A perennial gift of being a professor of creative writing is that each semester I meet writers who will shape the literary future—and sometimes, writers who are shaping it already. Ariel Francisco is one of those writers. We met when he was a student in the MFA program at Florida International University, where I encountered his prodigious poems and had the pleasure of blurbing his debut chapbook, Before Snowfall, After Rain (Glass Poetry Press, 2016). Shortly after he graduated, his thesis manuscript, All My Heroes Are Broke, was published by C&R Press. He was also named one of the Five Florida Writers to Watch in 2019 by the Miami New Times.
This summer, despite his busy schedule, Ariel found time to answer some questions for me. We spoke about poetic translation, poetic inheritance, accepting rejection, as well as Ariel’s second collection, A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship, forthcoming in 2020 from Burrow Press.
[A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship is an upcoming Rumpus Poetry Book Club selection! You can receive this collection before its release date and participate in an exclusive online conversation with Ariel—just head to our store and become a member today! Our subscription programs help keep The Rumpus running, so you can connect with your favorite writers and support The Rumpus with just one click. – Ed.]
The Rumpus: So let’s dive right into poetry at the outset here: When did you first realize you were a poet? Was it a slow dawning or sudden awakening?
Ariel Francisco: Weirdly, I remember deciding (or being compelled) to become a poet when I graduated high school, though to be honest I can’t remember exactly why. We didn’t read a lot of poetry in high school but I remember really loving Emily Dickinson in eleventh grade and Sylvia Plath in twelfth grade. I hadn’t read any poetry on my own at that point. I was always a big reader and would even read ahead in my textbooks during my more boring classes instead of paying attention, but it never occurred to me that I could be a writer myself. It’s still a little mysterious to me.
I entered college as a Marine Biology major and promptly failed chemistry and algebra before switching to English after my first semester of freshman year. I took workshops as often as I could because it was the only way I could get myself to write (and also because those classes were five credits, so they kept my GPA afloat.) It wasn’t until my senior year that I started writing outside of class, and it was my New Year’s resolution for 2012 to try and write every day. I think that’s when I started to call myself a poet, when I started writing poems just to write them and not for class.
Rumpus: How does being a poet shape your worldview?
Francisco: At this point, being a poet informs everything I experience and consume, because my approach to writing poetry has become a sense-making mechanism for my life and experiences. It means everything to me now; I can’t imagine myself without it to be honest. Or at least I don’t care to. Poetry is wild.
Rumpus: Poetry as a “sense-making mechanism” for life and experience! Here, here! And now, having completed your MFA in poetry at Florida International University, you’re pursuing an MFA in translation at Queens College. When and how did translation come into the literary picture for you?
Francisco: A couple of people mentioned I should look into translating poetry, Campbell McGrath being one of them. I started in 2014 with my dad’s poems, since I could just call him or text him if I had any questions. It was surprisingly difficult at first. I grew up in a bilingual home, took Spanish in high school for the easy A, and tested out of it in undergrad with the CLEP exam, so I always felt pretty good about my Spanish. But translation showed me how wrong I was, how so many of the nuances of the written language were lost to me. (I mostly only spoke Spanish, rarely read it, and only wrote it for exams. I was really only practiced in speaking it.) It’s been really rewarding, though, especially after five years now of practicing it. I think translating a poem is doing an extremely close reading, as close as possible. I think it’s the closest way to read a poem.
Rumpus: Has translating poetry influenced your relationship with poetry as a reader and writer?
Francisco: It’s definitely complicated my relationship with poetry in a good way. It teaches me so much, even just reading poetry in translation. With my own work, I focus on translating poems from the Dominican Republic and Guatemala because they are my parents’ home countries and I have my parents as resources to help me with the unique cultural aspects of the poems and contexts if they aren’t clear to me.
Even as a reader, it’s really fascinating to read poetry from a culture or a country that I really don’t know anything about. There’s such a tremendous knowledge gap between myself and the poem, that I can’t fathom where the poet come from, which just isn’t true for reading American poetry as an American poet. You can almost always trace an American poet’s style or aesthetic lineage in some capacity, even if they vary from it or do something new with it; I don’t mean that as a bad thing, I just think it’s true. But say I’m reading poetry translated into English from Hungarian. I don’t know shit about Hungary or Hungarian. Where the hell does this poet come from? Who are their predecessors? I have no idea. From a reader’s point of view it’s almost entirely alien, entirely novel, and I think that’s fantastic.
Rumpus: Let’s talk a bit about the poems you write, which are so often directly and explicitly linked to encounters with other writers’ work. How did your writing about and from reading the work of other poets begin, and how has it evolved?
