Current: An Interview with Rebecca Morgan Frank About Her 2017 Collection Sometimes We’re All Living in A Foreign Country
by Allison Pitinii Davis
March 4, 2018
Rebecca Morgan Frank published her collection, Sometimes We’re All Living in A Foreign Country, with Carnegie Mellon University Press in October 2017. It is available for purchase here.
APD: The language of childhood rhymes echo through the opening of the collection. In “Parable of a First Born,” sisters chant jump rope rhymes before relocation reduces them to strangers. In “Crawfish Chorus,” the language of nursery rhymes meets lyric word play: “Crawfish, crawfish,/Mary caught a dogfish./Dog face, dog race…” How are these rhymes operating in the collection’s larger examination of identity and place? Did their sonic qualities influence how you approached form and sound throughout the collection?
RMF: I always follow my ear when I write–the music carries me into whatever it is I am trying to explore in the poem. Some of the music of this book was shaped by the sounds around me, such as the train horns that blared all night just yards away from my old loft above an antique store in downtown Hattiesburg, MS. But the music also comes from what I’m reading, and while I was teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi, I came across a fascinating book on jump rope rhymes in the library stacks. Reading those rhymes, and especially reading them aloud with my students to help them learn about meter and rhyme, brought back the early pleasures, and playfulness, of poetry that I first encountered as a child in Virginia. Because I was teaching graduate poetic forms courses over the years I wrote this collection, I was reading a lot of both published and student work that was rich with distinctive meters and rhyme. I am hard of hearing, so I am often drawn to more obvious sounds, the sounds I can identify and follow: the clarity of the chanting song of a jump rope rhyme, for example, makes it into my world. I am also interested in the way places have their own rhythms shaped by the way people speak, sing, listen.
APD: The collection is full of cataloging, and the lists often depict the lost, castoff, or forgotten. The collection opens with “Pawn Shop,” where the speaker is seated “at the boxy and floral pianoforte,/surrounded by shoestrings, an old leg bone,/a cracked Grecian urn.” The list compresses time, space, and the history poetry—the urn calls back to Keats calling back to ancient Greece. “Fishing Tackle and Fine Wines” begins “That’s the sort of city it was. You could find/everything you wouldn’t want within a block.” The collection thrusts these castoff relics into center stage and forces the reader to grapple with the histories of what we’ve left behind. I’m interested in how the collection casts these everyday objects in a new light that makes the familiar feel new. Can you talk more about the relationship between the castoff objects and the collection’s tension between the familiar and foreign? Formally, how did these lists of objects influence the construction of the poems?
RMF: I’m fascinated with how the wear on objects is the mark of the life of someone else: objects become temporal through their wear or decay, and thus as images, they can convey the passage of time. When I return to certain parts of the South, I can see the presence of the past, and of the passage of time, in material ways. The cluttered antique shops, the crumbling gas stations, the old malls that have long been demolished other places: the past is on the surface. I love what you said about these relics forcing the reader to grapple with the histories of what we’ve left behind, because that is what I felt was happening to me when I faced the material world around me when I returned to the South. The items in the pawn shop become concrete symbols of not only our individual pasts, but of our collective American pasts.
With each object we encounter, we are forced to experience the way we either are connected to it or alienated from it: both of those reactions intrigue me as a writer. Each of us has built distinct narratives of our histories and identities based on the materiality of our own lives. Imagery as a tool taps into this, but it also becomes problematic when we assume that we are all reading images the same way. Objects, the images, the left-behind stuff of these poems, seemed to me to be useful tools for trying to explore that tension between the familiar and the foreign, the way place and culture can cultivate nostalgia or a sense of displacement, of otherness.
APD: The speaker of “The Whole Town” is rooted in Mississippi—”I was born below/these trees.” The speaker of “Sometimes We’re All Living in A Foreign Country” complicates what it means to know a place:
I thought I knew a little about small southern towns–
what it meant to leave to live.
Now every direction takes me to a foreign land.
every turn returns me to a history that’s my own.
In a book that focuses on the uprooted nature of modernity, how do you understand the role of Mississippi in the collection? How do the poems about Mississippi contribute to and complicate the book’s examination of foreignness?
