This In-Between Place: An Interview with Francine Cunningham

The following interview is the first in a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released in April 2020. All seven interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the second year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here).

On Identity/Maybe It’s More Than the Lights and Pixels – Francine Cunningham

watching the cowboys and indians on tv i realized that i could play both roles.
my left half would try and kill my right half
my right half would out-survive my left half
the two halves would ride around and around in circles
trying to catch each other

Reprinted with permission from 
On/me by Francine Cunningham 
(Caitlin Press, 2019).

Rob Taylor: Midway through On/me, in the poem“ On Identity/Silence,” you consider what to say after a colleague makes a racist comment about Indigenous people: “deciding if fighting is enough // deciding if education is possible // knowing that i will forever live here / in this space / of in-between”.

So much of the book is about feeling “in-between,” and I wonder to what extent you think of poetry itself as being in-between in some way – a middle ground between fighting and educating, between the “political” and the “personal,” between Indigenous oral traditions and English Literature, etc. etc. Do you think of writing poetry as part of your in-between-ness?

Francine Cunningham: I realized a long time ago that I live in this in-between place and what I do with my art has to reflect that. Growing up it wasn’t a space that I ever read about or that people talked about. I felt really alone in this space. I felt like the thoughts and feelings I was having were not valid and made me a bad person, a bad Indigenous person. I’ve been working with Indigenous youth for close to fifteen years now and it has shown me that I am not alone in this in-between place. I feel like it’s my responsibility to speak about this space for the youth that I work with.

I write fiction and non-fiction too, but I speak about this primarily in my poetry because poetry is where my heart lives. My poetry isn’t filled with rules. I’m not playing with any of the different forms that exist in poetry, I am just writing my heart. That to me is closer to oral traditions of storytelling. It’s about me talking honestly and plainly. For a long time I didn’t think that I was a poet because I could never remember all the rules and different forms, or because my poems didn’t look like or sound like the poems that I studied in English class. I spent years denying all the poems inside me because of this and focused instead on my fiction. But one day it just became too much to hold in my heart, and I let the poems come. And I loved them. I showed some people and they loved them, too. Then I started to publish them and people I didn’t know contacted me to tell me how much my work meant to them. People who didn’t read poetry because they also felt inferior in not understanding the rules. People who felt like, because they couldn’t understand all the vocabulary, poetry wasn’t for them. But when they read my words, they understood them, they didn’t feel locked out. That meant so much to me. Since the book has come out I have had a lot of people contact me saying this book touched them to tears because for once they could understand what I was saying, even if they were non-Indigenous. Accessibility to the arts is important.

Rob: My hunch is that accessibility plays a role in the unusual titling and sequencing of the book’s poems, too. Each poem starts “On ___” with the blank being, roughly, the subject of the poem (some examples: On Identity, On Grief, On Love). Most of these subject-titles repeat throughout the book – I counted twelve “On Identity” poems, six “On Grief” poems, etc. This subject-title is followed by a slash and then an italicized title that is unique to the poem. It ends up creating this web of connections that runs through the book – each poem speaking both to its immediate neighbours and to its shared subject-title poems (which, perhaps, were all grouped together in an earlier version of the manuscript?). Heavy poems about race and identity brush up against funny poems about love, while still staying connected to one another. Could you talk about how this titling and sequencing strategy came about, and what effect you hope for it to have on how readers approach the book?

Francine: I’ve had so many people tell me they didn’t understand the title of the book until they finished reading it, which I think is kinda cool. I just really wanted to create this guide to some of the parts of myself that I felt like I needed to share. The poems weren’t grouped by theme to begin with, they came out all over the place and were sitting as single files. When the time came for assembly, I read them and tried to define in one word what they were about, which was when they got their “On” designation.

I knew right from the beginning that the main thread of the book was going to be my identity, so the “On Identity” poems acted as the spine. All the designations have their own narrative arc when read in their own order, though, so if you were to read the “On Grief” poems, for instance, there is a story inside of that of my own healing. I was very meticulous on how I ordered the poems and the individual arcs. I wanted a person to go through a movement of feeling while reading the book. I read a whole poetry collection in one go then go back and read individual poems again and again, but I am always looking for the story of the whole collection.

There is a myth that Indigenous people are always really stoic, really serious, which is hilarious because it’s so not true. If you’ve ever been in a room with a bunch of Indigenous aunties you know what I mean. I’ve been told my laugh is quite loud, but I dunno— just kidding, I know it is. It comes with the clap and head-thrown-back, too. We survived because of our humour, because of our fierce love and so when I talk about the things that forced us into a state of survival I have to balance it with what saved us. Hence with the love poems, the humour is alongside the “serious” stuff. My dream project is to make a cheesy Indigenous romance. Hahaha. I wanna write fun. I’m tired of my being relegated to the INDIGENOUS LITERATURE OH SO SERIOUS YOU HAVE TO BE A PH.D TO EVEN CRACK OPEN THIS BOOK shelf.

