Poet Vievee Francis: Defined by Generosity

by Leslie Lytle, Messenger Staff Writer

During the week of Oct. 11, The Sewanee Review will give Vievee Francis the Aiken Taylor Award, a gift for a gift. Discussing Francis’ selection as the honoree, Sewanee Review poetry editor Eric Smith called her “a top poet” among poets, reverence flamed by “the spirit of generosity that feeds the work.”

The annual Aiken Taylor Award has honored an American poet of merit since 1987. The Review staff reaches out to advisory editors and others in the poetry world for recommendations and then narrows down a long list of candidates. Adam Ross, who came on board as editor in chief in 2016, acknowledged the predominance of white male recipients historically. As editor, Ross set out to recognize “much of the dynamism in American literature came from women writers” and to “cast a wider net” in reviewing candidates for the award. Ross also prefers the award go not to poets at the end of their career, but to younger poets, “firmly in mid-career” who could benefit from the $10,000 prize. “Ten thousand can buy a few months quiet work,” Ross observed.

Speaking of the criterion for reviewing candidates, Smith said, “One of the things we look for is poets interrogating their own relationship with their work, who grow deeper in their own relationship with language.”

Smith described Francis’ first collection “Blue-Tail Fly” as “an excavation of the past.” Nearly all the poems speak in a first-person voice rooted in place where “connection to the land and tapping into origin stories…teach us about the past and our relationship to it.” A soldier stealing an egg feels “glad to have the power right there in your palm to take what you could not have made.” Human suffering and human denial of that suffering both speak. The reader hears from a mixed-race couple who fled to West Texas after the Civil War, native Americans pushed further and further west, presidents, and soldiers from both sides of the Mexican American War and Civil War. Through place, “Francis welcomes us into relationships in our own lives and shared history as Americans,” Smith said. She prompts us to ask “what can we do for one another and what do we owe each other.”

“In Horse in the Dark,” the reader begins “to see more clearly Vievee’s lived experience,” Smith said. Francis speaks of how as a dark-skinned child, she received from her teacher, “Not praise. But attention is almost the same. It puts you in the center.” The title poem “Horse in the Dark” shows Francis’ struggle with leaving the natural world of her west Texas roots, “the horse I was and I…How did words replace neigh?” The poem “Antipastoral” reads like a plea for a separation from self, from history’s pain, a plea for erasure.

In Francis’ third collection, “Forest Primeval,” the butterfly emerges from the cocoon. “Francis asks us to examine her experience as a black woman living in the 21st century asking important questions about the world around her,” Smith said. Continuing the “Antipastoral” theme, Francis writes, “I have fallen from the dream of progress.” In “Altruism” she calls “desire an abyss none can fill or fathom.” Here Francis’ poetry does what Smith calls its “magic trick…how the poet sees the world in a way no one else does and opens the world to all of us and turns the lens on ourselves and our experience. We’re asked to reflect on ourselves.” In “The Accountant” Francis’ observes, “There are secrets that won’t free you.” What would humankind be without spirituality, Francis asks in “Fallen.”

In keeping with tradition, the poet Phillip B. Williams will give a talk on Francis’ work in conjunction with Francis receiving the award. Ross noted the ceremony would occur in the fall, a first: the celebration of an exceptional poet an excellent introduction to Sewanee for incoming freshman. “For people who see poetry as important to who they are as people…the award is a way to say thank you for the artistic community here,” Smith said.

The Sewanee Review will publish new work by Francis and Williams’ lecture in an upcoming issue.

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