Wow! RM Francis Week in Outsideleft continues with this interview in which RM (Rob) expounds on the Black Country, his poetry, his approach to his work and just about everything.
Outsideleft: Your recent work has a concern with the region you live in, the Black Country, where is the Black Country? If I travelled from Nevada would I find it? How would I recognise it? Why is it called the Black Country? Where are the boundaries? How would I know if I am in this Black Country or beyond its borders? Did you grow up here? Did you feel sort of any deficit, like there was a more magical place beyond your boundaries as a child/teen/youth…
RM Francis: You tap into a lot of interesting and, as yet, unsolved issues when it comes to defining the region. It is a place, but it's also a mood or idea. The short answer is it's the post-industrial heartland of the West Midlands just west of Birmingham. Someone from Nevada might find pockets of it if they ventured out of the metropolis, or the simulacra of it in places like the Black Country Living Museum. I think it's recognisable through its off-kilter topography - the strange intermingling of green and grey spaces, of new and old, of pride and loss. A big marker, of course, is the peculiarly beautiful dialect and rhythms of speech, and how that interacts with the brutal but self-deprecating humour. I grew up here, and like those who have, it's part of me. Like pornography, it's hard to define but we know it when we feel it. An instinctual folk-knowledge for picking out what and who have been touched by the cinder smoke. No one can precisely draw up its borders, yet at the same time we know what it isn't - it's not Birmingham, it's not Worcestershire. There also seem to be degrees of Black Countryness - Gornal and Netherton are "more" Black Country than Stourbridge or Tettenhall for some weird reason or other, despite their similar histories and proximity.
As a teenager, I always thought everything interesting happens somewhere else, and I moved to places like Portsmouth and Leeds to see. As I became older I recognised how wrong I was. I needed to move away first to see it more clearly. My homelands are complex, layered and shifting grounds full of wild and diverse culture.
OL: Drilling down into the Black Country a bit, your novel, The Wrenna, to me seemed edgy, confrontational. It felt uncomfortable to read because when I was immersed in it, I still, I mean I definitely didn’t belong. That’s exceptional. There’s danger and even the language you used, carried a threat. I don’t know if it’s going to find you on a Visit Dudley poster any time soon?
RM F: You're probably right. I can't see any tourist advertisements using the language and characters in The Wrenna. It is confrontational and uncomfortable and I'm glad readers receive that. It's set on a Dudley Council Estate, where I lived for six years, and this place is marked out, in many respects, by its insularity. Generations of the same family live in the same streets, it has got a reputation for violence and gangs, there's a Royston Vasey Are You Local? thing going on. These things keep outsiders away and anchor the in-group to a solid community. There's something beautiful and threatening about that which I hoped to capture in the novel. There is, of course, the Wren's Nest Nature Reserve which features in the novel, and this is a rich and lush site of protected nature - so there is some beauty in the pages, even if that beauty is tinged with an elemental or primal threat like all good nature has. The other thing is that the novel is about a guy returning to his home town and trying to come to terms with the upheaval and dislocation that has infected the estate - in doing so he weaves in and out of past, present and future and into the rhizomes of disorientating memory. So again, he's trying to capture something untranslatable in a region which is itself, by definition, difficult to trace.
OL: Drilling down even further, your new book - The Chain Coral Chorus - delves into What Lies Beneath the Black Country. What contributed to the fortunes made here. But also more broadly is the book there to help us imagine, to help us to understand how we can or do connect or have a place within this Earth?
RM F: The Chain Coral Chorus tracks my time as Poet in Residence for the Black Country Geological Society and explores the UNESCO Black Country Geopark through poems, essays and fieldnotes. I'm using geological language, observation and method to get to the bedrock (pun intended) of place-identity or spirit of place. People first started to settle here because of the mineral rich grounds and this built the industry and the cultures that cluster around those things - so its a fundamental element. I explore this deep time aspect in line with the off-kilter connections of the natural, the industrial, the geological and the domestic, because many of the geosites are situated in the meeting place of all these place-specific markers.
I hope people get some sort of prompt at revitalising and reconfiguring their awareness of the ways human and more-than-human collaborate and coexist, and, like you say, consider their place in/on the earth. In turn, I hope it inspires a radical re-awakening of people's immediate locales too - whether they're Midlanders or not - and see that local in what john Kinsella called an International Regionalism. That's the impulse of Geopoetics threaded throughout the book.
OL: Can you recommend any new nature writers or geopoets in particular, favourites of yours?
RM F: The writers who inspired The Chain Coral Chorus are Kenneth White, Alyson Hallett, Tim Cresswell, Don McKay and Norman Bissell. White comes at the subject with a philosophical and transcendentalist vigour. Hallett is grounded in the minerals of the earth and the communicative powers of the body. Cresswell's work is informed by his expertise in mobility and geography. McKay is a great writer of fossils and geolgy and bridges the gulfs between science and poetry. Bissell is a Romantic at heart, I think, but there's a great humour and deceptive simplicity to his work too. As for New Nature Writers, you can't go wrong with Robert MacFarlane for ambition, beauty, breadth and depth.
