Recently, I had the amazing opportunity to speak with francine j. harris, a poet from Detroit who published her first collection allegiance earlier this year. We spoke about her writing process, how place and home affect our work, and her upcoming projects. Within a month of its publication, allegiance reached the number one spot on the national poetry bestseller’s list. She has been a Cave Canem and Callaloo fellow, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and received her MFA from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she lives, teaches and writes. She also won the Michigan Quarterly Review‘s Page Davidson Clayton Prize for Emerging Poets. Her recent work appears or is forthcoming in Rattle, Ploughshares, Hanging Loose and Meridian.
A.L. Major: When I was reading through the poems in allegiance it always felt to me as if you were writing in a public space simply writing what you saw. The people/characters were so vivid and genuine, my first question had to be about your writing process. Specifically, do you write in public?
francine: It’s weird to hear you say that because I’m not one of those people who take writing “out.” I used to, but not so much anymore. Most of the writing I do, I do at my desk. For the last two years I’ve been a part of this group called The Grind, where a group of people write a poem a day and send each other work. There’s no critique. There’s no feedback. There’s no workshop. That’s not part of it. It’s just getting it out and having something down. And because of that I guess I do wind up writing about the day. So it is immediate in the way you described.
A.L. Major: That’s what I mean. I see that immediacy in “the splashing of the bush” or even more so “to the man on the bus.” I could imagine the man on the bus so clearly. It was as if I’ve sat near that man on the bus before. What else can you share about your process?
francine: In this Prose Poem class I took with Keith Taylor last year, we talked about this idea of reverie, which Keith explained to us in the French means something a little different than how we think about it. Basically, what you’re doing is sitting, at length, with an environment and absorbing it. It’s not meditation, exactly – it’s staring. I know that I do that a lot. I stare at a lot of walls [laughs]. That’s why this Zell fellowship has been crazy because now suddenly I have time to stare at the wall, and it makes all the difference. If I don’t have enough time in my day just to be able to sit and not do anything for an hour or two hours, my writing suffers. Because in that time I’m absorbing and painting in my head, finalizing details. With the poem “they seem to gather in one park,” I know I didn’t write that at the park that I’m talking about, but I did spend a day before at a park, staring at the proverbial wall.
A.L. Major: I think that’s part of the process of whatever you’re writing. A large part of my writing is just sitting down and thinking about writing, though I don’t think the places in my work have such immediacy. I remember during your reading you putting forth this insistence that your poems are not Detroit poems, which is an interesting and good thing to say because I think while Detroit is foregrounded in your poetry, I think it is really important when you’re writing about a place that people don’t get to simply write the work off as work that should only be read by people from that place. What are your reasons for putting that insistence forward? Were you afraid of being pigeonholed?
francine: I don’t know if I’ve been out in the literary world long enough to say I have a lot of experience with people pigeonholing me. But I do feel like I know a lot of poets that get pigeonholed as Detroit poets. Their work is consistently published by local presses and they never really branch out beyond Michigan. I think part of what’s important about living in a small town is to be clear about your relationship to that place. For me, I wholly support moving out beyond the town -both as a human being and as a writer. I’m not one of those “born in Detroit, die in Detroit” people [laughs]. I don’t think of myself as a Detroit writer, but I’m proud to be from Detroit. I was just listening to this interview with Reginald Dwayne Betts, talking about why he no longer identifies as a black poet and he reminded me of this notion of labeling yourself as this or that kind of writer.
A.L. Major: [laughs] I’m not even sure I understand what Detroit poems are.
francine: Exactly. In that interview, Dwayne was talking about the notion of being a “black writer” versus writing from a black experience. And he mentioned the “blanketed idea of blackness,” which disallows you to speak of your experience in different regions and situations, and demands that you homogenize the idea of blackness in order to represent it. So I think he’s saying that when you write under a label, certain things have to be recognizable—if you’re a black poet, you’ve got to have some collard greens and some subsidized housing and some slavery. And I hate that shit. I think about it the same way when I think about being a “Detroit” poet. Being a Detroit writer could become coded, both racially and exotically, and I don’t really want to go that route. I really hope most of my landmarks and symbolisms and moods and identifiable imageries mix up and switch up when I come back to the page. My poems are not Detroit poems, but they’re written in Detroit, at a specific time, at a specific place.
A.L. Major: I find this conversation about place so interesting. Once at a dinner, I mentioned how I was from The Bahamas, which prompted one of the dinner guest to ask me what I write about…I write about a small community in Harlem…[laughs] And he told me I should write about my home and where I came from, because there are not many writers publishing work set in The Bahamas on a national or global scale. I felt kind of guilty when he said that, as if because I was from a place I then had the responsibility of representing that place, kind of similarly related issue of writing where you are versus writing where you’re from. Because I’ve been living in the states for five years now what comes out organically are those stories set where I was while I was writing. A story written at a specific place, at a specific time, somewhat similar to your dilemma, though you are from Detroit. I think there’s difficulty in writing about a place or a community or culture (regardless of any identity) and trying to translate that in a way that has emotional resonance—emotional resonance so that anyone who reads it can understand and appreciate it, without the writer then becoming the representative for the place. Have you ever had any complex feelings of writing about home?
francine: Sure. I don’t want to be ten years down the road still writing about Third and Griswold just because that’s what I once knew [laughs]. At the same time, what you mention about home is interesting. I was just writing a poem last night about a wood shop class in my high school. For some reason there’s a river running through this whole thing. The poem is called “Wood Shop.” The first line says something like “Where men occasion place, women are driftwood.” The driftwood is supposed to be some kind of flotsam the class is using to try and carve something into. Throughout the poem the women become a metaphor, and the violence enacted upon the women in the poem happens along a river. It just seems to make emotional sense to me, even though I know I’m talking about Detroit and there’s no river running through the east side of Detroit near that school. So, I don’t know if your home appears in your work in its true form. You’re probably always talking about home in some ways, but maybe it looks differently in its different renditions.
A.L. Major: That’s the best way I’ve ever heard someone describe it.
francine: Diversion and masking is a part of who we are. The thing I like about poetry is that it stares. In general, fiction or prose pans the room. Poetry is a still shot. I like that, staying with a moment until it makes sense. I can’t do that any other way.
A.L. Major: It’s a way of seeing and staring. What are you working on right now? What are your plans for after your Zell year?
francine: I’ve been working on a second manuscript. and I have a couple shorter chapbook-length collections of poems. The one I’m most excited about is called “suicide notes,” which I’ve been working on for a few years and I’m looking for a home for. and another collection of poems about a post-apocalyptic animal population called “Ark.” I’m also trying to write a superhero story, which is a challenge, but I’ve been having a lot of fun researching comic books and superhero origin stories. I’ll be teaching here in the Summer and Fall and then doing a residency in January at Centre College in Kentucky. After that, I’m looking for writing jobs, fellowships, trying to find a home to settle down into.