We are delighted to announce the newest Marin County Poet Laureate for 2023-2025: Francesca Bell!
What brought you to poetry, or initially sparked your interest? And, what has kept you there?
I was first brought to poetry by my sister when I was four and she was seven. We used to
memorize poetry out of an encyclopedia my parents had bought. We memorized the poems
and then performed them for each other. I still laugh about it because her signature piece was
“The Bronco That Would Not Be Broken.” And my signature was “Poor Dog Tray.” This was so
appropriate because she was wild like a Bronco, and I was definitely more like Poor Dog Tray.
Then, when I was six, my sister had an assignment to write a poem. I was in first grade, so I
didn’t get homework yet, and I was jealous of her having some. So, I sat down with her at the
kitchen table, and I wrote a poem about a daisy. It rhymed. I was thrilled with it! It made me
feel more like her. I’m sure I thought it was really an amazing poem. And for all we know, it
was! But I was six, so it was maybe just a poem a six-year-old would write. When I was nine, my
mom gave me a small book of poetry. It was something you might buy at a Hallmark store. I
read it over and over again. It had classic poems in it; my favorite was “Anabelle Lee” by Edgar
Allen Poe. And after that, I was always interested in poetry and reading poetry and writing
How did that shift to writing poetry as an adult?
When I was 12, I discovered Anne Sexton at our public library and read all her books. I really
connected to a lot of her poetry. She became the foundational poet for me. It was then, after
reading Anne Sexton, that I thought I wanted to be a poet. I didn’t know what that meant,
really. But I kept writing poetry off and on, I kept coming back to it. I didn’t become very serious
about it until I was 36. I had two of my kids by then, and when I finally had them both in school
reliably, I started to submit my poetry and to be able to write it with more regularity.
How has your background and life experience served you as a poet?
My educational background has definitely been a disadvantage as far as pursuing a career in
poetry. I am a person who does not have an education, and the world of professional poetry
very much exists and is run on college campuses. I can’t think of anyone who is as uneducated
as I am who is published at a national level. Most people published nationally have at least a
master’s degree, and many have a PhD. A great number of literary journals and presses are edited
by people who are professors or are housed and funded by universities. So, it is a disadvantage
to be uneducated in the poetry world. Anne Sexton was really a model for me in this
arena—she graduated from high school (I didn’t), but she didn’t graduate from college. She was
really an uneducated housewife, like I am.
One part of my background that was a great advantage was that my mother had severe hearing
loss, from the time I was a little kid. I really had to help her navigate the world. She was
ashamed and embarrassed, and she wouldn’t let on when she hadn’t heard something. So, I
would jump in and cover for her out in public or in stores. I learned to rephrase things––
sometimes if you rephrase a sentence, because different sounds are used, you can create
something the hearing-impaired person can understand. So, I became very adept at thinking of
more than one way to say things, and that is a huge advantage as a poet and as a translator of
poetry. As a translator especially, where there can be nearly infinite ways of translating just one
phrase. And I think I’m good at thinking of many ways to express the same idea because of my
experience trying to help my mother.
Another way my background has been an advantage is that I grew up with financial insecurity
and with limited opportunities. Now, I am what I would call “well-off” compared to how I was
raised. I think that being able to have lived in different classes is a huge advantage in writing; I
have easy access to more than one perspective. I don’t have to try to have empathy for people
who have fewer opportunities than I have now, for example. I’ve lived that. I think the more
different types of lives you’re able to live in one lifetime–– living in another country, among
different types of people, in different classes––the better it is for your writing.
What do you think writing and reading poetry offers us?
I think reading and writing poetry offers many benefits. For me, the most important thing I get
from both reading and writing poetry is the feeling of shared intimacy with other people. When
I read Anne Sexton, and a lot of what appealed to me about her was that she had emotions that
were too big for her, and by the time I was 12 I already had that feeling about myself. The idea
that I could read Anne Sexton’s poems and know that same experience from the inside of
another person was really impactful. When I am writing, I get to reach across time and space
and have the feeling of being able to touch other people.
Another thing that writing offers me, is, when I write, I’m able to get to know my own too-large
feelings better. Writing can be a way of managing the too-largeness of life. Like writing about
my daughter’s mental illness. I remember when, several years ago, she had a really rough
patch, and I was engulfed by difficult emotions and struggling a lot. I didn’t know if it was OK for
me to write about it—there’s always the question of which parts of your life belong to you
enough to write about—and my daughter came to me, unbidden, and gave me permission to
write about her illness, so I finally did. There are about 10 or 11 poems in my new book about
that. I tried to focus on the way in which the experience impacted me in those poems. That’s
the part that most clearly is my story. I wouldn’t want to be in the position of trying to write her
story about her illness. Being able to write those poems really helped me because when you’re
the parent of someone who’s having such a very hard time, you have to keep your emotions in
check a lot of the time. I had permission and space on the page to explore what were very
painful things and emotions. It’s like being able to build a container for those feelings, a
structure–– sometimes, when you’re writing a poem, you can go deeper into something than if
you’re sitting around thinking or crying.
