A Conversation with francine j. harris
francine j. harris grew up in Detroit, MI and is currently a Writer-in-Residence at Front Street Writers in Traverse City, Michigan. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan in 2011. Her first poetry collection, allegiance, is part of the Made in Michigan series from Wayne State University Press (February 2012). She is a Cave Canem fellow and the author of the chapbook between old trees. She will join the creative writing faculty at Interlochen Arts Camp this summer and will become a full-time creative writing faculty member at Interlochen Arts Academy this coming fall.
On May 9th, 2014, francine visited Interlochen and sat down with Interlochen Review Audio/Video Editor Zoe (Mattie) Graff to discuss her debut collection allegiance, the role Detroit plays in her poetry, and the power of language to spur action.
Mattie Graff: Your poetry is so full of fresh, electric language—how does this language come to you? Do you pick up words from what you read, or do you seek out words that are interesting? Additionally, you do not shy away from using sexist or racist slurs in your work. What’s your view on profanity in poetry or art in general?
francine j. harris: Well, those are big questions. Probably two different questions. I just like language, I like words—yes, it comes from what I read and what I listen to, and I’m interested in the way people use language when they talk, and the differences in how people phrase things when they talk to different people.
The word slur feels weird to me. I’ve never thought of it as slur in my writing. I don’t know why, I feel like I’d have to to think about that for a long time. When I think of slur, well, the word itself is weird, right? Like, if you slur something it means you mean to say one thing and it gets blurry and becomes something else. But I guess what people mean when they say that is that you’re using the term derogatorily? I’ve just never thought of my writing as slur. Sexist, racist, those are huge, huge words. I definitely think I depend on sexism and racism in order to make art, sometimes ironically, sometimes integratively. But is it in itself sexist? racist? Maybe. Sometimes. I am always thinking about and troubling those notions, trying to think through them, but usually not at the level of whether or not I should use certain terms in art.
I’m not a fan of censorship. I’m more a fan of being responsible for your language. I even have a hard time with eliminating profanity. There are people who think you’re never supposed to use profanity, or that you’re not supposed to use profanity around certain people. Which, I don’t know, I don’t think that way. Sometimes I have to think that way because, you know, etiquette and all. But really I like words. I like curse words, I like profanity, I like derogatory language as much as I like really beautiful language because it all does something. We react so strongly to language because it does something. I could talk about that for a long time—how much time do we have?
The first thing I thought of when you asked this question, because it’s in the news right now, is this whole Donald Sterling thing. The idea that you’re dealing with a person who’s been behaving badly and doing really horrible things for a very long time, and then he’s censored—his career is altered—because of his language. It’s interesting to me. It’s his words that got him in trouble, not his actions.
In some ways, looking at it from the perspective of an artist, it’s almost hopeful in a way. It says we’re at a point where language can spur action. Say what you want to say, but know there are consequences.
MG: Do you classify yourself as a specific type of poet? I.e. traditional, beats, imagist, confessional, etc. Or do you consider yourself a combination of multiple styles?
fjh: I think that if you’re writing now, it’s going to be impossible to categorize yourself. We think, historically, in hindsight. What people are writing now will be considered and compared and contrasted in the long run. And I know that some people do this, but I think it’s a bad move to busy yourself trying to categorize your own thing. First of all, you see things an entirely different way than other people see them. I don’t know if I’m going to be chalked up as a post-confessionalist, for example. Maybe. I know that the confessional mode has influenced me, and I struggle with it. I know that I’ve been influenced by deep imagery, too. So, I’m good with imagery, but I’m always trying to do other things, too. I don’t want to boil it down to, “I write confessional poems, or I write image poems.” I always want to play with things. I’m always trying to figure out what’s next.
MG: You explore Detroit in a way that speaks truth about the city, rather than simply glorifying or condemning it. Was it hard to move past the immediate impulse to heavily bias your poetry?
fjh: Maybe. But you know that term bias can imply polarity. I think that my bias is exactly what you just said. I see Detroit as a complicated, multi-layered place. And I think that’s why I write about it that way. I don’t think I was ever trying to get away from speaking poorly of it or being in love with it. I’m both of those things. It’s a complicated place. Which is why it’s hard to listen to people, especially who have never lived there, talk about it one way or the other. “Oh, I love Detroit,” or “Oh, Detroit’s a craphole, it’s so ugly.” A friend of mine said Detroit is one of these places people like to have authority about so they speak very strongly about it even if they don’t understand the city very well. Detroit’s got a long history, and I have a long history with it. So that is my bias, and in general I think everyone has bias in their writing. I think it’s a good thing to acknowledge, think about, and work around.