Francisco: Honestly, it’s something that I also learned as an undergrad from reading my mentors Denise Duhamel and Campbell McGrath. Denise has her poem “Having a Diet Coke with You,” which of course plays off of Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You,” and Campbell has “James Wright, Richard Hugo, the Vanishing Forests of the Pacific Northwest,” among others. I think it’s really fun to wear your influences on your sleeve, to engage with them directly, to be as explicit as possible with it. It’s also a great way to kind of sneak a recommendation to a reader. When I first read that Campbell poem, I didn’t know who James Wright or Richard Hugo were, but I immediately set out to read them because Campbell liked them enough to write about them. And imagine my joy when I first picked up Wright’s most well-known work, The Branch Will Not Break, and the first poem makes reference to another poet, Po Chu-I (whom I also love now). It creates a kind of lineage of influence, which is pretty awesome.
Rumpus: Do you have any favorite poets (or writers at large) that you’re reading right now?
Francisco: My favorite poets might be James Wright and Basho. I return to them constantly when I’m stuck. Sylvia Plath as well, though she’s still very mysterious to me (which is why I keep returning). My favorite living poet might be the Dominican poet Frank Baez. I highly recommend his collection in translation, Last Night I Dreamt I was a DJ, to everyone.
Rumpus: I’m so happy you mentioned Frank O’Hara here because he holds the key to one of my favorite questions. I’m sure you know his poem “Why I Am Not a Painter,” which beings “I am not a painter, I am a poet. / Why? I think I would rather be / a painter, but I am not.” So I’ll ask: If you, Ariel, were not a poet, what would you be?
Francisco: Oh, that’s a tough question. Not many things interest me enough to imagine having a career in them, to be honest. Like I said, I wanted to be a marine biologist once but failed the most basic classes for being a science major. I think what I really wanted to do was go on ocean adventures anyway (I just wanted to be Steve Irwin). I think at some point I wanted to be a wildlife photographer focusing on sea creatures, but never had any real idea of how to go about doing that and figured it’s impractical anyway (says the poet). I love film, too; it’s really the only other art form that I ever considered pursuing but it’s just way too collaborative—you have to rely on and work with so many other people. That’s not for me.
This is kind of a lame answer, but I guess if I wasn’t a poet, I would most likely be a literature professor. The only thing I really want to do is teach. I don’t really have a post-grad school plan outside of that. I mean, I’m getting a second MFA. I don’t want to get a PhD, but I will if I have to! (Someone hire me please!)
Rumpus: Could you share a bit about your publication strategy/process and how you knew you were ready to begin submitting your individual poems as well as these first manuscripts?
Francisco: For my process of circulating individual poems, that really came from seeing and hearing about MFA grads who were in these “post-grad slumps” where they couldn’t write or work on anything without a workshop. This sounded awful to me, so I began to use workshop as a way to calibrate how accurately I judged my own writing, and not become too dependent on the thoughts and opinions of others (which I perceived to be the root of these “slumps”). So instead of bringing in a poem to workshop that was definitely incomplete and needing a lot of feedback, I would work on a poem until I thought it was finished and bring that in instead. That way, if the poem went over well in workshop, I would have successfully judged my own work, and if it didn’t, then I had some valuable feedback and edits to make. I’ve always thought of this as a win/win and quickly began to use it as a threshold for sending things out for publication: if it passed through workshop, it was ready to go.
The chapbook came about through almost pure luck really. I had a poem published in a very small journal (that I think is defunct now, actually), and some time later the poetry editor, Anthony Frame, reached out to me about publishing a chapbook. He was starting a press and had looked up more of my work after I was published in that journal. So while I wasn’t circulating a chapbook around trying to get it published, the individual poems that I had published were kind of out there doing that work for me. Before Snowfall, After Rain was Glass Poetry Press’s debut also, which is pretty cool.
All My Heroes Are Broke has a similar origin, though I had been sending that around as a book for a while. But ultimately, it was the individual poems I had been publishing that put me in a position to receive these opportunities.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about your second full-length collection that is currently in the works? Could it be considered a sequel to All My Heroes Are Broke in theme and/or style?
