Françoise Roy was born in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada, in 1959. She has a Master’s degree in Geography with a Certificate in Latin American Studies (Bachelor of Science, University of Maryland, 1980 —Summa Cum Laude—; Master of Arts, University of Florida, 1983—Cum Laude—), as well as a Certificate in Translation from English to Spanish (O.M.T., 2000). She has worked as a free-lance interpreter and translator, and as an editor, apart from having been a French and English teacher. She has also given writing workshops. En 1997, she was awarded the National Literary Translation Award in Poetry (INBA, Mexico). In 2007, she was awarded the Jacqueline Déry-Mochon Award for her novel Si tu traversais le seuil (L’instant même, Quebec City, 2005). In 2007, she also won the Alonso Vidal National Poetry Award in Mexico. She has published one novel in Spanish and one in French, a book of short stories, one plaquette and eight poetry books, most in Spanish, two of them being bilingual (Spanish-French). She has translated close to fifty books, mostly in poetry. In 2002, she founded with other writers Tragaluz, a monthly art and culture magazine, in which she worked as an editor until it ceased to exist in 2007. She lives in Guadalajara, Mexico, since 1992.
Interview with Francoise Roy
by Amanda Fuller
first published in Poetry International
Much in your work explores the concept of evolution. This theme surfaces as it relates to the relationship between man and other elements of nature and between people in terms of personal relationships. In “Rebaño de un solo miembro” the theme of evolution is presented in a science fiction-like scene, as if evolution has somehow gone awry right under the noses of the human presence in the poem. Why is evolution important to you and/or interesting for you?
Evolution, I think, is at the core of human condition and the main provider of tension in literary artwork. To be alive is basically to evolve from one age to the next, one way of thinking to another (hopefully, since a lot of people never challenge their own thoughts), one surrounding or set of circumstances to another. The trip from birth to death is embedded in the concept of evolution; so are history, personal biography, social unfolding—all of them ways of dealing and explaining change, evolution.
Building characters in fiction-writing or movies has a lot to do with personal evolution: interesting literary figures in a novel or a short story are those who evolve, who change as the story goes by. A poem is also like a unique, very concentrated way of story-telling. Besides, the subject of poetry (as a matter of fact, of art in general) is telling how one is alive on earth, what invisible things are contained in the visible world. And at the center of this invisibility, hidden within or behind or above the visible realm, is the concept of evolution. Adaptation, change, aging, unfolding, development: all are roads to evolution.
Evolution, a process generally too slow to see in a single human lifespan, is challenged by the images in many of your poems, where in flashes of fast forward and reverse, the subjects in the poems are altered instantaneously, thus challenging the linear or “normal” pace of time as humans generally perceive it. The sheep in “Rebaño de un solo miembro” evolves into a snake in real time, the bodies in “Cuarto amniótico” morph into elements of nature before our eyes, in “Florete de censura” the relationship between mother and daughter and their interactions survive the test of time to be present long after they are over. This speeding up and slowing down of time, or this recalling of the past into a very real present, operates throughout many of your poems. In your work time is manipulated in a surreal or even metaphysical manner, as if the poet is alchemist. Can you talk about the concept of time in your work as well as your playfulness with it?
I am very fond of myths, a great admirer of world mythology. I see myths as very poetic stories. Myths are like poems, as dreams are in a certain way, symbolic representations. I like symbols, and semiotics appear to me as a very interesting subject. Time manipulation is a very common process in myths: creatures are born as adults without going through the normal phases of growing up, or else, they jump from one phase to the next at unreal speed; things switch from one state to another at the blink of an eye; immortality is a consequence of moving or being placed outside the realm of time. The whole concept of magic is also based on the possibility of altering time: metamorphosis, changing one thing into another, seeing the future, all of that has to do with working around the concept of time. Spirituality is also a way of traveling through time layers, more specifically, out of it. Chronos (who became Saturn in Roman mythology) is one of the most complex, fearful, tragic and enduring god of the Greek vision of the cosmos. I like to play with these concepts, because myths and the possibility of twisting time boundaries have given rise to great literature.
Many of your poems utilize geographical terms and concepts: maps and cartography, tools of navigation, latitude/longitude, etc. These terms and concepts are often used in interesting ways to describe the human body, the navigation of a specific experience or lifetime, etc. How do your background in geography and your interest in this subject area influence your work?
I am a geographer who never had a chance to work as such for reasons marked by fate and life choices. But this love of maps, movement (my master’s thesis had to do with migration), this fondness towards this planet we should treat as home, is at the core of many things I do and many of my beliefs. When I was a teenager, my role models, my heroes, surprisingly, were not pop stars or handsome actors but famous explorers and unknown lands. I started traveling when I was four days old, and I have lived in five different countries and speak three different languages; I guess this particularity is bound to show in my writing. Moreover, I believe poetry is the most intimate endeavor of all literary genres, and one of the most biographical one also. Even when one is not “confessing,” one is most truly himself or herself when writing poetry. I was bound to travel, to cross language and geographical borders, and this very personal experience has surely shaped my writing.
One of the challenges when translating from Spanish to English is the translation of possessive pronouns. With your work in particular, there seems to be a crafty blurring of gender lines and sexuality (for example in “Hermafrodismo”). It therefore becomes challenging to translate the interesting vagueness of the Spanish “su” into the comparable “his” or “her” in English while managing to maintain the lack of gender specificity that is so captivating in your work in Spanish. Why is writing about gender and sexuality important to you? Do you think there is a connection between the construction of language and the constructs of gender and sexuality?
