In the interview below, I mention that Ariel Francisco is a poet’s poet, the kind of poet who takes some sort of strange pleasure from the edited line, the meticulous chipping away at verse. And he is a poet with the beautiful, quiet capacity to turn you inside out. “I was born in the city / that never sleeps,” he writes, “so perhaps / insomnia is my birthright.” When you read Ariel’s poems, you find yourself inhabiting the kind of mind that wants so badly to understand and wants, so badly too, to take you on the journey of that understanding, line after line. But there is also a sense of coming-to-terms. With time and its passage. With love and loss. A poem, in Ariel’s work, seems first and foremost an act of resilience, combined with the courage to be simply curious.
Larry Levis once wrote, “The moment of writing is not an escape…it is only an insistence, through the imagination, upon human ecstasy, and a reminder that such ecstasy remains as much a birthright in this world as misery remains a condition of it.” Ariel’s poetry embodies that same aching, dissonant hovering that I’ve come to realize as human life, that knowing of how little we know and how much we don’t, but how even that little we know can bring us laughter or joy or sorrow. His debut collection, All My Heroes Are Broke, is a gorgeous meditation that tiptoes between New York and Miami, lyric and narrative, wit and sorrow, and so much more. It’s a searching, gazing, trying thing. We talk about it, among many other things, below.
Devin Kelly: I’m eating peanut m&m’s. What are you doing? We’ll talk about poems eventually.
Ariel Francisco: I’m still sipping my “morning” coffee and reading an Ant-Man comic. Watching my cat watching the lighting from the windowsill.
I just checked the weather in Miami and it says thunderstorms. It actually says thunderstorms for, like, the rest of the summer?
Yeah, which down here is until about October. Thunderstorms beat the sunshine, though.
That’s valid. Also, I’m looking here, and the difference between the low temperature and high temperature down there is like a mere 5 degrees! Florida is crazy.
Crazy is the word for it. It’s even humid at night, I can’t stand it.
I know your poetry well enough to know that some of it is about Florida. But with this new book, what’s the split? Because I know you also write about NYC.
It’s split pretty much down the middle, with the first half being mostly NYC-related and the second being Florida. Not all of the poems are explicitly about place though, but the two sections are definitely grounded.
How does writing about each place differ? Does it?
Oh, yeah. NYC is where I’m from, though I moved when I was just a kid. It’s where my parents met and where they immigrated to, along with most of their family. So there’s a lot of family history there for me. Because of that, I have weird nostalgia for NYC. I think about it more as my homeland than hometown if that makes sense.
I couldn’t write about Florida for a long time, I think because I felt stuck there. I didn’t travel much until I was finishing undergrad, so I think getting out of here a few times allowed me to reflect on the state a bit and let it into my poems.
It’s hard to reflect on something when you’re constantly knee deep in it. It was easier to write about NYC since it was constantly so distant. I don’t know why that works for me but it does.
It makes sense. I think a lot of writing works as building a bridge back to the thing you’ve left. It’s why those breakup poems you write the day of the breakup are much worse than the ones you write a month after.
At least, one would hope so. I’m pretty sure all my breakup poems are Very Bad.
Hah. You have that one poem, “American Night, American Morning,” where you write about New York’s inescapable qualities. Does that bleed into how you perceive the world?
I think so. The cityscape really feels like my natural environment, where I’m most comfortable. The desire for it seems to slip into all kinds of poems, sometimes explicitly, sometimes subliminally. Also, my phone just tried to autocorrect “poems” to “problems.”
That’s the beauty of this whole endeavor! You ever read that Jamaal May poem where he writes “every time I tried to type love, / I miss the o and hit i instead. / I live you is a mistake I make so often, / I wonder if it’s not / what I’ve been really meaning to say.”
That’s killer, man.
Kevin Young had a love poem like that too, playing around with typos. I can’t remember the name of it right now.
Kevin Young is the truth. I’m very excited for the New Yorker with him at the helm.
