When poet Vievee Francis talks about writing poetry, the word most often on her lips is compulsive. It’s a word usually reserved for flying the red flags of pop psychology and other assorted misbehaviors. Yet she weaves a spell, transforming the word into an utterly marvelous terrain.
In her world, compulsion might be a mysterious yet compelling land beyond passion or work, where words are felt viscerally, as goosebumps, tears, gasps, or laughter. When Vievee speaks about poetry, it’s not uncommon for her to exclaim how the hair raises on her arms—or she might breathe slowly and fan her eyes, which might be tearing. “I have often said that for me writing is a compulsion, and as such, nothing can stop me but me.”
Vievee was raised in rural East Texas, where her family has lived since the 1800s. She ended up in Detroit and when she was 24. She realized that she didn’t want to be a poet, she was a poet who would “devote (her) life to becoming a better poet.” She adds, laughing, “I can say with some ease that I did indeed become a better poet, which considering what I wrote then is not surprising.” She lived in Detroit for 20 years, honing her craft and contributing immensely to the literary community.
Then she moved to Western North Carolina, where she found herself undone by the beauty of the Appalachians. “For the past year every day I drive down a slender twisting road, that I initially found harrowing, that takes me past a hollow where suddenly the world is opened up into this utterly gorgeous bucolic bowl. From that hollow I am surrounded by mountains. And I gasp. I mean I literally gasp. Every time. I have simply never experienced anything like the Blue Ridge. After Detroit, this feels wild to me, as in wilderness.”
Topography Meets Biography
As a young poet working in industrial Detroit, she was self-taught. “I didn’t study poetry in college,” she says. “I think I had a class for a week and half before I dropped it as an undergrad. I read other poets and practiced. And I gravitated towards other serious poets. I loved their company and I learned by listening as well.” She refers to a traditional literary model reminding us, “Most iconic literary figures did not go into MFA programs. So how did they learn? What did they do?”
Vievee won Cave Canem Fellowships in 2005 and 2007 and published her debut book of poems Blue-Tail Fly in 2006 before entering an MFA program at the University of Michigan where she was a poet-in-residence for the Alice Lloyd Hall Scholars program. She also published in major literary journals, accepted an associate editor position at Callaloo, and won a prestigious Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s award in 2009. Her poetry has also been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2010 and Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry.
Blue-Tail Fly is full of persona poems that take place in America in the mid 19th century. Each poem is a mask, some more opaque than others, in which the poet assumes different identities and speaks from within them. One reader described the poems as “confident and utterly compelling.”
In 2012 she published Horse in the Dark, a startling departure from her first book in its singular voice and excavation of personal mythologies and life in rural Texas. Until then, she says, “My past was obscured, and that was my own doing. I did not in the main write much about my personal history until my early 40s. I use the idea of a dark horse to play with ideas around ethnicity, culture, and race … as I began to disclose the agrarian in my background.”
The poems are luminous, powerful, and chilling as they alternate organically between high concept and home grown. For example, some poems speak in the voice of an imaginary beast, while others are clearly autobiographical, reflecting on childhood, family, and tradition.
Readers can relate to references of food and family. A good example is a suite of grandmother poems that narrate the nuances of her grandmother’s life while using knives, cutting, and food as powerful symbols to juxtapose cruelty, violence, and the unspeakable against what is sweet and wonderful in life. In “Poulter’s Measure,” she writes:
Granny Peaches snapped the chicken’s neck, just like that.
Don’t remember the bird’s name. I coveted the white meat.
Do remember the taste—if not the feet, or beak
that must have been cleaved, or the grayish bones I’m sure I sucked.
It fought. The white feathers fell slowly as the black.
Now, I keep her recipe. She fried it in flour and blood.
“Many of my friends and acquaintances were surprised, to say the least, that I had any exposure at all to the rurality Horse in the Dark interrogates through myth and memory,” Vievee says.
