francine j harris’ third book Here is the Sweet Hand, with which she “fully emerges as one of the best and most relevant contemporary poets,” (Craig Morgan Teicher, NPR) is recently out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. In our following conversation, which took place over six months (April to September 2020), harris lends us her thoughts on Covid, protests, the complexities and benefits of solitude, hopes for justice and beauty, and of course, poetry.
AB: First of all, how are you? Regarding this madness—the pandemic―are there any impressions or experiences you’d care to share?
fjh: Well, the time we are in now is remarkable. I am a little less scared about the pandemic actually than I was only weeks ago, even as the numbers rage. Mostly because I feel like I understand it a bit better thanks to the good health professionals that keep us informed. It reminds me how much of fear is psychological and mostly about not knowing: My absence of fear in this moment is not indicative of the statistics. But more about the dissemination of information. I was so encouraged, for example, to realize that a masked mass of people could protest peacefully outdoors without contaminating each other. I am most concerned about spaces that reject science or sense in that regard, but I am hopeful for the alternatives and solutions that creative people are fashioning. New normal for me is curbside pickups, delivery, and living my best zoom life. Walks in the evenings. The occasional jog or bike ride.
But there’s another kind of alleviation of fear that I suspect will warrant some serious journalistic or critical treatment before long. Ya’ know, before the global protests, I have been terrified that there seemed to be not enough public outcry about the destruction of the country under this administration. I feel like we have been collectively too passive about the policies, the rollbacks, even the inane and racist utterance coming from the White House. It’s not that there hasn’t been pushback or grassroots activism. But I think I expected the whole country to be in uproar over the demolition of basic human decency since 2016 and it’s, to my mind, just not been loud enough.
And then the protests happened and it got good and loud. And now I’ve been sort of asking myself why now, and how it is that George Floyd’s death seems to have sparked it, when the whole nation watched together as cops rolled up on a 12 year-old Tamir Rice and shot him to death before they could even get out of the police cruiser, or shot John Crawford dead in a Walmart store toy aisle for playing with a toy gun. When everyone listened as a random guy from the neighborhood stalked Trayvon Martin and on that recording you could hear his screams and there was outcry but what didn’t happen is that businesses and universities and governments weren’t decrying the racism that was clear for the rest of us. This is different. As I’m writing you, there are still protests happening nationally and it’s been more than a month of protests.
I wonder how it is that people could see all that, hear all that, see the ridiculous confrontation with Sandra Blend, listen to the way the Darren Wilson said “it looks like a demon” when describing Michael Brown who was left in the middle of the street in broad daylight for 4 hours. Eric Garner’s death was on video. Philando Castile’s death was on video. So what is it about George Floyd’s death that has erupted the whole globe into unrest? I’m no sociologist. But one of my theories is that it’s partly because of our solitude. It makes me wonder what kind of planet we might expect to have if people had enough time to actually participate in the shit they care about instead of being run ragged most of the day, having to travel, having to pick up kids at daycare, having to commute. What kind of things would people realize they cared about if they just had a little bit more time to internalize, reflect and sit with reality? It feels like a reflection of the actual state of ideology in our country, and honestly a little bit fucking hopeful to me. Call me a romantic. Or call me a poet. Since I think, this is exactly the argument we make for the importance of poetry. It’s not what the poem means, but what it takes to engage the poem that can be transformative. Introspection. Patience. Solitude. A sense of justice and beauty.
The other thing that occurs to me is that this idea of all of us – everyone of us who understand this pandemic, who understand how it travels in proximity, what masks prevent and don’t prevent, what happens if we contract it and it makes us sick, or we spread it to those we care about – there is a kind of shared bond there. It’s interesting to me that it is more likely to be the people who are pushing agendas of white supremacy and fascism that are ideologically opposed to “believing in” the virus. It seems to fit. Sometimes it feels like people who have a bigoted heart will do anything to create separation between themselves and others, even if it endangers their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. The separation is the point, of course. If progressive and open-minded people somehow had reliable information that this virus was a hoax, I sincerely believe the racists and bigots would be talking about how diseased and dangerous the left is and would be effectively calling for our forced quarantine.