Again, it probably has to do with my academic background. One, unless forced or compelled to do otherwise, usually studies things that are of interest to him or her. When I was a graduate student, I specialized in women’s studies. I wanted to understand how gender is an in-built limitation for all beings, what other people have said about it. Gender separation, sexual reproduction, is the cornerstone of almost all life forms. But of course, complex as it is, human society has knitted over this natural separation very important, either static or changing social constructions concerning gender.
I sure think there is a connection between the construction of language and the constructs of gender and sexuality, and when translating this becomes very obvious. Why do concepts and inanimate subjects have gender in romance languages and not in English? Why has the exact same thing a different gender in French and Spanish; the word “lip”, for instance, is feminine in French and masculine in Spanish, and this is true of many body parts. Why is a table feminine and not masculine in both French and Spanish? What is there about a table that makes it a “female” object? You would have to ask a philologist. Nonetheless, this apparent lack of gender specificity found in my poetry is a purely linguistic problem that has to do with the specific structure of languages, since I always know when I write whether the thing I am talking about is feminine or masculine, male or female.
Sexuality, an offshoot of gender separation, is the main driving force of human condition. Whether it has to be tamed, driven, denied, suppressed, refined, unleashed, all of that is another matter; but if one is to write about life, the subject of sexuality, in its multiple modalities, will spring up sooner or later.
The themes of human anatomy and medicine appear in various poems. Often these concepts arise within a mood of science fiction and often involve some manipulation of nature or the human body. They also seem to tie into other themes such as gender, sexuality, spirituality or human nature. For example, in “Las cirujanas” the act of surgery and the manipulation of the human body are tied into a larger commentary on the social experience of power and affluence. What gave rise to your interest in medicine, anatomy and the manipulation of the human body? Can you talk a little about how the diverse themes you explore in your work are interconnected?
In grade school and high school, one of my favorite subjects was biology. It is the only science I was proficient at. My love of animals led me, earlier on, to think about becoming a veterinarian, but my poor performance in Mathematics convinced me otherwise. This fascination for the body, its history, its functioning, its social embedding, is crucial in my fields of interest and my personal life: horticulture and tending animals, along with photography, are my main hobbies outside literature (which, of course, does not qualify as a hobby but as a way of life). Having said that, I think hobbies are very important things in a human life; they are a road to love and passion, in all its manifestations, far more important than just a way of entertaining or killing time or keeping busy. I grow over three hundred different kinds of plant species at home, and people say my house looks like a botanical garden and a zoo. I grew up in a scientific environment; my father was a scholar and researcher in nuclear chemistry, and I was in much closer contact with science as a child and youth than I was with the arts. Maybe that is why, being an artist at heart, I try to unite both things. The most fascinating Christmas gift I ever received in my youth was a microscope, which I still have (it has survived over decades my process of moving around from one country to another).
I think of interconnectedness as the foundation of human experience. Maybe this is why I tend to interweave all these subjects which apparently have little to do with each other. I would like to be some sort of Renaissance sage, maybe because I have an innate ability to see patterns, to seek the big picture, to blur fragmentation. Besides, isn’t that one of the main tools or aim of poetry, this thing about taking words and concepts out of their normal semantic context? Without that, there is no poetry; only description of thoughts and feelings, which can be easily done over a cup of coffee talking to a friend. Poetry is not describing what you feel or think, but precisely playing with semantics, twisting meanings. Likewise, a metaphor is basically a way of establishing connectedness, similarity and differences between things. A friend of mine who is a psychoanalyst once told me that we as social beings are much better trained to see differences than similarities; thus comes hatred, thus comes conflict. I gave a lot of thought to this idea.
How interesting that many of your poems directly reference God, or allude to spirituality in other ways, even while they explore topics often deemed controversial in religious circles (evolution, sexuality, etc). Your poem that begins “The head, heaviest of flowers…” hinges on spirituality and God while incorporating evolution, sexuality, astrology, nature and other themes. Can you discuss the importance of spirituality and religion in your work and how these themes interact with the more physically grounded scientific tone also present?
Although I am completely religiously unorthodox —having been raised as a catholic by parents who were not particularly religious but were raised in a fundamentalist society, Quebec in the forties— religion is also one of my main fields of interest. Historically, religious identity, the fight over Lutheranism after the religious split that brought about countless massacres in France between the onset of the 16th Century and the 18th Century (way passed the French Revolution), was the plight of New France, the land of my ancestors. I would say I am a profoundly religious person, although I am allergic to dogma, which prevents me from belonging to a specific faith and submitting completely to it. But it is there, always present, a search, a thirst to dig into the invisible realms. The only thing in life I am absolutely sure of is the existence of the afterlife, of immortality. I am not sure what God is like, but I believe in transcendence, that is, the idea that the cause and origin of our world or system lies outside its boundaries.
There is a variety of form (line length, prose vs. non-prose poems, interesting and diverse line spacing, etc.) in your work. What role does form play in your work and can you discuss how the form of your poems comes about?
Form has to do with experimenting, and poetry is always an attempt to experiment around language, wordings, different ways of saying the same thing. The greatest poets (Beaudelaire, Rimbaud, Vallejo, Mallarmé, Góngora, etc.) are ones who have been revolutionary concerning shape, versification; they have been pioneers of language. They have untaken the task of renewing it, twisting it, doing away with established forms. It would be presumptuous for me to say I will come up with new forms of languages, but I like to play with it. It is like being next to a dissection table. The prose poem is a form I am very comfortable with, maybe because my personal style, verbally and in terms of temperament, is excessive, loaded; I am rather baroque, and definitely not a succinct teller. I am a rather long-breathed person and I like story-telling. Prose writing is better adapted to that than haiku or literary nakedness.
The way lines are cut is also a way of playing with sound, which is very important in poetry, as a close cousin of music (modern astrology, interestingly enough, assigns the same “ruler”, Neptune, to spirituality, poetry, dance and music alike).