Renowned Poet Vievee Frances Finds Strength in Vulnerability and Pain

Photo courtesy of Poetry Foundation.

“I am becoming as roots reclaim / this soil, as what is felled takes on / a form it could not have imagined, / whose seeds had always rested below ...”

So ends the poem “Happy?” by this year’s recipient of the Kate and Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, Vievee Frances. This was one of the many poems that Frances read and discussed from her volume “Forest Primeval” last Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Claremont Public Library. The reading and Frances’ week-long residency in Claremont celebrated Frances’ new status as the winner of the 2017 Tufts Poetry Award, a gift of $100,000 that honors exceptional mid-career poets.

In a small room at the library filled with village residents and students, Frances described her poetic process of confronting experiences of hurt that “felled” her and of bringing forth descriptions of battles she has fought.

“Vievee Frances visited our creative writing class earlier that day and mentioned that a lot of her poet friends would talk about a fight in their work,” said Sean Clark PZ ’20. “And in time, she realized that they weren’t actually referring to literal fights. And she decided then that she wanted to see what would happen if she talked about a fight she had actually experienced.”

Genevieve Kaplan, coordinator of the Tufts poetry awards, wrote in an email to TSL in the words of Kate Tufts that the award gives poets a “little breathing room and a little recognition” – the financial stability and encouragement to dedicate themselves to their art.

Frances said her poems were personal expression of who she is and of what weathers in her life as an African-American woman.

“She explicitly mentioned that she didn’t expect just everybody to be able to relate to her poems,” said Clark. “Her writing is specific to her intersectionality.”

During the event, Frances first read her poem “Another Anti-Pastoral,” which she explained was a reflection of the time she spent in the mountains. She then shared her poem “A Flight of Swiftlets Made their Way In,” which portrays the thoughts of a speaker who at first wants to snap the necks of tiny birds, but later imagines them taking flight with their “many hearts within beating beating beating beating…”

Clark mentioned that he found Frances’ reading of the birds’ fluttering hearts particularly powerful. “She repeated ‘beating’ again and again,” Clarke said. “And I kept thinking that the person reading is the person in the poem; she’s watching her experience, digesting it, and sharing it. And given how vulnerable and scary it is to put oneself in writing, I thought she was so brave.”

Frances also presented “Taking It,” a poem rife with imagery of a speaker being physically and emotionally abused by a father and a boy who wants the speaker’s heart. “It’s my favorite from the repertoire [Frances] read out,” Clarke said. “[The poem] perhaps describes abuse most explicitly. She seems to play a lot with what was expected of her gender, stating again and again, that they are expected to behave in some way, but that she instead 'punched' and learned to love the 'heavyweights' … she’d enjambed her lines, and she just continues on with her story … For me, [the poem] talks about how people can both be weapons and healing.”

Frances’ poem “Skinned” is perhaps the most explicit display of her experiences regarding her race. She called her skin "unsightly," "dirty," and "unseemly” and talked about wanting “to burn it off … to find the pink [that] … lay beneath.” 

Frances stressed the importance of showcasing what is both unpleasant and difficult to show in writing. “She never backs down from confronting the heart of her poems and her experience, even if that means addressing violence," Kaplan said. "She uses her poetry to take readers somewhere [where they are] at least a little bit uncomfortable. Her poems are compellingly grounded in reality, but still, they’re beautifully musical and magical.”