Francesca Bell is an American poet and translator. Her work appears widely in journals such as New Ohio Review, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Mid-American Review, and Prairie Schooner. She lives with her family in Novato, California. Red Hen Press will publish her first collection, Bright Stain, in May, 2019.
Lisa Higgs: Your debut collection, Bright Stain, is a hard-hitting commentary on want and—like its title—is a dichotomy offering an oftentimes unsettling look at what is bright in our world and what is a stain. What interests you in the darker sides of desire as a subject for your poetry?
Francesca Bell: For as long as I can remember, my attention has been drawn to the darker sides of humanity, to our wounds and our deficits, our broken parts, and to the aching hungers that drive us. Physical desire, of course, has its deeply biological roots, its hormonal currents, but it is tangled and caught on our keening emotional want, on what sometimes feels like our existential lack. I am helplessly drawn to that intersection. It is the place, I think, where most human beings act out their deepest loneliness.
Actual badness, to the point of criminality, is another topic that holds particular fascination for me. What are the forces that compel and propel violence? What wounds lead to the eventual wounding of others? How different is it, really, inside the mind of a violent criminal? How much of that violence exists inside each of us, inside me?
LH: Sexuality is seen at its most negative in a series of poems detailing abuse inflicted on children by Catholic priests, and your poems include men who are not conflicted when taking what they want. Yet sexuality is also celebrated in Bright Stain—particularly in poems that show women unapologetic about desire. What drove you to grapple with desire, both at its lowest, most destructive levels and at its most affirming highs?
FB: The truth is, for me, those poems and their subjects all have as their underlying, animating force human hunger, loneliness, and isolation. I think desire comes from our aching, human hollowness (physical, emotional, spiritual), and it drives us toward joyful coupling but also, when twisted, toward predatory behaviors.
LH: Bright Stain also addresses mental health in poems like “Field Trips” and “Rules of Engagement” and men wounded by war and incarceration in poems like “Benediction” and “Souvenir.” How essential was it for you to incorporate these types of unseen wounds in your collection?
FB: It was absolutely essential for me to incorporate these types of wounds in my collection. Hidden human wounds are one of my deepest obsessions, I suppose in part because I feel that they can explain so much of our behavior. My life has been touched and shaped by issues of mental illness (my own and that of loved ones); I have been close to a few men traumatized by the violence of war; and a close member of my family served fifteen years in prison for murder, years those of us who love him served along with him. These are issues that loom large in my life. For me, also, it feels essential to write and publish poems about these topics because they have a chance of reaching other people who might be coping, in isolation or in secrecy, with similar circumstances.
LH: Religion echoes positively and negatively in many of the poems in Bright Stain. What place does faith have in your life—writing or otherwise?
FB: Since I was a little girl, I have felt a tremendous yearning toward God. Not so much toward religion, but toward God. I’m very suspicious of religion, in part because so much of humans’ deeply ingrained misogyny and bigotry has been undergirded and expressed by major religions; in part because once humans identify as a member of one group or another, bad things invariably ensue; and in part because I simply do not believe that humans are capable of understanding something so large as God. I do a lot of arguing with God and questioning of God in my poems, and, also, a lot of criticizing of religion. But I take a great deal of comfort in prayer, in working to live in conversation with God, and I try to keep to a daily meditation practice. For me, this involves moving meditation in the form of trail running. I find resting meditation excruciating. I know that many people, including members of my own family, find me ridiculous for daring to believe in any sort of a god, but that’s okay with me. The mysteries of this world and this life are too great for us to ever understand. I will never know if there is a god or if I have come anywhere close to an understanding of God, but that doesn’t stop me from my blind stumbling toward what feels to me like a source of comfort and light.
LH: How you ordered your collection, poem to poem, section to section, seems of utmost importance to you as a poet. Many times, a central image from one poem is subtly used in a subsequent poem—like the drowning in “Flailing/Not Flailing” and “In Persona Christi,” though there are many examples. While every writer benefits from happy accidents, you are too consistent in this technique to not assume a great deal of time went into the ordering and revising of this collection. Can you tell us a bit about your process of bringing Bright Stain together?
FB: You cannot know how ironic it is that anyone would ask me this question. I am actually a person who has literally never read a collection of poetry from front to back (unless it is a memoir or novel in verse) and who had absolutely no idea how to cobble a books of poems together. I didn’t even have an opinion about the ordering of a book of poetry. I had literally never paid any attention to this issue. When I read poetry, and when I write it, the unit of measure is never the book. It is always the individual poem. Always. So, when I began to suspect and hope that I might have enough strong poems for a book, I was completely flummoxed. I remembered reading a wonderful article in Poets & Writers by April Ossmann, and I looked her up online and discovered that she works as a freelance editor. She was instrumental, every step of the way, in not only helping me to polish, select and order the poems in my book, but also in helping me to gain enough self-confidence to dare to send the manuscript out and enough grit to withstand many years of rejection. My favorite of April’s techniques is what she calls lyric ordering of a manuscript, that subtle linking you mention of each poem to the poem before it. I love how it creates a sort of echoing music that plays in the background of the book.