Me too! I found the poem! It’s called “Errata.”
“I want to cold you/in my harms.” C’mon maaaaan.
That’s fire. He’s one of your poetry gods, right? Or up there?
He’s up there for sure. And he has so much work out there, both poetry and essays. It’s kind of wild. If I saw his body of work and didn’t know who he was, I’d think he must be at least 80 to have written all that.
Some people. I don’t know how they achieve certain levels of prolific-ness.
It’s definitely something to aspire to.
Who are the other gods? Your cat is named Basho, if I have to remind you.
Basho the poet is up there for me. James Wright, Sylvia Plath, Li Po. I could go on forever. My poetry pantheon is wide for sure.
I can imagine.
Basho the cat is not much of a poet, though.
But Basho the poet makes sense. You write a lot of image-driven poems. Short little lyric bursts. And you’re always telling me that time isn’t real. Those two things seem to go hand in hand.
The visual component of poetry is what I really love. I always had an interest in film but I never really bothered with it because it’s so collaborative, and people are disappointing.
Hah, so you turned to poetry instead?
Not exactly, the two interests coexisted, and I never really saw a conflict between them except for how much time (which isn’t real) I dedicated to each. But I didn’t start either of those until college, and the film interest kind of fell off after doing a couple of shorts and realizing how tedious it is (because of other people mostly).
So you actually pursued film? I never knew that. Who inspired you in that realm?
I’m an idiot, I actually came one class shy of having my certificate in film studies, though I didn’t realize I was missing one…
And I’m not sure, I always watched movies as a kid, and my dad is really into film too. I took some classes since film falls under the English umbrella, and my film professor did a film study abroad to Prague, which seemed really cool. So I got pretty into it while in the Czech Republic. It’s still super interesting to me and I still have some ideas for short films. There’s a lot of great film stuff here in Miami too, like the Miami Film Festival. We’ll see. I think my real issue with it is that the quality threshold is so high.
I feel you on that. We have such a need now for the perfectly to overly produced film. Grainy footage seems so long ago.
Yeah. Sound is really hard to get right. And lighting is a motherfucker.
Isn’t it wild? All that money to create a slice of reality?
Yeah. Better to go with poetry. Can get a different slice of reality for much less money.
But back to the image poem. I’m a big fan of yours because they’re like stage directions – they offer us enough to see the image and to question it. I’m wondering what drives the image poem for you? Is it the image or the question it provides? Something else?
A little bit of both. Visuals are the most convincing things in the world as far as I’m concerned. Turning words into images is just a powerful thing. It’s what always gets me when I read poetry, or anything else for that matter. I guess it’s about believability. If I can get a reader to believe the visuals, I can slide the rest in there, whatever that may be.
That’s a bold statement. The most convincing things in the world?
Your love for James Wright makes sense in this context. So much of his work is like image-narrative, like telling a story without even telling us a story.
You ever seen There Will Be Blood? This is being recorded, you know. So if you say no…
I saw it in theaters and I fucking hated that ending, man.
Hahaha, but the beginning! It’s like 10 minutes without a word. Just image and sound. I love that!
Yeah, that was wild. I think I was a senior in high school when that came out, and had never seen something like that. In fact I have no idea why I went to it.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it is both my favorite movie and the best of all time. Going to change the subject real quick so you can’t debate me.
I was going to ask about endings. Since you mentioned them and since yours, I think, are very characteristic of you, if that makes sense. Like I think years from now there will be people saying “you just pulled an Ariel with that ending.” So…how do you end a poem?
That’s super flattering. I don’t know, to be honest. Sometimes, it works to end on an image. If I think of or encounter an image that I think is killer, I try to write towards it, which can be really frustrating and can take forever. But sometimes it’s just having a lot of thoughts and images and metaphors swirling around in my head all the time.
How do you write towards something, though?
I still don’t know, man.
I was hoping you wouldn’t say that!
Having a title helps, I guess.
I want ANSWERS!