Francisco: Yes! A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship will be out April 2020 with Burrow Press. It gets its title from a song by Astronautalis, a fellow Florida man (the song is called “The River, the Trees”—and All My Heroes Are Broke also takes its title from a song, “Scope or Claw” by Sims). I think it’s definitely a sequel, it really picks up where All My Heroes Are Broke left off: in Florida. There’s definitely a lot of bitterness in this book, at times a bit hyperbolic, but Florida is a very hyperbolic place, I think. A lot of it stems from growing up in Florida and feeling trapped in its absurdity. It’s kind of like a teenager yelling “you aren’t my real dad!” to their stepfather, if that makes sense. That’s what my relationship with Florida is like, and that’s kind of the self-conscious energy of this new book. It’s this kind of sinking. Both because the state is sinking on pretty much every level (literal, metaphorical, metaphysical, probably, too), but also because I felt like I was sinking as well. But also, Florida is still home and I do love it. It’s complicated. And that’s why I love that line for the title so much. A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship. Florida sucks, but it’s also home.
Also, it will be published bilingually, which is exciting as hell! The wonderful José Nicolás Cabrera-Schneider is translating it into Spanish.
Rumpus: I love the analogy of Florida as a stepfather, and the poet-speaker as an angry teenager shouting “You’re not my real dad!” It’s such a vivid image and a dynamic every reader will surely recognize. If we were to extend the analogy, would you say that New York City is the speaker’s true father? And/or somewhere else?
Francisco: Oh yeah. I mean, I moved from New York to Florida when I was five, so I’ve had a long time to idealize it, you know? Certainly a lot of people idealize New York but for me (and I’m sure for others as well) it has more to with it being my birthplace. I think of it as my homeland. It’s where my parents met, where me and my siblings and a lot of my cousins were born. It’s my place of origin the same way the Dominican Republic is for my dad and Guatemala is for my mom. New York (and the Bronx in particular) is definitely my “real dad,” though I’ll always love Florida, too, for raising me. Credit where credit is due.
Rumpus: Speaking of fathers: you mentioned earlier that your father’s poems were the first you ever translated. So many poets I meet describe themselves as the proverbial “black sheep” in their families—since your father is a poet, too, do you consider your own talent and inclination to write poems a kind of family resemblance or inheritance? Or perhaps something else altogether?
Francisco: I really like the idea of us both being poets as a family resemblance or inheritance. Now that I’m older there’s more of a resemblance but we’ve never really looked too much alike; I ended up looking more like my mom and her side of the family (lighter skin and very straight hair) where as my dad (and my siblings) are darker with curly hair. People would often joke that I’m adopted, which was annoying (though, if you saw a photo of us together, not entirely unreasonable). So it’s very cool for me to have this connection with my dad now in adulthood. What’s extra odd is that growing up I don’t think I knew my dad was a poet. I knew that he wrote and that he had studied journalism for a bit, and when I was in middle school he published a book of Dominican aphorisms (with more than a handful of his own included). But I think it only really came up when I started college and decided I wanted to write poetry. He’s really great; talking to him is like a lifelong course in Latin American poetry. My dad is probably the most well/widely read person I know.
Rumpus: You’re a talented and dedicated writer who will have completed two MFAs and published two collections of poetry before the age of thirty. What qualities/strategies have you found to be most important for navigating the uncertainties and rejections that (inevitably) attend the literary life?
Francisco: I don’t think there’s any secret to whatever successes I’ve had so far. I think my approach to writing has been absolutely foolish, a completely reckless downhill sprint kind of thing. I wouldn’t recommend it. Because I’ve been in school for so long and working as an adjunct, my free time from school and work tends to align really well (end of semesters, weekends, etc.), and I’ll spend entire days working on stuff or reading and researching. I’m talking ten or eleven hours for like four or five days in a row. And then my brain gets exhausted and I take a day off, and feel guilty about it. It feels really unhealthy, and I’m recently trying to change this and have a more balanced kind of approach to my writing. I don’t think I’ve ever rushed my work; I was just trying to do as much as possible while I had the time—like if I got stuck on a poem, I would start another, and another, and another. This is what I was like from age twenty-four to twenty-eight. But that’s changing a bit now, or I’m trying to actively change it. I don’t think I’m slowing down but rather just trying to find a healthier pace. I don’t know if this is useful information to anyone, but that’s been my process. A kind of hurricane of productivity. It’s been mostly chaos, but that has worked for me.
The best advice I ever got about rejection was from Campbell McGrath, who said something like if a poem gets rejected it just remains unpublished, but it was already unpublished, so nothing has changed. It’s not like the poem is worse now. You can’t move backwards. The poem can only go from being unpublished to published. The poems themselves don’t carry the weight of rejection and you shouldn’t either. It’s not like you have to list the places it was rejected when you send it out again. Poems don’t have a win-loss record, you know?
Photographs provided courtesy of Ariel Francisco. Featured photograph of Ariel Francisco by Shun Takino, taken at the NYC Poetry Festival in 2018.