Rudy Francisco is one of the most recognizable names in Spoken Word Poetry. He was born, raised and still resides in San Diego, California. At the age of 21, Rudy completed his B.A in Psychology and decided to continue his education by pursuing a M.A in Organizational Studies. As an artist, Rudy Francisco is an amalgamation of social critique, introspection, honesty and humor. He uses personal narratives to discuss the politics of race, class, gender and religion while simultaneously pinpointing and reinforcing the interconnected nature of human existence. Francisco is the author of two full-length poetry collections, Helium (Button Poetry, 2017) and I’ll Fly Away (Button Poetry, 2020). Rudy was the first spoken word poet to perform on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
In March we connected through a series of emails and then set up a Zoom to chat about the intersection of his writing, performing, politics, and publishing.
Shannon Brady: You have had a prestigious career as a spoken-word poet. You’ve traveled internationally, performed on Jimmy Fallon, and also published books. Your work addresses love, mental health, growth, race, gender, needed social change. Did you start out covering that breadth of subject matter or do you feel like being more renowned you have more of a voice to speak and more of a platform? Are there topics you can broach now that you have an audience and status that you could not address when you were less established?
Rudy Francisco: My first poem was about love. Very shortly after that I was writing a lot about my Blackness. A lot of my work was very political initially. Then one of my friends said, “If I didn’t know you and I came to see you perform all the time, I wouldn’t know anything about you.” I asked him what he meant by that. He told me he knew about my political beliefs, but he didn’t know anything about my story. I didn’t talk about myself, but I didn’t realize that at the time. That sparked me writing “My Honest Poem” and “Seventeen.” I started talking about myself a lot more and then a couple years ago, around the time when the Black Lives Matter Movement was picking up steam, I started speaking more about my political beliefs on social media. For the most part people were supportive, but I also lost followers because there were people who weren’t used to me expressing my political beliefs. I even had a few arguments with some followers because I think at times they started to see me as colorless. They saw me as a creator and a poet, but they didn’t really see me as a Black man. I felt like my poems were reflecting my Blackness, but they were also about very universal experiences, which made my Blackness almost easy to ignore. As I realized that about my work, I started to explore more of my Blackness and political beliefs the past couple years. Even in I’ll Fly Away, there is more about my Blackness, which I am also exploring for my next book, which I’m working on now. I think at one point in time I was concerned with not alienating my audience. I wanted to make sure I was writing poems that people could relate to regardless of their cultural background, but I was also leaving out key parts of who I am. In I’ll Fly Away there’s a poem, “And maybe we all know a ‘Ricky’” which has specific cultural references to shows and movies that have characters of color. If you’re not familiar with those movies, you don’t know what the poem is about. I had to make a decision to be okay with the fact that not everyone would understand it. In the past I was so concerned about making sure everybody understood that I made concessions by leaving out parts of my personality and experience. I’m definitely now making conscious choices to include my experience as much as possible.
SB: It’s powerful that you share all of your story. You also have a strong and likable voice. I’ve used your work with high school students and they find it relatable. It’s powerful to hear from all perspectives and voices. Even though you have tons of acclaim and accolades, your writing voice also presents humility, acceptance of imperfection, and the importance of going beyond perceived limitations. I think that vulnerability and honesty really resonates and creates a relatable voice. How did you develop your voice?
RF: The first year I was on a Slam Team, I made two teams—San Diego and Hollywood. For San Diego it was their first time making it to National and they supported me being part of the Hollywood Team because they were two-time National Champions and the team to be on. San Diego wanted me to learn from Hollywood and bring it back. One of the first things my coach Shihan Van Clief told me was, “All of your poems are so positive all the time. You write superhero poems. You write about trying to save the world. What about the parts of you that are struggling? What about the parts of you that you don’t like so much? You have to write about those things too or else you’re doing a disservice to yourself. Don’t take just the best parts of yourself and write about those. That’s not realistic or genuine. What are you struggling with?” He inspired me to dig deeper and show that I’m not okay all the time. I fell in love with the craft because it was so honest. I felt like if I wasn’t being honest then I was doing a disservice not only to the audience but to myself. I also have a good friend Javon Johnson and a lot of his poems are about how being human is hard. He has a way of leaving some of his poems open at the end, saying he’s not sure, and that’s also very honest and something I’ve been exploring. I don’t have to have it all figured out to write about it. I can write about how it’s confusing. That’s also a valid perspective.
SB: It sounds like you’ve had a lot of good mentors along the years.
RF: Absolutely. Without my mentors I don’t know where I’d be.
