This week’s installment of Ten Questions features francine j. harris, whose third poetry collection, Here Is the Sweet Hand, is out today from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In Here Is the Sweet Hand, harris commits to observation and inquiry no matter the risks. Early in the collection, she writes, “They put away things / as soon as you ask about them.” Here and elsewhere, the speaker has a piercing stare, a watchfulness that will accompany all her questions about landscape, language, and Blackness. And while her position is sometimes lonely, the speaker is also deeply embodied and engaged with and against other individuals and the nation. There is fighting, argument, and blood spilled. There is also great love and repair: literal and metaphorical suturing. With Here Is the Sweet Hand, harris “fully emerges as one of the best and most relevant contemporary poets,” writes Craig Morgan Teicher. francine j. harris is also the author of play dead (Alice James Books, 2016), which won a Lambda Literary Award, and allegiance (Wayne State University Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and PEN Open Book Award. The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, the Cullman Center for Scholars, and the New York Public Library, she teaches English at the University of Houston.
1. How long did it take you to write Here Is the Sweet Hand?
This is always a difficult question for me because I build manuscripts from poems that fit together. The oldest poem in Here Is the Sweet Hand is probably from 2007, but many of the poems that determine the mood of this book were written in the last two years. Also, several of the poems were written during my time in northern Michigan a few years ago that kind of set the stage for the collection.
2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?
To follow the previous thought, figuring out the arc of a poetry collection is always pretty challenging for me. Particularly when the book is not themed.
3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write sporadically and edit often. A lot that I write lately is connected to instruction and teaching. Communications go up when you join a faculty and it’s interesting how much attention in the first year is devoted to lucidity and availability. Particularly with the pandemic, there has been a focus on being available to one another that makes my job feel very public. I can see how this will settle and I’ll get back to a quieter place in my head where I usually write from. That said, the atmosphere in my brain just now makes it a little bit easier to focus on fact-based writing and research, which is very helpful for the fourth collection I’m working on.
4. What are you reading right now?
A few things: Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness, Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental, and Dawn Lundy Martin’s Good Stock Strange Blood. A few of these I’ve had on my shelf for a while and because they are longer, like Dawn’s, or more thematic, like Natalie’s, I’m just getting into them in a devoted way. Reading has been an immense source of pleasure during quarantine.
5. Which author, in your opinion, deserves wider recognition?
There are so many and I answer this question differently every time it comes up. One writer who I hope will get a wider audience with her second book is Lauren Russell. Her first book, What’s Hanging on the Hush, is so beautiful. Frantic. Experimental. Risky. I’m really looking forward to reading Descent and to everything else she does.
6. What is the biggest impediment to your writing life?
I think in some ways, lately, it is a nervousness I’ve developed about being wrong. I used to not care about this at all. Now I feel so much more responsible for what I say. I don’t know if this is social media, or the place I’m at in my career, but I feel more careful about what I say and to what end I say it. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, per se, but it definitely makes the writing pace much slower.
7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
The MFA is a great place to devote time to writing while getting a community of support. It’s usually an opportunity to get teaching experience. It’s a stripe in the genre and without the terminal degree it’s difficult to teach at the college level. It’s an excellent opportunity and I am grateful for the experience. I will say that in my experience, it’s not really the place one goes to learn how to write, but rather how to hone. And I’ve long thought that it will be a better experience for people if they have taken a break after undergraduate school and gotten some life skills first so that they have experience to bring to the craft.
8. What is one thing you might change about the writing community or publishing industry?
More transparency in the processes. And more Black women in positions of leadership and curation. More Black editors, board members, presidents, and chairs. One could very well mean the other.
9. Who is your most trusted reader of your work and why?
It really depends. I share writing with very few people. And I share depending on what I’m working on. I may share individual poems with friends, usually not for feedback but just to share. But I did nervously ask Carl Phillips for guidance on Here Is the Sweet Hand and he was really instrumental for me in thinking through order and theme. I owe a lot to him for this collection.
10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
It’s not just for writers, I don’t think, but creators in general: Make the thing you want to see exist in the world.