If you have a title and an ending, you have the bread for the sandwich, so you just have to figure out what to put in it. That’s a terrible metaphor. Please cut that.
Nope. I’m running it, but I’m giving you a chance to expand on it. The chance is now.
I just love sandwiches, and my love for them momentarily overtook my mind and got the better of me.
Do you think there’s a struggle between, say, like intuition and intention? In the writing of a poem, I mean.
There can be but I think they can work together, or at least I can figure out which one I need at what time. Ideally, it’s a kind of spectrum.
Because sometimes I’m writing a poem and I’m like, there is a thing I want to do right now, and my pen is taking me somewhere else. It’s a struggle.
Me too, but that’s also why I’m always writing like 20 poems at once. I just switch to another poem if that happens to me. And it happens a lot.
Give or take. I don’t actually keep count, hah.
I don’t know if I trust myself to put a poem down and come back to it. I was like that with critical papers in college. I would just sit down for 10 hours and do it without ever moving away from it.
I would do that too but only because the paper was more than likely due in 10 hours.
Hah. You’ve always seemed to me like a poet’s poet, in that you’re very concerned with the process of writing as much as the result of it.
Thanks. The process is the whole thing. Writing is a lot of work, it doesn’t just happen.
What do you get from the process? That’s what interests me as a writer. I was talking to Lynn Melnick about this and we were both going on about how writing, like the act of it, is almost addicting. Especially when, I think, to use language from this conversation, intuition and intent are working together.
Hm, what do you mean? Sometimes I take things too literally, so when you ask what I get from the process my only answer is “hopefully poems.”
Hah, maybe I’m just asking if you like writing.
I guess it’s a never ending process. You don’t want to write the same poems over and over again. You want to grow as a writer. So when you get better, and learn some new skills and tools, you start to try new things in your poems, or maybe start to explore new genres. It’s really hard to explain. I do like writing, though. I journal a lot which is helpful.
Again, being very literal but literally writing is helpful to me, even if it’s nothing or almost nothing. I try to write everyday, but sometimes the only thing I write is “didn’t write today,” but I write that down, so that counts to me.
That’s kind of beautiful. What drove you to writing to begin with? Your father wrote too, right?
Yeah, he still does. I’m having a really interesting experience translating his poems right now, actually.
But really I just always liked to read as a kid and teenager. Like, got made fun of for reading all the time. I didn’t start writing until college. I didn’t write at all in high school. I guess when I started college I realized I couldn’t make a career as a reader, like, that wasn’t a job. Not that writing is a job, but it took me longer to learn that.
Sure, that makes sense. How has translating your father’s poems been?
It’s been a range of emotions. Mostly it’s really interesting, he writes so differently than me. He’s been translating some of my poems into Spanish, too, so I guess he’s going through the same. It’s really funny to me, he described my poems to a friend of his as “being really experimental.”
That’s wild. Your poems feel more eternal than experimental to me. Though I guess those aren’t mutually exclusive.
Yeah, it’s just because of the tradition of poetry that my dad comes from, I think. It’s not American at all. His poems are deeply internal, a lot of extended metaphor, no “I.” He thinks narratives in poems are weird.
Aw man, there goes 99% of my work.
Your poems are dope man, experimental or not.
Thanks, but you’re not allowed to compliment the interviewer.
So in translating your father’s work, what’s the most difficult thing? Is it word choice? Staying true to structure?
No, those things can be tricky for sure but the hardest thing is the implication of certain things. He’s got poems going back to the 80’s, so for example if there’s an old love poem I can’t help but think it’s about my mom (my parents are split), which gives me this weird kind of sadness. I don’t know how else to describe it.
Wow. I can’t help but think of Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters,” which is obviously about something different. But that sense of imagining your father, like, loving and losing in the same way as you.
I see you setting up the alley oop, haha. I actually have a poem written after Komunyakaa called “Translating My Dad’s Love Poems” that recently got picked up at the American Poetry Review. It’s about exactly what we’re talking about here and maybe the hardest poem I’ve written so far. It’s just a strange space to occupy.
