By Sara Chuirazzi '16 and Daniel Barnum '17
Gina Franco is the author of The Keepsake Storm. Her writing has been published widely in journals and is anthologized in A Best of Fence: the First Nine Years, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry, Camino del Sol: Fifteen Years of Latina and Latino Writing, and The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity. She earned degrees from Smith College and from Cornell University, and was awarded residencies and fellowships with Casa Libre en la Solana, the Santa Fe Writers' Conference, and the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. She is an oblate with the Catholic monastic order of the Community of St John in Princeville, Illinois. Franco teaches at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.
Franco's poems "Reatablo:," "The Spirit is Bone," and a selection from "Substantial" appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of West Branch Wired.
West Branch: Could you talk a little about how you came to poetry? Today, there seems to be a standardized path from high school to undergraduate studies, then directly into an MFA program and publishing. Was this the route you took, or did you trace an alternative trajectory?
Gina Franco: I think my educational path more or less resembles the one you describe as "standardized": high school, undergrad, graduate work, publishing (and maybe teaching fits there, too?). But I was never quite on the straight and narrow. Through my second year of high school, my entire childhood education took place in the tiny schools of the Arizona mining town where I grew up. I had a few wonderful teachers there, especially in art, biology, and French, but I received little training in math or reading and writing. When my family moved to Tucson, Arizona, at the end of my sophomore year, and I was placed in school there, I was pretty far behind. I couldn't keep up with my peers, and I didn't know how to find help, so I dropped out of high school.
Later I passed the GED exams, took classes here and there at Pima Community College for several years, and worked a lot: fast food, convenience stores, hotels, country clubs, resorts. I didn't believe, at the time, that I could get a four-year degree because I had neither money nor enough academic skill, so I did the pharmacy tech program because pharmaceutical work seemed practical and stable, and I was interested in the science of drug therapy. Meanwhile I was working on my writing, too—moving slowly up the rungs in the curriculum from basic composition to creative writing and literature—because I did have excellent writing teachers at Pima. By the time they were done with me I was tutoring writing and editing the college's literary magazine. Meg Files and Pam Barnes eventually convinced me to apply to Smith, a women's college in Massachusetts. Of course, it was a long shot. I never thought I'd get in and have to move to New England. But I did. Through the Ada Comstock program, Smith offered full scholarships to non-traditional female students. What I experienced in the Ada program was feminism at it's very best. And I was honored to see something of Sylvia Plath's world; inspired to see something of Emily Dickinson's home.
Before I left Arizona for Massachusetts, my writing and literature teachers, Meg and Pam, bought me my first winter coat. Navy blue, L.L. Bean. It's shabby now, and it has sustained many repairs, but it's still the coat I wear on the coldest winter days—days I teach—because it reminds me that I'm still a student. I hope that the memory of that tremendous effort--my effort and my teachers' effort—will keep me as honest and as present as possible with my writing and my students.
I did head to graduate school directly after graduating from Smith to study British Romantic poetry and poetry writing. But I'm not sure I've answered your first question, how I "came to poetry," in responding to your second question about my educational path. It's fair to say that poetry is a discipline, and fair to guess that the easiest way to find a mentor in any discipline—artistic, scholarly, spiritual—is to find a school. Since the school of poetry has moved largely into our academic institutions, people go there to train, discern, gain formation, and grow in the discipline of poetry. That makes sense to me.
But I think most of us who want to make poems come to poetry well before we arrive at school. I made things I thought of as poems before I could do much more with a pen than scribble. Poetry was all over my childhood, predictably, in books. Mother Goose, the Bible, Aesop's fables, a strange collection of alchemists' incantations I came across once. Dante's Inferno, which I found at the library and didn't understand but read anyway. There was also poetry, somehow, in the names of the months of the year, in the liturgy of the Catholic Mass, in the sound of family stories told in Spanish, in the Rumors album unfolded across my mother's bed, the music, all those lyrics, and the mysterious name, Fleetwood Mac. I knew it was beautiful, whatever it was, and I knew I wanted it for myself.
WB: Your work is alive with a sense of place. Throughout your poems, places become both real and unreal, tangible and magical. Could you talk a bit about placemaking, both in reference to the places that made you, and how landscape manifests as part of your craft?
GF: Landscapes, place-making, and craft: this is vast terrain. The truth is, I’m really baffled by landscapes—by the things in them and by the ways in which their spaces are shaped—and I always feel confronted by what I do not and cannot know. All places are haunted by this inaccessibility, I think. Even my own kitchen has a way of feeling remote if I become too aware of its stuff and of the strangely-shaped lives of forks and teacups and spice jars. I’m usually tempted to explain away inaccessibility pointing to cultural-historical elisions or gaps—by Googlizing, I suppose.