Anyway, you didn’t ask for all that. But that’s a little bit of what I’ve been thinking about. The anxiety of having a common virus as a kind of unifying experience. Obviously, it varies right? The rich fleeing to their summer estates have many more solutions to that anxiety that everyday people, but CoVid’s novelty, its uncertainty – it worries all of us. And in a way I believe it also sort of set the scene for us to pay attention to each other and be more empathetic. It makes me wonder how we might act with each other if more of those playing fields were leveled. Education. Health care. Land. Without all the disparities, maybe we really do have the capacity to give more of a shit about each other than the individualistic side of capitalism suggests we are capable of.
AB: Actually, I did ask for all that, and I love your answer both for its relevance and because it discusses several things that struck me about Here is the Sweet Hand: the emphasis on solitude, for example, which is sometimes presented as loneliness but also (often) as a gathering, restorative force. Another is the contemporary political aspect: I like the way you name specific people: Obama, the artists Kara Walker and Frank Ocean, Betsy DeVos, etc. (“45” is as is as close as I could get as well.) Do you ever find resistance to “political” poems from any quarter? I’ve found surprisingly, that’s it’s often my students who most resist them: as though poetry shouldn’t be polluted by actual events.
fjh: I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that complaint. I have had similar conversations with students, but I think we have to keep in mind that the classroom is a very controlled setting, a kind of literary laboratory. Students are encouraged to wrestle with and critique and push back and sometimes it feels like those conversations can force “political” to become a target because we are asking them to choose a target of critique―and because the poems in workshop are required reading. Readers in the world who only like nature poetry or rhyming poetry, for example, or poetry that makes them feel good about their places in the world―they would just seek out a different kind of poetry. Further, it seems to me that it is very difficult to isolate “political” poetry in any meaningful way. You don’t have to name politicians to have a political poem and in fact, one of the poems that names Obama in the book is one of the least―let’s say―socially contentious poems―is actually one of the poems I think of when I say the book is about solitude and loneliness. The other poem that references Obama, “The Meek,” is kind of a political poem―but builds towards anticlimax―or at leart that’s how I think of it. What I do think I wrestle with in poems is a speaker who goes into a poem knowing the same thing in the beginning of a poem that they know when they exit the poem. I’m always looking for a kind of journey in the writing and reading of poems; but surely that doesn’t mean that such an arc is to the exclusion of morality or social consciousness or an interest in justice. On the contrary―the most moving poem is the poem that moves toward its best humanity. It’s why we love Ross Gay and Patricia Smith and Joy Harjo and why we study Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden and so many other justice-minded folk. Because it is the curiosity of the speaker moving ever toward justice that that is beautiful and startling and stunning.
AB: I first saw your work when “enough food and a mom” appeared in the September 2014 issue of Poetry magazine. I was frankly stunned by that poem, and later taught it when focusing on associative connotations, feints and erasures, the craftsmanship of gaps—basically, when I was begging students to engage in less explaining and summarizing. Can you speak a little about the development of your style? Do you feel what they now call “elliptical” was always your bent?
fjh: I don’t exactly think of myself as having a style, exactly. Or at least I try not to. There are things I’m interested in. Like exploring grammatical possibility. It’s funny that you say “elliptical” as a recent notion; sometimes I feel a little old-fashioned calling things elliptical or talking about associative movement. That term is credited to Stephanie Burt from the 1990s I believe, and I do remember studying with Norman Dubie at Arizona State, and conversations about that kind of circular, tangential manner of dealing with subject matter. I don’t know if we used that term, but I definitely know that was part of the thought and that it was related to people like the deep imagists. Of thinking of the subject of a poem as something to get to, not necessarily something to deal with head on. And the kind of freedom that movement affords the poet. And more so, I’m thinking of the flaneur and also of the way A.R. Ammons thinks about the poem as “a walk” and what happens on the way to something in a poem. In that essay, he says: “Specific questions about poetry merely turn into other specific questions about poetry.” Ask Poseidon a more specific question and he will only wrestle more violently away from it. It’s the specific problem in a poem that yields such frenetic result. I was listening to an interview on NPR the other day and they were talking to Danny Meyer, the guy who started Shake Shack and is generally known I guess for being this really successful restauranteur. The wanted to know if his restaurants would survive the pandemic. He said the best piece of advice his grandfather gave him was about the nature of problem: Don’t complain about the problems…have fun solving them. (Of course, he often quotes his grandfather as giving him tips about business.) But that particular point reminded me of how I teach and how I think about writing – which is that the problem is inevitable, and in that sense can be part of the constraint. One problem could be a sonnet, in which case, form constrains. But the problem for me is often communication. How do I convey the feeling associate with a given situation: I could tell you about it, but that is prose. Or I could create a system of language to get you to experience something close to what I felt, and that’s the poem for me. Usually lyric, but I am trying, elliptically I suppose, to communicate something like experience in poems.