I want to be in the YA Speculative Romance section, or the Fabulist Fiction section or even the General Poetry section. Well okay, maybe be in both the Indigenous Reads section and also all those others. I just don’t want my work limited to only one audience.

Rob: I think you’re well on your way to accomplishing just that. On/me is about you, in all your dimensions, and as such touches on many of the bookstore categories you outlined (invented?) yourself. The promotional copy for On/me describes the book as “an encyclopedia of Cunningham,” and the book clearly operates in an autobiographical/confessional mode (as the title suggests). Often, the poems tackle difficult subjects of loss, mental illness, identity and assault. Needless to say, not everyone is able to talk so openly about their life in their first book. Has your writing always focused on the “confessional” in this way? Or did it take time to become comfortable with that?

Francine: You know what’s strange? Before the book came out people started to tell me that it was really vulnerable and they would never be able to write like that, but I didn’t even realize that it was. I mean I knew that it was personal, I knew that it was my heart, but it just felt so natural and so right. It’s also the only kind of poetry that comes out of me.

What actually happened after the book came out was that I had this moment of wondering if I had shared too much, if I was too vulnerable, and I went into a lockdown mode for a while. I was filled with anxiety and scared. But then when I can see the impact it’s having on people I just have to trust it was the right thing to do. I have to trust my own voice and my own craft.

And it’s also not the first book I’ve written, it’s the first I’ve published. But that’s a big difference. On/me is actually the third manuscript that I have finished, the first being a novel and the second a short story collection. Both of those are looking for homes, but I felt like I needed this book out first. I knew I needed my heart to go ahead of me.

Rob: That’s a lovely way to put it.

Books of confessional poems are sometimes (wrongly) dismissed as self-indulgent navel gazing, with little meaning for outside readers. Throughout On/me, you make a conscious effort to expand the circle of consideration beyond yourself: to address readers, especially young Indigenous readers, who may share some of your experiences with mental health, parental loss, sexual assault, or Indigenous identity. Some poems state this goal explicitly, like “On Identity/For the Other Mixed-Blood, Half-Breed Urban NDNs,” while others do their work more indirectly.

Have you always intended your poems to reach out to others in this way, or was that potential in your writing something that you came to understand with time?

Francine: I have always hoped that they would reach people, these poems at least. I have whole books of poems that are just for me. But I am sharing these ones with the world for a reason. I am a naturally guarded person and I don’t have the desire to share my entire life with the world, but with these poems I had an intention and a purpose. And there were times when I wanted to write specifically for Indigenous people, and that’s okay. I didn’t want to include a translation guide for the Cree because if you know, you know, and if you don’t, that’s okay. I hope that there is a good balance in the book for folks, but ultimately I know who I write for, who I work for, and I’m okay with that.

Rob: There is, indeed, a great deal there for everyone. One of the more universal title-subject “threads” that runs the book is mental health, specifically your experience with bipolar disorder. In the book’s acknowledgments you note “I have written my way out of more than one depressive episode,” and in “On Secrets/Things I Hate About Myself” you write “i become obsessive about this to the point where i forget about anything else in my life.” What role does poetry play in your mental health cycles? Do you write more when you’re feeling down or up? Does poetry always prove helpful?

Francine: My daily, monthly, yearly, life goal is to just stay balanced. I have to live my life in a way that keeps me level. It’s full of routine. It could be considered boring to some people, but in order to stay balanced I have to keep it that way. I can’t afford to let my life swing into mania/depression.

I have worked really hard to create a life that acknowledges my mental illness and works with it. I have a support system of people who know my signs and who I can trust to talk about it with. Making art is the only thing I can do that fits well with my mental illness. It can also feed it. I have a lot of writing, from when I am manic, that makes no sense. I also have some of the most depressing, black words from when I am depressed. But truly, when I am depressed the only thing that helps is writing. I have journals filled with stream of consciousness writing from those periods. When I get the ruminations on paper it just helps.

Rob: As mentioned, it’s not all depressing, black words in On/me. You had me laughing and nodding in “On Secrets/Things I Love About Myself” when you write “I could totally last in a wasteland scenario with only myself as a companion.” In another poem you note, “the longer you sit in a space the more you will see.” Stillness and solitude, solitude and stillness. All writers would recognize your need, and capacity, for both. And yet, of course, both cause writers to live on a knife edge between beauty and sadness, insight and isolation. Could you talk about your relationship with the good and the bad of stillness and solitude? [Note: this question was asked and answered prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada.]

