“It's not therapy. If anything, it's math.”
FRANCINE J. HARRIS
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
play dead is a book that I've spent a couple months with. I've read it at least a dozen times and—
Thank you for that.
Yeah, it's extraordinary. I think people are going to be really excited about it. It does a lot of cool, weird, interesting stuff. And I don't mean weird as a pejorative.
No, I will never take that word that way.
How old are the oldest poems in play dead? How long has the book been coming together?
Most of the poems are relatively recent. I think I probably started this manuscript in grad school.
Yeah. I told Rickey Laurentiis this actually—it was originally called Boy With Flower, or something like that. But it didn't have a thematic aim—actually that's not true. It did. Originally, my thought about the manuscript was that I had all these poems that were speaking to innocence, and boyhood, and girlhood, and those places where they were intersecting. I was thinking about this today because I was imagining you asking me questions. I was imagining you asking me why I was deciding to write about this now, all of the sudden. And I think a few things happened, but one of the things that happened was when I was writing those poems in grad school—and the poems weren't good. They were all really bad. I don’t think any of them look the same anymore, but there was one called "Boy With Flower," and it was this dreamscape of this girl picking flowers off a naked boy, and he's got a hard on, and he's tied to a tree. Haha.
I could see that being a good poem!
It was just kind of random in relation to my thesis. It's weird what happens when you start identifying things. So the more I was writing about childhood, and gender, and innocence, the more I kept mining where all that stuff was coming from. And I think it all culminated. And then—I don't even remember what you asked me. Haha. What did you ask me?
I asked how old the oldest poems in the book were, but I'm really interested in what you're saying. You're taking it to a cool place, like how they started as one thing, and then transformed as you realized what your real interests were.
Right. And so there has been, for four or five years now, this framework that started holding the book together, that conversation between the girl and the boy, that interlude through the whole book. So I think that might be the oldest—Oh, no! Actually, you know what, the oldest poem in the book might be the very first poem.
Yeah. That was an early publication in McSweeney's Poets Picking Poets. It came out a really long time ago, like 2003. It's one of my first publications. And actually it was Carey Salerno's suggestion to put that poem first. It was buried somewhere in there and she was like, "Oh, I wonder what would happen if you put that poem at the very beginning," and it kind of helped me think about the frame of the book.
Yeah, it's a good poem to set the tone and prime the reader for the sort of logic that can be expected from the poems–the sonic super-saturation and how the poems play with vernacular.
Well, thanks. Super-saturation is an interesting way to put it. A friend of mine recently said something like, "Oh, that thing you do with barrage."
Oh, I love that.
Yeah. I was like, "Oh, right. I guess that makes sense."
It totally does. And the way that you noun your verbs and verb your nouns. There's so much going on syntactically in your work. And obviously that's oversimplifying what is a major interest of yours.
No, not at all.
I think it does different things in different poems, but in this book especially I think that some of the subversions of traditional syntactical markers move the poems closer to the experience of just talking to someone, you know? It moves them more towards spoken English and away from written English in a cool way. Is that something that you were thinking deliberately about, or is it just something that sort of happens as a function of the way that you write?
Well, you mentioned a few things. Do you mean the grammatical treatment of words, or do you mean the conversational approach? Or both?
I think I mean the sort of cumulative effect of both, the way that the grammatical markers are often stripped away, and then also the conversational tone and the conversational vernacular, and the way that you break idiom apart into its compositional elements.
Sure. I know that, early on, I got some of that twisting of the way the word and phrase is supposed to work grammatically from the Black Arts poets. You know Baraka’s got that great line, “poems are bullshit unless they are teeth,” but then just after that, there’s the lines, “or black ladies dying of men leaving nickel hearts beating them down.” Or like when Larry Neal says, “summer girls flirt down our fantasies,” which only works through associative connotation, not grammar. You know, I’m thinking of poems like Brooks' “Second Sermon of the Warpland,” when she says, “she stands-bigly-under unruly scrutiny,” which is so good. And there have been points where I was getting criticism for trying moves like that, or where it just seemed to be over the top, because it can get kind of over the top, but I’m really fascinated with trying to make stuff like that work
I've read reviews where people have been like, "Well, I just don't know what she's up to, but it seems like she knows what she's doing."