AB: Yes, I regret that use of “elliptical” a bit, which besides being out-of-date is a rather pale way to describe your work. More straightforwardly and specifically, I’m knocked out by the pure weirdness of your syntax and the weight of your diction. I love the way language becomes so rich and sonically condensed in poems like “So is we thinking up new ways to fuck, or nah,”
Who’s a mag or pie glitch, stew raw tin. or thaw. The way to do. Plot a side
dish. skew fall in.
and crawl. You gon’ make them eggs cheesy with them grits, or nah. Then
woo it right back. on this script and. voilà. ta-dah..ooolaw.
Your presentation of subject also pushes boundaries: “Oregon Trail, Missouri” shows us the plunder that was the westward expansion, the “packed wagon/who dragged black slave alongside conduit.” It invites a critique of history, and further asks us to imagine what the land would look like if it had been left alone. Other poems, like “Language work over information,” and “It is a Choice (because Kanye)” also sustain numerous maneuvers, layers. I imagine these poems take many drafts to get right. Would you mind speaking a little to your revision process?
fjh: I don’t have a perfect system, really. I read it aloud sometimes and listen for happy accidents. I look for threads. I research terms and phenomenon that I’ve happened to mention to see if I can bolster other aspects of the poem. I tell my students to be accountable for the subjects they broach and the images they elicit and I try to stay true to that. Once the title of the poem came to me, for example, I realized I was responsible for proposing a kind of alternative sexuality in the poem. And though it’s a phonetic translation of the Ty Dolla $ign song, Or Nah, I revised it with that in mind―a kind of queer linguistic sexiness is what happened I think, or maybe a sonic one.
AB: When did you first start writing poetry, and why? Was there a memorable point when you realized this thing was serious?
fjh: I answer this differently depending on how I’m thinking about poetry. Just now, because of the pandemic probably, I’ll go back to the poem I was made to memorize by Robert Louis Stevenson when I was very small for my homeroom teacher called “The Land of Counterpane.” It’s about a boy has taken ill and makes an imaginary world of his toys in bed, of which he is the king. I didn’t look up “counterpane” when I was young. And I imagined it for its phonetic meaning: against pain and against pane (as in a windowpane). That teacher was rather abusive, actually. She relished in her wooden paddle punishments, and in the embarrassment she could inflict on kids in front of each other. She used to joke with other girls in class about cutting the “rat’s nest” on my head. She used to punish us for making noise while we turned the pages of our books. That’s who I recited that poem for. And I imagined the world Stevenson was making was against a vision of his own sickness, his own solitude, not just about being in bed with a fever, but as a way out of the stuck place he was in through interiority. Being an only kid too, I think I recognized so much of the loneliness and autonomy in that poem. And I think I knew then, I wanted to be my own “giant, great and still” who could make my own world where I could be ward … and king.
I don’t know what to do about the solitude I need.
I could take a photograph of the desolate factory
at the end of Hempstead Road. I ride out alongside
a freight train. Follow the cattail. No one paints the
traffic islands yellow. The men standing in reflector
vests, soundless through the window. The men in trucks
hauling. I could stop at the botanica. Burn the wax as
fat beetles in the middle lane. Men whistle inside a
taqueria. I could get out and set up a tripod, now that
poison is choking the sky red. And the gold is showing
up sunset. And Mal Waldron cycles from a playlist. A song
about being alone. The way you can’t stop in a car when
you’re driving. To take it all in. I could park and walk
out under the overpass. to the fields. I could make it.
I like the cooking video where someone makes coffee inside the hollow of an
orange rind though I spend so long wondering about the fruit like did they gorge
on oranges so that the pulp whitened their palm like inside my mother’s bare
hands having pulled it from a plastic baggy at the doctor’s office after the long
bus ride in summer that she’d made for us the long wait as nurses chatter a little
bit making fun of her and what she kept of the leftover folded twice inside a damp
tissue or would they toss the fruit out again and again. to get the video right.
Single Lines Looking Forward
or One Monostich Past 45
The joke is orange. which has never been funny.
For awhile I didn’t sleep on my bright side.
Many airplanes make it through sky.
