Justin Bigos: Let’s start big: Texas. This past spring you read in Texas at the SMU LitFest as well as the Kraken Reading Series. Many of the poems you read, including those from your two books, Horse in the Dark and Blue-Tail Fly, are grounded in Texas, and during your stay in Dallas and Denton you remarked that it was important to you to read these Texas poems — in Texas. Why?
Vievee Francis: I spent years running from Texas and once I stopped running I knew I would have to face what it means to be of a place that has stayed put in one’s memory during a very different time, but has changed substantially in one’s absence. I wrote my second book, Horse in the Dark, after years of barely writing about personal history, choosing to write instead persona poems — knowing that I would eventually need to read the poems in the heart of what initially shaped me. You might say, I felt compelled to show a kind of personal courage, and courage is a high value in Texans, particularly those of us who are the products of several generations there, and whether we choose to admit it or not are impacted by its ethos.
JB: You bring up the notion of personal courage, and I wonder if we might find such a thing not only in the more personal poems of Horse in the Dark, but the historical, persona poems of Blue-Tail Fly. The poems of the latter sing with great empathy — for famous as well as anonymous people whose lives are largely defined by the US–Mexico War of the 1840s, and by the Civil War not so long afterward. And so I wonder if we can talk a bit more about persona? Part of the reason I ask this may have something to do with the fact that I am currently reading the Collected Poems of Ai.
VF: I wonder if I sounded a bit hubristic in my answer to your initial question. I don’t mean to say I am at all times courageous, just that in the writing of Horse in the Dark I had to face things that frightened me, memories that jarred me. I would call that more than a notion, however. It was often harrowing and I’d have to take long periods of time to rest the poems and to rest my nerves. As for the question you’ve just asked, yes, empathy is not a given in everyone, and even if one feels one has always had such capacity it can still be developed, and must be if one is going to write persona poems that are effective. Otherwise, what the reader gets is the world view of the author, which we might as easily get in the lyric sans obvious persona. The persona poem gives the author the opportunity to interrogate received beliefs, to try it another way, even to be the person they dared not be. There’s really so much to be gained by the author in the writing of persona poems. Here’s the opportunity to slip into new diction, shift vocabularies, hell, shift topographies, and as such one might experience what I believe to be a necessary altering of perspective. You can still find detestable an enemy you understand, but it’s difficult to be inhumane to an enemy you understand. If you take on the voice of whomever you deem to be a villain, the poet still has to understand that villain to some extent in order to convey the persona. I am not at all sure I’d agree that this is a form of method acting where you tap into your own dark space. I see it more as listening and acknowledging what you hear, or seeing what you might not want to see but not turning away in disgust, instead staying there and taking it in, if possible without the filter of judgment. That’s where the courage came in for me in the writing of Blue-Tail Fly. Do you remember that song by the way? “Jimmy Cracked Corn” is the title I know. Anyway, I found it easy enough (though gutting) to write in the voice of the slave. As a matter of fact, I was holding on to so much anger and hurt around that topic that things erupted, so there would be an example of me tapping into personal, rather, oral family history. But it was the voice of the Confederate Soldier in “A Pocketful of Rye” that forced a reckoning. I wanted to give that soldier the particular rage I had. I know, how odd. I said to myself (and you should know he is a compilation of actual soldiers), if my mortal enemy, and one I found to be a lesser soul (or soulless), a damned beast with a gun, a wounding crow (if you will) were coming over the rise and I knew my end was near, what would I feel? And I kept coming back to rage/resentment. I had to keep putting the poem down for weeks. I couldn’t get past that feeling, but it was nagging me that I had missed something. I kept reading Confederate stories, their own stories, as I was writing this poem. Then it jolted me out of my sleep one evening: a deep sorrow for what I would miss. For the days before the war. For my daughters, my wife, the feeling I had after a good day’s work. And suddenly his story was connected to the Union Soldier’s story, Spencer’s final thoughts. Though both were dying in different circumstances, neither was going to give that last moment to what haunted them. That last thought went to what they had loved. What they loved even in those moments. It was not my story alone, it was a human story, enemy or no, and that is what I believe the persona poem ultimately comes down to.
JB: No, I don’t remember that song from childhood, but I grew up in urban Connecticut. I first heard “Jimmy Cracked Corn” in the freight car scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, in which a hobo sings that and other American folk songs until Pee-Wee puts his hands over his ears and leaps from the train. Even as a little kid, I could tell that I was supposed to think that the rural was backwards and childlike. It took living in a more rural environment for me to see just how wrong those stereotypes are. After being raised in Texas, you moved to Detroit. And now, after living there for years, you are currently living in Swannanoa, NC, a place I know well. How has this landscape altered your writing? What is it like to be back in a rural place, even if one very different from the West Texas landscape?
