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Interview with Francesca Bell

Interview with Francesca Bell

Francesca Bell makes me blush. People wear clothing made of meat (or, you know, nothing but a wrecking ball) and makeup that makes them look like they lost a fight with a whomping willow. Let me tell you, that’s nothing. Francesca writes poems that evoke images and feelings that aren’t the kind of things you say out loud. But she does. Her voice is loud and clear and rocks everything you thought you knew about writing edgy, honest poetry. You can read three of her poems in a recent issue of burntdistrict and I really hope you did. Despite our mutually prohibitive summer schedules, we were finally able to complete an interview together in which she talks about her struggle and triumph as a writer, mother, and woman. Also, I asked her what she’s been reading lately and I got a full-on library inventory. So, that’s makes her pretty awesome too.

In our interview, she makes a philosophical comment about whether it would be a greater sin to revel in our blessings and privileges or to not. A few days after this discussion, I was reflecting on those comments while on my morning run where I passed beneath the Manhattan Bridge on a Sunday morning. I’d never been to that park before and couldn’t believe in that moment how ordinary it looked to everyone else. There were fishermen with their hooks in the East river, a man on his morning run pushing two infants in a stroller and more than a few sipping coffee and having animated discussions on the benches overlooking the city. Millions of people in that city see and pass beneath that bridge on the banks of that river, but I took the moment to revel anyway. After all, it would be a sin not to.

–Rylea Anderson

I wanted to thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions. I am truly humbled by the experience. When I first read your poems from issue 3, I was struck by the angry, triumphant, and vulnerable voice reflecting what it is to be a woman. They are at once reflective of a shared experience and incredibly private. What did you feel as you sent them away to be read by whomever answered your emails?

When I sent these poems to burntdistrict, I felt, honestly, a very specific sort of dread. Not because of any sort of nervousness about the private, vulnerable nature of the poems. As you might have guessed, I do not have a normal sense of privacy. The dread I felt had to do with the fact that I was sending these poems to people whom I’ve not actually met but whom I feel I know and whom I hold in great esteem. So, mainly, I was scared that they would either hate the poems and reject them (which hurts less coming from strangers), or, worse, that they would hate the poems but feel obligated to hold their noses and accept one out of pity for me. I was thrilled when they accepted these particular three poems. They are poems that are especially important to me, and it still makes me smile whenever I look at the issue of burntdistrict where they appear. I keep it on the worktable where I write.

In your first poem of the series, Jubilations, you start by discussing the commonness of rape in America juxtaposed rather cleverly against rich and pleasant things that are enjoyed. The second, In Which Mary Advises You to Have an Abortion, you discuss another taboo, if those exist in our world, about female sexuality and exerting control over having or not having a child. Do you feel that the current sociopolitical debate about these subjects influenced your desire to write about these in such a powerful way? 

I do feel that the current sociopolitical debates about rape and abortion influenced my writing of “Jubilations” and “In Which Mary Advises You to Have the Abortion.” The poem about Mary, in particular, emerged from the rage I feel about the particular way a woman’s life is dominated by her biology and the particular ways in which (mostly male) politicians and clerics seek to control our biological processes and choices. I read an astonishing article in The New York Times Magazine once about what it means to be a woman in El Salvador, a country where contraception and abortion are 100% illegal, a country ruled by the Catholic Church. In El Salvador, if a woman has an ectopic pregnancy, she is forced to lie in the hospital until her fallopian tube ruptures before she will be given medical treatment. That is what it means to be a woman under the rule of men of God. Think of what Mary would say, if she were middle-aged, and the Holy Spirit asked her to be the Lord’s handmaiden, to have His child only in order that the child be crucified. I often doubt whether, as a grown woman, she would say, Yes.

“Jubilations” grew additionally from my continual struggle to come to terms with the world’s combination of abject suffering and wild delight and the lack of fairness in the distribution of these experiences. I grew up modestly, with financial wobbliness, definitely more of a have-not, but I live and have raised my children in Marin County, one of the wealthiest places in America. I actually ate that $600 dinner, a comically lavish affair, at The Restaurant at Meadowood, the same night people were gunned down at that movie theater in Colorado. Every morning, I run joyfully through the areas my county keeps wild because wealthy people are so good at blocking development, and I struggle with the question of whether it is a greater sin to revel in one’s blessings and privileges or not to.

In the bio on your personal website, it states that you ‘did not complete middle school, high school, or college and have no degrees or credentials of any kind.’ Talk about your success and how unbelievably different that makes you from all the English teacher-poets that many are or would like to be. How do you feel this influences your poetry or do you feel this makes your poetry more authentic?

Well, I definitely am aware that my lack of education places me, firmly, on the outside of the poetry world. Poetry decidedly makes its home in academia. Most poets today earn an MFA, many a Ph.D. Most poets teach. Which means that most poets publishing today have a network of support that I lack—mentors and peers from their MFA programs, colleagues from their universities, etc. I don’t know any other poets trying to break through without even a high school diploma, and it places me at a distinct disadvantage to be doing so. I sometimes think I represent a type of diversity that the magazines publishing my poems ought to tout: Here is a poem from an Uneducated Poet, far more rare than a Lesbian Poet or an African-American Poet! I am not sure that my lack of credentials makes my poems more authentic, though my work is definitely more accessible than the work of many poets writing today. I suspect, however, that even if I had earned a doctorate in creative writing, my work would have remained accessible. I personally prefer poems that do not require a person to have a Ph.D. in order to understand them and be moved by them. I value intimacy in poetry, and clarity. A poetry of the people, by the people, for the people. A poetry regular folks might actually sit down and read.

How do you feel about your success as a writer? Where did you start and how did poetry enter your life?