Francine: I gotta say first off, I love stillness and I love solitude, I really do. Or maybe I think I do because it’s just how I’ve always been. I don’t know anymore. But I’ve decided I am not going to fight it. In the past I’ve often felt guilty about how much I need silence and solitude. Guilty that I didn’t go to that thing, or that I haven’t had that experience, or whatever, but I just have to be me. I don’t think you necessarily need solitude to write. I am sure some writers do very poorly with too much solitude.

When I am revising a manuscript, I have to totally cut off the world, at least for a few weeks. I go into invisible mode. I don’t talk to other humans; I turn my phone off and chuck it into a drawer. It’s too hard for me to hold the whole world in my mind at the same time as holding the universe of the manuscript. I am not a good enough multitasker. Is this a healthy way to live? Probably not. Can I keep living like this forever? Hopefully, but probably not. The good thing is I have people in my life who get it, are okay with it, and just accept it. I am also a freelancer, so I have the freedom to plan little breaks between contracts to disappear.

But honestly, it’s true, the more time to you sit in stillness the more you do see. As an exercise, try going out to a forest or somewhere isolated in nature, no other humans. And sit. And don’t have your phone, or notebook, or camera, or anything. Put your bag down a few paces behind you or leave it at home. Plan to be there for a long while. And do nothing. Just sit. Don’t record the moment, don’t record your thoughts, just have them. The longer you sit there and look around the more things will come into your focus. The first time I did this I sat for almost four hours. It was amazing what I didn’t see when I first sat down. There were some tiny flower buds beside me that took me at least an hour to see. A spider web that connected all the trees around me took even longer. It was like my brain was just so used to filtering things out to keep me running efficiently that I stopped noticing. It’s also kind of a trip to see where your thoughts go in that amount of time.

So yes, I advocate for stillness and solitude, at least once in a while.

Rob: You write very openly in On/me about the misdiagnosis/mistreatment of your mother within the Canadian health care system prior to her death, especially in “On Grief/Hospital Visits.” What did that experience teach you about what it means to be Indigenous in Canada?

Francine: That experience held me in a state of rage for a really long time. It was only through poetry that I was able to talk about it. I still get emotional if I think about it for too long.

But one thing I’ve realized since reading that poem on tour: so, so, so many other Indigenous people and people of colour in this country experience the exact same racism. I can’t tell you how many crying people I’ve held after a reading because of how much their experience is reflected in mine. It seriously breaks my heart, and that’s why I had to write about it.

If we don’t talk about this kind of stuff it will never change. My hope is that health workers will read my poem, alone and at home, that they will feel the emotion, my hurt and my pain, and that maybe they will reflect on themselves. Policy and pamphlets can only go so far; it’s about the individuals. I hope my being so open and honest, and sharing this part of my story I never thought that I would

Rob: In a poem about your grandfather, you write about “not knowing him / or at least the details of him / until after he died.” So many poems in this book explore the idea of learning about someone after they are gone – your mother primarily, but also your grandfather and your (in some ways untraceable) ancestors. Do you think there are fundamental differences between how, or what, we learn about people when they are with us and after they are gone? What do you find yourself learning, these days, about your mother?

Francine: I do think that we learn about people differently after they’ve left us. But it’s also about who we are when we’re learning about them. When my grandfather was in my life for example I was a child. I had a child’s understanding of the world, I didn’t have the questions that I would have asked him now. The same with my mother. I lost her when I was thirty and now in my mid-thirties I have questions that I would never have thought to ask her, conversations that I want to have now. Also, when someone is with you, you can take that for granted, you can think there will always be time for learning about each other. It’s only after you lose someone that you discover how deep that loss actually goes. I was lucky that my mother and I were very close and I was always aware that I would lose her someday, so I felt this driving need in me to fill myself up with her. We would talk almost every day on the phone, at least once a week for two or more hours, and I would ask her about anything I could think of. But still there will always be more. And that’s where my current sadness lives.

I also feel very keenly the loss of the knowledge keepers in my family. I often think about what life would have been like if I had been born in a community not subjected to colonization, if I would have had the opportunity to learn from community knowledge keepers. When people say I should “just get over” colonization, I wonder if they understand that loss. Only a few generations ago that knowledge was there. It’s incredibly sad.

I think that’s part of what makes a book like On/me so valuable – it at once communicates the depth of lost knowledge while also recording current knowledge, ensuring it isn’t lost for future generations.

Rob: On/me includes a large number of very short poems: ten poems under twenty words, and two poems with only five words each. It’s rare to see so many tiny poems in a book – it takes courage to leave all that blank space on the pages! What draws you to these little offerings? Do you always start with these being stand-alone poems, or do they float around as fragments or pieces of larger poems at first before being edited into their final state?

