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 poetry.
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 these ideas.
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.