You read that aloud the other week, right?
Yeah, last time I was in NYC. I was hesitant but I’m glad I read it.
Same, I’m excited it has a home. It’s interesting to think of what makes some poems more difficult to write.
Helluva home too, but yeah, definitely.
I guess some part of it is distance, like what we were talking about earlier. But then there’s also like this sense of trying to get something just right, especially, if in the case of your father, it’s about someone or something that still has feelings. And is still alive.
Yes, it’s a new kind of awkwardness to deal with someone else’s truth, or to implicate someone in your own truth. I don’t know, man, life is hard.
It is! And time isn’t real. And this interview is never ending. I’m just going to keep talking to you. Has your dad read your forthcoming book?
Nah, but he has my chapbook, which has a few of those poems. And I’ve sent him a few more to translate (though he’s been slow about it; I definitely get my procrastination from him). But that new poem is for book two, so I don’t have to deal with him reading that for awhile.
My dad likes to be coy about pretending like he doesn’t read anything I’ve written about him.
My dad is the opposite. He’s always sharing my publications on Facebook. He’s got his whole poetry squad up in Orlando. It’s kind of surreal, but he’s gotten a ton of his friends into it. They all meet up at someone’s house and share their poems. There’s like 20 of them, all in their 60’s or so.
That’s awesome. Did I ever tell you about how I read at a bookstore in my mom’s town and she said her whole book club was coming, and it turned out to be her and like ten 70-plus-year-old women.
That sounds amazing.
Best reading I’ve ever done. They all had copies of what I read from and would stop me mid-poem to ask me these deep, incisive questions about what I had just said. I read like 3 poems in an hour.
That’s wild, man. Sounds like something out of a TV show.
It was fun. So, you nervous to have a book in the world soon?
Oh yeah, very. WHAT IF NO ONE LIKES IT, DEVIN?
Hey, I feel that pain. And then to comfort myself, I remind myself that no one cares about poetry, and then I’m like, I want more people to care about poetry. It’s difficult, this poetry shit. But people will like it.
Thanks, man. I’m excited too. But also nervous. But also excited.
Hah. You navigate Twitter well — do you think that eases some of the nerves?
Oh yeah. What a support system there is on Twitter. So many kind people.
I know! That’s sort of how we met.
Yeah. Twitter is like a weird forever-party.
For sure. It eases a lot of anxiety for me.
Same. The poetry community on there is great.
It gives me the same feeling that reading your work does, this sense of inclusivity. You’re always dropping names, referencing other writers, rappers, etc.
That’s something I learned initially from Campbell McGrath. I think I first heard of James Wright in one of his poems. and James Wright did it to, referring to Li Po on that opening poem of The Branch Will Not Break.
It’s a fun thing to do, and it beats imitation. I don’t think imitation is bad, like writing a poem in the style of a poet you admire, but it’s a lot more fun for me to engage them directly. I enjoy wearing my influences on my sleeves. I like when other people do it to. It’s another way to connect with readers. If someone name drops James Wright or Plath or any book I like, I will be sucked into the poem. Similarly, if a poet I admire name drops a poet I’ve never heard of, I will check them out. It’s like a second hand recommendation.
It’s something I’ve always admired about poetry, that sense of generosity extended between poets. All the epigraphs and poems written after someone else. Do you think your sense of time-not-existing governs a lot of your writing? Can you lose something in a world without time? James Wright writes: “never mind time: / That is all over.”
Well, I think maybe poems can offer an escape from time, or at least a sense of trying to capture a moment or a series of moments.
Sometimes I feel like poems are the afterlife.
Could be worse, man.
I think it always could be worse. That’s like a driving force in my life.
When I was running that long ass race two months ago, that’s what I kept repeating. It doesn’t always get worse.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t!
Yeah I know! I think a poem can get worse then more you tinker with it.
That essay you wrote about that race was killer by the way.