RMF: In terms of the broader questions I’m trying to explore in the book, I keep thinking of the Faulkner quote, ‘To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” Politically, Mississippi is both canary in the coal mine and it is representative of our country and its weaknesses; it is a place that can teach us what happens when you don’t care for the environment and education and the health and well-being of all people, it is a place that holds some of our most shameful and horrific history as a nation. The poem “Bombed” emerged after I attended a Freedom Summer anniversary conference at the University of Southern Mississippi, where people who had participated in the civil rights movement as local activists, or as students in the freedom schools, spoke about their experiences. Hearing their stories changed my life, and sent me to the oral history archives. Only one of the poems from this made it into the book: I felt I had to tell the story of Vernon Dahmer. What does it say about our country that we don’t all know the story of the KKK firebombing and killing a man in his own home, where his wife and children were with him, for helping other Black citizens register to vote? How do we not all know the story of these murders going unpunished for decades?
To me, the foreign country is not Mississippi, but the corners and histories and laws of all of this country that deny humanity, that look away from who we really are as a nation. Of course, this particular sense of foreignness is more widespread post the 2016 presidential election, as people start to look around and notice where they have been living all along.
APD: In this collection about physical and metaphysical uprootedness, bodies are often left separated or in hiding at the end of poems. “The Movements of Mechanical Objects” imagines the fate of a fading dancer figurine in a jewelry box: “The body/junked and thrown/from the box. Separated/from everything that moves.” In “Rubbernecker,” a Midwestern flaneur who finds his city “scrambled” retreats to a ditch because “If you hide from/these vast forces, sometimes they spare you.” Can you speak more about the fate of bodies—both human and constructed—in this collection? I’d also love to hear about how you approach the endings of poems and how your approach has shifted collection to collection.
RMF: I find that the body continues to come into my poems in complicated ways as a reflection of what it is to live in the female body in this world. I also felt a bodily vulnerability in Mississippi that I had never experienced before: I was hit by a car (driven by an IRS agent!) my first week there; we had a hurricane scare my first week of classes; a powerful tornado destroyed a nearby neighborhood and some of campus at the start of my second semester; and at the end of my second year there, I became very ill with Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick bite and my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. I was suddenly viscerally aware of the body’s powerlessness in relationship to all things great and small, and I suppose this found its way into the poems.
And what a great question about endings: I wish I had a better understanding of what drives my endings. I have always loved Frost’s “The Figure a Poem Makes,” where he says, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” Writing a poem is an act of discovery and/or investigation for me: I seek out that sense of surprise and delight in the early drafts, where I hope I learn or uncover something by the end of the poem. I’ll add that I imagine that my love for the lyric, and particularly the sonnet, can push me towards a certain kind of turn at the ends of poems.
APD: My favorite poem is “Postscript from Mississippi.” The speaker knows a place intimately enough to know what outsiders get wrong—to know what outsiders cannot see: “You want it all to be a metaphor. I’m watching/a front porch crumble. Still, someone sits there.” I write about the Rust Belt—a place that’s often misrepresented—and I wondered if you have additional thoughts about depictions of Mississippi in literature. Is this poem in response to a larger issue?
RMF: That poem captures some of the disconnect I felt living as an outsider calling Mississippi home: from the beginning, there was the aching shock of seeing the visible poverty of the rural South, particularly in the Delta, but also in some parts of the city where I was living. When you live in a place, you see humans living their lives, handling whatever they have been dealt the best they can. While I was frustrated with a state government that makes choices that keeps the state vying for last place in so many areas, especially health and education, I was also frustrated with the outside perception of Mississippi as an anomaly, the butt of all jokes, built on stereotypes that can allow people to ignore the way Mississippi is a reflection of our history and presence as a whole country. Regional caricatures deny the humanity of a people and deflect from the real problems of areas that don’t have the affluence to keep suffering and inequity out of sight.
Recently Joyce Carol Oates made an infuriating and ignorant comment on Twitter, saying, “If Mississippians read, Faulker would be banned.” Not only does she discount the reading and writing lives of Mississippians, but she flippantly disregards that the actual problems of illiteracy in Mississippi are rooted in the legacy of slavery and in ongoing inequality. She shows a complete lack of consideration of the diverse people of Mississippi and their real lives and concerns. (Does she know, for example, that more than a third of Mississippi’s citizens are African American?) She is not alone in her perceptions. In the Mississippi poems, I wanted to push past the joke, the symbol, the stereotypes, and write about our country, about what it looks like in a place so many people refuse to even visit.
