The Colorado Poet, Issue #40, Summer 2024


Aerik Francis

Following the Craft and the Love of Poetry: An Interview with poet Aerik Francis on their second chapbook, miseducation, winner of the New Delta Review Chapbook Contest.

Aerik Francis is a Denver-born Queer Black & Latinx poet & teaching artist. Their second chapbook, miseducation (New Delta Review 2023), won the 2022 New Delta Review Chapbook Contest. Their work has been published in literary journals such as The Nation and The Rumpus and been nominated for Pushcart Prize. Among many other accolades, they have received the Summer 2023 Residency Fellowship for The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) and their work has been broadcast locally via PBS 12 in Colorado.
KW: So, I heard you read at the Writers Studio festival and was struck by the disparity between your comments about leaving a Ph.D. program and the off-hand asides you made during your reading which clearly showed the depth of your understanding of the craft and “academics” of poetry. When I entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Houston, I was told that the Ph.D. was like the “writer’s union card.” Could you share with us a bit of your history with academia and why you made the decisions that you did?
AF: So many of the poems in my poetry chapbook miseducation grapple precisely with that anticipated question: “Why did I leave my Ph.D. program?” The poem “Reasons Why I Left” is an erasure of a prose document where I tried to answer the question in earnest. But the poem became a poem at the point when I began to wonder if there are [sufficient] answers to that question, and to whom exactly I actually owed an answer. The poem appears as a web of words without a clear sense of direction in how to be read. The form and arrangement propose no one answer, no clear answer, no answers fully formulated for even myself. 

There is, of course, a simple answer: I left my program because I had to! Because that was what my body and my soul asked of me at the time. Because I felt my specific situation was not the right place or the right time for me.

I attended a Ph.D. program for political science with the aspiration of being a professor of political theory. In my study of theory, I developed an even deeper love of language and words. When my time ran out with the program, what remained was that love that I wanted to pursue further. I didn’t really have a plan B, but I was privileged enough to be able to move back home, pick up various odd jobs, and follow the poetry craft. That’s what I am still doing: following the craft where it takes me– which could very well be back to academia.

KW: I find myself interested in patterns: how one literary “movement” radicalizes the “formal” (or chaotic) structures of the poetry that precedes it and reflects the transformative changes that have occurred in a society’s cultural awareness, philosophical mindset, and political and technological revolutions. For instance, the modernist movement in poetry in the early 1900s inherently rejected the simplistic didacticism of traditional poetry as crippling world war, rapid industrialism, and theological nihilism exposed the fragmented isolating subjectivity of reality outside the old-world order. Postmodern poetry claimed absolute truth as simply “metanarrative,” exemplified by repressive world views such as Nazism, Marxism and religious doctrine “en-mass,” and chose a landscape of, among other things, flux and intertextuality chaos. I bring this up because Dorothy Chan, the distinguished poet who chose your manuscript as the winner of the New Delta Review Chapbook Series Winner, emphatically praised your chapbook as “the future” of poetry, calling it “a radical contemporary love letter to the queer BIPOC lineage.” The varied structures of your poems are distinct and, clearly, a strength of your chapbook: erasure poems, found poems, unaltered emails, surreptitiously “disrupted” poems (I’m thinking of Sessions Sestina where you tore the poem from a notebook and kept the ragged left-hand margin with its cut-off letters and words), and extended word, stanza, and typographical play that often disintegrates (or integrates) into the non-verbal. How, or do, the forms and structures you have chosen for these poems reflect the cultural awareness, philosophical mindset, and political revolution of the BIPOC, not lineage, but what I’ll call ‘literary movement’?   

AF: Form was something that long confused and intimidated me as a young poet. It was only after listening to a craft talk on YouTube by poet Patricia Smith did the work of form become more clear to me: every poem has its own form, and form is a part of the poem, a part of the content, a part of how it appears in the world. I began to think of form more like a vessel, just as water might be held in a cup or a bowl or a hand.