Negotiating with Black Bears and Other Surprises: Moving to Western North Carolina
Texas is a long way from Detroit, where she composed the Horse in the Dark, and an even longer way from Western North Carolina, where she currently resides with her husband, also a working poet.
“Place is what I am negotiating in my work right now, here in the mountains, and what held my attention for the past few years as I wrote Horse in the Dark,” Vievee says. “It is only recently that I have been able to truly understand how much topography impacts me. It seems so obvious looking back, but it took moving to the mountains to really take that in.”
The Blue Ridge is famous for inspiring artists.Vievee is no exception. Since moving here, she has discovered that the mountains seem to change her work. Before moving, she tightly controlled her work because she feared it would “blather.” She definitely didn’t want that. “I am a straightforward type and I like to get to the nitty gritty of matters,” she says. “But at this point in my writing I have lost that fear. It is almost as if the wildness of the external landscape around me has forced me to consider the wilderness within. So, I am allowing my lines to grow longer, more white space, looser language, less control.”
In the following passage of her poem “Epicurean,” penned recently and published in The Four Way Review, she directly refers to the mountains:
A hungry mouth, an empty mouth, insistent mouth,
mouth that would be filled by the seaweed of me,
that would crack the shell with a rock and take
its portion. The mouth gages its slide, gapes—
grotto mouth. Mouth where I might go to pray,
to fall upon my knees before. A mouth full of yes,
singer of heights and sorrows, Swannanoa of
a mouth. French Broad, Pigeon, a mouth so wet,
sweet as a North Carolina river. A mouth that keeps
its secrets like a mountain still. Moonshine mouth,
mouth of fiddles and laments. Yes, a mouth that knows
itself. Generous. […]
Vievee also finds herself inspired by the incredible caliber of working craftspeople, artists, and musicians here. “The coffee houses and cafes and bistros are full of these incredible artists,” she says. “But perhaps the most inspiring thing here for me outside of the mountains themselves is the music. I simply can’t say enough about the music. It is haunting. So complex and beautiful and so many people play instruments here. And play them well.”
She also notes humorously that moving here even changed the way she walks. “There seems to be no flat space. The houses are girded by stilts. The driveways seem outright dangerous in their sloping. Every simple walk is a walk up or down but seldom if ever across!”
Of course, it follows that she’s keen to know place through reading and working with its writers. She will be teaching creative writing at Warren Wilson in the fall, and this past winter she taught a poetry workshop through the Great Smokies Writing Program. Tommy Hays, executive director of the program, remembers that he approached her and she was very excited about it. He notes that along with being an accomplished and passionate poet, she brought experience teaching and working in the community and liked doing it.
Tommy is also looking forward to her teaching for the Write Now program, a two-week creative writing course for high school students offered in June through the Great Smokies Writing program. “I think her energy is contagious,” he says. “These are the kind of teachers we try to bring to the community.”
Vievee describes the workshop she taught here as “an experience where I feel that I learned as much as the students. The talent baseline is so very high and the students in the program so eager to grow their work and generous in their critique that I was immeasurably impressed.”
Cathy Larson Sky, a student in Vievee’s winter workshop commented that Vievee “often guided writers to verbalize the intent behind their piece, thereby getting to what she called ‘the heat,’ or the core of the individual poetic impulse. This could be a little scary at first, but very freeing. She was subtle and gentle with her questioning. Occasionally an issue raised by one of the class poems would lead Vievee into bursts of lecture, advice about technique, and quotes from other poets … these moments were brilliant and incisive.”
And as for the world of poetry, it’s not a world of magic or even genius but a world of empowered commitment and inspired work, an idea Vievee constantly instills in her students. “I really want to convey that it is vital that a young/novice or emergent poet learn early on to motivate themselves, to affirm themselves,” she says. “And as they do this, they should of course be reading and practicing, honing their craft, but the will to do this, to write poetry, has to come from the poet.” She adds, “We are standing at the juncture of several cultural streams. We are speaking not for but to each other, not outside of but with each other. This is the start of true plenitude, of challenging engagements. How exciting to be a poet now.”