As a visual artist, poet and teaching artist, Ohio native Krista Franklin has made her mark on the city of Chicago and beyond. If you’ve watched carefully over the years, her images have graced book covers, local gallery spaces, and Fox Television’s “Empire.” A little over a year ago, she released the art book “Under the Knife” with Candor Arts as an intense exploration of her experience with fibroids. Prior to “Under the Knife,” Franklin had released two chapbooks, so Newcity wanted to speak with her about her process, music, how she approached “Too Much Midnight,” writers like Monica Hand as well as Afrofuturism.
Talk about the title of the book. Can we really have too much midnight? Too much of the dark?
The title comes from a line in the poem “Killing Floor,” and was collectively decided by my editors, Maya Marshall, Kevin Coval and I. There was an original title I had that was too similar to the titles of and in books of fellow contemporary poets, so we brainstormed other suggestions. I can’t remember if it was Maya or Kevin who threw out “Too Much Midnight,” but we all agreed after going through a number of options that this was the title of the project.
Whether or not we can really have too much midnight depends on the context. The phrase is a way to describe multiple things. In the context of the poem, it’s excess, overindulgence, excessiveness (“cracks/like a tooth after too much midnight”), and in this case one can definitely have too much midnight. I mean, I don’t think of a cracked tooth as something to look forward to or relish. But, the word “midnight” in this collection is also an allusion to “blackness”—”blackness” as a vast and dynamic set of experiences, a rich culture, a complex and expansive network of systems, ways of understanding and being. There’s never too much of that midnight for me.
I’m also thinking about the title as a nod to other projects that are important to me [that have] the word “midnight” in them, like Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” and “Midnight Marauders” by A Tribe Called Quest. Whether or not it’s possible to have too much of the dark. though, one part of me says: strive for moderation in all things. Another part of me asks: but what kind of dark are we talking about? ‘Cause maybe, maybe not.
The book is dedicated to the late poet, bookmaker and playwright Monica Hand, a poet whose creative life was far too brief. Can you share a little bit about that dedication?
This is hard for me to talk about, to be honest, because I’m still grappling with her death. Monica and I met and became friends nineteen years ago at the writer’s retreat, Cave Canem. We shared a love for poetry, paper and Octavia Butler, among other things. She was, as you mentioned, an incredible bookmaker and poet, and a beloved and devoted friend to so many. She was smart AF, funny, a connector and conduit. She was also one of the largest collectors of my art, and commissioned me to provide the artwork that appears on the covers of both of her books.
Months before her death, Monica emailed me about artwork ideas for her then-forthcoming second collection of poems, “DiVida.” I told her I was going to get back to her with some images, and before we finalized a decision, I received news of her transition. I was devastated and frozen in place for awhile in the days and weeks following her death, and only talked about her with friends who knew and loved her too. Out of the blue, months later, her publisher, Alice James Books, emailed to ask if I had any artwork they could consider for Monica’s book, which they planned to publish posthumously. When I opened the email I immediately started crying because they had no idea she’d already contacted me about it before she passed away. That’s how it so happened that Monica Hand orchestrated my artwork to adorn both of her books, even after she left here. I dedicated “Too Much Midnight” to her to honor her legacy, and also to thank her for supporting my writing and my art as ferociously as she did while at the same time creating her own art, pursuing a PhD, growing relationships, nurturing loved ones, and writing fantastic work of her own.
You preface the poems with introductory writings from Jamila Woods, M. Eliza Hamilton Abegunde and Greg Tate. I haven’t seen a poetry collection do that before, so I’m curious. How do you feel those writers’ voices represent your work?
“Too Much Midnight” is in part a collection of poems, but the editors of this project and I always envisioned this book as a coffee-table book; part poetry, part monograph—a collection that chronicles my double lives as a writer and artist. This book isn’t just my first full-length collection of poems, it’s also my first book that features a modest portfolio of the art I’ve created over the past fifteen years.
It is true that poetry collections rarely have forewords, but they’re common in artist monographs, and serve to contextualize the artist’s work, or offer a lens through which to consider the work. Almost everything I make is a hybrid in one form or another. But I understand the reader’s impulse to think of this book as only a collection of poems, and not fully consider the book’s other elements—the art, the essays, the interview—and the ways these elements engage each other.