VF: I actually lived several places in and outside of Texas, but never North. My father was in the military and eventually worked for one of the Big Three (car companies) that would transfer him from one site to another. I moved to Detroit right before high school. I hadn’t yet begun writing when we moved to Detroit, but the extreme shift in landscape/lifestyle/demographics . . . everything would certainly lend itself to my decision to become a poet.
The wilderness I find myself in — the Blue Ridge — seems to echo some kind of wilderness within. People here keep telling me “the mountains will bare you.” I wasn’t sure what that meant. I’m still not really sure. I can say that the longer I live here the more I discover about myself, and I am negotiating these discoveries through my work. It feels like hiking the trails of me, like hacking my way through forests whose trees I have no name for. Perhaps I had been in one environment too long and had become too comfortable. Despite Metropolitan Detroit being a decidedly challenging place to live, I was used to the environment around me (and frankly love that city and the area around it). Where I find myself now could not be more different, though the shift from Southwest/South to Midwest then seems eerily close to this one, Midwest to South, despite different/differing locations. Some things have not changed. I had lived in Georgia before Detroit, and did my undergraduate work in Nashville, TN. So the richness of the land, the trees in particular, feel familiar. Then there’s voice. Despite the ridiculous stereotypes of the Southern voice one finds on television, a NC accent is certainly not an East Texas accent (and you are right Justin, to refuse to see the South in the reductive terms of stereotypes). The shift away from the flatter notes of the Midwest have jarred me into remembering how much I loved the lyricism of some Southern accents, particularly North Georgia. And I find far more similarities to that here in NC. And there is a culture of “politeness” here. Perhaps that’s not the right word. A gentler way to enter and leave conversations. A concern for harmony (at least outwardly) that I find soothing. So much so, that I love going to the grocery store just to hear, “Can I get something else for you darlin’?” I won’t pretend not to love that rope of charm. But so many other things that were common across the South have changed. More than I’m willing to think about or talk about here. I am still processing it. I’m not saying “all” has changed. I am saying enough has changed to shake the ground under my feet, so when I do feel something familiar but not necessarily good I am now surprised. There are so many spaces where I can walk and talk and “be” that did not exist in the South I knew. And the mountains hold their own history, one that I was not at all familiar with, and learning it now is having its impact. A lovely young woman I had the pleasure of instructing at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop last summer has people who have lived in the range (where I live) for over a hundred years — African Americans (among others). I have often thought the black West has a parallel history as well as one that intersects with the black South. So too with the Appalachians. So I find myself at a juncture in a place that carries some of the history of my early life, but offers a wealth of history I have yet to learn outside of me. I also find myself in a landscape, just speaking of topography, that may as well be another planet it is so very beautiful, haunting, but foreign to me, and I am still adjusting to it. I can’t see for miles. I live in a bowl and see mountains from every side. I must travel through or over them to get anywhere else. I yelled someone’s name the other day trying to catch up with them and my voice flew down the mountainside and gained momentum making it so loud I was mortified. In the getting used to a place — Oh! I’ve been told it takes five years to adapt here — I am being changed, so of course my work is changing, opening up to the influence of fast running cold creeks, the ubiquitous bears, roads that are never, ever level, and valleys greener than any green I’ve seen before, wind that shakes the stone house my husband and I live in, wind that wails through hollows. Hollows?!? What is common for some is utterly amazing to me. Better writers than myself have written this terrain. That’s not what I’m doing. I’m writing about the mountains and valleys within that I might not have known (or reckoned with) if not for moving here with Matthew.
JB: You mentioned earlier the importance of “listening and acknowledging what you hear, or seeing what you might not want to see but not turning away in disgust … .” You’ve described a two-part process: the initial listening and looking is not enough; the writer must then have the courage to stay in that space, to stare down the truth of it, even if horrific. And you have talked about the great emotional expense the writer can pay in these moments. I am reminded of your poem “Anti-Pastoral,” from Horse in the Dark, in which you take on Wordsworth. You write:
Not in a surfeit of emotion, but in its thoughtful
consideration, later, when natural rage, through meditation,
may be pulled as milk through an udder, into a purer stream
this is how Wordsworth would have it,
not red-eyed and trembling, but clearheaded,
the tempest assuaged. Can you believe that?
The poem then goes on to say that Wordsworth’s claim may be easy to make in a peaceful, rural scene, but it is impossible to make for one who lives in the city, with its noise and violence. It’s a powerful rebuke, but I sense that even in a rural place you have found difficulty with Wordsworth’s claim. It’s rare anymore to hear a poet, especially an accomplished and tremendously talented poet, speak of writing in the heat of passion, even having to walk away from a poem as if the poem might harm its author. I want to say it’s refreshingly honest, and I thank you for helping me, as a poet, feel more validated in having similar experiences as of late. I normally don’t ask interviewees about “process,” because I usually find the topic boring. But I remember Larry Levis saying once in an interview that in the moments when a poet is writing — really writing, “in the zone,” so to speak — the poet (and I’m paraphrasing) “doesn’t give a shit.” I think what he was getting at is a kind of freedom, of letting go of the table, but also the kind of cold distance that is sometimes required of a poet, especially when dealing with our most important, mysterious subject matter. I am about to shut up and let you talk — don’t worry. Can you talk a bit about what Levis is claiming? Have you also felt that impulse, or requirement? Can you reconcile that state of composition with a more passionate, fiery state?
