Interview with Francine Witte

Can you share some details about how you came to be a poet? What drew you to writing initially?

I always remember wanting to write.  I have a very active imagination and was always making up stories as a child.  I didn’t actually write poetry till I was thirteen.  My parents were extremely supportive and excited about it, which I believe is very important.


What effect has a formal education in poetry had on your writing?

Formal education has had a tremendous effect on my writing.  The poems I wrote at thirteen were good, but they were rhymed and very metrical.  I didn’t know about free verse or how I would even write it.  I learned all about free verse when I went to college and took my first creative writing class.  It was there that I learned the mechanics of poetry.  Poets are artists, yes, but they must also be craftsmen, and you need to learn your craft.  This learning of craft does not have to take place in a university, but it must take place.


Who are some of your most influential poets?

This is always changing.  I started by idolizing Marge Piercy.  I like what she does with imagery, which I consider my personal strong suit.  I also liked William Stafford for his brevity.  Sort of like Hemingway in how few words he uses, but how evocative these words are.  These days, I love Dorianne Laux, Traci Brimhall, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Tim Seibles.  These are all poets who create an emotional world that begins in the poem and travels outside of it.


For poets just starting to open themselves up more to poetry, what poets do you think are must-reads? Can you recommend any books—collections, essays on craft, or other?

I like William Stafford’s Writing the Australian Crawl.  I also like The Poet’s Companion by Dorianne Laux.  These are good books for any writer to read.  Collections by any of the authors I mentioned above are great.


Your poem “Breaking Sky,” which won the 2012 Atlantis Award, opens with an imaginary, surreal image and progresses into the tangible, real world of birth and death. The tone shifts from something that at first seems playful and distant into an elegy for the speaker’s mother and loss of memory. How did this poem develop for you in the writing process itself? Did you know that the poem was moving toward the death of a mother? Or is it something that surprised you in the process itself?

I’m not really sure how the poem “started” in my head, but yes, this sudden appearance by my mother does happen often when I’m writing.  My mother’s slip into dementia was one of the most stunning occurrences in my entire life.  That first encounter with her when I knew she wasn’t in touch with reality was a gut punch for sure.  The memory of it doesn’t get dim either.  I think in this particular poem it came from talking about the piece of the sky, how you were once like a piece of sky falling from the mother’s thighs to my mother.  It just happened.  And no, I didn’t know when I began writing the poem.


How would you describe yourself as a writer? Would you consider yourself a narrative or lyrical poet? What themes are you obsessed with?

I think of myself as a visual artist who happens to use words.  I approach poems as stories much like paintings and films.  I have to be able to imagine what is happening in the poem.  I also like short forms.  I have no interest in writing a novel.  I love writing flash fiction because of its poetic nature.  You can hold a poem in your hand.  You can work it and rework it in one visual shot.  You know when it’s singing.  I used to think I was a strictly literal poet, but I do have stories in my poems.  I guess that makes me narrative.  However, if a poem starts becoming too much of a story, then maybe it’s a flash fiction piece.  As far as themes go, I love yearning and aching and loss.  This is always what I’m looking for in a poem. Oh, and obsession.  I’m obsessed with obsession.


Do you have any projects you are working on now?

Nothing in particular.  Just writing poems and flash fiction stories.


How often do you write?

I try to write every day.  It’s good to make it a habit.  The days I don’t feel like writing, I do it anyway.  Usually, once I get started, something shows up.


Can you talk some about your writing process?

I set aside a half an hour each day.  I use a timer.  I choose a few books I like.  These can be collections of journals that I subscribe to. I take a post-it and put the day’s date on it.  I have a letter sized yellow pad and some pencils.  Now that I am ready, I set the timer for five minutes.  I just read.  I fill my head with rhythms and words and ways to write a line, etc. After five minutes, I set the timer again and now, I begin to write.  I can scribble if I want, or I can freewrite, or whatever.  Somedays, I spend re-writing things I am working on.  I do this for five minutes.  If I really get on a roll, I let the next five minute period go for this purpose.  I do this back and forth for a half hour, ticking off each five minute section on the post-it.  You’d be surprised how much can be accomplished this way.


When did you first start publishing your poems? What finally motivated you to do so?

I started publishing my poems when I became aware of journals.  I remember getting The Writer magazine and looking at the list of places to submit to in the back.  It was fun.  I got my first poem published in Grit Magazine.


Can you explain your own submission process? How do you handle rejection?

I am very methodical.  I choose maybe ten journals and send them five poems.  I don’t have time for journals that will not accept simultaneous submissions.  Rejection is part of the process.  When I get a poem back, I just send it out again.  It’s not personal.  I’m not going to say I don’t get disappointed, but it’s not something I dwell on.  I also try to remember that there are probably some good reasons I might have received this rejection.  They may have published a poem on the same topic recently, or they may already have enough poems for this issue, or, maybe, just maybe the poem isn’t ready.  It happens.


What advice do you have for poets who are looking to publish some of their poems but have never tried to before?

Read a lot of literary journals.  There are hundreds of them, both online and in print.  Find one that publishes poetry that aligns with your style.  Look up their guidelines and when you have a poem you feel is as good as you can make it, submit it.  Also, subscribe to journals.  Very important to put yourself into the world of lit this way.


On The Poet’s Billow I have met many poets who have never shared their work with anyone before, who keep their writing in private journals and to themselves. What effect do you think sharing work with others has on the writing process? Are there benefits? Drawbacks?

Do you mean sharing in workshops?  I have been in many workshops.  It can be pretty painful because you go in thinking you’ve written something pretty good and it gets torn to shreds.  But, honestly, that is the only way you grow and get better.  Think of it like this, you put on a dress you think is pretty and you wear it in front of your mirror but never outside.  You are fine with this till one day you decide to take a chance and wear it to a party.  Some people will like it, others may not.  The people who don’t might be jealous or they might just think your dress is too long and could benefit from being shorter.  You’ll never know unless you try.  Of course, if you are wearing your dress just for the mirror, or writing your poems just to stay in a journal, then you will be happy.


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