The joke is present. dented and devil.
For awhile, yellow spots on the wall.
Obama on water skis, the hair in his armpits, free.
I thought the CIA was operative.
Across the alley, a woman named Mildred.
Above the clouds in a plane, a waistline of sliced white.
I don’t sound like TED Talk, or smart prose on Facebook.
These clouds are not God.
I keep thinking about Coltrane; how little he talked.
This is so little; I give so little.
Sometimes when I say something to white people, they say “I’m sorry?”
During Vietnam, Bob Kaufman stopped talking.
The CIA was very good at killing Panthers.
Mildred in a housecoat, calling across the fence, over her yard.
If I were grading this, I’d be muttering curses.
The joke is a color. a color for prison.
Is it me, or is the sentence, as structure, arrogant?
All snow, in here, this writing, departure.
All miles are valuable. all extension. all stretch.
I savor the air with both fingers, and tongue.
Mildred asks about the beats coming from my car.
I forgot to bring the poem comparing you to a garden.
Someone tell me what to say to my senators.
No one smokes here; in the rain, I duck away and smell piss.
I thought the CIA was. the constitution.
I feel like he left us, for water skis, for kitesurfing.
The sun will not always be so gracious.
From the garden poem, one line stands out.
Frank Ocean’s “Nights” is a study in the monostich.
Pace is not breathing, on and off. off.
Mildred never heard of Jneiro Jarel.
I’m afraid one day I’ll find myself remembering this air.
The last time I saw my mother, she begged for fried chicken.
My father still sitting there upright, a little high.
Melissa McCarthy could get it.
Sometimes, I forget how to touch.
In a parking garage, I wait for the toothache.
I watch what I say all the time now.
She said she loved my touch, she used the word love.
In 1984, I’d never been in the sky.
My mother walked a laundry cart a mile a day for groceries.
Betsy DeVos is confirmed. with a broken tie.
Mildred’s five goes way up, and my five reaches.
Oregon Trail, Missouri
(November 9, 2016)
O trail up outta here, how long ago
you started to wander, crawling milkweed
through dependence, in grope toward sprawl
dominion. Rather red in your rove from southern transition,
thick of land use, what soft you carved of forest to get through
once dirt and fur and blood of original American and bloody-scrape knuckles
of emigrant pioneer. O what you woke from sleep. Dogwood drift
loud and settling toward expanse, like how a pride’s breath
can move blossom to shiver and roll over false aster, shape
border from its river source, return to river as fat pocketbook, mussel
of critical habit, long breather and muscular foot
under cypress and promise of tree. O path for packed wagon
who dragged black slave alongside conduit, some salt
of new breeze, who swore deciduous freedom, and relented only upon lawsuit
in new land you opened to. O route to burrow, you,
like pipeline, leak the grease of wayward stream. Trade off
and pick off growth in the way. How used, you. When
blue-promised god, some Negroes took up pack and white man’s pack,
and given distance of black body to statehood pith, only made holy
states away. O what became you was over, the leaving grip bragged
all the way to the sea, already plundered and exhausted
of Shoshone patience and homesteading what hellbender
you’ve become. What uprooted clearing. Stray cattle worth
whole encampments in fool’s dust and deed. O what haven from man
who believe in America, only all to himself? Imagine
a way of shape that doesn’t strangle. An arbor
of its very own leaf. Now, imagine
tern and piping plover that keeps expansion
along its shore. A settlement for spring’s deliver, not pipeline.
Imagine redbud staying put in its breeze and keeping us safely
strong as trees and dark as the bark of our open souls. Imagine
the park of evergreen surrender,
to a calmer, blue sky our govern might protect.
Imagine bald eagle again, not because white-headed
but imagine bird, simple body of eager sea, talons
stretched over gold proportion. In summers, thick shiner.
In winter, undisturbed darter along somewhat snow, unstressed
by factory and loud humming fuel. O prairie of blazing star, imagine
full caves of left alone, unraided buffalo
clover, unhelped. Unfringed orchid, unwestern. Imagine
ground hallow, free to forage
its riverine root and plant vigor along the Missouri.
francine j. harris is the author of Here is the Sweet Hand from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in August, 2020. Her second collection, play dead, was the winner of the Lambda Literary and Audre Lorde Awards and finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Originally from Detroit, harris has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem, and MacDowell Colony. She is Associate Professor of English at University of Houston.