Toward the Jugular

A conversation with Francesca Bell

 

When I first contacted Francesca Bell I felt the need to censor a quote of hers to her. Think about that. She wrote a thing, I was scared to repeat it, as though she'd recoil from the sight of one of her own titles typed in full by a stranger—as though an admiring reader might be misunderstood as lewd (or something) by the author admired. We started there—with the absurd and prudent fear people like me have when it comes to saying the plainest of things in an email. This got us talking about perceived cultural restrictions on speech, about class, racial and physical transience coming through so transparently in her poetry, about her fears, and about her work in Arabic-to-English translation as political act. 

I think the struggle you mention, of making sense of and peace with one’s place in life, is a struggle that preoccupies me and informs my drive toward “the jugular,” toward the place of greatest authenticity and clarity in my writing. It also relates to some of my struggle with our current, strident social discourse.

 
 

 
on both sides

I come from an extended family of very modest means and substantial tumult. Almost none of us went to college, and of those who did, few earned a degree. I have relatives who have been prostitutes, have either attempted or committed murder and suicide, have either served or evaded prison sentences, have lived with profound physical disabilities, mental illness, and drug and alcohol problems. 

All but one of my grandmother’s five siblings were born on the Yakama Indian Reservation, but her father, who was half Cherokee, chose to leave the reservation, and my grandmother’s family lived as whites from then on. When I was three, in 1970, two half-black cousins were adopted into our family and were moved to a small town in northern Idaho. I watched them grow up in a very white, racist system. I have a lot of feelings about race, but my skin is fair, and, in today’s climate, I feel very much told that my voice is not welcome in any discussion about race. I have seen also, firsthand, from more than one perspective, how our culture divides us and judges us by class based on income and the level of education we have achieved, how unevenly opportunity is distributed. I have lived, I do live, on both sides of these tracks, so to speak. I struggle a lot to make sense of privilege, of how to define it, of how to navigate it.



With a Little Education” 

is a poem I definitely wrote out of my acute understanding of how different a person’s view can become due to even relatively minor changes in circumstance. I was an awkward, painfully shy, homely girl in my teens. I had been moved up in school, so I had no sense of belonging to a peer group. I had little money and even less fashion sense, so I was never dressed right. I was bullied a little, but mostly I was ignored. I had no friends, and boys were definitely not interested in me. Suddenly, when I was 18 or 19, I grew into myself. The currency the world accepts from a woman is beauty, and, once I was physically more attractive, I gained entrance into an entirely different world. It wasn’t quite as idyllic as I had imagined, and life wasn’t actually without pain, as I had hoped, but it was starkly different from where I’d been. For a man, for the doctor in my poem, the required currency is achievement, or money, or money through achievement. Once he’s a doctor, the doors are flung open to him. I say "a little education" with sarcasm and because, for this man, the education really is the easy part of life, and it really is small compared to what it gains him.


what kindness looks like to someone else

We live in a time when even routine communication has become incredibly fraught. I grieve that the current trend is to grant each other very little room for perceived errors in our conversations and emails and Facebook posts. We are quick to take offense, eager to assume ill intent, savage in our response to perceived slights or disagreements, convinced our own opinions are fact, and stubbornly disinclined to grant one another grace or forgiveness or understanding. We are unwilling to civilly agree to disagree, and we hold one another responsible for a level of sensitivity bordering on clairvoyance. One is expected somehow to know what will or won’t offend others, what might or might not trigger emotions from the life histories of strangers, and to possess as well an encyclopedic knowledge of other cultures and places and times.

This extremity and rigidity seem to me unlikely to serve us in our human struggle to understand one another, to treat one another better, and to learn how to live together better. I think we need, of course, to be kind and respectful, but a person with the best intentions won’t always know what kindness looks like to someone else. Mistakes will be made. Feelings will be hurt. I try every day to go forth armed with a skin I’ve consciously worked on thickening, a sense of humor, a willingness to accept when I am wrong, and as much flexibility and forgiveness (for myself and others) as I can manage.


a tarantula, as a pet

I fear a lot of things. I have experienced a clinical level of anxiety, including panic attacks, for the last fifteen years, and I have a few things that remain pretty reliable triggers. Flying, encountering turbulence while flying, and being confined to a small space can still give me enough discomfort that I use medication. These are fears that are completely irrational, reactions that live in the sub-reptilian part of my brain.

