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Q&A with Ariel Francisco, author of A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship

Ariel Francisco's new bilingual book of poems, A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship, was published by Burrow Press in April 2020. Born in the Bronx to Dominican and Guatemalan parents, Ariel was raised in Miami, where many of the poems in his new book take place. Below, he speaks with us about language, living in Richmond Hill, and the alchemy of translation. More on Ariel can be found on his website, and on Twitter and Instagram.

When you think of Queens, what first comes to mind?

I love Queens. To be honest the first thing that comes to mind for me are the Observation Towers at the New York State Pavilion, thanks to Men in Black (the greatest film ever made).

It’s been really great living here, though. Richmond Hill is pretty quiet overall, and there’s a lot more Spanish being spoken here than in East New York or Crown Heights where I had lived previously. I’m also blessed to live around the corner from a Dominican bodega.

How does Queens influence your writing?

Well, location always influences my writing. Queens in particular I think has brought me a different kind of quiet and solitude that’s new to me. Also, being around Spanish speakers more often, I’ve started to write poems in Spanish, which is never something I thought I’d be able to do.

What is the last piece of writing you read that made you laugh or cry (or just especially moved you)?

Well not a single piece, but a whole book: The Breakbeat Poets Vol 4: Latinext has me both laughing and crying, it’s such an incredible and eclectic range of poetry.

How did you come to write your new book of poems, A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship?

Well, it really started with my first book (All My Heroes Are Broke, C&R Press, 2017). There’s a poem there called “Magic City Ruse” which really unlocked a new way of writing about Florida for me, which I didn’t have access to before. It allowed me to make use of my bitterness and ambivalence about Florida, which also unlocked this kind of repressed love for it too. But it really came out of the process of writing my first book, which has its first section in New York and the second in Florida. The Florida poems just kept coming once I figured it out and I had to say “OK, hold on, wait: there’s something else going on here. This needs its own space.” I finished most of it while still in my MFA actually because while it might not seem like it, it was a very natural continuation of my first book, at least in terms of process.

This collection includes side-by-side Spanish translations of your work by José Nicolás Cabrera-Schneider. Can you tell us more about that process and how you came to the decision to publish this book as a bilingual collection?

Since it’s such a Miami book, I really wanted it to be in Spanish as well. I proposed it to Ryan (who runs Burrow Press) and he loved the idea, so I just kind of put it out there on Twitter to see if any translators might be interested. Nico not only responded, he sent me his translation of my New Yorker poem (“Along the East River and in the Bronx Young Men Were Singing”) as an example, which makes for a pretty good audition.

As a translator myself, I let Nico have all the freedom he needed/wanted. I think there were only a couple of small moments where I chimed in, but that was typically where something was technically wrong. He did an incredible job. I think it’s important for translators to have the space and freedom to do what they need to do without interference. For example, in my poem “ON SEEING A PHOTO OF AN OCTOPUS IN A PARKING GARAGE,” I write “its eight arms spread/straight out like the points of a/ compass.” He translated “points of a compass” as “pétalos de la rosa náutica” which, bringing that back to English, means “petals of the nautical rose,” which is infinitely better than the original.

Do you listen to music while you write? If so, was there any particular kind of music or specific songs you found yourself returning to while writing the poems that appear in A Sinking Ship is Still a Ship?

I find it hard to listen to music while I write, I find rhythms distracting. As cliche as it is, this is why I love writing at coffee shops or at bars. Random bits of conversations and voices make for better ambiance, at least for me. At home, I’ll put on a familiar TV show instead of listening to music so I can at least have the sound of other peoples voices.

That said, music does inspire me quite a bit. I actually got the title from a song by Astronautalis, one of my favorite musicians (and a fellow Florida Man) who I’m pretty much always listening to. I revisited his older album “The Mighty Ocean and the Nine Dark Theaters” while writing this too because there’s so much ocean, water, and drowning on that record, and this almost tangible desire to escape something, all of which make up my poems too.

What does your writing process/routine usually look like? In what ways has the pandemic affected this, if any?

Well I teach, so the pandemic happening mid-semester was extra disastrous. I’ve been sheltering in place since March 11th. It really obliterated all of my creative energy for, like, five weeks or so. Part of my writing process is journaling: I write everything in these little notebooks from poem drafts to ideas to just regular day things. The upside of that is that I’ve learned to write about my frustrations with writing as well, which counts as writing to me. So I was, at least, writing about my inability to write for a while.

Right now, I’m just writing down any image or metaphor or line that I think of in sequence, so it’s just a long, weird poem. The idea is that it will be made up of whatever I write while under quarantine, so there’s no telling how long it will be.

What have you been consuming (books, movies, television, or food, etc.) during quarantine that has brought you some measure of joy or peace or just plain old escapism?

I finally watched Avatar now that it’s on Netflix. I will admit, I’ve been sleeping all these years. It’s pretty fantastic. Also Money Heist on Netflix is really incredible and intense. As far as books, in addition to what I mentioned earlier, I’m reading Vincent Ferrini, who was one of my teacher's teachers.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?

Aside from my weird long quarantine poem, I’m working on quite a few translation projects. My newest one is a book by Carlos Rodriguez (1950-2001), a fantastic Dominican poet who lived most of his life in NYC. I’m also sending around a third poetry manuscript so, fingers crossed for that.

What is your favorite bit of Queens trivia?

It’s the most linguistically diverse place in the world!

Thanks, Ariel!

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