You know it kind of reminds me of that Key & Peele skit, "Pussy on the Chainwax," and you have no idea what that phrase means, right? And so they're just shooting pool and Key uses this term, like, "Man, I put the pussy on the chainwax." And there're a few guys in the room who start laughing and repeating it. And Peele is like, "That's not an expression. You trying to start a thing, aren’t you?" and the whole thing they're playing on is the way that people try to insert their stamp on culture, and on how we speak, and try to make something—a thing.
To me that's a really fascinating possibility with language. I think it’s kind of important, actually, that in that skit, Key kind of has an emotional breakdown about his daily struggles. Like to say ‘man can you just let me have this…this language.’ I guess I realized in the last several years that I'm not the kind of person who's interested in preserving language. I love how it changes. I'm not afraid of textspeak, I'm not afraid of abbreviations. I think we just wind up doing more fun things with how language appears. Twerking! We're twerking our language.
Haha. Yeah, totally! That's the perfect word for it. I was actually just talking with Solmaz Sharif for the site, and she was saying how one of the cooler jobs of the poet is preventing the calcification of language. I love the way that your book does that work.
This might sound a little hierarchical, and forgive me because I do believe that poets care more about language than many other people, but there's an interesting downside to that. You know, sometimes you'll be talking to someone, or you'll read comments online, and you realize that somebody just posted 100 words of something, and it makes absolutely no sense. You're reading it and it's like, "Well, you know, I'm just saying that as long as there's windows and the way we're trying to sit together, then no one is really going to want to come down on that." And I'm like, "Wait, what?" It makes no sense, right?
But a poet is still interested in trying to convey. A poet is interested in trying to reach the point where you understand, and then pushing that understanding. Well, some poets. Obviously, there's a whole realm of poetry that's trying to do exactly the "windows in between where we just came down on," but I do think there's something about trying—I talk to my students a lot about how writing poetry, how creating a language that surprises, depends on being able to predict what your reader will have an understanding of, and being able to tell when your reader knows the end of the sentence, like when you say, "I'm outside and it's raining—," if you say "cats," they know what comes next. So, you play on that expectation. But that’s interesting to me because the idea of metaphor and the idea of language inventing itself rely on tweaking that, not necessarily breaking it.
It's so spectacular to watch you employ those devices to totally different ends. One of my favorite poems in the book is, "enough food and a mom," and you have some traditional lines like, "The mom is a yard of blackening petals." And that's a gorgeous line that could work in anyone's poem. You could give that to a thousand poets and they would write a thousand different poems out of it. But then the poem ends with, "I mom of you. I mom of you a lot," which is such a strange line, it's a line that feels distinctly yours. And "Let the bodies lie ghost for a while. / I mom of you. I mom of you a lot," just seems like the only way this poem could ever end, but I don't think anyone else could have written that ending.
Thanks. Yeah, that poem is strange to me. I think it's one of those poems that I feel nervous that I would never be able to reproduce just because it came from such a very specific set of experiences and such specific relationships. I don't know if this line is in that poem, or if it's in another poem, but I was dating someone when my parents died. You know when you've lost someone, or something terrible happens, and you wake up and it's like it hasn't happened, you have to remember that this terrible thing has happened and it's just a wave of sadness all over again. And sometimes during the day you'll kind of remember again. And about that feeling, the person I was dating said, "Well, it's going to take a while before all your selves know this has happened." And it's just exactly the deal. All of the parts of you that you associate with this experience have to figure out that this thing has occurred.
And each of those selves is actively trying to distance themselves from the pain of that realization. They are pushing against that acceptance.
Yeah. And somehow in that, the substitution made sense because I was thinking about the act of, if not translation, then repositioning of meaning to help your selves figure something out. But that's so specific.
No, that's terrific. I love that idea of translation, like, "I mom of you. I mom of you a lot" almost sounds like what you'd get if you used Google Translate to translate something into Hungarian and then translate it back. There's something cool about the work that displacement does. And I think one of the cool things that a poem gets to do is to displace and defamiliarize. And I think that one poignant way of defamiliarizing a word like "Mom," a word with so many connotations, is to rearrange its syntactical purpose in a sentence.
Another favorite poem in the book was "canvas," which is a poem that I knew before the book. I remember reading it when it came out in The Boston Review and thinking, "Holy shit. What is going on?" And it's another poem that feels like a Rosetta Stone for teaching you how to read the poems around it.