But reading around in the history of mining in Arizona, for example, one finds everything (and nothing) under the sun: European alchemists discover Aztec dentists are more skilled metallurgists; the Mexican Inquisition and the Spanish Conquistadors were driven by terrifying prophetic visions; the building of the railroads through previously inaccessible territories in the West was funded by New York money; the formation—and later abolition—of a unionized labor culture came about through terrible violence; the rise of corporate mining alongside the rise of prostitution and women prospectors was a feminist boon; the influence of borders, language barriers, and cultural collisions on shifting religious populations resulted in syncretism; the age-old quarrels between gods and industry, faith and empiricism, conquest and self, the elusive elixir of life versus the weight of gold in my pocket…, etc. etc.
That is, more information about a place and its populations does not make it more accessible. If anything, more information crowds the scene, can overpopulate or create seemingly orderly heaps in the seemingly previous gaps, and make the reality of a place further opaque.
I’m sure I feel this way because the landscapes of my childhood were beautiful and enigmatic: soft red clay mountains and high limestone cliffs, a river in a desert, the enormous maw of the open-pit mine shaped by nearly four generations of copper workers. The early miners left behind ruins, objects, trails, and caves, evidence of their industry for miles around, most of which had been forgotten by the time I was born, even among town historians. So many things lacked names.
—the slag trail below the railroad tracks leading to the iron-pipe bridge and the poured-concrete building propped by the river like an upside-down cup? The one filled with massive iron cogs and narrow ladders running up to tiny, high, inescapable windows?
—So what is that place?
—That? Oh that was probably an old water pump station. Hard to say. Maybe they needed to move water from the river to the mine operations, maybe from the mine to the river. Or maybe it was something else. I don’t know. The kids called it Frankenstein’s Castle since before I was born, long before your time—
Those silences become part of our familiar, dominant narratives. As I said previously, the mind is tempted to complete the scene, fill in the blanks, but the silences can expose what is most convincing about master plots. And I think they can also expose something of uneasy reality. The fragmented, the derelict, the abject, the dumped—they are excluded (or escape) from recognizable cultural-historical orders because they refuse easy meaning. They announce themselves as monumental—a screaming absence—but they are also unknown, unheard of. Frequently unreadable.
And in this sense, it’s not a stretch at all for me to say that poems are landscapes.
WB: We’re interested in this unnameable, in the presence of absence. This seems to resonate in a poem like, “The Bells.” Could you discuss this title on these terms—differentiating between knowledge of a place (its facts and figures) from knowing a place (lived experience)?
GF: Yes, “The Bells” is thinking a lot about presence and absence and about—as you put it—“knowledge” versus “knowing.” In part, “The Bells” was written in response to Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Sunday Morning,” which opens, famously, with a lazy late morning scene of sun and coffee and a green cockatoo and oranges, before embarking on life-sized lyric meditations on beauty, divinity, death, and religion, all by way of presenting an alternative Sunday morning life-style: why not stay home from church?
The world of Stevens’ poem has always struck me as outlandishly colorful or somehow extravagant in ways that don’t speak at all to how I recall Sunday mornings as a kid. Some of those mornings were spent at church, but not most. Most Sundays were for laundry and repairs, for restoring order at home, for yard work and auto maintenance—a catch-up day.
In “The Bells” an entire community is imagined as hard at work rebuilding and cleaning up after a recent flood. It is Sunday morning and the church bells are ringing, but it’s hard to say who, if anyone, is heading to church. There is no God’s-eye view of the town. There is only the girl who has followed a boy “she knows” to the basement of an abandoned building and who hears the bells and imagines her father working and worrying about the flood ruin. So a great deal of specific knowledge is hidden from view. The girl realizes she doesn’t know this boy well enough to be alone with him. She realizes she doesn’t really know where her father is. She also senses that she doesn’t know why the bells are still ringing. The bells signal the emblematic presence of a community, a congregation gathering for church, a calling to order. But the devastation of the flood means that all the usual order has been demolished, and church gathering is no longer ordinary. The church itself may have flooded out: she doesn’t know.
By the close of the poem, the girl does have a vague awareness of some accident of beauty that arises despite the ruin around her. Among the reflections that Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” poem explores (and possibly rejects) is the idea that “death is the mother of beauty.” I think I wanted an explicit rejection of that idea in my poem. There is no causal relationship between death and beauty for the girl in “The Bells.” There is, instead, some mysterious association between them that might be mistakenly perceived as causal in the same way that “shape” might seem to emerge from “light.” All these absences in knowledge do reveal what is actually present, but presence arrives in the form of unspoken questions: where is God in all this? What is a church if not a building? What is beauty? What is death? Is it possible to know another person? Can the bells have meaning if the order that produced them no longer exists?