LH: Your collection has first-person lyrics and narratives alongside persona poems in the first person sometimes attributed (“Dreaming Helen Keller”) and other times not (priest poems). As such, readers cannot assume that the “I” of your most personal poems is in fact you. How direct a line from poet to narrator exists in this collection? Does a poet have any onus to shed light on how much or little she is held within the first-person point of view?
FB: I’ve thought a lot about how to answer this question. I keep remembering an article I read years ago by Christopher Dickey, James Dickey’s son. He wrote about being asked which character in Deliverance was his father, on the assumption that the novelist had written himself into his book, and having to answer that every single character in that book was James Dickey. I feel that way about my poems, even my persona poems. When I write a persona poem, I am trying, in so much as it is humanly possible, to fully inhabit another person, to use my greatest powers of empathy to actually move into another’s experience and temporarily become them. It’s what I find exhilarating about writing and reading persona poems.
As for poems that are not efforts to write from another person’s perspective—the majority of my poems—I will say that I consider myself a confessional poet, and I am a very literal poet. I tend to indulge in little Dickinsonian slant in my writing, and my work is highly autobiographical. I don’t feel it is necessarily a poet’s obligation to say so, but I also feel no need to be coy. I am not ashamed of my humanity. I come to poetry, both when I read it and when I write it, searching for human connection, for intimate emotional contact. I think that this intimacy, this small vacation from our usual distance and desolation, is a gift confessional poetry can bestow.
LH: I could be completely wrong, but it seems to me that “confessional poetry” is not as widely respected in the poetry world today as it has been in the past and that younger poets in particular go to great lengths to not be seen as confessional poets, to not be seen as relying on their own autobiography as subject matter. While amazing confessional poets are still writing today, and I might argue that all poems in one way or another are about the poet as much as whatever subject they are writing about, why do you think poets might avoid strong correlations between “I” and the poet?
FB: I also feel that confessional poetry is not widely respected in the poetry world today, which I think is a shame. The poetry that has meant the most to me, the poetry that has helped me through hard times, the poetry I have carried through my life like a companion, has been what I would classify as confessional poetry. Particularly the work of Anne Sexton when I was very young and Len Roberts more recently. I think that poets today make a concerted effort to not be seen as writing merely from their own experience because they don’t want to be looked down on. Particularly women poets, whose work, if autobiographical, may deal with subjects such as child-bearing and child-rearing, already greatly disrespected topics. I personally choose to disregard trends and rules when I write. Currently, I believe one is supposed to write what one knows but not from one’s own perspective and certainly not from the perspective of another and not so that it makes transparent sense. This seems like a very tall order. My advice is this: Write what you want to write, about what you can’t turn away from, in the style that best serves your intentions, in the voice that you have.
LH: Not everyone I interview has a biography note that leads to questions, but I am very curious about how you arrived at poetry given an educational background decidedly not common among today’s MFA and PhD poets. Bright Stain shows an obvious education in poetic sensibility and technique. How did you gain that knowledge, and what value might come from not following a “normal” path to becoming a published poet in America today?
FB: I think there are two ways to learn to write poetry. Well, three. A person can learn by receiving instruction, by reading a lot of poetry, and by writing a lot of poetry. Although I have no degrees, I did attend some college, and I did gain some workshop experience there. I have also taken private workshops here and there over the years and have paid a few people for professional editing advice. I feel, though, that I started to learn to write poetry much earlier, when I was four and my sister was seven, and we memorized poems from our family’s encyclopedia and recited them to each other. I learned an immense amount from reading and rereading the book of selected classic poems my mother gave me when I was nine. Finding Anne Sexton’s books at our local library when I was twelve and devouring all of them had a profound impact on my eventual writing (and on my life). All the poets I’ve read have literally been my teachers. I personally learn best by doing and have learned a tremendous amount from practicing writing poetry, from making mistakes and falling short, from trying and failing on the page.
I can think of no value to not following a usual path to becoming a published poet in America today. If what you most want of life is to become a successful, widely published, American poet, get at least your MFA and work hard to develop and sustain relationships with your teachers and your peers. Join and enthusiastically participate in the system. Nothing will replace that institutional support. Nothing can help you as much as those relationships and connections can help you.
If you need to earn an actual living while being a poet, I think there is enormous value in choosing to work in a field other than academia. We have created a glut of MFA and PhD poets at a time when colleges are leaning heavily (and grotesquely) on the adjunct business model. Adjunct professors, particularly English professors whose work load is heavier than that of professors in other disciplines who needn’t assign and grade a lot of papers, very often earn less than minimum wage, while shuttling among a few different schools in order to cobble together enough paid hours to live. Adjunct professors commonly earn as little as $20,000 per year, with no benefits of any kind. For comparison, if you spend a few years at Costco, you can work your way up to earning $50,000 per year with health, dental, and vision benefits, plus a pension plan. You won’t have to grade any papers after work either.