OL: I’ve been fortunate enough to see you read from your book at both Stafford and Wolverhampton Literary Festivals. There’s a difference isn’t there, between writing and reading… When you read you perform… It’s a transformation from the moment before when you are not performing… Do you ever write with reading in mind? I mean there’s a whole panoply of things occurring when writers are writing, is thinking this will work well on stage one of them for you?
RM F: I don't think about it as a performer, per se, but I'm acutely alert to how things sound - the meaning making that comes from a piece's sonic qualities. Rhythm, dynamics, shifting sounds. I want those to be high in the mix, as it were. I think if you turn that to far towards, what would a particular audience appreciate, then you run the risk of switching off the vital energy that charges you to write in the first place.
There's definitely a difference between everyday Rob and R. M. Francis the author, but it's something that comes quite naturally now and I don't intellectualise it too much. That said, Rob and R. M. are of course, the same. So each are informing the other.
OL: I like how when you tackle anything with your writing, you rarely if ever seem to me to give too much quarter to fashionable perspectives. You seem to have a pretty good bullshit detector. I guess you’ve touched on rewriting old books for new audiences who may be erm, more sensitive. Sensitivities deserve respect. But it seems ultimately people just end up pushing the deckchairs around and there’s always someone who can be offended anyway…
RM F: It's a working-class thing, I think (even though my class is quite complex these days). We don't care for pretentions and we're pretty good at picking it up because often its those pretentions that keep the class under - at least culturally. Personally, I'm not bothered about what works in terms of trends, only in what works intellectually, in craft and in what offers new possibilities. The publishing and academic worlds seem hell bent on trends, but you know, they're businesses so what are they meant to do?!
I don't agree with rewriting books for new sensitivities, I think it's an act of intellectual and artistic vandalism. If you want to say anything you need to be prepared to offend someone, it's almost impossible to say anything important or complicated that is inoffensive to everyone. Can you think of anything? I'm not convinced that sensitivities deserve respect either. Quite often people just need to suck it up. Why should I respect the sort of person who's going to be "offended" by a children's book, a spy based on caricatured masculinity, or a story about a laughable Lord and his butler? They need to ignore them or grow the hell up. Stop being such bedwetting little Mary Whitehouses. I know that sounds harsh, and I'm aware of the crisis of mental health we're living in, but I think we're doing people, the young in particular, a huge disservice when we cover them in swaddling bands and tell them it's okay to switch off on things that are difficult. They need to know the world is strange and hard, but also that they're smarter and braver than they're being told they are.
OL: What about your own evolution as a writer, as a poet. When did you begin to think you had something worth saying and that you could say it with written words?
RM F: This is hard one. Writers are a pretty self-righteous sort by nature, so in a way, as soon as I began thinking deeply I thought I had something worth saying. I was wrong. It took a lot longer than that to refine and map out the ideas and styles. Doing my MA at Teesside University humbled and energised me a great deal, and working under the tutorship of Bob Beagrie really helped hone the craft and polish the arguments. Bob took me as a wannabe Ginsberg and folded me into something much more nuanced and careful. Then a year or so later when I worked with Paul Mcdonald on my PhD at the University of Wolverhampton - he taught me more about narrative, place and developing voice. Ben Colbert and Sebastian Groes have been important mentors to me in terms of my scholarly work too.
I'm a huge Rush fan and Neil Peart is one of my heroes. At the height of Rush's success, Peart was widely considered the greatest drummer of his generation, maybe ever. Despite this, and the demonstrable skills to back it up, he was still humble enough to take lessons from Freddie Gruber and Peter Erskine. That's what I'm aiming at. I've got things to say, but I can always get them said more betterer.
OL: When was the last time you changed your mind? About what? About anything.
RM F: Never. I'm always right. Just ask my wife; she's always telling me what I should think correctly. Nah, seriously, I'm forever wrestling with ideas and I come at things I write with that in mind. You can trust your gut to a certain extent and in certain circumstances, but that needs to be measured against well wrought, articulated logic and rigorous expression. You've got to pray on things. Work them out in collaboration with other thinkers, your intuitions and all of that. In our times, the greatest thing you can do is change your mind. Is this a cop out answer? Never, I'm always right!
RM Francis Week: Introduction
RM Francis Week: Review - The Chain Coral Chorus
RM Francis Week: Where Creation Begins
RM Francis Week: Landmasses and Landmarks
RM Francis Week: RM Francis The Week Interview
RM Francis Week: Teethgraters - 5 Tunes RM Francis would go to the Ends of the Earth to Never Hear Again
RM Francis at Outsideleft⇒
7th June, 2023, Outsideleft Night Out with RM Francis tickets here