Author of “Here is the Sweet Hand,” francine j. harris spoke about her interest in poetry and the artistic voice expressed throughout her work. Fascinated by the layers of communication and emotional embodiment found in words, harris describes a journey of discovery for herself and the reader.
In her career, harris has been recognized with the Pushcart Prize, Lambda Literary Award, Audre Lorde Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Soon, she will receive tenure and a promotion to full professor at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Department of English. Both are remarkable achievements on their own accord and rarely granted in unison.
Read the Q&A with francine harris below. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.
You can follow francine @ twitter.com/francinejharris
What is the main thing you want people to know about you?
I find this question oddly terrifying. What do I want my students to know about me versus what do I reveal in my poems as a writer? I guess it depends. I find myself not wanting to divulge too much personally but then revealing almost everything in my writing. For example, here at University of Houston, I was tenured and promoted this year and will be a full professor, as of September 1st. But, I haven’t posted that on social media because announcing it feels scary, even though I truly want everyone to know! Every day I type, “I just got tenure!” on Twitter and then discard the draft.
What drew you to writing poetry?
I started writing poetry because I'm not the most linear communicator. Because of how I grew up and needed to process things, I can be ambivalent, and I think a lot about nuance and subtlety. Poetry is the one place I have felt like I have the room just to suggest things. I can start a sentence and maybe not finish it. I can digress, tangent and drift off, and I think people who come to read poetry sort of expect that. I can be honest, and maybe they expect that honesty to be a little jarring. If more people understood that poetry gives you this kind of freedom, maybe more people would tap in.
Why did you select a career teaching creative writing?
In addition to feeling like I have something to offer students, teaching is a way of communing in my artistic practice. Being a teacher is a way to ward off the isolation that writers tend to fall into. And no matter your personality type, you come into the classroom knowing you are not the most important person in the room. Your focus is on the person speaking or the person on the verge of discovery. You’re always turning yourself over to another person in the classroom. And that, for me, is part of my practice.
Do you remember your first poem? If so, tell me about it.
I wrote a poem in fifth grade and the last line was, “They were supposed to be the parents not me.”I felt like that line came from someplace outside of me, like it opened a door. As a writer, I understand now there is something that can only happen in the act of writing. Your brain begins to process through the act of moving your hand, moving through language — something spontaneous and experimental in the space between muscle memory and the part of your brain that taps into language. And of course, we’re all that experimental artist as kids. Some of us stop and some of us just keep going. Though I do like to think that people who stop, for whatever reason, could always return to that playful state of mind.
When you write your poems, who are you writing for?
This question comes up a lot for writers, and I go back and forth on it. A lot of writers say, ‘I’m writing for myself,’ but for me, I think it changes. Sometimes it's for me. But there's also something that happens when you find yourself writing to someone. For example, maybe someone you've never met or someone you've lost and will never get to see again. In poetry, this can be called elegy, which honors the life of someone, and often that person might be the audience you are writing for. It can be a very powerful mode.
You have dedicated much of your career to teaching creative writing and arts to people. Why is it important to expose people — especially young people — to creative writing and visual arts?
Exposing writing to young people at an early age is crucial because it enables imagination. It bolsters experimentation, critical thinking, reasoning. Even if you study writing and then go on to be an architect, the way you were able to explore creativity through language will inform your professional practice. Anyone who has ever studied writing will tell you that studying metaphor, figurative language, narrative movement, will all carry over into whatever field you pursue. And frankly, if you take away creative writing and the arts from our culture, we are left with a literal and stagnant society.
What drew you to come to UH? What do you like most about being here?
Houston was a little serendipitous, in terms of being the place that made the most sense at the time. But what keeps me here and what I love about Houston is that it is a great city, and our campus is incredibly diverse. It is by far, the most diverse campus I’ve ever been on. I don’t just mean racially. I also mean background, age, academic experience, aesthetic and intellectual approach. There’s a lot of range. I've had undergraduate and graduate students who still live at home to students who are raising families. I’ve had undergraduate students who left jobs after 10 years and come back to school! UH has some of the most respectful students I’ve ever had. They respect the act of learning. They are flexible in the classroom and supportive of each other. And they are very down to earth. It feels like we're on this journey here. We may have started at different points on the road, but we're going to get there, together.
What advice do you have for people interested in a career in creative writing?
Do it! And leave room for yourself to be interested in other endeavors. The great thing about writing is that it can complement other pursuits. Study the writing. And then take it with you!
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