VF: Yes, I’d love to talk about this. I was quite recently rereading an essay by Eleanor Wilner, “The Closeness of Distance, or What Narcissus Gave to the Lake,” and, if you will forgive my paraphrasing, she makes such important points regarding the necessity of “aesthetic distance” in order to get to areas of passion (read compassion) that would otherwise remain in the dark. How does this relate to “place”? Well, in my walking this terrain, I have found it impossible to be unaffected or to act disaffected. I can’t maintain the kind of attitudes that proliferate in cities. And it makes sense … how does one negotiate the urban and not at some point give in to cynicism, or a kind of jaded sensibility? Of course thousands of writers manage not to give in, but I don’t know them really. My friends distrust things like “altruism” and “sincerity,” even “awe.” They believe in and prefer any and all ideas that privilege “self” first, buying into the received and easy ideology of “there’s always something in it for you.” So trust is a hard commodity. I bring that kind of thinking (no matter how much I may feel repulsed by it) into this region with me. And it doesn’t work here. Not at all. I can’t lay my cynicism across a vale. I can’t walk outside into a pine forest (so many types of pines) and remain jaded. If a bear ever growls at me, it won’t be random. It won’t be for the freakin’ hell of it. It will be because I startled it in spring when it must protect its cubs. How can I not feel awe here? And how can I not feel terror, since there are so many aspects of the natural world (used in a broad sense) that I have yet to experience. There are so many unknowns. The sublime includes the terrible, what might have you falling from a ledge you didn't see you were standing upon. That “ledge” could be anything: a winding road with no guard rails, a startled bear, a man whose tattoo lets you know the Civil War never ended for him and he blames you. No, I can't just look away. Recently the poet Patrick Donnelly said wryly to me, “I don’t look away, I look at.” And I agree. I looked the city I lived in for years in its eye, so to speak. And now I try to be attentive here on this Ridge. Every single time I drive the 1.7 miles of road (not straight down) to the Swannanoa Valley floor, I feel awe. There’s a point where the road just opens up into a bucolic landscape and if it’s raining the low fog rises like a thin white cotton dress up the legs and it is overwhelming. Every single time. But how can I possibly put that into a poem without stepping back some? Not into the “clinical distance” Wilner speaks of that she suggests prevents feeling, but into a space where I can allow the poet’s imagination to help me both find a framework for what I’m viewing and bridge my passion and its stimulus without falling into a mire of sentimentality. This is not for me Wordsworthian distance, in that I allow myself to be in the full presence of the passion even as I utilize the imagination in my composition. So there is distance, yes, but it is not “cool.” I am always aware of the “heat” I am in. I now allow myself to be un-composed. I can’t yet say if the poems work. Are they effectively conveying what I perhaps intended? I don’t know. But it is important to me to let go, to honor where I am by being fully present, and to honor this work I’ve chosen by trusting the movement, no matter how frightening/dangerous, into what for me is unexplored terrain.
JB: I am very attracted to your use of litany. For example, from your poem “Loblolly Pine in a Field of Hollyhocks”: “the slight damp, hint of dew, or the rain/ to come, like the rough lick of animals, a whistle, a rude joke in the ear,/ trill of dying cicadas, a mouth of sour mead in the quickening day.” Your language is already so thickly sensuous that these lists seduce with their word-drunkenness. The rush of language in pieces seems a kind of contradiction, a wonderful tension really, and these litanies also give the sense that the poet is both in and (nearly, almost) out of control, both accelerating and maybe about to veer off the rails. Can you talk about the litany in your work?