What do you mean?
Haha, that's a great question.
I mean, I'm the one writing, so I don't know. I kind of get it, but I'm also curious.
Well, it seems like poem beginnings are really important to you. You've got some of my favorite poem titles and some of my favorite first lines of any living poet. I'm always marveling at those, and here in "canvas" you start with, "You want to make a painting of a fat woman." You can't not read a poem that begins that way.
Haha. Right. Right.
And then it's got this litany of grotesque and startling particulars, like, "the workers laughing with pig on their boots," or " white couples fucking," or, my favorite, "a man holding a beer in one and / (for whatever reason in the other) six tickets to Disney." And what you're doing is world-building. It's almost an ars poetica in that way, where your canvas is the poem and you're sort of saying, "These are the colors that I want for my poem. I want the fat woman color, and the white couples fucking color, and the workers with pig on their boots color."
Well, I think some of that is probably what I've realized, or what people have pointed out to me. And I've been having conversations with other women poets and students about—the list. And I guess I never quite thought of this before, but the word I'd use if I were being kind to myself would be "confidence." "Entitlement" would be the word I'd use if I were trying to rein myself in.
But that way in which we have to have that certain kind of arrogance when we write something gets heightened with the list because, not only have you suggested that you have something to say, but you're saying, "I still have something to say, and I'm going to keep having something to say, and I'm just going to keep talking. You can either be on board or not, but I'm not done."
I love that way of thinking about it.
Some of it has to do with the subject matter. The rant requires, unfortunately sometimes it seems, that when we're posing moral arguments, we have to have really good reasons for staking this claim. So I was thinking about that, like, if you want to understand this story, you're going to need to account for all these things. But the reason I mention confidence and entitlement, is because I realized, and this might be a big generalization, that it might be a little bit harder for some writers to do, maybe particularly women, maybe particularly women of color, to feel entitled, and again, maybe that's the wrong word, but to feel confident enough to just exhaust the subject matter, and have the confidence that you have enough to say. And I kept having this conversation with women students last semester who were just like, "I don't know what to say," and in the context I was like, "Of course you know what to say, it's just that you feel like you're supposed to know exactly what it is that you want to say." Anyway, some of it is that.
I'm fascinated by what you say about that sort of confidence/entitlement matrix being harder for women, and then women writers of color especially, to employ. And I like thinking about your poems in that framework, and how their endurance stands in the face of that. The poem's inexhaustibility becomes almost defiant.
Yeah, I just think it's interesting that that kind of treatment of subject matter, you know, anytime someone does that, it's referred to as Whitmanesque. This kind of granddaddy, "Sit right down and let me tell you all about it" kind of thing. Even though there are women poets that do that. Jorie Graham does that—she seems really excited about the long exhausted line. C.D. Wright does it. I don't know if it's more rare, I just think it's more interesting when women do it.
Yeah, and for the reasons that you say. Their sense of natural entitlement in the wild is substantially diminished relative to their male peers.
You seem like you write a lot. Are you a daily writer or are you an, "I'm lucky to get a poem a month" writer?
I guess when I feel best about my writing, I'm writing every day. Right now, I've got these poems, and I want to send out work, but I haven't really been writing very much. I mean I feel like I've been productive, but most of it has been with editing. And in my brain I have to be like, "That's not bad. That's good. That's okay." But the fact that I'm not making new stuff does make me feel a little guilty. So I guess I tend to be prolific. It's interesting, because when Percival Everett was visiting the campus, he talked about his process and, you know, dude's got a crazy amount of books, and he said he doesn’t sit down for hours at a time to write, which I thought was bizarre. He said he spends like fifteen or twenty minutes at a time, and then he'll get up and do something else. And I thought, "Oh my god, he's restless. I'm restless!" I am really restless. Carl Phillips talks about how he'll write a solid poem a week, or a few poems a month. These are people with multiple books, so I guess I shouldn't feel bad. But there's something about having something new in front of you that seems to be what inspires me, too.
And I think the feeling of having written is narcotic, too. It's a rush that we chase and we get bummed the further removed we are from it.
Oh god, I know. Lately I feel like I have all these things and, you know, I have decent drafts, but they all need research. They need some kind of framework that even the research just doesn't help with. Sometimes you can do research, but then you don't know what to do with the research you've done. So I have these skeletons that are taunting me.