I’m excited to see new representations of Mississippi coming from young writers, such as Mississippi poet Jermaine Thompson, and fiction writer Sonya Larson, who is writing about early Chinese communities in Mississippi. We need writers from both inside and outside of the South to take on its complexities and its many realities.
APD: In the collection, “foreignness” is approached and deconstructed from many angles, and one that I found especially mesmerizing is how perception through space can render the known into something new. In “Bird’s Eye” and “Crusoe is Still There,” distance erases contact and perception of life—“Bird’s Eye” concludes the collection with the line “From a distance, there are no bodies.” Did the poem always have this anchoring position in the collection? Can you talk more about the organization of the collection and the argument that the order makes about the relationships between how we look at the world and what we see?
RMF: In early versions of this manuscript, the final poem was “The Bridge,” which I realize, after reading your question here, has the same sort of gesture of perception and distance: the poem ends looking across the bridge at a glittering distant city. This perspective seemed important to me to end with in order to show both the gesture and frustration of trying to look back at ourselves, at our pasts, at the places we inhabit or have left behind.
Environmental destruction and pollution on a local level was another force I was grappling with in this book, and in this particular poem. My neighbor was a lawyer who had come to town for a few years to settle a suit with a large company accused of extensive pollution that led to cancer, and there were some other significant environmental issues where we were, ranging from superfund sites to unpleasant visceral experiences that were hard to measure in terms of threat: the water that came out of my tap was often brown, and the downtown was frequently overwhelmed with a stench that came from outdated sewage lagoons affected by the waste from a manufacturer. Clean water and clean air and soil are, of course, an issue across the U.S., across the world. It felt important to end the book with that broader vantage point with “Bird’s Eye,” which to me reflects, among other things, global environmental destruction.
APD:Who are some poets and artists that you turned to while working on Sometimes We’re All Living in A Foreign Country? Can you share what you’re currently working on and reading?
RMF: One that stands out is Caki Wilkinson’s The Wynona Stone Poems, which is just a marvel of a book with its one-of-a-kind Southern woman protagonist. I was also constantly reading and teaching old and new books by Terrance Hayes and Kevin Young: these are two poets of my generation whose work is really exciting to me for its music, its relevance, its formal innovation. Photographer Sally Mann’s memoir “Holding Still” was also a memorable read to me during this time period. She not only captures the home of my early childhood (my childhood was split between Lexington and Charlottesville), but she expresses that deep, hungry connection one can feel to a land itself, that umbilical chord-like connection I feel to Virginia.
Another big influence on this book was Mississippi photographer Betty Press, whose photograph is on the cover of this collection. She models for me the way one can reflect the many layers of the South, with its surface decay, its difficult history and presence, its beauty and humanity. I have framed prints of hers above my writing desk.
As for my own current projects, I am in the early stages of a new book, in which I’m investigating early automatons–medieval and 18th and 19th century automatons–as well as modern robots. I am having a lot of fun reading and researching for these poems, and it helps that I live with a Medievalist, whose bookshelves are a gold mine! My doctoral dissertation is also calling me to return to it: that book is a collection of poems about my family’s history and heritage in the Philippines. It is a book that keeps growing and changing as I try to get it right.
On my reading table right now are new books by Joseph Legaspi, Charif Shanahan, Angela Ball, and Hadara Bar-Nadav. I’m also currently obsessed with the novels of Rachel Cusk, whose seamless narrative moves fascinate me. I hope her work will influence my poems in some interesting way.
Rebecca Morgan Frank is the author of three collections of poetry: Little Murders Everywhere, a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award; The Spokes of Venus (Carnegie Mellon 2016), and Sometimes We’re All Living in a Foreign Country (Carnegie Mellon 2017). Her poems have appeared in such places as The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, and Guernica. She is the recipient of the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for her next manuscript in progress. She is the Jacob Ziskind Poet in Residence at Brandeis University and co-founder and editor of the online magazine Memorious.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Allison Pitinii Davis is the author of Line Study of a Motel Clerk (Baobab Press, 2017) and Poppy Seeds (Kent State University Press, 2013), winner of the Wick Poetry Chapbook Prize. She holds an MFA from Ohio State University and fellowships from Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner program and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She’s a PhD student at The University of Tennessee.