Thanks! Always trying my best out here. But anyways, you ever worked on a poem so much it got worse?
Oh yeah, but not unsalvageable. Once I realize I’ve made it worse, I go back immediately.
It’s a delicate balance.
Maybe. Not too delicate though, one can always go back.
But how? How do you know?
Practice. That’s what I did with my 3 years in an MFA, try to calibrate my internal gauge of how I view my own writing. I would work on a poem as much as I could before I brought it to class. I used workshop as a final test of sending something out for publication. So I would either have a poem that was done (or mostly done), or I would get some really great feedback and realize I’d missed something or didn’t have it right. But it really helped me build a sense of how good my poems are (or aren’t). I don’t always know what’s wrong (or right) in a poem of mine but I’ve gotten good at knowing when the poem is good or bad.
That’s so vital. I think that might be the most important thing you can get out of an MFA — some blend between self-confidence and self-awareness.
I got to poetry late in my MFA, but on the fiction side of things, I saw a lot of people bringing the same story to workshop semester after semester. And I always wanted people to somehow come across a sense of confidence that they could always write Another Better Thing.
Yeah. Maybe that’s easier in poetry though? A fiction thing is just literally so much bigger, so many more words. I can definitely see why someone wouldn’t want to give up on a piece like that.
For sure. What’s the best poetry advice you’ve ever received?
From Campbell McGrath: there are three factors to having “success” in poetry: talent, luck, and hard work. You have no control over how talented or lucky you are, so the only thing you can do is work hard. It’s the only thing that makes sense. I really took that to heart and it’s been very liberating.
Have you come to define success the same way?
Well, that’s why I put it in quotes. It’s an odd thing, especially in poetry. There isn’t much money or fame or glory or anything in it. On the one hand, it’s very literal for me: getting published in magazines that I like, that I think publish great work. Getting my book picked up is definitely a success for me. But also having readers, people who enjoy and connect with the work.
Yeah, it’s a weird thing. Expression feels intrinsic. Like I would do it without readers. But once you introduce readers, there are other goals too. Like connection, that sense of having shared a wavelength with another human through your work or theirs.
Yeah. I think there’s definitely a difference between wanting to create art, and wanting to create art and share it with others.
I always get upset when people say we don’t need any more art.
Who thinks that? Seems really stupid.
People say it! Or I think they disguise it by saying something like “there are too many literary journals online now.”
Yeah, that I’ve heard. Still dumb!
So dumb! I love that we have endless avenues to support and find new writers.
Same. I don’t understand how anyone can see that as a problem.
An important segue: do you think sports are art? Now that we are out here, trying to define art.
That’s complicated. I’m not sure. I don’t think I could make an argument either way. I have complicated feelings about art when so many people are involved. It kind of goes back to what I don’t like about film. Can something be art if it isn’t a thing in and of itself but rather part of a larger thing?
Can something be art if it isn’t a thing in and of itself but rather part of a larger thing? I’m repeating your question so I can process it. What do you mean?
Well, for example, and this is certainly a Very Bad Take, but I don’t think acting is an art because it doesn’t exist by itself. It’s part of something larger (film, stage) that incorporates many other things as well. Like a painting is art but are the things that go into making the painting art, too? The actual paint and colors and brushes and all that? I don’t think so. This is probably a very unpopular opinion.
So to apply that to sports, I could see boxing or MMA as an art. But team sports is tricky to me. Who is the artist there? The coach? All of the players? I don’t know. A QB just throwing a ball around by himself is nothing. Or at least doesn’t mean anything. You know what I mean?
Hah, yeah. You’re going to get some flack for that, and I’m going to sit here and let you roast for it. But what you say about sports is interesting. Boxing to me is pure. It’s like athleticism and human nature stripped down to its essence. But to counter, I would argue that someone dunking a basketball is a kind of art. Sure, someone invented that shit and drew some lines on wood and it’s all a participation within some larger system. But aren’t we all participating in something larger?!