I feel realistic about my success as a writer. I am very, very pleased to have placed many of my poems in magazines, to have been a finalist in some contests, and to have a few Pushcart nominations under my belt. Getting poetry published is exceedingly difficult, and the slope is steeper for me because of my background. (Or lack thereof.) What I am most proud of is my tenacity, my refusal to quit even in the face of piles and piles of rejection slips, even in the face of really daunting odds. And I am profoundly grateful to the editors who have given my poems a home in their magazines’ pages, who have given my words and me a chance.

Poetry entered my life through the pages of the encyclopedia my family owned when I was a child, and with the help of my older sister and my mother. The first poems I remember hearing or reading were two poems from the encyclopedia that my sister and I memorized when we were four and seven (she must have been in charge of the reading). I wrote my first poem at six when my sister came home from fourth grade with the assignment to write a poem of her own. It had never occurred to me before that I could actually write something, but that evening, I sat at our kitchen table and did just that. Then, when I was nine, my mother bought me a small book of poems as a present, and I memorized “Annabel Lee” and “The Barefoot Boy” and fell in love with “The Tyger.” After that, I was hooked.

How did you feel when you received that first letter of acceptance from your submissions?

I felt elated when I received my first acceptance letter. I was eleven, and we lived in Spokane, Washington, and there was, for a time, a poetry column in The Spokesman Review, our local newspaper. The column was not intended for children, but that did not deter me. I read it every week, and I finally got up enough courage to send my own poem in. The experience of acceptance has not changed at all over the years, actually. It still feels surprising and lovely and exciting.

Your poem You Can Call Me Ma’am discusses the struggles of motherhood and the intensity of the pain and exhaustion along with the report of good results—“more or less.” Are you the speaker in this poem? Where do you go to find the time and space to concentrate on your art away from the busy-ness of being a mother?

I am definitely the speaker in “You Can Call Me Ma’am.” I started working on that poem in reaction to the gratingly popular habit people, especially clerks in stores, have of calling grown women, Miss. The definition of miss is: a young, unmarried woman. Well, at this point, I am a woman who has been married for twenty-one years and has three children, one of whom is over six feet tall. I am forty-six years old. There is no way anyone would ever mistake me for being a young, unmarried woman. I believe Miss is used in this manner in order that all of us older women will thrill at the thought of being taken for a young woman, which serves to boldly underline the fact that, in our culture, nothing worse can happen to a woman than that she should age. This infuriates me to the point that I once told a Nordstrom shoe salesman, “You can call me Ma’am.” This poem consists of all the other things I wanted to tell him.

As for mixing motherhood and writing, it has been difficult for me, and there have been years (at least nine in a row come to mind) when I did not write anything, let alone submit. My children are 19, 17, and 8, and that last, late arrival did slow me down just as I was getting going with my writing again. My youngest is in the third grade now, though, and a couple of years ago, I bought myself a special writing table where I can work looking out my bedroom window onto the garden. I mostly work while my children are at school, though I make submissions and notes for poems during the summers, too. There are mothers who are able to work, write, and raise children, but I salute them, but I don’t seem to be one of them. What I most wanted from my life was to have children and to be at home with them. There is a biological window for those things, so I concentrated on that first. As my nest slowly empties, I am able to focus more and more energy on my writing.

What book or books are currently on your nightstand or desk or tree house or wherever it is you do your reading?

My nightstand is a mess. There are books piled on top of it and beneath it and beside it. My writing table is the same. But I will give you an abridged list:

Der Kleine Prinz

Lynda Hull: Collected Poems

Edward Steichen: A Life in Photographs

Love in the Time of Cholera

The Woman Upstairs

I Am a Memory Come Alive: Autobiographical Writings by Franz Kafka

The Days of Abandonment

The Wolf and the Philosopher

Sacrilege

Gut Gegen Nordwind

Dark Banquet: The Curious Lives of Blood Feeding Creatures

Wolfgang Borchert: Das Gesamtwerk

Lincoln’s Melancholy

Robert Lowell: Collected Poems

The Book Thief

What are you working on now? Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

Right now, I am working on returning to my writing routine. I was blocked from it by a period of unrest during the spring that included treats like a close friend in hospice care and a tax audit, and then summer hit. My children are, since yesterday, all back at their respective schools, and I am back at my desk. I would like to work on developing a group of poems I started about the Catholic Church and its pedophilia problem, and I would like to start some poems about animals that eat blood, and I have a group of four persona poems I want to add to. I normally make at least two submissions each week, and I try to write drafts for two new poems each week. I have my ideas for groups of poems, and I have notes from the summer, but most often, a new poem just arrives from nowhere when I am out running with my dogs. Which is bliss.

 

In addition to burntdistrict, Francesca Bell’s poems have appeared in many journals, including Willow Springs, North American Review, River Styx, 5 AM,Passages North, and The Sun. New work is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, RATTLE, and Gargoyle. Her poems have been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. She was a finalist in the Iron Horse Literary Review’s 2011 chapbook contest and in the Georgetown Review’s 2011 contest. Her manuscript was a finalist in the Poetry Foundation’s 2012 Emily Dickinson First Book Award competition and a semi-finalist for the Philip Levine Poetry Prize. Visit her website to learn more.

Rylea Kos Anderson grew up in Tucson, Arizona and Clutier, Iowa. She is a gypsy explorer and doctoral candidate in neonatal nursing practice, hailing most recently from North Carolina, San Francisco, and the Bronx. If she had spare time, you might find her nose in an e-book or her fingers pointing high in the air in vrksasana.

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Joseph whitley
    October 9, 2015

    I’m a local (Washington poet) grew up in Spokane but live on the western side now. Can you give me some tips to publish? I have two manuscripts never seen. But I’d like them seen.

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