SB: Being as established as you are now, do you still have mentors? Or has it switched to you being the mentor for other people?
RF: Both. I still will call Javon and Shihan pretty often for advice. So they still mentor me to this day. And there are about ten people that I mentor. I also make myself available to my poetry community. I have people who call me for advice and questions about publishing or entering into a space where they can do poetry full time. I try to make myself available to them just like my mentors have been available to me.
SB: What a kind cycle of connection in your poetry circle. I sense a lot of connection in your work too. I’m not sure if this is the right word, but I’d say there’s something sort of spiritual in your work that champions the belief that there’s something beyond the here and now. Maybe it’s that your I’ll Fly Away title reminds me of a Patsy Cline song my grandma liked. It’s such a beloved gospel song with many versions, so the title hit me. Is that intentional or is something I’m just reading into it?
RF: That’s very intentional. All of my titles are about transcending your limitations in some way, shape, or form. Helium allows you to defy gravity at least for a little while. I called it Helium because at that time writing was an escape for me, but it’s a temporary escape. While I’m writing and focused, nothing else matters. I’m not worried about anything else in those moments and it’s like a vacation from everything else going on in my life. I’ll Fly Away is the only song me, my dad, and my mom all like. We all like very different versions. My mom likes Patsy Cline’s version, my dad likes Jim Reeves’s, and I like Kanye’s version on College Dropout. The song is all about how no matter how difficult things get on earth, there’s a place where there’s no suffering. It’s going to get better. That’s always something I’ve carried with me, the idea that no matter how hard things are now, they’re going to get better. I’ll Fly Away is an homage to that. I am a strong believer in God, but I don’t subscribe to any religion. I do think about God and spirituality fairly often and it kind of bleeds into my work.
SB: I appreciated how you varied the poem styles and lengths in I’ll Fly Away. It gave breath to the reading. As far as page and performance writing, is there one that you started with?
RF: I began writing more for performance. I came across an episode of HBO’s Def Poetry, and I fell in love with it. I had been introduced to poetry in high school but it wasn’t anything that spoke to me. It wasn’t until I saw performance poetry that I thought, “Wow, this is something I want to be a part of.” So I came into poetry as a performer, but I found the page later on. Once I became involved with the community, I found there were people that were doing both. I had a friend who was really into page poetry and he turned me onto more contemporary poets, like John Murillo’s Up Jump the Boogie. I thought it was amazing. I realized it wasn’t that I didn’t like page poetry. I just hadn’t been exposed to the kind of page poetry that grabbed me. I read other modern writers too and really enjoyed what they were doing on the page. After that I could go back and look at older poetry and see what they were trying to do and develop an appreciation for it. Initially it just didn’t grab me.
SB: I first came across you performing your poem “A lot like you” online and was happy to see it in this collection on the page. I noticed that the ending was different, and it made me wonder how you approach writing for performance versus writing for the page?
RF: I try different things—mash-ups, rhymes, repetition—and then go with what feels most natural. Writing for performance I explain things over and over. I paint the scene. I think about what questions will people have—who, what, when, where? I give them a lot of context so they can understand what I am saying. But for the page, people have the opportunity to read it over and can fill in the story for themselves, so I need to explain less. For the page I also think less about syllable count and how it sounds because people will read it at their own pace. My writing is often shorter for the page than for performance. I think there’s a difference between watching a three-minute performance and reading a three-minute performance. Especially when I’m putting together a manuscript, I don’t want it to all be three-minute poems because that feels exhausting for the reader. So I like to put in short poems interspersed throughout the book so that it feels like the book is moving along and not dragging.
SB: Your book came out in December. I’m not sure when you submitted the manuscript, since the publication process can span many months, but I wonder how or if this past wild year—pandemic, Black Lives Matter activism, political unrest—impacted your work, either in I’ll Fly Away or in general?
RF: A lot of the things that are happening right now have also been happening for a long time. While it seems timely, it’s also very historical. I went back in and added a couple of things, but for the most part the book was written before the pandemic. It took me about a year and a half. After a year of writing something every day, I went back and took a look at what story I was telling, what poems were tangents and could be taken out. I had the idea for the definitions for a while. I just didn’t know how to implement it initially. I’m fascinated with language and etymology and always look up the origin of words, why we use certain words, and where they come from. My parents being from Belize, they speak a language called Garífuna. A lot of times my mom would ask what something meant in English, and I would have to figure out what to say. Also, my daughter’s mother’s side of the family is from Eritrea, a country in Africa. I spend a lot of time with their family. My daughter’s mother’s mother would ask, “What is the word for this?” Sometimes there wouldn’t be one. There are words in other languages for certain emotions or behaviors and we don’t have one in English. I started thinking about it and marked a few things that should be words in English. I looked up Latin and Greek roots and made new words. I was speaking to my Egyptian friend and when she says thank you she says it over and over again because English has only one phrase, and it doesn’t seem to be able to grasp the emotion behind how grateful she is. She told me she asked her grandmother for tea and the literal English translation is yes, but it really meant, “Of course, I would give you my eyes if you asked for them.” I think about how amazing that is. So that’s where that element of definitions in the book came from. There were so many emotions I was feeling and things I’d seen that didn’t have a direct word.
