Vievee Francis reads her work from ‘Forest Primeval’ at Amherst Books

By Gina Lopez

(Collegian File Photo)

Last but certainly not least, Vievee Francis, renowned poet and winner of the Cave Canem Northwestern University Press Poetry Prize for her second collection, wrapped up Amherst College’s creative writing fall reading series Monday night.

Upon entering the reading, Pinot Noir and chocolate chip cookies adorned the refreshment table, reflecting the substance-over-frills mentality that was present in Francis’ writing.

Since “Forest Primeval” was published in 2015, the excitement has not died down among poets and lovers of poetry.

Proceeding the reading of the inner-workings of her compilation, Francis read two introductory poems titled “White Mountain” and “Another Anti-Pastoral”— both roughly summarizing her time spent living in of Detroit and then Western Carolina, where she candidly added that “everything there could bite.”

Within the first few readings of her work, it became clear that her writing was a reflection of poetic and personal triumph, both of her own suffering and those in her surroundings, and the cultures and societal norms she worked to break through.

In her reading of “Taking It” which was inspired by her father, a man she explained “grew up alongside her,” Francis alluded to years tinged with the ruggedness of rural living in the Jim Crow era where “every day was like ‘Lord of the Flies,’” with a consistent and unwavering stream of emotional and physical abuse.

While Francis never directly mentioned sexual abuse, a common theme in the majority of her work read aloud was a desire to escape her skin as a result of her race, sexuality and gender. This, a struggle that harrows devastatingly familiar for so many women of color, is something she expressed rarely gets better with time.

In these moments, Francis discusses her father through the lens of the patriarchy and her husband as someone her father saw as a tool capable of ‘fixing’ what he couldn’t.

Lines like, “Girls didn’t punch; I had always punched,” “What kind of girl are you?” and “A girl that wants to live,” all depicted the narrative that existed between Francis and her father. Yet, she was careful to add that she and her father have worked hard to develop the relationship they have now.

Throughout her poetry, Francis masters the use of concrete language and illustrious thoughts like, “cream of wheat mixed with coffee,” and skin scrubbed so clean it almost forgot what was underneath.

Francis stopped hesitantly in the middle of her reading to announce that the wetness in her eyes was not emotion bubbling over, despite the fact that she “does cry.” She proclaimed her “eyes grow weaker as [she] grows older,” with a wry laugh.

Moving forward, she dedicated “Skinned” to her grandmother who died a few months prior. She discussed her grandmother’s hardworking nature alongside her genuine discomfort in being a Black woman existing outside the stereotypical mold of beauty and desire, saying she “wanted to have the skin off, not the eyes that demonized her,” as a reference to the pure anxiety her grandmother felt as a result of society’s standards.

When asked about her inspiration process, Francis made a point to say that her husband is never her muse because “poetry for [her] is about loss and longing, and he doesn’t leave [her] at a loss, and he doesn’t leave [her] longing.” Francis added, “he makes me too damn happy, so I don’t often write about him.”

Francis said that she typically begins her writing process with something that triggers her day-to-day, and then she “goes in,” going after it, noting that particularly disturbing photographs have been known to set her off.

Spoken like a true artist, Francis responded to each question with all the fluidity and grace that her poetry encompassed.

In response to a question asked by an audience member about her affinity for fairytales, Francis said she likes rewriting them, but she doesn’t know if she likes them. Rewriting the argument is what draws her interest in.

Francis was adamant that fairytales affect us all as a society, whether we “look like the princess or not.” She said that writing about fairytales is her method of feeling like she’s writing herself out of a box. A societal standard. A measure of beauty.

Francis wanted her second book of poetry to talk about Black women and how they’re treated like beasts while being trapped in this negative cycle of demonizing and harmful sexualization, saying, “I wanted to write about being seen that way.”

Finishing the discussion on a lighter note, Francis joked about how much she loved New England and how she just recently bought a Subaru — so she was starting to feel like she might just fit in.

Gina Lopez can be reached at [email protected].