “Pussy hats!” And they said, “Well don’t we all love pussy hats?” We do, of course we do. But whenever I go on websites with pussy hats, they always insist they be pink.

It’s terrible.

And from a woman of much melanin, I looked around the room, and there were many women who were darker, toward the door, and I said: “Not a damn thing on me is pink!”

Such an erasure.

And you could see the women in the room did not know that. And I said, if you don’t know me on that level, if you don’t even see my body, if you can only see it through your own filter of yourself, then how will walking together work? We still have a lot of work to do to know each other as women. And the women in the back of the room were snapping. And no one talks about the black female aesthetic except in incredibly egregious terms.

Honestly, I have a hard time finding anyone less than gorgeous: I can actually faint at people and their beauty. When I was in Ghana, I’m looking around at this sweep of bodies, and it was too much for me. So beautiful I can’t take it. I actually have a problem taking in the beauty of people. And I think it’s a direct result of having my own aesthetic measure judged, erased. So, I claim myself. I’m hoping my vulnerability will allow others to do the same.

Indeed. Thank you for taking those risks. I’m wondering now about structure — you have these six parts, and the third part is a song, and it’s much shorter than the others. How do you see these parts working together?

I’m thinking about the word “coloratura,” to go back to something you said earlier. I was a singer and a poet. I sang until I was about 24. Then I got cancer and lost my singing voice. But there is a song inside poetics. I also wrote songs. I sang all kinds of music and studied opera. And I had a very high soprano, a coloratura. I think the language of music moves into the words, and I section the book through moods, and the kind of music each section presents to me in my inner ear.

“A Song of the Ridge” was actually a song, there were two songs in the text. I loved bluegrass and old time, and I loved it long before I moved to Western North Carolina. It was quite a treat being there. I heard the music constantly. I had a little tune in my head — every single day going down the mountain on this twisty little road, and coming back, I would gasp! I simply could not believe I was living in such a hauntingly beautiful place. I’m not going to say beautiful without the word haunting. Those mountains are haunting! And you can see how bluegrass would move out of them.

I love that a tune in your ear, your feeling about music helped make the moods of this book. I want to talk now about your forthcoming collection, Shared World. When I read the title poem in Waxwing, I was completely floored. The part where you say “[I] fell down your knee was scraped; I stuffed the yellow cake into my mouth and your stomach / cramped” devastated me. The work of the verb and the agent crisscross. Everything we do impacts the other.

Yes!

And this is so gorgeous and necessary to remember. I’m an anthropologist and we talk about intersubjectivity, and how we are bound to living within a shared world. But what does this mean for each of us? I’d love to hear about this poem, this book, and all future directions.

I think I’m really sensitive to the ways humans are tied to each other. Just last night I was having a conversation listening to women discuss having their children and where their children were born and various traumas. And I wanted to talk about my own birth, about the hospital divided into the colored section, what is it to be born into a section just for you because you’re less than. Because there’s no parity. The world has changed enough or forgotten enough to not think, She was probably born in the colored section of the hospital. I was sitting there and thinking that though I have no children, there’s a trauma in a different kind of way, and I can’t find the words for it.

I think this next book is going to be an attempt to do that. To really see what we share and how we share. On the outside we might seem so different, but if we keep peeling back, we find those points of joy and harm where we can truly hear and see each other. I’m hoping this book encourages us to be okay with our differences and humble about them. We should look through each other through humility, not through missionary stances, which I utterly detest. This is a book that seeks an understanding of the parity between us.

This is so powerful amid the violence of uniformity that the pussy hat represents. How do we forge out of and look at difference and give it its due?

I was in Provincetown earlier this year, and my mother was still alive, and she loved hats, and I wanted to buy her a hat. And there were these hat shops, so I walked into one, and right in the center of the store were these pussy hats, and they were all different colors. I saw that row of hats representing various women all together, and I started to cry. I mean, I sobbed. And the woman behind the counter was actually the woman who made them, and I could barely speak. I held up one of the hats, and I said, Why isn’t this pink? And she said: We’re not all pink! And I said, This is such a rare moment — I feel you seeing me! I see you; you see me. This is the kind of thing that moves me; that we see each other in parity and inclusion. This is not to say I have to have inclusion. If I have exclusion I will live. My life at 53 is proof of that. And if I had my druthers, if I could see the world the way my mother would have seen the world … She saw everyone through parity. There was no one above or below; her vision was particularly gorgeous to me. And I think I carry it.

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Nomi Stone’s second collection of poems, Kill Class, is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2019. Poems appear recently or will soon in the New Republic, The New England Review, Tin House, Bettering American Poetry 2017, The Best American Poetry 2016, Guernica, and elsewhere.



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