Her interests include reading and writing. She graduated from Concordia University with a BA in Creative Writing and teaches writing to youth in Toronto.
French is the author of the new poetry collection Three Cities.
BCP: Why poetry?
WF: Poetry is elemental. And it’s immediate. I always read poetry but I didn’t consider myself a poet until recently. The title loomed with the responsibility to be spectacularly well versed, a master of metre, a trickster of words, a code only those with post-secondary schooling could decipher. But the more poetry I read, the more I feel in love with it, the more I wanted to write it. I think I always wrote poetry, but never considered it ‘good’. Even if I’m writing prose or drama, I usually write a poem about it to capture the essence of the story.
BCP: What is your process?
WF: I journal a lot. Almost always I have my notebook on me and I’m scribbling some kind of nonsense. I’ll go back and reread the slosh and pick out a line or two, even a single word and isolate it on the page, see if a poem will grow from it. Other times I walk with a poem for years, collecting the images and emotions waiting to be skilled enough to involve words into the equation. Then I get to ‘vomit’ up poems. I actually have a folder on my computer called vomit, pages and pages of images, ideas, sounds that I come back to pluck from the page and flesh out into a complete piece.
BCP: Who, or what, are your influences?
WF: I’m in awe of so many master poets but the one thing that truly gets my pen flying is nature. I’m heavily influenced by my surroundings when writing poetry. When I was younger I used to climb trees and hide out for hours with my notebook and write about the shapes of leaves and the patterns ants crawl. I still write in trees when I get a chance.
I’ve been influenced by my mentors and teachers, one person who has propelled me towards poetry and granted me the confidence to even embark on a project like 3 cities is Wendy “Motion” Brathwaite. Motion influences my writing but more importantly how I see myself as a writer. She’s encouraged me to remain authentic always, be active and politically conscious and she’s helped me understand that the role of a poet is to speak. So I’m speaking through this work.
BCP: What are you reading now?
WF: I just cracked open Michelle Cliff’s Abeng, a novel set in colonial Jamaica. It was loaned to me by a friend of mine, she’s like a second mother. I’ve heard it’s a challenging read and I’m in the mindset to tackle something stimulating.
BCP: Can you provide a recommended reading list for people?
WF: I could go on forever really but these are selected books that have personally moved me.
Fully Empowered – Pablo Neruda
Old Friend, We Made This for You – Yannick Marshall & Yemi Aganga
She – Saul Williams
Lettricity– Kaie Kellough
The Burning Alphabet – Berry Dempster
A Poem Travelled Down My Arm – Alice Walker
Québécité – George Elliott Clarke
Song of Solomon – Toni Morrison
Let the Great World Spin – Column McCann
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Childhood – Andre Alexis
What It Is! – Lynda Barry
BCP: Your poetry is very political. What do you try to convey to your readers?
WF: Thank you for the compliment for saying my work is political. People are afraid of that word, but I believe it to be an honour. Poetry is, to me, a perfect place for political discourse and it is important that the role of a poet is to voice the experience of the self and of many. In 3 cities especially, I’m attempting to convey alternative perspectives of this land called Canada. Commentary and dialogue rarely happen unprovoked and I guess I’m trying to generate genuine discussion in a country where politeness and small-talk are the only acceptable way to communicate. I strive to write from a place of truth and urgency, but I’m still working at it. My instinct is to be neutral and maybe I’ve been influenced by politeness or complacency too, but there’s too much going on — in terms of race, gender, criminal injustice, education, you name it — to be quiet.
BCP: It’s Black History Month now. You fought to have Black History Month at your highschool in Bradford. What does Black History Month mean to you?
WF: Black History Month is a springboard for discussion. And I know it gets a lot of slack for being only one month long, or only focused on slavery and post-slavery, for be repetitive and event-driven. I didn’t have Black History Month in school and I did fight school administration to have it recognized. That’s Black History Month for me, changing the landscape and opening doors of discussion. Dialogue is so crucial and if BHM allows anti-oppressive groups to share experiences, histories and narratives to a larger public audience of various races, that’s progress. Canada’s history in treatment of black people is deliberately hidden but I didn’t know that growing up. African Americans have a specific vocabulary and set of heroes and events that can be used to pin-pointing racism and eventually help them to combating it. Here, our narratives are eclipsed by the Underground Railroad tale. It was through Black History Month I learned about Canadian slavery, Angelique of 1734 or the horrors of Africville of the 1960s and other crucial events in Canada’s history. All year long we can discover and rewrite our history but February is be an ideal time to showcase these narratives in order to reach the masses. It’s only a month, but it’s also an opportunity.
