Patry Francis is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize, and has twice been the recipient of a fellowship from Massachusetts Cultural Council. Her first novel, The Liar’s Diary, has been translated into seven languages and was recently optioned for film. Her second novel, The Orphans of Race Point, is newly published by Harper Perrenial.
Canopic Jar is pleased to have Patry Francis as a Featured Voice, and Rethabile and Phil came up with a few questions in order to share a little more from this splendid artist.
Canopic Jar: Where/when did your writing journey begin?
Patry Francis: I kept journals and wrote stories in my room from about the age of eight or nine, but I didn’t write my first poem until I was sixteen and became deeply involved with several children as a literacy volunteer. The challenges they faced and the beauty of their spirits was my catalyst. Though those early poem-portraits were lost long ago, the impulse to look deeply at someone or something I loved through words, continues to drive me.
CJ: Writers, and notably poets, often spend a lot of time honing and experimenting — building a voice. What is your approach to the creative process?
PF: Reading other poets and writers, and consuming a wide range of voices and styles is an essential spark. Whenever something speaks to me in an important way, I want to add to the dialogue that is poetry by telling my own truths in my own way. But what are those truths? Some of that is apparent when you begin, but for the most part, you learn through the work itself, by “digging” as Seamus Heaney wrote in his brilliant poem. That means diligent practice and a willingness to keep chipping away at a piece until it reveals what it has to say.
CJ: How do you view the relationship between your poetry and your fiction? Do you approach them differently?
PF: Similar themes and preoccupations emerge no matter what form I use, but the approach is definitely different. When I’m writing fiction, especially a novel, I follow the story straight through to the end with no revisions. Going back to perfect a chapter or even the opening line before I’ve finished breaks the momentum of the story. Writing a poem, on the other hand, is done on the cellular level. I always write poetry longhand, crossing out and often doing several drafts in succession until I feel that every word, every comma, every line break is right. There’s something uniquely satisfying in that process.
CJ: Which poets do you continually go back to? Why?
PF: I return to the poets who change me in some way every time I read them, the ones whose work generate compassion and an increased understanding of our common experience on this planet. They are a diverse group: Czeslaw Milosz, Geraldine Brooks, Wendell Berry, and Cesar Vallejo to name a few.
CJ: Many of your poems focus on the figure of a woman alone at home, caught at different stages of life. Was this a conscious choice, or did the poems flow on their own in this direction? Could you speak to this a bit?
PF: With this question, you are showing me something about my work–and probably about myself–that I didn’t know and once again revealing that the work is our teacher! It’s true, of course. Though we are all nourished by other people, a writer has to have a great capacity and the ability to take pleasure in being alone. The poem “Mary: Circa 1946 ” was written many years ago, but when I took it out to work on it after many years, I realized how much I was like the grandmother in the poem, both of us finding solace in the quiet hours of the afternoon and the work of our own hands, both trying to ameliorate the intolerable or difficult aspects of life through creation.
For more information on the work of Patry Francis, please visit PatryFrancis.com