In a different way, I’m afraid of social events with groups of people I don’t know well. Cocktail parties, for instance, are about as enticing as the Third Circle of Hell to me. I used to be afraid of spiders until I spent a few years living with a therapy spider, a tarantula, as a pet. I’m afraid of something terrible happening to my children, of course. As a woman, I’m afraid of being harassed or harmed or killed by men. I’m afraid of a Trump presidency, of global warming, the coming water shortage, war. So many fears, so little time.



a fear-free zone

My poetry, ironically, has been a fear-free zone for me. What I’ve become terribly afraid of is offending people. More precisely, I’ve become terribly afraid of being attacked and blacklisted for offending people. I hadn’t, until now, even considered this. I’ve written mostly from a place of extreme isolation (i.e. my suburban kitchen table), which has helped. I’m not a person who can be easily offended, and this has also helped. Furthermore, I believe it is a writer’s job to offend and to agitate and to cause readers to consider difficult topics, and this has definitely provided me some level of inoculation against this fear. But, alas, the current trends toward censorship and the McCarthy-like levels of interest in policing people’s words and opinions have definitely shaken me. There are poems I’ve written that I have either pulled from the manuscript for my first book or have taken off of my list of poems to submit to journals. Worse, there are poems I’d like to write that I am struggling to access. In general, I am struggling to relax into my work, to fully inhabit my voice.


the work of Palestinian women

When Noor [Jordanian teacher and translator, Noor Nader Al A'bed] and I started working together, I asked him if we could translate the work of Palestinian women. Arabic is a wickedly difficult language, even for Arabs, and I feel nothing short of blessed that I am able to work with someone as brilliant as Noor. He has beautiful English, and, more importantly, he has stupendous Arabic. He also seems to know pretty much everything about history and culture and ancient Arabic poetry and modern Arabic poetry. Even if I were conversant in Arabic, I would never attempt this work without Noor. I would never be able to know enough to do these poems justice, to be certain to treat them with care. 


sympathetic stereotypes

I don’t suppose one can even say the word Palestinian without it being a political act. So, I suppose this work is political. That being said, Noor and I set out very purposefully to translate poems that were not overtly political. We wanted work about life and love and mothering and passion, work about family and personal suffering, not so much about politics or the state of the world. I noticed immediately, when we began to work on our very first poem, my own prejudices, the divides we’ve been discussing, and the stereotypes I held dear about Arab women. I meant well, I truly did. I held very sympathetic stereotypes, but they were stereotypes nonetheless. The most glaring problem with them is that they were completely false. In retrospect, it was hilarious. I assumed, more than consciously thought, that Arab women must be very meek and mild, very quiet, cowed by men, certainly not in touch with their own sexuality. HA. 

Our first poet was a woman who raised eight children while working as an accountant. She was followed, not long after, by a woman who has published novels, poetry collections and children’s books while writing for television, acting, and raising her children. The speakers in her poems discuss things like dreaming of one’s lover while lying next to one’s husband and the painful difficulty of long marriage. Another poet is a doctor living in Belgium who writes such deep, complicated poems, Noor and I almost weep from the challenge of translating them. Every single poet we’ve worked with has been beautifully educated, wildly intelligent, and fierce. 

We’ve recently placed our translation of a gorgeous, full-length collection by Shatha Abu Hnaish for publication. It’s called A Love That Hovers Like a Bedeviling Mosquito, and it is full of intense longing, fevered desire and aching sorrow. It should go far toward dispelling the myth of the meek Arab woman.



in the voice that I have

As far as my poetry and its transparence of substance and presentation [...] First, I am a person who lacks a certain sense of inhibition that most others possess. I have little need for privacy, and I am hugely more comfortable having people know even my dark truths or vulnerabilities than in having to spend time and energy creating and sustaining concealments. I hate hiding. I am not even slightly ashamed of being human or of living in a human body or of being flawed. We are all flawed. We all fuck up in ways large and small. We all injure those we love the most. We are all afflicted with what I refer to as otherism. We all have bodies, and all of our bodies betray us, sooner or later, in one way or another. I refuse to invest myself in pretending otherwise.

What interests me the most about poetry, why I have returned to it again and again since I was nine years old, is its capacity to be a vehicle for intimacy, the way it can enable us to see and know what most people keep private. Poetry can make it possible for us to recognize our deepest selves in another. I have no interest in writing poems that aren’t engaged, in a direct way, in exploring and revealing what it means to be human. 

All of this means that I write a lot about things like mental illness and violence and sexuality, about sorrow and the body and the hard work of loving other people. The places I visit in my poems are, for me, where intimacy and deep humanity live. Many people find my writing harsh, embarrassing, upsetting or scandalous. It’s okay. I’ve made my peace with who I am, as a writer and a person. I realized years ago that all I can do as a poet is to write the poems I am driven to write in the voice that I have. I will concede that it’s probably a good thing I’m not seeking tenure.

 

 

Francesca Bell’s poems appear in many magazines including B O D Y, burntdistrict, ELLE, Flycatcher, New Ohio Review, North American Review, Poetry Northwest, Prairie Schooner, Rattle, Spillway, Tar River Poetry, and Zone 3. Her translations from Arabic, with Noor Nader Al A'bed, appear in Berkeley Poetry Review, Blue Lyra Review, Circumference | Poetry in Translation, and Laghoo. 

You can find more from her at
 francescabellpoet.com.   

 

This conversation has been edited. Its structure is presented by the interviewer.