It's good that you have the clay though. I feel like getting that clay with which to add to and shape with research, or whatever else, is the hard part.
Switching gears a little bit, one thing I wanted to talk to you about was allegiance. I think, especially for a first book, it was really successful, by poetry standards.
Yeah. I felt like it was. I felt successful.
As well you should. But even by the cold quantifiable metrics, it was a poetry bestseller, and for a book of poetry I think it did about as well as one could hope to do. And you know, it's not navel-gaze writing about sitting on the pier and smelling your grandfather's Old Spice, or whatever. You know what I mean? These aren’t vapid poems; you're really taking some stuff on.
Haha. I think of that kind of writing as pleasant.
Yeah, that's a good word for it. Your poems aren't pleasant poems—No, I mean, they're not not-pleasant poems, but I—
I think they are, though. There's a way in which I think they are.
Yeah, I do think they are. And saying they're not pleasant poems sounds so pejorative, there's no way to hear it and not—
Oh no, I mean it pejoratively.
It's weird because I still like a lot of the poems, but when I think about the book overall, it feels so, pleasant. If I had more essay time, and I always say that, there are a thousand essays that I'd love to write, but one of them is about the ways in which the internet has made derogatory language more acceptable. So, for as much cursing and NSFW language as there is in that book, I think it still manages a kind of pleasantness. There are some poems that plumb beyond the surface, but I think there are several poems in there that I would've liked to go deeper with. Every time I think about that book, I think I want to get deeper. But I'm not taking anything away from the book, I love the book, but I think it's palatable, in a way.
You think it's palatable?
Is that terrible? I shouldn't say that.
No, I think that's fascinating, you don't often hear writers talking about their own work in that way. It's not like it's a book that you published thirty years ago, either.
Although, in terms of the pivot from a first book to a second book, I think that's often the time when the dramatic shift happens in aesthetic, or even mission. So the signature poem from that book was "katherine with the lazy eye. short. and not a good poet," right?
And that was a poem that took off and was shared and re-blogged a million times. I teach that poem. I think it's a great poem for getting people who don't read poetry to understand what a poem can do. Is that an instance of a palatable poem to you?
I think so.
How do you mean?
Well, I have a weird relationship with that poem, and I don't know if I've talked to you about it. I don't think this actually happens very often. And it's funny because I've just been rereading Carl Phillips's final essay in The Art of Daring, where he talks about risk being questionable if you don't know that you're taking a risk. I think that poem is one of those things for me, but maybe in reverse. I actually never expected to share it with anybody because I thought it was so terrible. And by terrible I don't mean badly written, I mean I felt like shit. I felt like shit writing it. I felt like shit reading it. And I remember the first time I read it to that little community of people where that poet read. There was a part of me that felt like I needed to read it to them because I felt guilty for writing it, and I didn't want to pretend like I hadn't written it. And they liked it. And I was like, "Wait, why do you like it? I'm a shitty person. You can't like this poem!"
Recently, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine about how art works, and the idea that sometimes you feel shitty about something you've done in a way that other people recognize, and I think that in itself makes it palatable. The way that I wrote the poem allows for me to be kind of a protagonist, and therefore allows the reader to be a protagonist. I read that poem once to a class of tenth graders in Detroit. It was an all-girl school and they were all in their uniforms. But there was one young girl leaned back in her seat and she didn't like me as soon as I walked in, I could just tell. And during the Q and A, she was like, "I have a question." And I was like "Oh, shit" because she smacked her lips as she asked it. And she was like, "When you wrote that poem, did you feel better about yourself?"
And how do you answer that? And I forget whatever I said to her. I think I was like, "Yeah. Yes, that was kind of part of the point." But she's actually one of a very small number of people who responded to me the way that I felt —
You thought everyone would respond that way.
Or should have, maybe. She was the realest about that shit that anybody had been. I shouldn't say that. I'm projecting. She reflected how I feel about myself in that poem. And it's weird because I'm not ever sure what to do with that. Like, how do you deal with the fact that you sort of made this really problematic response to something, palatable?
I think that maybe one of the reasons why people don’t respond to it that way is because—
Haha. To make me feel better about myself.
