The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Ariel Francisco about his new collection A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship (Burrow Press April 2020), how its dual languages evoke the landscape its poems are set in, writing about a place tourists think they know, and explaining hurricanes to outsiders.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Heather McHugh, Thea Matthews, Benjamin Garcia, Sumita Chakraborty, Vijay Seshadri, Molly Spencer, Kimberly Grey, torrin a. greathouse, Erin Belieu, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: Hey, before we dive into the book, I need to apologize for something. I should have asked to invite José Nicolás Cabrera-Schneider, who translates your poems in A Sinking Ship Is Still a Ship, to this chat as well. I hate missing an opportunity to talk about translation as part of the process.
Ariel Francisco: Oh, no worries! That would’ve been cool though lol.
Julie R. Enszer: One of the things I found fascinating was the translation aspect. Wondered if Ariel was involved in the process.
Ariel Francisco: Well, it was my idea but I let Nico have free rein over the translations. I only made very small edits. As a translator myself, I think it’s important to let the translator have as much agency as they need.
Brian S: I’ve heard lots of different takes on this experience, but can you talk some about what it felt like to have someone do that kind of work on your poems? By which I mean take partial ownership of them… I’d guess being a translator yourself helped some?
Ariel Francisco: Oh, it was awesome. I’m not sure I would call it ownership; the translations end up being their own things which is part of what makes it so cool. It’s really fantastic to see the poems exist in a different way.
Julie R. Enszer: One of the things I really enjoyed about the side-by-side presentation is it almost seemed like a third poem existed in the space between the two. And that the duo vocal nature of the book evokes some of the state landscapes, too, which also are at times bilingual.
Brian S: Especially a lot of the specific places where these poems are set. Like, Broward and Dade counties are polylingual, not just bilingual.
Ariel Francisco: Yeah! I love having them side by side, too. I’m so, so happy with the way it turned out!
Brian S: Can you talk some about what it’s like to write about Florida? For some background: something my wife, as a Florida native, has complained about is the way outsiders claim knowledge of it because they’ve been there for a visit a few times—but that’s not the Florida you write about. (I have similar feelings about New Orleans.)
Ariel Francisco: Oh yeah, that’s tough. Florida is very much in pop culture so people typically only know a very small aspect of it. I write about Florida mostly out of frustration. I wanted to leave it very badly for a lot of reasons. I lived there most of my life, so I know it pretty well, South Florida in particular. But I wasn’t necessarily writing about Florida so that people could know it better (though that is a nice side effect), I was kind of writing out my frustrations of living in such a strange place.
Brian S: It’s a lot weirder than people give it credit for, Florida Man jokes not withstanding.
Ariel Francisco: It is, and in different ways.
Brian S: Like the poem “Driving to Work, I Stop Suddenly to Let an Alligator Cross the Road.” I know that poem in a really personal, visceral way because I have done that exact thing, whereas a person from, oh, Iowa (where I live now) might be struck by the matter-of-fact tone of the poem.
It works on an artistic level, taking some of the potential sensationalism out of the moment, but it also works on a factual level for people with inside knowledge.
Ariel Francisco: Right! I think that’s the idea of the book and what seems to be happening with readers: it seems to be resonating with both Floridians and non-Floridians, which is so great to see
Brian S: That poem also resonated because it seemed to embody this kind of balance of: every place is weird if you give it a chance, but the weird is also normal if you give it a chance. Or it’s normal to somewhere, rather.
Ariel Francisco: It’s also a good way of remembering to social distance! Either stay an alligator’s length away from people, or stay as far away from them as you would an alligator lol.
Yeah, it’s Florida-normal, which is to say strange.
Brian S: Yeah, but Brooklyn has those weird things, too, like the whole Jehovah’s Witness history, as does Iowa. And when you talk to locals they’re like “oh yeah, of course I’ve stuck my arm up inside a pig to help it give birth” or something.
When you do readings, do you read both the Spanish and English versions, or does it depend on the crowd?
Ariel Francisco: Oh no, I only read the English. I read in the Dominican Republic with my dad back in November and he read the Spanish for me. The book just came out so all my readings and the tour got canned, obviously; I’ve only done a couple of Zoom readings but I haven’t really intended to read the Spanish.
I have to practice more; I always practice reading my poems out loud.
Brian S: That sounds amazing, to be able to read with your dad.
Ariel Francisco: Yeah, it was really really cool.
Brian S: I was going to ask about that, what it’s like trying to launch a book in the middle of all this madness.
Ariel Francisco: It wasn’t too high up on my list of concerns, to be totally honest. There’s so much else to worry about. My editor and I decided pretty early that a lot of the book tour would have to be canceled. We didn’t even go to AWP. It seems like people are still buying it and reading it, so that’s the upside of social media. It definitely sucks because we had a little Florida tour set up, and readings in New Orleans and Philly, and had some other stuff in the works. But not much to be done about that.
