Friday, March 15, 2019

Interview with Francesca Bell on her poetry book Bright Stain

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.

Bright Stain (Red Hen Press, 2019) is not a book for the faint of heart. In Bell’s debut work, the reader will need to brace herself not only in regard to subject matter, but also to Bell’s deft lines, images, and unexpected narratives. Through her well-crafted poems, the reader hears from a variety of personas, from the prison-worker, the rapist, to the victim of an abusive Catholic priest. However, most predominant is the voice of a female speaker who transforms from puberty into raw, joyful sexual abandon, to a mother who embraces her aging and wonderfully sensual body.

The body is a living thing in this collection, and both its joys and its ugly parts are on display; nothing is held back. Woven throughout the poems is the packed image of the snake—a snake whose “generous jaw and steady squeeze” free a frozen mouse “into the great, gliding goodness of snake,” to snakes found in a worship service, to the snake shedding its skin, not unlike a woman “who slips from / the stockings between / her and pleasure.” Playing underneath Bell’s poems is a repositioning of what is holy and what is not through the mix of the erotic and the ugly, the reverent and the profane, always asking the reader to look again. I’m both drawn to and in turn wide-eyed at Bell’s poems. The collection is best summed up by the ending of the first stanza in “Woman Singing in Church,” “we are pummeled by it, laid open / on the blade of its loveliness.”

I had the pleasure of interviewing Francesca Bell after reading Bright Stain, and below are her responses.

—Rosemary Royston

RR: I clearly remember the first poem of yours that I read, “I Long to Hold the Poetry Editor’s Penis in My Hand.”  I related, I laughed aloud, thought how bold then logged onto Facebook to see if you were there so I could friend you. In one of our earlier email exchanges, you shared how you were having trouble finding a press, as your work is, well, bold! Tell me how long it took you to find a home for your collection  how you stayed true and did not dilute your work  and share any advice to other writers on the process.

FB: I’m so glad that you asked this question. It took me a long time to find a home for my collection. I circulated a different version of this book for five years. It had several titles, including this one, and it contained some of the same poems. It was a finalist or semi-finalist several times in some big contests and came very close to being accepted during the open submission period at a top press. Because of these near-successes, I didn’t change the manuscript much for those five years. By the time five years had passed, I had a second manuscript put together, but I was bone-weary from five years of failure and decided to scrap them both and start over. I printed both manuscripts out and literally threw the poems all over the floor until they were completely mixed together, and then I started to pull together something new. Kate Gale at Red Hen Press is the only person I sent this new manuscript, and five months later, she accepted it. That was a little over two years ago. From the time I first submitted a full-length manuscript to the moment when I hold my finished book in my hands, almost eight and half years will have passed.

On three occasions, I received feedback from presses where I had submitted my manuscript, and all three times two things were criticized (sometimes sharply): my subject matter and my tone. One press suggested that they would like to work with me if I would heavily revise the manuscript to address my subject matter and my tone. These three critiques served to stiffen my resolve immensely. They helped me come to terms with what it is about my poems that makes them my poems. I think that a writer has to beware the danger of revising herself right out of her work. My weird, dark subject matter and my bold, harsh tone are the traces of DNA that I leave in the world when I write. What I bring to the literary table is my willingness to look at and write starkly about things that make other people uncomfortable. Not everyone likes it, but that is my gift.

My advice to writers on the process of trying to place a book is first of all to manage your expectations. You are playing what for almost everyone is a long game. There are some people who fit very well into the current styles and trends in poetry, and their books are sometimes quickly snapped up. But there are many more people who, like me, need to settle in for a years-long campaign. Second, I advise people to learn to recognize what in your work is inherently yours and to mercilessly stand by it. Third, I wish that I had known, when I was drowning in manuscript rejections, that someday I would be filled with gratitude and relief that no one accepted my book during those five years I submitted it. Because I ended up with exactly the right press and exactly the right editor at what feels like exactly the right time. It may take you several years, as it did me, to find the press and the editor that feel like home, that literally change your life.

RR: In “In Plain Sight,” the speaker states, “I believe in brazenness,” and while there is always a separation between the speaker and the poet, I believe it would be safe to say that you, too, feel the same way, due to the subject matter and themes within this collection. Talk about what inspired you to write the poems that specifically mix both the erotic and the ugly, the reverent and the profane and/or poems whose speaker is not one with which the reader will feel sympathy toward.