Francine: I really like how you phrased them as little offerings, I might steal that. These poems are stand-alone and come out just as they are. I feel like sometimes that’s all I have to say and for me the more interesting part of the poem is the everything that isn’t said. A poem like “On Teasing/Uncles,” for example:
On Teasing/Uncles

a whistle through teeth,
s s s s s s s s s s s

is really for everyone who knew my uncle Stewart or who has uncles with that same kind of laugh. I read that poem at a reading recently and someone came up to me afterwards who I’d never met but who knew my uncle Stewart and said it brought tears their eyes hearing his laugh again. That poem is only two lines but it’s filled with his whole life. And I hope that by leaving space people can fill in the space with their own memories, their own uncles if you will.

And if the feeling or moment is conveyed in ten words why would use forty? I apply the same principles as I do in my fiction writing, shorter is better.

Rob: On the theme of short forms of communication, in “On Mental Illness/My Spirit Isn’t Happy” you write “I blame social media, / the call of click bait / the negativity that feeds my anxiety.” The relationship between poetry and social media is an interesting one. Poetry–especially short poems like those you write–seem like a perfect fit for social media platforms (see the success of Instagram poets), and social media allows for isolated writers to connect with and encourage one another. And yet the space social media makes feels, for me, miles away from the wide-open space of the page. What role does social media play in your life? How does it compliment, or clash, with your creative writing?

Francine: I both love and hate it, as probably most people do. On one hand it is a spectacular drainer of time, at least for me. I had to delete Tik Tok and swear to myself to never use it again because of the number of hours I was spending on it. But I also do love social media. Since I spend so much time on the road and so many of my family and friends live far from me, it allows me to maintain relationships and stave off the isolation of the road. I love Instagram. It’s the place I post because it feels more like a small conversation with people I actually know. I am on Twitter but don’t really use it, it’s too loud for me, if that makes sense. It’s like being at a crowded party with everyone yelling. Facebook likewise is too much for me and feels like sitting in an endless lecture given by a hundred people all at once who only half-know what they’re talking about. It’s dizzying.

Another thing for me about social media is it can trigger my competitive side, which is really strong and not necessarily healthy. I can get into a frame of mind where I am comparing myself to other writers constantly and it can just make feel horrible, which then makes me not write, which then makes me depressed. It’s a spiral.

The way success is portrayed online is different than it is in-person. Online it’s just a barrage of this person is winning this, and that person is dominating the conversation there, and on and on without the real human interaction of a conversation. In real life someone wouldn’t sit in front of you shouting everything awesome that’s ever happened to them in a steady stream. I love seeing fellow writers succeed, I love reading their work, I love that so many of my friends are artists and living their best artists lives, but I like to celebrate them in person, to have a conversation about it.

Social media to me is also so much the business side of writing, creating your “brand” and all that stuff that I don’t understand. I just wanna write. I don’t want to have to be in charge of selling it or selling myself. Because for me anyways, when I start to think about that stuff it influences the type of writing that I am doing. So, it’s better for me to just not exist as an online “thing,” which is something I am trying to do right now and maybe failing. Who knows. Everything changes so fast, maybe in a year I’ll be an influencer or I’ll have burned all my accounts and disappeared.

Rob: Speaking of all the things you are and might become, you painted your own cover art! That’s so cool! Could you talk a little about your experience designing the look of the book with Caitlin Press, including why you chose this cover?

Francine: I did do the artwork for the cover and it was a pretty awesome experience. I am a visual artist and I love making zines illustrating my stories and also making comics. Any way that I can combine every avenue for storytelling I will do it. I actually published a story with Joyland magazine a few years ago called “Complex 2675” over the course of a month and did a series of illustrations to go along with it.

When it came to the cover for On/me, Caitlin’s editing team and I spent a long time looking at different artists. I knew elements that I wanted on the cover, like the colour red for example, and we both knew we wanted some sort of roots or vines. After many months of looking I asked if I could submit ten images for consideration. The team at Caitlin was really drawn to the cover image we ended up using, which was secretly my favourite, too, but I didn’t want to sway anything. So we went with the painting that is on the cover. I am so happy with it. After hearing so many horror stories of authors hating their covers, I am just so happy that Caitlin made the process so open and even allowed me to submit images for consideration. It adds another layer of personalization for me with a book that is already so personal.

Francine Cunningham is an award-winning Indigenous writer, artist and educator. She is a graduate of the UBC Creative Writing MFA program, and a recent winner of The Indigenous Voices Award in the 2019 Unpublished Prose Category and of The Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Her fiction has appeared in Grain Magazine as the 2018 Short Prose Award winner, on The Malahat Review’s Far Horizon’s Prose shortlist, in Joyland Magazine, The Puritan and more. Her creative non-fiction was longlisted for The New Quarterly Edna Stabler personal essay contest and has appeared in The Best Canadian Essays 2017. Her debut book of poetry, On/Me (Caitlin Press), was recently named a finalist for the 2020 Jim Deva Prize for Writing That Provokes.

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