Brian S: That’s terrific to hear, and I hope we helped in some small way with that, because Burrow Press is exactly the kind of small press that this crisis could really endanger.
Ariel Francisco: Oh, you definitely did! Burrow is amazing.
Brian S: What are your favorite poems to read publicly, when you get the chance?
Ariel Francisco: “On the eve of the largest hurricane…” is my closer for sure. “The 163rd St. Mall,” “Spring Break Forever.”
Brian S: I hope one of them is “Ruin of Earliest Church in America Discovered in Florida” because that meditation right in the middle of the poem was just exquisite. “Is there anything more Florida / than being buried under a church that / will be buried under a shopping mall / that will be ripped open by a hurricane / named after one of the twelve apostles?” And the answer is no. There is nothing more Florida than that. There may be things equally Florida, but not more Florida.
Ariel Francisco: Oh yeah, that one for sure, too. That always gets a good reaction lol.
Brian S: That hurricane poem is so excellent. Have you ever tried to explain what it’s like going through a hurricane to someone from, like, California?
Ariel Francisco: I have not lol. It’s really difficult to describe, especially the anticipation. That poem is about Hurricane Irma in 2017. It was wild because in South Florida we hadn’t been hit since Katrina. So people would kind of blow off the warnings; we pretty much had a generation in Florida that didn’t have to go through a hurricane.
Brian S: Well, we had Wilma the same year as Katrina. I was there at the time. And my oldest daughter was in Mississippi for Katrina when it got big, came to live with me during the rebuild of her mom’s house, and then got caught by Wilma. That was one bullshit year.
Ariel Francisco: Right, Wilma hit Broward really bad.
Brian S: But even with the warnings, it’s not easy to evacuate from South Florida because there are really only two roads north and you have to drive forever to get out of the way. Most people don’t realize how big Florida is. Like, it’s ten hours in average traffic to get to Georgia on the turnpike. So you hunker down in one of those concrete bunker houses and hope it doesn’t fuck you up too badly.
Ariel Francisco: Yeah. When I moved two years ago, I drove. It was kind of ironic that driving out of Florida was the hardest and longest part of the drive.
Brian S: Has Brooklyn started to make its way into your writing yet?
Ariel Francisco: Well, I’m originally from New York, and though I moved when I was a small kid, I have a ton of family here and we would come to visit. So it’s always been important to my writing. I visited for a few weeks back in 2013 and that ended being half of my first book. And I’ve already finished a third manuscript which is very New York-heavy.
But the particularities of Brooklyn haven’t quite made their way in just yet. I was in Brooklyn from May 2018 to October 2019, then moved to Queens, and just moved back to Brooklyn a few days ago, actually.
Brian S: See, to an outsider who’s only ever been there as a tourist, you might as well have said you moved from New York to New York. But if I say that on Twitter, everyone who’s ever lived in either place will correct me in painful detail.
I once did that to a friend in grad school the last time the Mets played the Yankees in the World Series. I said I wasn’t watching because New York had won and I think he would have slashed my tires if I hadn’t laughed immediately afterward.
Who are you reading right now? Anything we should have an eye out for?
Ariel Francisco: I just started A Tradition of Rupture, which I’m loving. Absolutely love love love Alejandra Pizarnik.
Also reading The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext, which I’m loving as well!
Brian S: Oh man. That’s on my desk just waiting for me to finish grading for the semester.
Ariel Francisco: And it’s almost summer which will bring me to my yearly ritual of reading Kafka’s diaries, which I recommend to any and everyone.
Brian S: I’ve never read those. I’ll have to give them a try. Honestly, I’m having trouble reading since the pandemic started, so maybe diaries will be the thing to get me out of my funk.
Ariel Francisco: They are incredible. I think every writer should read them, and I’m not usually the type to say anyone should read something.
Brian S: Someday I’m going to get a Willie Perdomo book for the Poetry Book Club. It’s my mission.
Ariel Francisco: He’s so great
Ariel Francisco: Love Shorty Bon-Bon; haven’t gotten his latest yet though.
Brian S: I doubt my public library will have them as e-books, but I’ll hunt around and see if I can score that Kafka.
Ariel Francisco: Worth it!
Brian S: What’s this newly finished manuscript about? Where might we find some of the published poems from it online? Let’s give some journals some traffic.
Ariel Francisco: The poems The Rumpus just published are from it! Also my New Yorker poem. Most of my recent publications are from it. It’s like a family history-type book, maybe. It’s hard to describe.
Brian S: So, I’ve really loved this chat, and this book, and thank you so much for joining us tonight for this. And I hope things get better for us all in this madness. Stay safe, and I hope some day to meet you in person.
Ariel Francisco: You, too! This was great! Thanks again!
Photograph of Ariel Francisco by Carlie Hoffman.