MG: Do you consider Detroit as a setting or a character in your poetry? Do you believe it’s possible for it (Detroit) to be both?
fjh: To my mind, no. It’s a setting. I feel like there’s something of a problem with personifying everything. You hear so many poems where people talk about cities as this being, which, for some reason, is usually a girl. and so she’s usually doing these weird, stereotypical, gendered things. Particularly if the writer is mad at her, you can imagine what direction that goes in, and somehow the place becomes oddly eroticized because it’s a girl. It just feels odd.
I‘m resisting this idea of personifying something that’s not a person. If it’s an animal, it’s an animal; if it’s a city, it’s a city. It’s not a character. A character is a human being with a complex range of human abilities and emotions and morality. Cities have no morality, they just exist. And I think for me, because of the kind of writing I like, I’m most interested in a character’s morality. I think that when you start trying to assign those things to inanimate objects, that gets really problematic. You can’t gauge the morality of a lioness in the wilderness; they don’t operate that way. But I do think setting can be as much a feature of the writing as the people you’re writing about or the voice you’re writing in.
MG: David Foster Wallace once defined Lynchian (in reference to David Lynch’s filming style) as “an equal balance between the complete absurd, gore, and everyday mundane.” I’m hesitant to label your poems as Lynchian but the quote definitely resonated with me as I read your work. Specifically in Fume. What, in your opinion, defines a Harris poem?
fjh: I have to go back to what I said about defining your own writing in the moment. Because one of the things I recognize in what I do is that I am drawn to the dark, the mysterious. I’m interested in all that. The gothic or the Lynchian, as you said, that’s probably a good way of putting it because that’s a little more weird and twisty, that stuff fascinates me. But I also think because of that I sometimes get labeled that way, and I think writers need to resist being oversimplified. I want to do as much as I can do with my writing and push against other people’s expectations, and even push against my own.
MG: Your book has a total of 12 sections classified by unique subheadings such as “build us a jesus” and “never had to use a gun.” Each heading can contain anywhere from 1 to 6 poems. Did you always know you had multiple groups of poetry deserving of subheadings? Did any poems make it into a subheading/group that surprised you? Do you consider these subheadings working in any other way? As breath, punctuation, or even a poem themselves?
fjh: The subheadings come from the final poem in the book, “allegiance.” I had a hard time organizing that book just because I struggle with organizing things, period. It’s not to say I don’t do it—I have to do it—but it’s one of the things that challenges me the most. Maybe that’s why I came up with this complicated system of doing it, when some people just split the book in half and they’re done. When I was organizing this book actually, I happened to be at Cave Canem when Yusef Komunyakaa was on faculty, and I asked him, “How do you organize a book?” and he said, “You need three folders,” and I was like, “...Okay? what do I do with these folders?” And he’s like, “That’s it, you just need three folders.” So I went home puzzled, trying to figure out what he meant by three folders. And I realized, what I think he’s suggesting, is that there’s a natural tendency to organize things in threes. You make a list of something to go to the store for, you don’t go to the store for milk and bread. You go to the store once you get to the eggs. Even the five-paragraph essay is three ideas to support your thesis.
So I think he was really suggesting a starting point. When I tried to think about the book in three, I started realizing, no, these are smaller segments. Then when I came up with the idea of doing subtitles to speak to those sections, it played itself out. So some of that was probably a little forced. I don’t think they all naturally went into their respective sections. I was trying to think of how to balance things. And it worked out.
MG: Can you speak on the title of your book and what it meant for the collection? Additionally, do you have any forthcoming projects that run in the same vein?
fjh: I think the term allegiance, goes back to the complexity of growing up in the city. When I left Detroit I was seventeen and left home, and didn’t come back to the state for a long time. And when I moved home as an adult, it was a whole different experience. You do have some allegiance to the place you’re from that is harder to see unless you leave and come back. Not just the things you take for granted but the things you were only ever seeing from one perspective. As a kid, it was sort of like “this place is picking on me!” And you come back and you’re like, “Oh, okay. I can see the other side of it.” I think that’s part of what the allegiance is. You hold onto something not as being perfect or as being right, but as being the place that you’re from. That’s what allegiance is, it’s the place you maintain loyalty to because it’s always a part of you. That’s something people don’t always understand about patriotism. That idea that you protect it because it’s a part of you, you hold onto it because it’s a part of you, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. And it doesn’t mean it’s better than anyone else. It’s a place you are proud of and care about.
As to the forthcoming projects, there is a second manuscript. I’m not even comfortable talking about the theme just yet. But it’s pretty close to done. It’s a little more of a hybrid project, to some extent—still mostly poems, but there’s some script in it, and a couple series that weave through the book. So that’s what I’m picking at now.