POEM-MAKER, STORYTELLER: EVER-EVOLVING GREATNESS OF FRANCINE WITTE
Francine Witte as a flash fiction writer has been published in many journals and anthologies. I have known her as a poet, featuring in the many places along the New York City poetry circuit. Having read Café Crazy, her previous book of poems, gave me insight into her world of lost love, managed through tragi-comic dating scenarios, infidelity and divorce. However, I was amazed to delve into her world of flash fiction, where these themes of love are given a more refreshing approach with the introduction of unusual circumstances and characters. Francine Witte’s past history as teacher and current plus-role as editor, allows her patience to articulate these whimsical and transcendental webs of fiction. Whereas her stories dare to be off-beat, fun-loving and moving, her recent collection of poems, The Theory of Flesh, divided into three sections deals more with the value of great depths on the subjects of evolution, human psychology and isolation. The poems are mature and stark, taking giant steps and leaps into Witte’s ever-evolving greatness as storyteller, narrative explorer and conscience builder.
KOFI FORSON: Pleasure to share this space with you to discuss what has been an overwhelming climb into the realm of productivity on your part. You published three books last year; The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books Inc.), Dressed All Wrong for This (Blue Light Press), The Way of the Wind (Ad Hoc Fiction).
Without giving away your secret, how did you manage this?
FRANCINE WITTE: Lovely to share this space with you, as well, Kofi.
I am extremely grateful to have had three books published in 2019. Dressed All Wrong for This was a contest winner (Blue Light Press.) The Way of the Wind, was in the Highly Recommended category of the Bath Novella-in-Flash contest and was published as a result of that. The Theory of Flesh was a collection of the poems I had written since Café Crazy, and it was accepted and published by Kelsay Press.
FORSON: It’s quite impressive to open the first few pages of Dressed All Wrong for This to the Acknowledgements section and see all the various presses you have published with. I would imagine being involved in the writing game one way or another hyper-accelerates one’s determination to succeed.
Besides being a poet and fiction writer, you work as an associate editor for South Florida Poetry Journal. Does being an editor as another primary focus benefit your writing? It must!
WITTE: I am also a first reader now for Pidgeonholes, and I edit a flash fiction column, Flash Boulevard. These activities benefit my writing immensely. They help me understand what makes a poem or story work. When I read someone else’s work, it’s easy to see what jumps off the page, what engages me as a reader. I can then apply these same questions to my own writing.
FORSON: Can you take me through the notion of being a writer; what is your schedule for doing the actual writing, how do you then make time for submitting, overcoming the reality of rejections and maintaining the focus to keep on writing?
WITTE: I spend time in the morning writing. That’s when I’m feeling most creative. Because poetry and flash are short forms, I can create a draft very quickly. Submitting work is an evening thing, much more right-brained and doesn’t require the same creative energy as writing. I really enjoy it though. As to rejection, it hurts but it’s part of it. I think I have the overall attitude that if I’ve written something and it’s as good as I can make it, it will eventually land somewhere. Sometimes, it’s important to question something that’s been rejected a number of times. Maybe it’s not ready to be out in the world. I’ve also had poems accepted after I sent them out 40 (yes, 40) times. So, there’s that.
FORSON: I’ve had the privilege to read your previously published book of poems, Café Crazy, and be present at your features and open mic performances around New York City and so I’d like to take this opportunity to say congratulations on all your successes. It must be an enchantingly creative time in your life, right now.
WITTE: Thank you. It is a good time (knock wood, lol.) I’m hoping that more leads to more.
FORSON: Having read Café Crazy, it was a nice shift to enjoy your flash fiction for the first time. My interpretation of flash fiction is that of scrambling an egg. The yolk and egg white is birthed as poetry, but it is further imagined and explored with addition of plot and characters.
How do you describe flash fiction?
WITTE: I describe flash fiction as a story told in under 1000 words (mine are usually much shorter) that focuses on compression. A flash has all the properties of a longer story (plot, character, setting, conflict, resolution) but they are not always visible. The use of one detail does the work of paragraphs. An example from a story of mine would be, “Hank was balloony and humid.” That’s all I tell you about him in terms of describing him. I think of flash in terms of storytelling as the difference between sunlight and lightning. This is, of course, very unscientific, both have the properties of light, but one is sustained and the other is a burst.
FORSON: What is the history of flash fiction? Who are some of its heralded writers?