As far as the actual writing of poetry, I think there is profound value in living and working outside the system. There is an almost intoxicating freedom in writing in isolation, in having the luxury of hearing only your own voice in your head when you sit down to work, in being completely on the outside. I’m particularly relieved that I’ve never had to worry about being inoffensive enough to be granted tenure. I’ve worked doggedly to earn a name for myself, to gain some measure of entrance to the poetry world, and I am grateful for the progress I’ve made. Everything having to do with publishing and promoting your work is vastly easier when you can rest on the cushions of relationships and reputation, but it’s vastly easier to write when no one knows you. It’s easier to take risks and to tell the truth when you are alone.
LH: You are also a translator—what drew you to translation, and are you currently in the midst of any translation projects? Do you have any international poets to recommend to us—ones we may not yet be familiar with but who deserve some attention?
FB: I was an exchange student at fourteen, and I was blessed to learn enough German to be able to read both German and English versions of works of literature. Once you can read more than one language, you are suddenly able to see the problems of translation in bold relief, the weaknesses and imperfections of every possible word choice, and the many different directions a translator can take. Translating is like piecing together a puzzle that lacks a singular, completely correct solution though it can be put together in infinitely incorrect ways. For some reason, this appeals to me, and I had long felt compelled to try my hand at it. I began translating four and a half years ago, first co-translating the poems of Palestinian women from Arabic, and then translating German poems on my own.
I am deep into a project now that hopefully will last the rest of my life. A year ago, I discovered the work of a contemporary German poet named Max Sessner, and I have been wildly translating his poems every since. I have placed twenty-nine of them for publication, and I will soon finish a translation of his first book. Max is not much older than I am, and I love his work so much that I plan to force him to keep writing so I can keep translating him until we both die.
The international poet I am most enthusiastic about right now, other than Max Sessner, is Sinan Antoon. He is an Iraqi poet and novelist who lives in the U.S. and teaches at NYU. My favorite of his novels, The Corpse Washer, is staggeringly beautiful and haunting and reads like poetry, and he has a truly wonderful book of poems out in English called Baghdad Blues. Antoon is unusual in that he is fluent enough in both Arabic and English that he can translate in both directions. He translates his own novels and poems from their original Arabic into English, and he’s an energetic translator of others’ work as well.
LH: In the final section of Bright Stain, you mention you are in your early forties. How long have you attempted to publish poetry and a full-length collection? Do you have any advice or encouragement for others who are writing without immediate access to recommendations from top professors for publications, grants, and other writing opportunities?
FB: I am actually fifty-one by now. I wrote the poem you reference, “You Can Call Me Ma’am” almost ten years ago. This illustrates how very long a game poetry is!
Though I had written poetry on and off since I was very young, I only started sending my work out in earnest fifteen years ago, when I was thirty-six. That whole first year of submitting, I received only flat rejections. I did not get even one encouraging word from an editor until, God bless her, Stellasue Lee accepted a poem for Rattle, and that gave me a start. After several years of writing and submitting, I had published and written enough poems that I decided to hire April Ossmann to help me create a manuscript for my first book. I sent that first manuscript out, with very few changes along the way, for five full years. It was a finalist or semi-finalist in some big contests, and it came very close in the open submission period of one coveted publisher, but, mostly, it failed. About twenty times every year for five years. For those of you too depressed by now to do the math, that’s about a hundred times. I finally decided to scrap that original manuscript. I printed out the poems from it and many poems I had written during the years I was trying to place it, and I threw them all up into the air and then spread them out on my bedroom floor and started over. Bright Stain is the manuscript that grew of that effort. I only submitted it once, to Red Hen Press. I had tried and failed at one of their contests years before. This time, I sent it as a regular submission, and this time, they said yes. That was more than two years ago. By the time I hold my first book in my hands, it will have been seven and a half years since I first emailed April Ossmann my stack of poems. I am proud and amazed that I was willing to fail so many times without giving up.
My advice to writers who are writing and submitting from the outside, without the institutional and social support of a writing program and a teaching position and mentors and colleagues, is, first, work hard to learn to float your own emotional boat. If you seek publication, you will likely fail. A lot. Not only is the path steeper and rougher absent the many favors mentors and colleagues and writing programs can grant to smooth a writer’s journey, but your failures will likely be faced alone, surrounded by people who don’t care much about literature and who don’t understand the long odds you face. Cultivate an independent, irrational belief in your own work and lean on it. Don’t rely on acceptances or other people’s opinions for proof of the value of your work. Let your word be the final word on that.
My second piece of advice is to find ways to develop relationships with people in the writing world. I am here to tell you that this is possible even if most of your writing life, like mine, has been spent at your suburban kitchen counter. Engage with editors who publish your work. Take local workshops and classes. Make a project of befriending local poetry peers. Use social media to introduce yourself to the online writing community and the online writing community to your work.
More than anything, my advice is: Fail big, fail often, and don’t give up.