As far as how I feel the contributing writers, Maria Eliza Abegunde, Cauleen Smith, Greg Tate and Jamila Woods, represented my work, honestly, I’ll just say I am overwhelmed by them. I was when I first read them, and I still am. The opening essays encourage me to deepen how I think about my work, and what it’s doing in the world. They helped me to see some of the ways the art and poems are being read and interpreted, and that’s a tremendous gift that continues to astound and move me. I am incredibly grateful. That’s how I feel.
I should also say that collaboration and artistic exchange are pretty big parts of my story. My work is frequently in conversation with that of other artists and writers, from making collages inspired by other poets’ poems to writing poems that appear in artist catalogues or are performed in museums. I love playing with other artists and writers, and remaining open to the possibilities and intersections of writing and language and art and music. There’s a lot of back-and-forth between my fellow writers and artists and I. This book is just another iteration of that ongoing exchange.
As I was reading I kept thinking about a few different approaches to the poems that you employ. You don’t shy away from carrying out long lines into prose poems.
My poems often go through a lot of different forms and shapes when I’m composing them, but sound is my biggest motivator. I think of my poems as scores when I’m revising them; where do I want the reader to breathe or race, stop and pause? That’s one guiding force for whether or not a poem takes a prose form for me. Some of the pieces in the book that take that form could be read as a lot of different things though: poems, lyric essays, sermons, lectures, rumination, ramblings. Even the art can be read as poems, or essays that contain only images, or have words embedded in them. I’m always asking, what’s art, what’s poetry, what’s a book, what’s genre, what’s writing, and who cares? I grapple a lot with what defines a poem, and what defines art, and what are their functions in the world. I’m also a big fiction reader, so it’s also possible that the prose pieces in the book are my inner frustrated novelist fighting for attention.
You’ve been writing for a long time, but the visual art that you’ve been creating has gotten a lot of attention. It makes sense that you would include some of that work in a poetry collection, especially the ones that clearly correlate with the poems. What criteria did you use to select the pieces in “Too Much Midnight”?
“Too Much Midnight” was always designed to be a book of poetry and art. When we first began talking about it, I referred to it as a coffee-table book, and great consideration was paid to the print quality of the images, the surface and weight of the paper, just to name a couple things. The art influenced a lot of the decisions made about the book. The poems weren’t privileged over the art and vice versa. The curation of the book was mainly led by Maya and Kevin, and there were a number of iterations before we got to where we are now.
A lot of poems and art ended up on the cutting floor because perhaps they didn’t fit the book’s themes, or didn’t flow with the mood of the poem or artwork next to it. Some of the art is conceptually related to the poem that precedes or follows it, but it isn’t a “this cyanotype is about this poem next to it” situation. Each of us had our own criteria. Mine revolved around the same thing it always does: excellence. It needed to be powerful, it needed to highlight what I considered to be some of my best, most compelling writing and art that I made over an extended period of time. But I’m really more interested in the connections the reader makes when they engage it.
Could you talk about how those creative processes for writing and visual art work for you?
I find talking about creative processes challenging and also kind of boring. A lot of my creative processes revolve around staring into space for ridiculous periods of time, or washing dishes (where some of my best poetry lines used to come from), or from a conversation with a friend or family member, or remembering something I read in undergrad that drives me to the studio. Creative processes also change and shift too much for me to think about. I started making collages ritualistically when I was afflicted with writer’s block in my twenties. It was something private I did to shake the words loose when I felt seized up as a writer. I never intended the art I was creating to be in the public eye.
It was members of the poetry community in Chicago who encouraged me to start showing the art in public. I gradually started to lean on it because I could make a few bucks selling collages on cardboard and journals and cigar boxes that I definitely wasn’t going to make from writing, reading at open mics and publishing in literary journals. People talk about creativity like it’s separate from living, separate from well-being and survival. It’s not for me. My creative process is my life, and it’s motivated and fueled by a range of influences, ideas, people, economic circumstances, physical health, mental health and well-being, how people I love are doing or not doing.
I produce art in bursts, and I write when I have something that I need to work out or think through with language. The idea determines the form it takes. Sometimes an idea wants to be a cyanotype, sometimes it wants to be cut up and reassembled, sometimes it wants to be a poem, or a painting or a performance. Sometimes it doesn’t want to be anything, just an idea. My role is to listen and pay attention. Sometimes I don’t write or make art for what feels like long periods of time, and I don’t trip on that. That artistic silence is a part of the creative process to me too.
One of the themes that I appreciate that recurs in the book is how women mother, and in some cases, do not. How did you find yourself wanting to unspool that theme in the book?