FB: Ever since I was a child, I have been very interested in the concept of opposites like goodness and badness, characteristics we assign to people singularly, as if a person can be wholly one thing or another. I believe that if you are human, you have the capacity for goodness, but you also have the capacity for badness. In spades. One thing I enjoy about writing persona poems is that it allows me the opportunity to explore human darkness intimately. I believe that one cannot understand what it is to be human without looking at the darkness and violence and hatred and fear every human carries inside them.

RR: As I reflected on your poems (i.e. “In Due Time”) and who your literary ancestors are, I immediately thought of Robert Browning, specifically his dramatic monologue, “Porphyria’s Lover,” where the speaker strangles his lover with her own hair. I also think of Anais Nin (and her no-holds-barred diaries), although not a poet, and the poems on motherhood by Beth Ann Fennelly. You, Nin, Fennelly, all dive deeply through your work into what it is to be a woman in this world, specifically in both sexual and sensual ways. Who would you say your literary ancestors are and why?

FB: I had never read “Porphyria’s Lover.” My God, what an astonishing poem!

My literary ancestors (most still living) are Anne Sexton, Marguerite Duras, Louise Gl├╝ck, Sharon Olds, Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass, and Len Roberts. These are writers I return to again and again, writers whose work has felt like a granting of permission to me.

RR: I have to ask this, do you have pet snakes? Snakes are a common image in your collection from the opening and closing poems, to being metaphors for much more. Talk about this juxtaposition of the serpent  a harbinger of evil in Christianity, but far from evil in your collection.

FB: I am not currently living with any snakes, but my son, who is grown now, is crazy for reptiles. While he was growing up, we shared our home with too many creatures to list, but here’s a sampling: anacondas, false water cobras, ball pythons, a Dumeril’s boa, beaded lizards, a carpet python, a blue-tongued skink, a 4-foot long Argentinian lizard called a tegu, multiple cockroach colonies, and various kinds of tarantulas. I was a very active and enthusiastic participant in (almost) all of this husbandry. One of the most moving experiences of my life was watching my son’s ball python incubate her clutch of eggs.

I believe that our human tendency to associate snakes with evil likely stems from a deep-seated, survival-enhancing fear of envenomation. Humans and our ancestors have co-evolved with snakes for millions of years, and those who were vigilant enough to avoid a deadly or maiming bite would have produced more offspring. So, although I have a fascination and fondness for snakes, I can certainly understand people’s almost inherent fear of them. What fascinates me about the Christian notion of snakes being evil is how closely it is tied to the Christian notion of women being evil and particularly of women being the source of sexual evil, whether a woman is herself sexual or whether she is to blame for inspiring sexuality in a man.

In my poetry, I concern myself often with badness, both real and perceived. Hunger is often feared and perceived as badness, particularly sexual appetite, particularly female sexual appetite. Snakes, with their ability to swallow whole prey of astonishing girth, make a fantastic symbol of great, frightening appetite. But they also make a fantastic symbol of joyous, freeing appetite.

RR: Concerning form, your poems have no fluff, utilize alliteration and imagery in compelling ways, and are sparse yet full of details, often in narrative form. Tell me about your revision process  how one of your poems looks early on, and how it arrives at its final iteration.

FB: My poems tend to look on the page, early on, similar to how they look when finished. Not that I don’t revise—I revise quite a bit. But I tend to start by thinking about something for a long time, then riffing on it in one or more free writes in my notebook before I ever sit down to make an actual draft of a poem. By the time I am drafting, the form of a poem seems to be already pretty clear. I adjust and alter, but I rarely make a huge formatting change from what takes shape as I finally write my draft. As to content, my revision process and actually my writing process rely heavily on me reading things out loud over and over and then adjusting what seems to snag me. I adjust for clarity and specificity of meaning, for sound, for what I think of as turning the volume up on tension and drama. When I write a poem, I am trying to find a way to craft the poem in order for it to have the greatest and most powerful access possible to readers’ emotions.

Rosemary R. Royston lives with her family in the foothills of the Southern Appalachian mountains. She holds a AB in English from UGA, and an MFA in Writing from Spalding University. Her poetry has been published or is forthcoming in Split Rock Review, Southern Poetry Review, Appalachian Heritage, STILL, KUDZU, *82 Review, and other journals. She is the author of the chapbook, Splitting the Soil (Finishing Line Press), and a county representative for the North Carolina Writers’ Network. She teaches poetry courses in both the college setting and in the continuing learning setting. Her review and interviews here focus on poetry that is grounded in nature, the grit of life, and often the experiences of women (with a slight bias towards the narrative). Previous book reviews have been published in Prairie Schooner, Appalachian Heritage, and STILL.