SB: I love that definition of yes! I also appreciated your definitions and how they made me think about the feelings and concepts you raised. Some of them created political awareness, which made me wonder what role you think poetry and performance have in social activism and social movements?
RF: Social movements are fought on multiple fronts. You have your people who are out protesting. You have your people who are creating legislation around social justice. You have your academics who are writing and teaching about social justice. And then you have your artists who are writing poems about social justice and songs, and creating paintings around social justice. When we talk about any sort of movement, there are multiple facets of it. There is also crossover—poets who are protesting, people who are writing legislation who are also protesting, people who are teaching who are also protesting. The most impactful social movements are the ones where people are participating in multiple ways. Art is critical to the movement. Writing poems about what is happening in our society is very important. There are people who may not watch the news or be at a university, but who may come across a poem and be impacted in an unexpected way that shifts their thinking.
SB: You did that with your erasure poetry and observations too. By removing words you uncovered a completely different message and were able to highlight inherent corruption and injustice, such as with your “Miranda Rights (Erasure)” redaction, “You have the right to remain silent. You can be used against you in a court of law. You cannot afford an attorney.” It was like reading hidden messages.
RF: That was new for me. I was experimenting with different forms, trying to expand as a writer. I started with erasure but have also been experimenting with golden shovels, odes, cleave poems. I was looking for ways to challenge myself.
SB: Is it fun for you to find new forms? Is that part of what keeps it interesting and keeps you writing?
RF: Definitely. Especially in a time where we can’t go out and do performances or competition. There are virtual opportunities, but it’s not the same as having it in person. It’s been a chance to step back and see what I could do to sharpen my skills, and practicing forms has really helped me.
SB: Do you have a certain writing schedule or is it based more on what you feel?
RF: I try to end the day with writing and start the day with writing—right before bed and right after I wake up. It doesn’t always happen, but I’ve been trying to do it lately. It’s both scheduling time and not forcing it. What I do is show up. I’ll wake up and sit in front of my computer for 30 minutes and sometimes writing shows up and sometimes it doesn’t.
SB: Showing up is such a big part of anything we do. I noticed that “The poem where I lie about everything” seemed to bookend “My Honest Poem” from your previous collection, Helium. Playing with that idea of truth, lies, perspectives, how are you experiencing that in your work?
RF: It’s another thing about being vulnerable. I wanted to write a poem that was kind of like “My Honest Poem,” and in a lot of ways it is an honest poem because I tell you I’m lying in the beginning. It has a lot of honesty but in an indirect way. It was a different way to package honesty. I wanted to capture the essence of an honest poem, but in a way that’s unconventional.
SB: You clearly think a lot about form and placement in your poems and in the book. You have poems about love, mental health, politics, and in the final section there are more family members, including your daughter Zoe. The last section had a lot of sweetness to it. What was your process like organizing your book?
RF: I wanted to end the book with positivity and things that I haven’t really spoken about. There’s the poem “Uwani” about my sister. I’ve never mentioned her in my poetry before. There’s a poem for my brother. I wanted to have that section about my family because they are such a cornerstone in my work and they’ve shaped so much of the way I operate and look at the world. Usually I mention them in acknowledgements, but I wanted to include them in my work this time. I also wanted the section about my daughter because I’ve been writing a lot of poems about her lately. I became a father about the time when Helium came out and it was difficult to write poems about my daughter in the beginning, in the thick of it. I’m a very reflective writer. I often don’t write in the moment but reflect back on the moment. Now my daughter is five, and I’ve had a lot of moments to reflect on and incorporate Zoe into my work. In the event that something happens to me, this is what’s going to be left behind. I want her to be able to look back on my work and say, “My dad really thought about me.”
SB: That’s a powerful legacy to leave her. Does Zoe understand that you’re a poet?
RF: I don’t think she completely gets it yet. My nephews watch my Youtube videos and whenever there’s a new one, they know. My daughter will watch with them, so she’s seen what I do, but I don’t think she really understands what it is yet.