Motherhood is a huge theme in my work, an epic obsession. I’m not sure if that obsession began in elementary school when I was told a Biblical story over and over again about a pregnant virgin, or in high school when I read Euripides’ “Medea,” or in college when I read Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” or when my mother started talking about her relationship with motherhood and mothering. It could also be because I was born under the astrological sign of Cancer, supposedly the mother-nurturers of the zodiac. Either way, the many faces and forms of motherhood and mothering have been a preoccupation of mine for a long, long time. It remains a central theme in my writing, and is a theme in one way or another in all of my books to date. It’s also a focal point of my last book, “Under the Knife,” an artist book published with Candor Arts in 2018. We’ll see if I’ve worked that theme all the way through in the future.
Your writing and visual art has always centered black women and pulls from black history, music and even nature. Are there any topics or forms that you’d like to take more risks with in the future? I find myself asking that question because we can draw from the same themes and structures for a lifetime, but how do we keep reaching for something new?
I think my question now is “how do I keep something new reaching for me?” I follow my curiosities and the impulses that create sparks in me. My art is my methodology for working through my preoccupations and passions. I keep saying, these poems, this art, these books, these performances are all byproducts of my intellectual preoccupations, my passions, my obsessions. It’s all field notes and byproduct. Honestly, the biggest risk I ever took was committing to a life in the arts and literature as a black woman from a working-class family in a country that believes art is a luxury and not a necessity. There could have been no greater risk than that to me. The topics and forms of my work will emerge naturally as long as I stay open to the spark, stay in the flow, stay curious, adaptable, and open to learning and expanding my understanding. At this point I just want to play and have some fun in my work. I want to be driven by childlike wonder again.
After reading your poem “History, as Written by the Victors,” I kept thinking about how easily Chicago could slip into a dystopian state, precisely because of how segregated the city is. Your work is positioned in the Afrofuturist community, and you’ve referenced Octavia Butler. I know you had a piece with a nod to Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola as well. In any case, I mention all that because I’m wondering what you think the Afro-future might hold for black creatives?
You know the funny thing about the Afrofuture is it’s happening right now. Writer and artist D. Scot Miller said in his “AfroSurreal Manifesto,” “There is no need for tomorrow’s-tongue speculation about the future. Concentration camps, bombed-out cities, famines, and enforced sterilization have already happened…The future has been around so long it is now the past.” Octavia E. Butler’s futuristic novel “Parable of the Sower” was published in 1993, and look at us now, with a president who’s doing his best to Make America Great Again, just like she wrote it. Chicago is a dystopian state. Already. It slipped into that ages ago, and segregation is just one of the cogs in that machine. I don’t need to predict what the Afrofuture might hold for black creatives, because they’re showing us right now. In the first weeks of the COVID-19 self-quarantine and shelter-in-place, and black DJs, D-Nice being the highest profile to date, threw dance parties every night from their homes via social media, and garnered ridiculous numbers of internet partygoers. There you go, Afrofuture: black creatives using technology to simulate and stimulate closeness and excitement, globally. We never have to predict what black artists are going to do because it’s always unfurling right in front of us. We just have to pay attention.
At the end of “Too Much Midnight,” there is a reprint of your interview with Tempestt Hazel from the online publication and archive Sixty Inches from Center. You mention that Langston Hughes was one of your earliest influences. Do you feel hints of his influence in this book or your current work? If so, how? If not, maybe there is another person who’s touching you artistically?
I love this question. It’s something I’ve never considered before, but I would say there are definitely hints of Langston Hughes’ influences in my work and in this book. For sure. His poetry is in my writing DNA, his centering of a dynamic black life, and the rhythm of his words on the page. I think it would be fair to say he’s an influence, and I thank you for asking that question. But also there’s a lot of folks who my work—both writing and art—is influenced by, in conversation or in chorus with, and a lot of those influences aren’t writers or visual artists.
You’ve also talked about the centrality of music in your work, could you recommend three essential albums?
Only three? And the word essential gives me anxiety, so I’ll say these are three albums I recommend in this moment: “Give a Monkey a Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe” by Fishbone; “Midnight Marauders” by A Tribe Called Quest; and “The Royal Scam” by Steely Dan.
What is one word that you’d want people to visualize after reading “Too Much Midnight”?
Newcity Lit Editor Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue.” Her interviews and features have appeared in publications such as Hello Giggles, Mosaic Magazine, NYLON, The Source, Sixty Inches from Center, and Poetry magazine. She also hosts author chats at the Seminary Co-Op bookstores in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.