VF: That is exactly it! As I write the pieces that is frankly how I feel, as if I am about to go over. More and more this is happening in my work, as I allow myself to explore, again, what I can only describe as an interior wilderness. It began before I moved to the Appalachians, but the new work does indeed veer off the rails. I can’t say there are any tracks under the wheels. Maybe I can illustrate this point. I went on a hayride in Vermont recently. There was a tractor pulling a huge red-railed wood bed with bales of hay to sit on. Perhaps twenty-plus people got in. The tractor pulled off onto a paved road. Things were bumpy but still pretty steady. Then we veered off onto a wide grassy track. The track was a lovely green, low and smooth, and on either side high grass and wild flowers. Then our mischievous driver looked back at us before going off the track into the meadow. No trail at all. Like everyone else I was jostled into my neighbors and laughing and having an excellent time, but I was also worried about dips and holes in the natural ground. I wondered what would happen if we toppled. That feeling of being off the path and this is where the adventure begins. This is a lighter version of what I am trying to get at regarding my life and my work. Except, a stronger corollary might be necessary. And that is right there in the name of the region where I find myself: on the Blue Ridge. So, not off the track into the grass, but off the ledge and down into the trees, or over the falls. The stakes are high for me. Horse in the Dark forced me to reckon with the rural in my personal history. The new work is forcing a greater reckoning with the natural world at large, with ruin and renewal, oblivion and recovery. These are not meant to be parallels. Not at all. I am trying to say I have not travelled this way or in this way before and recognize very little. So, as to your question, contradictions will abound. Litanies allow fragments, the bits and pieces, the only briefly glimpsed, the whimsical and sensate moments that you wish would continue forever but do not like the impulsive kiss of someone just met, or being steadied by the hand of a friend, or the surprise appearance of a loved one across the table from you, a child’s fluffy afro bouncing down the aisle (that happened yesterday at a café, and the child charmed me completely, a nod to my own inner child since I wear a fairly substantial ’fro these days). We often think of litanies in terms of iteration and reinforcement, but what better way to see a life rife with paradoxes than through language tumbling die by die down the page? It’s messy you see. It resists order. Which may be my way of defying conventions of all sorts. Yes, messy, and I’m willing at this point to fall into the muck of it.
JB: I wonder if we can end our conversation on your poem “Gun of Wishes.” This poem sings with profound ambivalence about the American love affair with guns. And by the end, the speaker’s ambivalence seems to have transformed — through anaphora and litany — into a caustic critique of gun worship, but with a lingering awe for what guns might promise:
...dove-hunting guns, sweet coo of guns, guns
that will fire to war no more, yes, guns for peace,
kumbaya guns, singing guns — like shooting stars —
a lullaby riddling the night.
I’d like to end on this poem because it knocked me out when you read it, and because I think it not only speaks to our cultural moment but also deep into the American past — and I’m guessing well into the future. Since we started big, let’s end big: why write this poem? Aside from any personal catharsis, what do you hope this poem does, if anything, as it leaves your lips?
VF: I was born in Texas. Did I say that? I have hunters in my family, and trapshooters (skeet), and a grandmother who called her pistols “baby.” My father was military. I have always been around firearms. But I have never been completely comfortable with them. I feel strongly about people being able to defend themselves, and even more strongly about those who own weapons knowing how to use them properly and store them properly. But how do you own a gun in gun culture such as Texas (in the main) without having sons and daughters who simply can’t wait to have a gun of their own? That’s where things get challenging for me. The will toward arms. I may see them as necessary in the rarest of occasions, but to have them for the sake of them? Well, I can’t rest easy there. I grew up in a military family, so guns do not frighten me, nor do they intimidate me, but the people who use them — that’s another matter. When I moved to Detroit my views on guns began to change rapidly. Suddenly, there wasn’t the accidental hunter shooting, or the child who gets into the gun cabinet, or even the tragic domestic occurrence, though those things did happen. What disturbed me most was a kind of randomness that felt shattering. And that I believe can indeed shatter communities. Guns central to crimes committed by young people toward other young people. Guns at the heart of a material will, a need to have and acquire as a means of gaining status. It was the largest city I had ever lived in, so of course the number of gun deaths was higher. But there was something more at work. And I can’t say what it was or is. I don’t know. And it was larger than Detroit. Detroit is not at the center of this discourse. That’s simply where I landed. The problem, the heart of it, was a problem in cities and towns across the country. My questions kept coming: What makes a person pick up a gun, and untrained, use it? Why train to use a gun unless you are going to hunt? Why hunt if you aren’t going to eat your kill?
Guns in the US are everywhere. Everywhere. Everywhere. They are too easy to acquire and too easy to use, whether one is trained or not. They allow death without human contact. We can too easily dehumanize each other. I have a difficult time understanding why we can’t agree upon the things we do know. In the main, in cities where guns are too easy to get, crime rises. Period. A machine gun is overkill. How is that self-protection? Again, why is that so difficult to agree upon? In this, I am not saying ban them. Again, I haven’t come to such a conclusion. And I’ve ultimately decided for myself that I don’t want to carry the weight of possibilities on my shoulders. So the poem moves through various arguments, then turns on itself and back. It’s problematic. Can this poem answer any questions? No. I unfortunately have no answers, only questions, though I believe them to be necessary questions, and I wanted the poem to reflect that.
Justin Bigos is the author of the poetry chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons (iO Books, 2014). His poems have appeared in magazines including Ploughshares, New England Review, and The Gettysburg Review; his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s, Ninth Letter, and Memorious. He lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he teaches creative writing at Northern Arizona University.