I wrote a poem about when my daughter was in a partial hospitalization program. The thing
that really came up at the time was this feeling that nothing I had done as a mother had been of
any help. And as I wrote that poem, that feeling became clearer to me. When I started working
on the poem in my head, the sky was very pink, and it was dusk, and I live on a street full of oak
trees, so the winter oaks were stark against the sky. And they became a metaphor for how I felt
so barren. But as I wrote into that poem, it became more than I had expected it to be about my
own feelings of failure and helplessness. I didn’t start there. I started with an inkling, and as I
wrote into it, it became clearer and deeper. Writing poetry is a way to still the murky waters
long enough to see down into their depths.
What is something you’re struggling or grappling with as a writer right now?
The biggest thing I’m struggling with right now is having had long covid for three years. It’s
given me, among many other symptoms, such intense brain fog that it’s been almost impossible
to access my creative self. And that’s been excruciating. I’ve had covid three times, and I had
just started writing again last April, after two years of long covid symptoms, but I got covid
again in May which was followed by another bout of long covid.
Another thing I’m really grappling with is the extremity and volatility among poets on social
media in recent years. In the literary world, there’s been a vigorous push I find unnerving
towards what I consider censorship. I’m someone who often writes about things that are
considered offensive by one person or another, so this has been alarming to me. I’ve had to go
off social media several times because I just couldn’t stand the vitriol. I’m a person who strongly
disagrees with the urge to suppress content out of the concern that it might be offensive or
somehow triggering to readers. I think that the most powerful writing very often causes readers
to think about and feel things that are unsettling; to me, this is part of what good writing is
supposed to do. Writing poetry was always the one place in my life where I never felt afraid–– I
have an anxiety disorder, and writing has been a refuge for me from fear. But in the last five
years, for the first time, I have sometimes found myself nervous to write. I’m working on this by
seeking greater isolation, by doing what I call “keeping myself to myself and my eyes to home.”
What does poetry have to give us, in this present moment in the world?
I think now, and always, poetry can give us the chance to experience empathy and compassion.
In order to experience empathy and compassion, you have to be able to feel your way into
another person’s experience. And that’s one of the key things poetry has to offer. I consider
myself a confessional poet, and confessional poetry especially offers a way for a person to
intimately know someone they don’t know in real life. Humans do this thing where we compare
our insides to other people’s outsides, and poetry can give us the chance to see someone else’s
insides if the poet dares to be truly vulnerable. Additionally, a big thing missing in today’s
world is the ability to grant humanity to people we don’t agree with. This is a huge impediment
to being able to solve the world’s very urgent problems. If you read poetry and allow yourself to
be really touched by it, you can see how much in common we all have as human beings. This can be an enormous comfort, and it can also help us to be able to identify our commonalities rather than focus on our differences, and this has the potential to help us to work together as humans.
What do you think poetry has to offer to the community in Marin uniquely or meet the
moment we are in?
I think the thing Marin could most improve on is becoming more equitable. It can be a
wonderful place to live, but it’s very expensive here, so it’s a very difficult place to live if you
don’t have a lot of money. I think that what poetry could offer is a way to bridge the gaps in
empathy and understanding between people who have so much and people who don’t. Poetry
cannot solve problems the same way that taxation or legislation can, but poetry can help make
us better known to one another, and that can help to inform the direction that governmental
bodies and communities take.
What are you excited to offer during your tenure?
I’m very excited to be able to offer free workshops at Marin County Libraries that will be open
to the public. In those workshops, I’m really interested in helping people learn to use poetry to
know themselves better and to be better able to explore things in their lives that are difficult or
painful. I hope that some people who will attend these workshops are not people who
necessarily want to pursue poetry as a career, but who are more interested in reading and
writing poetry as a practice for living. I’m also really excited to be able to share some of my
resources and expertise with writers serving time in San Quentin, hopefully with a program
called Brothers in Pen. San Quentin has a long history of offering writing classes and instruction
to the men who live there, and I think possibly a way I can most help is by supporting the
people who write poetry and prose in San Quentin in publishing their work in literary journals.
I’d hope to bring some poets to Marin to give public readings and have them also give
readings at San Quentin. I’d like to offer some workshops at a local shelter for homeless women
and children. Another thing I hope to do is to offer some poetry story times for children at
libraries. This would be a chance to share poetry and books written in verse to help prime their
minds to appreciate some of what poetry has to offer. For children, this will be rhyme and
rhythm and wordplay, things that will hopefully get them excited about poetry and literature.
Finally, I’m planning to host some Poet Laureate Teas. These will be readings in local libraries
with local poets, followed by open mics to celebrate the poets who live in Marin. I love to bake
and plan to bring some Poet Laureate Goodies to share. I’m working right now to flesh out
How can we follow your work and stay in touch?
On my website, look for the tab Marin Poet Laureate. I’ll be posting readings there, writing
resources such as calls for submission and prompts, as well as announcements about my work
around the county, www.francescabellpoet.com.
Francesca Bell is a poet and translator. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Bright Stain
(Red Hen Press, 2019), which was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award and the Julie
Suk Award, and What Small Sound (Red Hen Press, 2023). She translated Max Sessner’s
collection, Whoever Drowned Here (Red Hen Press, 2023), from its original German. Her work
appears widely in magazines such as ELLE, Los Angeles Review of Books, New England Review,
North American Review, Mid-American Review, and Rattle. Bell grew up in Washington and
Idaho and did not complete middle school, high school, or college. She is the former poetry
editor of River Styx and the current translation editor of Los Angeles Review. She lives with her
family in Novato.
Visit the Poet Laureate Facebook page and the Poet Laureate Website.