SB: As with your daughter, you incorporate real moments, people, and social events in your work, but you also question how things could be different and create new options—like with the new words, erasure, and your poem, “Alternative ending for the black movies I can’t stop watching.” You created options that show “‘Our life is more important than our death’.” Your work shows both how things could be different and how they are wrong. This dips back into what we talked about with social movements, but more specifically, do you think art both imitates life and calls for change?
RF: I think art should imitate life. When we look at popular art with Black movies, there are many about tragedy, which I think is important of course. But also, Black people, we dance, we have parties, we celebrate. I would like art to represent what the holistic experience of Blackness is. I don’t necessarily see it as a huge change agent. Having art that represents us is amazing and it feels good, yet having a movie about Black joy while Black people are still subject to random and arbitrary violence every day of their lives doesn’t necessarily change the Black experience in America. That’s just one of the facets of the experience. It’s also important that we change legislation and improve the protection of people of color. Still, having art that represents us positively is definitely something that helps. I think it helps the psyche. But it’s not the end all be all. Having more movies about Black joy isn’t necessarily something that’s going to stop police from killing us.
SB: Right, or give more protection or change access.
RF: That comes from changing the structure of America, and I don’t think a movie is going to do that or a TV show. But it does feel good, which is also important. I think it’s important to feel good and I support it, even though the representation won’t change the fundamental problem.
SB: I wonder how much more exposure and people living in more diverse communities would help.
RF: Exposure is really important. A lot of times people hate a particular group because of what they’ve been taught and because they don’t know anybody from the particular group that they’ve heard about so much. It’s a complicated issue and there’s no one right answer to it. I think diversity is important, but even above diversity, inclusion is important. It doesn’t make sense to take steps to have a diverse population if that population is not going to feel valued and appreciated in whatever space you are putting them in. Say with diversity initiatives in companies. They want a diverse population, but what is being done to make sure that population feels comfortable and important and wants to be there? I think that is much more important than just having a bunch of people who look different and from different backgrounds.
SB: Being valued and validated is huge. Within the Slam community do you feel like it’s diverse and inclusive?
RF: It’s diverse but it’s not as inclusive as it could be. We have a pretty diverse population but in speaking with members of the Trans community, Black community, people who identify as women, we do have a lot that we still need to figure out. Also, our community isn’t a monolith. It varies from city to city. There are some cities that are very homogenous and have very little diversity and other cities that have a lot. There’s a whole gambit. So there is a lot of work to be done, but there are some awesome things that are happening. There are strides that our population and people from whatever background will feel comfortable, but we do have a long way to go for where it needs to be.
SB: It sounds like there’s an awareness, which is crucial for any change.
RF: Yeah, it’s definitely moving forward.
SB: What advice or tips do you have for writers who are wanting to find their voice and then share their work with a wider audience whether it’s spoken word or on the page?
RF: My biggest piece of advice is to tell your story. I know at times we see other writers and other performers and we think about how we could be more like them. We see a lot of people who sound and write like Buddy Wakefield or Joshua Bennett or Jasmine Mans or Andrea Gibson. A lot of people try to mimic the style they enjoy, which is fine, but what’s even more important is picking out some of the things the people they like do and figuring out how to make it their own. Your voice is necessary. We already have the other voices, but there’s only one of you. So let’s hear you. What’s your story and how do you want to tell it?
SB: The pandemic has changed the way people gather and learn. Are you doing any teaching or do you have recommendations for this time we’re in?
RF: I’ve been teaching a course online with Awful Good Writers . They’re an organization that contacts poets to teach four-week workshops, and they offer a lot at a time. Button Poetryis also doing a workshop right now and may be doing more. Write About Now Poetry has online open mics. There are online options now because that’s what we have. Once things open up more, I’d recommend reaching out to what’s going on in their own community. That’s how I started. I went to open mics and Slams in my community.
SB: Thanks so much. Those are helpful suggestions. What are the best ways for readers to stay in touch with your work and events?
RF: If you put my name, Rudy Francisco, into most of the platforms, you’ll find something.I also have a website. I am more active on Instagram than anything else, so that would be a good avenue.
SB: Do you have any plans for upcoming online performances, or are you planning to wait it out until things open up?
RF: I’m sort of waiting it out. I may do another online performance and will announce it on all my social media. Mainly I’m taking advantage of the time to write. Normally I’m traveling two weeks every month and I’m not writing then, so this has been an unexpected and productive break. As of now I’m focusing on my writing, so hopefully when things open back up and I start touring again, I’ll have new material.