Hah, I don’t necessarily disagree with you. And hopefully we are participating in something larger.
I hope so, too. I’ve been going through an extended existential crisis that I’m realizing now is probably just called life. And every poet I ask for help is either going through the same thing or has some sort of love of death that does not help me.
That sounds about right.
And you’re fine because you apparently don’t age in your time-less world.
Oh, I still age. It’s a shit deal.
Hah. But c’mon, you don’t think dunking a basketball is art? What about Kyrie Irving threading through like 5 defenders and a mascot? Michael Jordan and the flu game? Anything John Stockton ever did?
I don’t know, man, like I’ve said, I’m very literal minded.
I’m realizing this.
But they can be, sure. Maybe they are. What do I know? (not much). I guess what I can’t wrap my head around is the context. Like, is the game art? Or is it made up of a bunch of smaller arts? (the dunks, dimes, etc). Would an unimpressive move not be art? IS EVERYTHING ART?
Sorry, I didn’t know this interview would literally make you explode.
But anyways, I see your point. I do think an argument could be made that simply living is a kind of art. Which, it kind of is. I’ve seen people do very artful mundane things, like perfectly navigate between crowds of people to get onto a train that’s about to close its doors. Maybe we are just proving that the “is it art?” conversation isn’t the best conversation. I’ll take the blame for that.
Yeah, it’s kind of impossible.
Is LeBron the best of all time, though?
LeBron is the GOAT. He only gets so much criticism because he’s still playing. All that nitpicking falls away when dudes retire.
Did you read that NY Mag article going around today about how the world is heating up and it’s worse than we think?
No, but I’ve seen it going around. I don’t know if I want to read it. I feel that shit every time I step outside.
You ever feel weird writing in the midst of all of this? With everyone screaming or whispering doom?
Yeah, a little bit. Sometimes it feels silly to write poems when so much shit is going down, but other times it feels like the only thing to do.
Like sometimes I just want to write a Frank O’Hara poem about how good it is to have a perfectly chilled Coke. And that feels both stupid and great.
I think that’s great. You should definitely do that.
Maybe. I’m waiting for the uptown 1 and I could use a nice cold Coke. Or a beer.
I miss the NYC trains, man. Driving sucks.
Yeah I feel you. But you miss everything. You’re a poet. Though at this very moment, the poet Alan Gilbert is standing across the train from me. I should say what’s up.
I might. The train’s packed, though.
“Yo, Alan! I love your work! It’s meticulous and cold and beautiful!”
Anyways, whose work are you loving now?
So many. Right now I’m reading Laura Kasischke’s new and selected, Where Now. It’s great.
Word. What else?
Shadow Map! An anthology put out by CCM Press.
Oh yes, that’s lovely.
Been revisiting Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello’s Hour of the Ox and Nate Marshall’s Wild Hundreds. Also, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s Vintage Sadness.
You love Nate Marshall.
I think he’s great. That book is so good, man.
I know, I know. I’m ending this interview soon. What have you done all day?
Applied to some jobs, read a few Ant-Man and Iron Fist comics, took some notes for poems. I woke up around 1 pm so I’m only about halfway through my day.
You’re a late night writer aren’t you?
Yeah, unfortunately. It’s not even a habit, it’s a weird comfort thing. I’m not sure I understand it at all.
We understand so little.
You seem to be doing fine. I, on the other hand, never said a word to Alan Gilbert, and he just walked off the train and into the night.
Pretty sure it’s still light out, man.
Devin Kelly earned his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and co-hosts the Dead Rabbits Reading Series in New York City. He is the author of the collaborative chapbook with Melissa Smyth, This Cup of Absence (Anchor & Plume) and the books, Blood on Blood (Unknown Press), and In This Quiet Church of Night, I Say Amen (forthcoming 2017, CCM Press). He has been nominated for both the Pushcart and Best of the Net Prizes. He works as a college advisor in Queens, teaches at the City College of New York, and lives in Harlem.