Yes, just to spare you their judgment. No, I think that people are glad to eviscerate someone if they think that a poem is taking liberties with someone else's story. But I think that one of the reasons people haven’t responded to that poem in that way, and why I don’t feel that way about the poem, is that the speaker doesn’t seem to be looking for absolution. It's not mired down in the language of personal exoneration, or postures of self-flagellations, like "Would that I could have her back, so I could tell her how lovely I thought her—"
I wish I had the wherewithal to be like, "Yes! Thank you!"
Yeah, but in the hands of a lesser poet I think that that would be the impulse that would be followed. And what's poignant is that the truth is that the speaker's only experience of this person was a sort of shitty judgment, and I think that by avoiding that language of contrition, it's clear that you aren't asking the reader to absolve you. I'm thinking of the worst brand of southern poetics focused on race where it's like, "My granddaddy said the n-word and I saw him..."
Oh my god. I know. Jesus. Yes, I totally know what you mean.
Yeah, and I’m so averse to that stuff because it's so obviously trying to say, "I'm one of the good guys, and all of them were the problem, and by naming them here, I am absolving myself." You know what I mean?
Yeah, I totally do. I do.
And I think that that sort of poem gets written all the time and even published in weirdly prominent places. And that poetry that is so explicitly bent on personal exoneration often gets the reaction that you were kind of expecting.
Well, I guess when I can be more objective about things I think about how the reality is that so much of our poems, whether they're confessional or not, are dealing with trying to work through guilt and trying to work through places in ourselves where we just don’t understand our behavior.
I get that, but the truth is that there's no good way to erase what transpired through writing. It doesn't fix it. So I guess I'm just living with that guilt. There are plenty of things, especially in this second book, where there's guilt that I just got to sit with. I always think it's interesting when people say that writing is therapeutic. I mean, that shit doesn't go away. It's still there. It's not therapy. If anything, it's math. You're trying to move the parts around to see if you can make sense of them.
Yeah, I think it's close to that. It's like that poem in your new book, "In Lebanon, a girl who cries crystals," which is another one of my favorite poems in the book—
Really? Oh my god, thank you.
Do you not like it? Or—
No, I do like it! It's such a tiny poem and I kind of just held on to it. I like it, too.
One of the coolest things about it is that in that tiny space you've compressed a whole ecosystem. You have the Virgin Mary, you have incest, you have aliens. It's what I'm so interested with in art, and in poetry specifically. It does that thing where you're conflating the unimaginable beyond and the cosmological with the horrifically common image of "a police officer / hanging from a man's neck in a chokehold."
Yeah, that is actually an old poem. I added that part. It was pretty close, and I forget how it was phrased, but I added that part after Eric Garner, actually. Obviously.
I think it's so poignant, because we have these cosmological, spiritual, supernatural horrors, and then we have this aggressively everyday terrestrial horror. And in a universe that we would hope to build, this everyday horror would be as weird as the aliens, or the girl who cries crystals.
Right. Yeah, totally. I was recently reading an article in the New York Times which was based on a study on people’s use of the word "ought." And that people assigning that word would depend on whether or not they thought there was blame to assign in the situation. I think the example they gave was like, "If you promised to take your friend to the airport for a job that you were both up for, and you just blew it off, could you make the statement, 'You ought to have taken them'?" And everyone was like, "Yeah, of course." But then they threw a wrench in the program, and they were like, "And if your car broke down through no fault of your own, then ought you have taken them?" And everything kind of shifts, and then things get muddier, and there was a percentage of people who were still like, "yeah," because there's that idea that there's some devious intention in there. And I thought of that because of the notion of how we talk about acts of God, or even when we decide to assign blame. It has to do with our interpretation of intention, and just the idea that that has anything to do with some of the conversations that we have about existence, or about morality—it's interesting to me how muddy that gets, and how easily.
Yeah, that’s totally fascinating. Well, on that light note.
Haha. I talked your ear off.
Haha, no! I wish we could go on for three more hours! Do you have any final words of wisdom, or anything that you're dying to say about the book?
I think the thing that I'm excited about is that it has been getting a little bit of pre-discussion and preview. I'm always concerned that if you don't come out and directly say a thing, then people won't get it, but I've been pretty excited because it seems like people at least get what I'm trying to do and what I'm playing with. It makes me feel a little less anxious and crazy.
Interview Posted: May 23, 2016
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