BCP: How has working at Descant, one of the top literature journals in Canada, helped with your writing?
WF: Descant taught me a level of professionalism that I dually needed. If I was going to write something, I better make sure it is at the apex of my potential. As a production editor, going over meticulous edits made me painfully aware of errors in my own writing. It enforced a new standard of writing for me, not just the quality of content but attention to detail, continuity, presentation. When I decided to do 3 cities into a book, I knew I couldn’t half-ass it. The copy has to be clean, the cover well designed, the typesetting solid. To be taken seriously, you can’t just write well, you have to dress well too. Dress your writing in it’s best and commit to every choice you make, that’s what Descant taught me.
BCP: You teach writing to youth. Has teaching helped with your writing?
WF: Yes, yes and yes! In a completely different way that Descant helped, the youth I work with infuse so much play into my writing. And I’ve taught writing in different capacities: in an English classroom, an afterschool writing club, tutoring and facilitating workshops. All situations I encourage my students that writing is, first and for most fun. And I myself often forget the fun when I’m months deep into a project, stressed, under a deadline and frustrated with myself. So many stories and poems have been inspired by sessions with the youth I work with, and they always bring me back to being authentic. Whether I’m proofreading a story loosely based on a video game or someone’s crush at school, these youth are truthful in their work and writing what is important to them. Sometimes I get distracted and write things that I think are important to some people, but not so much for me. And I’m blessed to work with such talented minds, the level of creativity is unbelievable.
BCP: How long were you working on Three Cities?
WF: 3 Cities started as a writing exercise back in March of 2010. I was part of a writing circle called Womenz Wordz and the challenge was write about a place you want to visit. I wrote about Montreal. I was living in Bradford back then and I was journaling a lot about coming back to my hometown, which later became material for the Bradford section. But I was spending most of my hours in Toronto, doing my internship at Descant and visiting friends. So it came together slowly but I was actively writing the manuscript and putting the book together for a little under a year now.
BCP: Three Cities is very personal. Was it hard writing some of the poems?
WF: Yes. Writing about myself is one of the things that I was taught not to do in my Creative Writing classes. “It’s self-indulgent,” so it was easy to fictionalize and not go into my personal life. One of the scariest parts of 3 cities is that I own it, it’s my experiences. My mentor helped me realize that if I’m afraid of poem, it usually means I really have to publish it. If it’s hard to write, I’m growing. If I’m growing, I’m moving in the right direction.
BCP: Why did you choose to self publish?
WF: Good question. One reason is to prove I could do it. I have a terrible habit of collecting incomplete writing and let it die in a shoebox under my bed. I wanted a complete project and I wanted go through the motions of seeing it through. Also, I felt I needed to share this story at this time. There was a strong sense of urgency to get 3 cities into the world. It’s difficult to explain, but this had to happen and I couldn’t wait on a publisher’s thumbs up. Plus I learned a lot about how hard it is to do this thing on your own.
BCP: Three Cities is your family history. Has your family read Three Cities? If so, what did they think?
WF: My family has heard only a few of the poems in 3 cities and man, was I nervous! My family means so much to me and I love and respect them dearly. It’s impossible to write anything without my family in mind. There are themes and issues in 3 cities that I haven’t fully communicated with my family and that is difficult to make it all public. I’m hoping 3 cities will create a political dialogue but also a personal one with my family, my mother especially. I’m looking forward for their response.
BCP: Can you explain the cover of your book?
WF: Sure. Ankhbayar, also known as Sept designed the cover. The three traffic lights mirror the three cities, pretty basic. I referenced my relationship with the three destinations as a triangle in my opening poem and faint triangles repeat themselves. I’m happy with it. It works well with the tone of the book.
BCP: What advice do you have for other writers consider self-publishing?
WF: Do it. Even if your friends/family/advisors say don’t do it, do it. Consider why you’re doing it. Figure out if how you’re going to market it. Get someone else to edit it. Don’t cheap out on the paper. Talk to others who’ve done it. Keep everything local if you can, it’s cheaper. Stand by your art. Don’t stress about the bio, no one really reads it anyway. Good luck!
Tune into Black Coffee Poet February 9, 2012 for a video of Whitney French reading her poetry.