WITTE: I don’t know the official history of flash. I have been writing it for more than 20 years. Roberta Allen, my first flash fiction teacher, had been writing flash for some time, and her book, Fast Fiction, is considered a kind of bible in the form. I do think the short-short story has been around for some time, what with Hemingway, Kate Chopin, Russell Edson, and many others writing 1-2 page stories. But the popularity of the form has really taken off in the last 5-10 years.
FORSON: The first story in Dressed All Wrong for This is “When There Was No More Water ”. The narration deals with the psychology of a woman who feels like fish out of water. Somehow several stories in the book deal with people who feel an affinity for animals, or better put, actually becoming animals or animal-like.
Where does this notion of metamorphosis come from? Does it come from horror, science…? Certainly global warming is central to extinction in the story, but overall what is the dynamic and parallel of your love for animals and the human person’s transformation?
WITTE: I think you have to give Kafka the nod for human to animal transformation, so I think that would be what inspired me. For me, in these human to animals stories, I am always convinced any being is more noble in an animal form. In my stories where a person turns into an animal, it is usual because they are failing at human and might do better as a horse, a fish, a chicken.
FORSON: There is an element of the mundane, that living is mundane, as in Pam, central character of “Pigeon Radar” and her decision to stay home, deal with telecommuting and takeout, quit men because of its twists and turns and as a result, she falls in love with the shopping channel.
Is writing for you that necessary escape from the banality of living? Do you then gain celebrity by transforming within the mundane to point of acceptance, the example of your subtle fame online and elsewhere?
What brings you to writing each and every time?
WITTE: I love language. I love the possibility of saying familiar things in a way no one has said it before. I think of writing as my center. It’s what I think I do best, so I like to go to that place. It does offer an escape from the everyday. I can create a world of events that don’t happen, people that don’t exist. It’s fun. That’s what keeps me coming back.
FORSON: Furthermore, I sense the concept of human conflict. Somehow, one has to deal with animals on their terms to get away from life, as in the brilliant story, “Alpha”, where we are faced with studying bears or learning from bears inherently about life of a bear, coercively implementing human conduct on them.
Was Jane Goodall an inspiration at all for this story? Where does your concern for animal habitat come from?
WITTE: There may have been a subconscious Jane Goodall inspiration here. I do watch a lot of nature shows. I see the pure motivation of animals, food, sleep, survival. They aren’t greedy. That’s a human thing. We, as humans, should be very grateful that animals are not like us. Being that they are naturally stronger than we are, we’d be in a lot of trouble if they shared our capability for random destruction.
FORSON: Another aspect of your writing is your thoughts on the concept of the nuclear family. Relationships, some specified as marital, are riddled with infidelity and divorce. “The Girl Next Door Wants to Borrow My Father”, shares in its narrative the idea of a broken family. Once again, the idea of human conflict comes into play. This story works as Beatle-esque for me; the idea of loneliness juxtaposed the image of a hill.
How does nature’s form of tragedy reflected in a mudslide become represented in a human story about cynicism and death? What is the original inspiration for this story?
WITTE: Our lives are affected by all kinds of things. Our own actions, those of others. But in this particular story, a natural disaster has created a situation that is affecting the main characters. Somehow, it seems more unfair if our lives were ruined by something out of our control.
FORSON: Much as you are cynical about the subject of love, there is an enchanting and fun attitude you bring to the subject. The story, “When Zac, 32 Walks in IRL”, is almost a Woody Allen-esque look at a couple on a date.
Why the theme and subject of love centered on dating and the family concept? As a happily married woman do these stories take shape from and are inspired by past relationships? How has writing helped you address what seems to be a tragi-comic circumstance on your opinion of love?
WITTE: Love and loss and the weirdness of relationships are constant themes for me and always will be. I find them universal. Everyone has experienced the loss of someone. Everyone knows what unrequited or faded love is. Everyone. There is so much ridiculousness that goes on in romantic relationships. I like to show that in my stories.
FORSON: More to the point, you portray true to life stories about women, single, in relationships, at work or with a family. “One Day, Mary Sends Her Shadow Out to Work” confidently handles the subject of what could be a psychological disorder.
Circumstantially, some of these stories seem as if they were taken from the news, local newspapers, documentaries, television and/or film.
Do you research your subject and themes for these stories? How much preparation do you do before sitting down and writing? What is the most difficult thing about writing flash fiction?
