Meg Tuite interview with Francesca Bell
Francesca Bell’s language is potent and lingers on the tongue and in the mind. I have included some quotes from her upcoming collection, Bright Stain, that will be published in 2019 through Red Hen Press:
“If only I could learn to shape air.”
“New tongues speak in my body.”
“..crooked. My father doesn’t look right at me anymore.”
“Not since the Devil slithered into me and set up shop.”
“Reeking and fiery enough to fracture
furniture with just your hands.”
“I had held you when booze
was a sudden blow
to your head.”
“body split like a lip
“A child makes itself at home,
swelling you, as death does…”
“I began slowly to revive, each man’s hands
on me like a paramedics…”
MT: Your work is powerful and emphatic. How long have you been writing and translating poetry, and which came first?
FB: Thank you so much, Meg, for this compliment and for the compliment of featuring my work in Connotation Press. I wrote my first poem when I was six. My older sister had to write a poem for school, and I was always hurrying along, trying to emulate her. She had introduced me to poetry when I was four and she was seven, when we memorized a couple of poems from our family encyclopedia and then took turns reciting them. I still remember sitting down at our kitchen table to write that first poem. I was so proud of my four lines about a daisy. I believe I even made an illustration. I’ve written off and on since then. The amount of time I can devote to writing depends, even now, on my other responsibilities, but poetry has long been at the center of my life and identity. I only started translating poetry three years ago. I had wanted to try it much earlier, but it took me a while to gather my courage. Translating feels like a very big responsibility to me. I’m a person who wants to do things “right,” and translating is, by definition, a matter of interpretation. Two translators will very often render the same text in two very different ways, and both are potentially “right.” Accepting that ambiguity is hard for me, especially coupled with the enormous, intimidating obligation I feel to honor the work of the person I’m translating.
How many languages are you proficient in? Is there any other language you’d like to study?
American English is my mother tongue, and I’m reasonably proficient in German. I was an exchange student in Germany when I was young, and, at my peak, I was fluent enough to sometimes be mistaken for a native speaker. Sadly, I’ve rarely spoken German for many years and am very rusty. I’ve forgotten a lot, my grammar has degraded, and my accent is not what it once was. I’ve been gradually losing my hearing since I was in my early twenties, and I’ve been fascinated to note how even the early, mild loss of hearing affected my ability to mimic German pronunciations. The language I would most like to study is Spanish. One of my favorite things about living in California is that Spanish is widely spoken here. I get to hear it almost every day, and I would dearly love to be able to understand it. Once my youngest child is a bit older and more independent, I plan to take some classes to brush up on my German and also to begin to learn Spanish.
Which poets have impacted you and your work the most?
Anne Sexton’s poetry has influenced me the most, I’d say. By the time I was thirteen, I had a serious sense that I would someday be a poet. I read all of Sexton’s books that year. Largely by accident. No one I knew knew anything about contemporary poetry, and I found my way to Anne Sexton simply because her books happened to be available at my local library. I found in her work a sense of intimacy and a ruthless, brutal honesty, two things I craved and continue to look for in poems today. Other poets I feel have influenced my work over the years are Louise Glück, Sharon Olds, and Len Roberts.
Do you memorize poetry that you love?
I have memorized several poems over the years, some in English and some in German. I love having poems by heart, that way you can carry them anywhere you go in the world. They will always be available, whenever you need them. I often recite the poems I’ve memorized, out loud, when I’m running or when I’m lonely.
What’s one of your favorite lines?
No wonder you are the way you are,
afraid of blood, your women
like one brick wall after another.
afraid of blood, your women
like one brick wall after another.
-Louise Glück, from “Love Poem”
I LOVE THAT!
What is it that drives your poetry? Real life events? Childhood trauma? Stories you’ve heard?
I definitely consider myself a confessional poet, and real life events drive most of my work. I also often write from news stories or historical events that catch my attention. I especially love to write persona poems, love to try to inhabit the mind of someone very different from me, to try to see through someone else’s eyes.
Do you have a set schedule when writing? Any strange rituals? Addictions?
My ideal writing day is this: drop my daughter off at school, run, make tea, be at my desk by 10:00, work until I have to pick my girl back up (anywhere from 1:30 until 4:00). The hours when the house is empty, I spend on writing new work and submitting. I can do a lot of revising while waiting outside of my daughter’s music lessons or in doctors’ offices, but producing new work almost always requires solitude. A perfect week will consist of two new drafts and two new submissions. The world is relentless, however, and too many days seem to consist mainly of intrusions. There are appointments, paperwork, repairmen, illnesses, chores I failed to complete on the weekend, and always, always, the MFHD’s (motherf***ing half days) recur. They are the bane of my existence.
The writing ritual I have that I think might be strange is that, after going for a run, I often get back into my pajamas before I sit down to write, instead of dressing in street clothes like a normal person. I like to hold four smooth stones in my lap while I’m writing and fiddle with them when I get stuck, and I’m addicted to blue, very fine Pilot Precise Rolling Ball pens and Decomposition Book notebooks. I am almost unable to write without them. Basically everything I write makes its first appearance in very fine blue ink, in my messy penmanship, in a Decomposition Book.
I’m all for pajama writing! Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Washington and Idaho. We moved a lot, and before I was 12, we lived in Spokane, Yakima, Idaho Falls, and Spokane again. Then, we moved once more, to the Seattle area, and I lived there until I was 24.
