Everything Is Endangering Something Else: A Conversation with Francisco Márquez
Francisco Márquez is a Venezuelan poet in Brooklyn. His work can be found in The Offing, poets.org, Lambda Literary and elsewhere. He is a 2016 Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts fellow and an MFA candidate at NYU.
I spoke with Francisco about risk-taking in poetry, family, and more.
AH: What are you working on right now?
FM: I recently gained hope in two separate projects that I've been working on for some time now. One is related to what I'm calling "family violence" and "inheritance of violence" and how I feel it's been passed on through my family inter-generationally. And the other one is a sequence of poems chronicling, and archiving, how I reacted to a break-up. They started out superficially, but now they've evolved into deeper explorations of human survival. One of angst and levels of depression, and the other one of a literal, physical survival. They, of course, always intersect.
AH: So, that's making me think of the "risk-taking" panel that you recently invited me to be a part of for the creative writing class you're teaching at NYU. What does risk-taking mean for you in your work and in others' work that you admire?
FM: I guess the notion of risk really came to me when I was working with Sharon Olds. Every time I would go to her with my poem, her edits were about the heart of the poem. She would always lead me with this big personal question, and she would want me to interrogate myself even further. I think I internalized that and it wasn't until this summer or a little before, that for the first time, writing my work, I began to get genuinely concerned for myself, and what I was saying. I was getting scared and even crying. I think that's when it hit me that some of my best poems are poems that I actually suffered writing. Not that I think we should only suffer when writing—there are different ways of doing it—but I had a very visceral experience with it, particularly at a residency this summer.
I think that the kind of work the poet needs to do is one of grief-digging. It's something that people don't like to do on a regular, human, day-to-day level, what we tend to avoid, and that's what makes us these interesting creatures—people who are in tune with everything around us from joy to pain, and who have to look to the future at the same time. That's what I think risk is in poetry. You have to be able to capture the nature of something, it's history and permanence, and really consider the nature of it. Not just one side of it but every side of it. And once you do that, you'll see that everything that you're interested in has some risk to it. Everything is endangering something else. And I guess once you realize that, the poem probably becomes more difficult to write but it also becomes more exciting to write.
Oh, and as for work that I think does that really well: Bluets really affected me. Mothers by Rachel Zucker. Beloved by Toni Morrison—of course. Most recently, Voyager by Srikanth Reddy and Averno by Louise Glück.
AH: Is there a particular risk you want to take in your writing but haven't yet?
FM: That's a hard question. I guess I could answer this question in many different ways. One, I don't feel like I've experimented with as many forms or modes that I would like. Like, fiction--I almost don't feel I have the stamina or eye for that yet. Even, essays, or erasures. Two, I don't tend to write as directly about Venezuela, which is probably something having to do with fear. Now, given the striking resemblance in the USA, I almost feel an urgency to. Three, the variety of anxieties and trauma I know to exist in myself and my family's history that I've yet to really explore.
AH: What kind of work have you been reading lately?
FM: I guess right now I'm obsessed with writers who tackle emotion in understated / undercut / possibly joyful ways. So, I was reading Aracelis Girmay's The Black Maria and her challenge is to write about the black body without having to invoke a kind of violence, and there is such a delicacy and surgical precision to her writing that in seeing her enact this gracefulness, you witness all of the ugly things she had to dig through to get there. Writers I'm obsessed with that I feel make this happen are Sharon Olds and Ross Gay.
AH: Are there other poets / artists in your family? How is your work received by your family?
FM: Yes! My sister is a fantastic painter. My grandfather was also an artist, and art gallery owner. Everybody in my family is pretty weird too, so there's something artistic to that too. My family is very supportive of my writing. I've always been very artistic, so I think they're used to seeing me be ridiculous and get into an art form—be it performance, or filmmaking. But as with every art and everyone I know, there's always that heightened feeling of utter nakedness you feel when a family member sees your work. I think it has to do with how well they know you, and how broken (and whole) they've seen you, already.
AH: I remember reading a poem of yours called "Happiness" and it really was a happy poem! Do you think it's challenging to write about happy stuff?
FM: Yeah! Actually, I don't know. This was something that came up with my students. I gave them an assignment to write about family and a lot of them said that they hadn't had anything traumatic happen to them or their families, and that they tried to think of something really bad and painful, and that struck me, because it showed me what they thought was needed of them in order to write something. So, I told them something that somebody told me: If you're interested in it, then it's worth writing about, even the joyful things. And you might think it'll sound sappy or "what's the point in even dedicating a page to this," but it's exactly why you should dedicate a page to it.
You used my poem as an example. In that poem there was a sudden image of someone getting a phone call, without context. That's it. I just kind of left it in the middle of the page. And it wasn't to lead anybody on to anything. It was something that was really joyful to me. But, I think, in even the happiest poems, like I was saying, you have to do a serious emotional interrogation of the subject. Even in the happiest things, there's always going to be an edge. Which, I think, makes the poem complete. I don't know whether that's true, but there's something to happiness that is moment-by-moment and therefore it's fleeting and just by the nature of that, it's always going to be touched by something else. Weirdly, that particular poem wasn't hard to write. I think because I wrote it right after it had happened. So, maybe that's related to the answer. As it's happening, record your happy moments.
AH: Record your happy moments! I love that. What does your writing process look like?
FM: It depends on what I'm doing, but I've learned a lot from Catherine Barnett in terms of how you can look at one thing and use a multitude of forms or lenses and you'll find yourself with so much material. That's what it's sort of been like for me at this moment. It has to happen organically but, for example, if I'm writing about one very painful aspect of the break-up, I'll find myself going to the grocery and I'll be struck by something, an apple maybe, and all of a sudden I can tell there are many ways to talk about the same sentiment in a variety of different ways. Then, as I come to revise it, I discover it becomes an entirely different thing. It's almost cubist, you know?
AH: Do you feel like you tend to revise a lot or things come out already knowing where they're heading?
FM: The more I write, the more I learn, the more I read—the more I want to revise. I think I've gotten better at being able to say what I need to say at the moment, but often it's like when you're having a conversation and the first things you say are the more polite, superficial things to say. But the more time you spend together, or the more drinks you have, the more the comments that you say actually get to the root of the problem. You could write a poem, but you might end up finding out that's not what you actually wanted to say. So you'll rewrite, you'll turn a poem over, you'll write through an image and then find, "Oh, that's what it is."