WITTE: I don’t consciously shape stories on current events or even specific incidents in my own life. In fact, I try to avoid pop culture references at all because I want to create an imaginary world. I do research to make sure the details and settings are factually correct. I have a series of stories set in different years, and so I will research things that happened in that year as a launch for a story. Otherwise, I get right to the writing.
The most difficult part of writing flash for me is making sure it’s clear. Because it’s so compressed, it’s very easy to leave out a detail that really should be there.
FORSON: What is the basic idea for writing flash fiction? What do you start with, a title, theme, narrative? Do you work within the shape of flash or is the trick in the editing, starting from a longer piece and whittling it down?
WITTE: I don’t think I have ever approached flash as whittling down a longer story. Also, I never write a poem and think it should be a flash. I do write poems that are stories, but they aren’t flash. I don’t think I can explain why. In terms of how I approach the writing, I almost always start with a line or an image and go from there.
FORSON: What was your introduction to poetry? What poets do you consider inspirational to your own writing style?
WITTE: I have always enjoyed playing around with words, and this was something I liked doing early on. Many childhood books are written in verse, and so I think I was hooked on rhyme and meter immediately. I loved Dr. Seuss and later, Edgar Allen Poe. I started writing rhyming poetry, but later I started to write free verse.
FORSON: The Theory of Flesh structurally is different from your previous book of poems, Café Crazy. First of all, The Theory of Flesh is divided into three parts, what I would call transcendental, humanism and death. Most importantly, in some cases, I sense, point at which you were growing out of the scope and shape of a poem into writing something longer, that of flash fiction.
When did you feel this growing inspiration to write more? You also had a theatrical play staged. Was there something in particular that fueled your productivity? Are your stars perfectly aligned?
WITTE: That would be a good take on the three parts of Theory. I’m not sure I’d say I was growing out of the scope of poetry, but I like the different properties of poetry, flash fiction, and playwriting. Fiction (even very short fiction) has more room than poetry for telling a story in that the language can relax a little. In a poem, I always feel like every single syllable has to be working. This is also true in fiction, but the rhythms are different, and so relaxed language doesn’t stand out as much as it would in a poem. In plays, I like the challenge of only using dialogue.
FORSON: The Theory of Flesh is not sensed totally in the corporeal, but once again as you do so well, you draw parallels to the animal.
What is the deeper meaning behind your concept for this book?
WITTE: We are not here alone. We are part of a community that is living at the same time as us, but also living before and after us. Also, humans are not the only beings. It’s important to me to make these connections and to write about them.
FORSON: There’s timelessness and magical moments in the first section of the book, as well as depth of thought in the other sections. “Dust Bowl Farmer, 1934” takes a look back. Somehow, lineage is of great value, determination to be like the ones who came before. I get the feeling there was once promise in who we were, be it the Stone Age or generations that came after. Only who are we now and what hope do we have for the future?
Can you please enlighten me with your thoughts and opinion of evolution to domesticity? How has society shaped our personal values? Is technology detrimental much as it is helpful to us interconnecting?
WITTE: As humans became more and more proficient in coping with their survival needs, we also have more free time. We no longer have to hunt for food so we have time for so many other things, both good and bad. It’s what we choose to do that’s important. Society shapes our values in that we have to get along with others and sometimes that requires compromise. I personally like technology. I find it very helpful to keep in touch with people. And I love social media. It has allowed me to network and share my writing and the writing of others.
FORSON: New York has shaped you over the many years into becoming the prolific writer you are. What is amazing is that your flash stories emanate from a human circumstance, without the aura of New York being central to each story.
Your novella, The Way of the Wind, on the other hand, works as a New York story. How is this book an ode to every woman who was born and raised in New York or has at least come to accept New York as the loving and yet threatening city it is?
WITTE: I actually never think of “place” as central to anything that I’m writing. Of course, everything has a setting, a house, a park, etc. but I don’t ever think in terms of which city or state. In the novella, it helped to draw on my own experiences. I grew up in Queens. I went to P.S. 205. In fact, that one little story about Lily being forgotten after school really happened to me.
I think many people consider New York City very threatening in many ways, but I don’t. I have lived in other, smaller cities, and while many things were easier, opportunities were more limited. New York City’s appeal for me is the endless amount of opportunities.
Well, again, Kofi, thank you very much for this.