WB: To build on a question you introduce above—where is God in poetry for you? Meaning, what is the relationship between faith and writing for you?
GF: In asking about how I understand the relationship between faith and writing, you might be asking a bigger question about the role of work in becoming human. At least I think so, so let me start there. Because I tend to think of writing as part of all the work I do. Or as part of all my doing. Which has great bearing on my becoming whatever it is I’m becoming. And which requires that I have a great deal of faith in believing that I am in fact becoming something—a human being, let’s say.
I think that more than any other experience, work shapes us, our days, our motives, our decisions, and most of our other experiences. Most of us probably spend more time doing some kind of work than doing anything else. And it can make us more attentive to reality, but it can also determine whether and how we have time or attention for other experiences or for relationships with other people. So what I want from my work (from my poem making), is that it should never become dehumanizing.
But there are so many insidious ways in which work does become dehumanizing, and it is often not possible for me to choose to put my work into the service of what is good or beautiful or true. Most of us cannot help being overworked. And we are prone to being work-obsessed and isolated. I know I am. And besides that, I’m fearful, and my fearfulness makes me lazy. I would rather watch The X Files than come to terms with my situation in the universe. It turns out I have some capacity to transform the world I live in, but it also turns out I am utterly dependent on that world, its realities, in time and space and body and language, and in this sense, work—writing—is always humbling.
I say all of this by way of establishing that it takes a ton of faith to write anything, and even more to keep writing. I think what Paul Celan says about writing poetry is as close a sense as I can give you to what I believe. He suggests that a poem is made in the same way that a message in a bottle is launched into the world: perhaps the wayward bottle will land. Perhaps it will arrive after all to speak to someone. The effort may not be filled with a lot of hope, but it is an effort, nonetheless, that moves “towards something.” And this faith—that there is in fact something, someone, toward which the poem makes—is crucial. This “toward something” is the very dignity of the work. For me, it is something very close to contemplative prayer. It is the launch of relationship, which is humanizing.
For Celan, the movement “toward” is a hope for “something” or someone receptive. A dwelling. A you. A reality that can be spoken of—but also spoken to.“Toward what? Toward something standing open, occupiable, perhaps toward an addressable Thou, toward an addressable reality.
Such realities, I think, are at stake in a poem.” (Celan)
One answer to your question (“Where is God in poetry for you?”) is that God is on the other end of the poem. Poems are always inescapably reality-dependent on some level; however, to say so is a statement of faith. For me, God and reality are usually interchangeable terms.
Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose, translated by John Felstiner, “Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen” (396)
The Keepsake Storm begins with an image of a fossil in the first lines of “Fishing”. The theme returns in the final, title sequence, ending with “Archaeopteryx, an Elegy.” We’re interested in how fossils work with this idea of a reality at stake. Whereas the memory of an event, image, or landscape might exist only in the poet’s mind, a fossil retains physical form. How does the concept of fossilization—preserved, tangible records—enter into the conversation?
As you’ve noticed, fossil imagery frames The Keepsake Storm, beginning to end, so you’re right, there must be a “reality at stake” in the idea of the fossil. To that point I’d say, on the one hand, a fossil is a kind of ruin, and a ruin, as I suggested previously, is a haunt. There are ruins all over The Keepsake Storm, not only because they are a significant aspect of the landscapes that interest me, but also because they are figures for storytelling, histories, and narrative events. A ruin seems to be a piece of evidence, a sign of some previous existence. It is almost a document—or better, it easily becomes a form of documentation: “this is proof that this was here.” At the same time that a ruin seems to present itself as legible evidence of some previously existing reality, however, it also presents itself as a specter. A ghost town. A ghost in a machine. And in this sense, what seems legible is partially or even wholly erased as the specter threatens to assert itself into present-tense experience. In other words, the ruin is both a legible sign and a specter haunting that interrupts the sign’s intelligibility.