Does place play a large role in your writing?
Place does play a role in my writing. Two places in particular often appear in my poems: my garden and the area where I run every day. I live on almost an acre in Northern California. Most of our yard is uncultivated and provides a habitat for barn owls, orioles, acorn woodpeckers, skunks, ground squirrels, beagles and various songbirds, as well as for my family. My writing table looks out onto the hillside where I have engaged in a sixteen-year attempt to establish a garden and onto the ever-encroaching field beyond that. I’m often inspired by what’s happening just outside my window. I’m lucky—blessed would not be too strong a word— to live in a county with a strong dedication to protecting public access to vast expanses of open space. I run in an area called the Rush Creek Open Space Preserve, 522 acres that is home to about 200 bird species in addition to many types of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Many of my poems find their beginnings on the Rush Creek trails.
Please give us a quote that inspires you.
The quote I lean on the most is a Teddy Roosevelt quote: Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. I literally say these words out loud to myself on an almost daily basis. They inspire me to remain in the present moment, a skill that apparently is not hard-wired. A quote I love to read more than almost any other, for its sheer beauty and because I relate to its sentiment so much, is by Abraham Lincoln, who suffered from lifelong depression: You flaxen men with broad faces are born with cheer and don't know a cloud from a star. I am of another temperament.
Those are both inspiring quotes that take off much of the pressure we place on ourselves to be a certain way in the world. LOVE and NEED! Thank you so much, Francesca, for sharing some of your incredible work and this interview with Connotation Press. It’s an honor to feature your poetry.
Menopause, Insomnia, News
I flare up and die back down
like the tip of God’s cigarette
glowing in the difficult dark
after a day spent running the world
into the ground. Aleppo, left out
of the cease fire, blazes,
and Prince overdosed in his elevator,
unable to rise
above the sear of his pain.
Three-year old twins, untended,
roasted their baby sister in the oven,
and I turn in my bed, dripping
like a pig on a spit, and think of my son
who fell into a ring
of literal fire. In photographs,
his palm smoldered,
a handful of embers. I wept, 1,013 miles away,
when he called, alone
in his dorm, hopped up on morphine and afraid.
When I was ten,
I touched the stove’s element to see if it was hot.
My two fingers, scorched
as a good steak. The worst part of any burn
is the cold—
shivering while what remains chills
like ashes, flicked onto snow.
Evenings, sick of acuity
and its cost,
I pull at my hearing aids
until what entered
each ear slides slowly out
along with it, deafness a relief
as when I’ve had
all I can take of pleasure
and push my lover
from my body. The world,
it’s true, is less
absent the part of him
that fills and empties me
at once, ecstasy an overwhelm
like life’s din
played by the devices in my head,
I finally writhe away from.
Taking Up Serpents
Sometimes my father sends me to the room
where he keeps the church snakes. He knows I’m afraid.
I don’t set a foot in till the lights come up bright.
Once a snake got loose and had to be caught.
It coiled in the middle of the room, shocking
as when I broke free of puberty.
Snakes have no ears, but they feel you coming from way off.
Before I get a hand at the knob, they’re ready,
rattles rasping. Hairs rise up all along my skin.
It’s what happens when boys look at me now.
New tongues speak in my body.
Sometimes I writhe, a belly-crawler, a tree branch grown
crooked. My father doesn’t look right at me anymore.
Not since the Devil slithered into me and set up shop.
Snakes, he looks in the eye, holding
each scaled body high, with both hands.
Whenever one strikes him, prayers fly.
I’ve heard venom makes your heart race,
splits your skin wide.
Construction Workers Called Police When They Realized a Lifeless Dummy Was Actually a Real Woman
Neighbors took her body, hung there
on the fence, for a Halloween decoration,
said she always was running the streets.
This time, he came up behind,
and she caught herself on the chain link
by the sleeve. He struck her till she swelled
beyond recognition, like those inflatable dolls,
the cheap kind. Every blow fills the face in,
a little at a time, but in the end,
they still don’t look right.
The Bones’ Antidote
…spending time under Paris is not for everyone, but…can provide an antidote to the surplus of beauty that is found above ground.—The New York Times, Rusha Haljuci
What do you know of beauty
or ghoulishness, of the distance
from our individual graveyards
through the winding dark of Paris,
the priests’ whispery, secret bodies
carting us in pieces, air cooling
as we descended this underworld of tunnels
and chambers, down stairs hacked
in limestone by human hands?
What surplus of pleasure
to have my long bones lain across
those of others as I longed
in moments of dread to drape myself
across the proximate laps of strangers.
Pile high our femurs and humeri!
Cross my ulna with the radius
of another and place them
where someone’s chin would have been
had the cartilage held.
These corridors of bone send back the slap
of summer sandals, little sighs
of separate, stifled sorrows, the sound
air makes as you move apart.
It’s true, our arches have collapsed,
tarsals, metatarsals tossed near the back
with all that does not stack easily.
Vertebral columns do not rise,
but scatter. Scapulae and ilia
cast their shadowed wings.
We languish in our piles and pity you
the distal alignments of the living.
Am I not your receptacle,
vacancy on two legs,
opening in the front
you pour yourself into?
You leave me with child
who will leave me
but biology’s bit
stuffed into my mouth,
body split like a lip