There is an attempt toward playfulness with the formal work in the collection, perhaps even sarcasm or tongue-in-cheekiness. The poem “Sessions Sestina” fulfills the technical requirements of the sestina form, even when ripped and situated among incomplete words, sentences, and thoughts. But the breakage is also directly related to the poem, how the situation of the speaker is equally situated among incompleteness as well as repetition.

I consider poets like Langston Hughes or Lucille Clifton, poets who wrote poetry however and wherever they could– on napkins, on scraps, on breaks. Their poems reflect that form and material. I consider Hughes’ poem, “Theme for English B,” and Clifton’s poem, “Study the Masters,” and am so inspired by how their craft decisions are in close conversation with their formal choices and their political/social concerns. They teach me that the work of poetry can be to alchemize: to take our primary experiences and resources that appear in life and translate/transmute their energy into words and art. 

KW:  The more I read, miseducation, the more compelling I found it. Why? Because, well, I don’t know how to say this in “academic-ese,” but your poems are sly. So profoundly personal, yet that personal intimacy is disguised throughout by structure, by quick allusions to theories of power, the political, the psychological, and through enough deflection of personal pronoun that the speaker of these poems, I find, is often pushed toward absentia. Let me explain what I am seeing: quick signposts for theory on power and alienation—Sara Ahmed and her theories on “diversity work;” Schrodinger’s Schadenfreude and the pleasure at others' misfortune; the essays of the undercommons on the academically alienated that espouse black radical tradition; your own commencement speech erased toward the “person-less;” and those persistent annoying missives from that absent, in all ways, academic “advisor.” For me, only “-Elegy- for mark” reveals the real suffering in this chapbook, and that’s because, paradoxically, it shines with such owned love for an apparent mentor. Yes, the book has endnotes, but sparse ones. Will you talk about using this tapestry of, ironically, scholarship, given the alienating experiences you had with academia, which both informs and disguises the very real “grief of each truth emptied from [your] boxes?”  

AF: This question draws me back to the title of miseducation. It is a nod to Carter G. Woodson’s book, The Mis-Education of the Negro, as well as Ms. Lauryn Hill’s album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. In both works, there is a thesis presented that academic spaces are spaces of indoctrination as opposed to education. To understand what it means to be miseducated is to understand the ways in which one’s own education has been both sufficient and insufficient. It is to be able to distinguish good lessons from bad lessons, to synthesize either/both into something useful to you. Here I am also considering the famous quotation from Mark Twain, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

I actually do not consider this poetry collection a polemic against academia. Miseducation aims, as is written in The Undercommons, “to be in but not of– this is the path of the subversive intellectual in the modern university.” The Undercommons, more than just theory, was real praxis for me. Very kin to the anti-genocide campus encampments we’ve seen this year, The Undercommons of my time was a group of organizers, academics, non-institutional affiliated researchers, activists, and lifelong learners. We held teach-ins and protests and food banks and programming for students and local community folks alike. These people are my friends and were my essential support system back then. 

The article quoted in the final poem “Historians” cites this very work and these very people. Citation work and its strong bonds are essential to my poetry. I believe, as Sara Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life, that “citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings.”

KW: Author of two chapbooks, producer of an experimental audiobook project, Pushcart nominations, recipient of numerous poetry fellowships and scholarships, frequent workshop facilitator for numerous venues including Lighthouse Writers—what’s next for you?!

AF: I have a poetry manuscript that I am working on and sending out. My current collection, BODYPOLITIC, has been lucky enough to have been a finalist in a number of poetry book contests, so that propels me forward to keep it in submission circulation. The collection is indeed about the politics of bodies, the bodies of politics, and the question of what freedom looks like given the dynamics between bodies and politics. 

I have also been really eager to explore multimedia creation in my poetry practice. I am currently working on a poetry album that sets my poems to self-produced electronic music. I would like to create videos for these poemsongs in the future, as well as inviting movement/choreography into that creation. 

Finally, I hope to continue to be active in my various poetry communities. This means a lot of things: holding space, reading and listening widely, exchanging with peers and colleagues, continuing poetry workshop facilitation, and trying my best to be present. I also mean the revolutionary work of care, toward whatever actions we can do to cease the functions of war machines.