On the other hand, a fossil is not a ruin at all. A ruin is something made and abandoned by culture. A fossil is something made and preserved in nature. It, too, has been abandoned, but abandoned by what? By whom? It isn’t clear whether these are the right questions. A ruin is a thing that once had a culture-given purpose, an intentionality, and even a name: “a water pump station.” A fossil body obtains these factual identities as it becomes a keepsake or a record of human discovery: “archaeopteryx.” But the fact is, before a fossil is a “fossil,” it is something else. It is the impression of a corpse. Or it is the impression of the body in the event of becoming a corpse. But I don’t know what that is—I don’t really know what a body is or why it is different from a corpse. What is preserved? The “remains,” we say: something that refuses to be assumed into death. A shadowy ossified remainder of something far beyond my grasp. If the fossil body has a nature-given purpose, intentionality, or name, well, I’m in the dark. I can hypothesize or theologize or (more predictably) anthropomorphize, but the corpse does not speak much. Or it ventriloquizes what I would have it speak. Or it leaves me speechless.
To touch or to be touched by such a thing, I think, is to recognize that there are no easy boundaries upholding experiences I generally attempt to keep distinct. The fossil imagery in Keepsake becomes a figure of collapse: preservation/decay, discovery/loss, materiality/immateriality, wholeness/fragmentation, speaking/speechlessness, haunting/haunted, presence/absence, etc. But these paradoxes in experience, I believe, tell me much about the nature of reality. In Cadaver, Speak Marianne Boruch asks of the body’s internal darkness, “why any color at all?” It is a child’s question: “why is the sky blue?” The child isn’t asking for a factual or scientific theory of light, but for meaning, intentionality, purpose. To my mind such questions are religious questions.
WB: What about "The Spirit is Bone"? We’re intrigued by the form, the divide between the two columns. The poem itself references “The recollections, the symmetries, the familiar forms: vanished” and ends “begging a question.” Does this have anything to do with those “upholding experiences” that you try to keep distinct from one another? How do the many paradoxes of life come into play here?
GF: The title of “The Spirit is Bone” is lifted from something Hegel says in a longish reflection on phrenology in The Phenomenology of Spirit. He tries to sort through the many very weird ways in which the idea of the skull takes on the function of representing mind or spirit, perhaps metonymically or quite literally in grammar, or perhaps as an extension of the inner and outer worlds of perception. The skull becomes an externalization of mind or spirit—a sign of it. The point Hegel makes is that when we say that “mind is” or “spirit is,” what we say amounts to saying, “the existence of mind is a bone,” or (depending on the translation), “the being of spirit is a bone.”
I don’t know how much Plato’s allegory of the cave is behind Hegel’s ideas here. I haven’t thought it through. I just love that the image of the cave throughout British Romantic poetry is always, really, a Platonic image of the skull, inside of which the mind is at work forming its subject—and forming the trap of subjectivity. The skull-cave is a material frame for the immaterial mind: one of those impossible paradoxes again. I think Hegel’s intention is to reveal that as the mind attempts to grasp immateriality—“mind” or “spirit”—the immaterial materializes as a kind of Thing: “the being of spirit is a bone.” While it’s strange, even impossible, for spirit to become a thing with all the trappings of material thingness, for Hegel, it’s inevitable because “immateriality” depends upon “materiality” for its meaning and articulation.
I’d go further to say that the strangest part of Hegel’s point is that this incarnation of spirit or mind is reduced to thingness: to what instead of to who. That’s what is most heartbreaking for me in this moment. The subject, the who, is not reduced to the body, but to the corpse. Not living bone, but dead bone. The deconstructive irony, maybe, is that—as I said previously—the corpse is a haunting/haunted thing. It is ever resurrecting the missing person behind, within, beyond it. The aspect of the corpse that refuses to be assumed into death or that refuses to speak the language of the dead, that remainder in the dead skull bone, for me, is the mystery of the subject in existence.
In “The Spirit is Bone” I wanted to see if the framed view from a window might be the same kind of metaphor as the Hegelian (Platonic?) skull. If the skull is a frame for the mind (or if the corpse is a frame for the spirit), then the indoor room and its window are frames for the subject, the one “inside.” The double columns represent that inside/outside binary, formally. Everything outside and beyond the window frame is invisible, but no less extant simply because it is invisible. Tree limbs dead-end against the window frame. Stars vanish in the morning, as does the source of a memory, or the source of a symmetry, or the source of what makes a form or a shape—or a face—familiar. But nothing in the poem vanishes completely. In fact, everything everywhere is spilling out of its frame, out and beyond its brackets. The spilling over is the stuff that refuses to be contained to an ossified framework. It is a superabundant life. An excess presence that seems to originate with existence itself. What is it? That’s the very question that concludes the poem.
WB: One last question, moving from everlasting existence to evolution: what are you working toward right now?
GF: I'm very near completion of a collection of poems, some of which West Branch Wired published in January, all of which engage the themes we've discussed in this interview.