Tell Me How You Got Here: An Interview With Emily Franklin

Emily Franklin’s “The Proper Care of Silver,” a deft and insightful story that explores the relationship between a woman and her housekeeper, appeared in the 2018-2019 winter issue of Lilith. Now Franklin is back again, this time with her first collection of poetry, Tell Me How You Got Here (Terapin Books) and she chats with Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about the many and varied sources of her inspiration. 

Yona Zeldis McDonough: You are a novelist, short story writer, YA author, memoirist, cookbook writer and now poet—can you reflect on these different forms and what each summons from you?   And why did you turn to poetry at this point in your career? 

Emily Franklin: Actually, I started my writing life as a poet. I published my first poem in high school. I had an amazing writing teacher, James Connolly, and he submitted my poems to contests and to publications, and that early success really helped my writing confidence. I worked with wonderful poets in college – Tom Lux, Mark Doty, Kimiko Hahn – and was on my way to a life of poetry. But after working odd jobs (chef, construction, teacher), I returned to graduate school ad felt I didn’t want to only write poetry- I turned to screenplays and short stories. And once I had an idea for a novel, I sort of left poetry behind. A few years ago I began to notice lines or ideas for poems popping up again, so I wrote them down. Then there were more. And I wrote those down. And soon I had a lot of poems bubbling up in me and I began to send them out in the world and soon enough I had a collection. In terms of writing in multiple genres, I don’t know any other way. Some ideas come to me and they are obviously short stories. Other times I have to tease out whether a novel is a Young Adult story or better as a teen TV series pilot. My next novel is set in Boston in the late 1800s, and based on the life of Isabella Stewart Gardner.

Turning back to poetry a few years ago has been wonderful. I love expressing the feeling in a poem in as few words as possible, paying attention to line breaks and each word in a way that is much more difficult in a 400-page novel. Tell Me How You Got Here is meaningful to me on an individual poem level and also – after publishing my first poem in 1988 – finally having a collection out in the world. There is great solace to be found in poetry, and this is a perfect time for both comfort and action.

YZM: I was struck by how the poems dealt with the many identities a woman assumes in her lifetime—daughter, wife, mother.  Can you say more about that? 

EF:  I am interested in identity- cultural, religious, familial. In these poems, I suppose I am writing to where I am now which is four decades of being a daughter and a sister, a couple of decades as a mother, a few more as a married person. In those roles it is easy to leave behind the prior self – to somehow become the role of mother, but forget who else is in there. And then – ideally – the kids grow and are shared with the world, and then they’re out there in it – and who are you now? I come from a family of examiners – taught to look deeply at the world, its inhabitants both lovely and cruel, the natural wonder – and to dig deep into who I am, who I want to be, and how to put good back into the world. So I think the poems reflect the seriousness with which I take my roles, and perhaps I’m asking the reader to consider the role of the poem in their lives, too.

YZM: Elements of the natural world, like trees, insects, and animals appear often in the poems; the title poem, “Tell Me How You Got Here,” refers to an African Gray Parrot—found, lost and found again—care to comment? 

EF: I have always written about nature. I grew up in one grandmother’s vegetable garden and in the flower garden of the other. I now spend hours harvesting seeds, planting, sharing plants, and trying to teach myself how to grow things. There’s a big overlap in trying to have a garden and trying to write, and a lot involves patience and wonder and sitting (or weeding) in silence. My mind unlocks outside, and I walk with my dog a lot, and the ideas come from the world around me. The title poem in Tell Me How You Got Here is from an article in The Guardian. I find inspiration in the natural world. 

YZM: Let’s talk about the overtly Jewish poems like “How the Jews Say Good-Bye” and “The Passover Table,” and “Passover in Jamaica”how do these poems speak to or reflect your life as a Jewish writer and woman?

EF: One of my favorite parts of Judaism is the deep-rooted rituals which are often so ingrained we might not think of them as being Jewish, as I write about in “How the Jews Say Goodbye”, but which upon reflection are easily identifiable. That poem is really about how Passover dinners or family brunches have all this time to unfold, but then the goodbye is the longest part. Everyone all bundled up, holding leftovers, but only now engaging in the conversation we wanted to have earlier. A mix of humor and sadness, which is also part of Judaism. Another part of Judaism I’m grateful for is the life-death cycle–the ceremonies, the circles, the warmth and matter-of-factness. “The Passover Table” (and another poem called “A Cure for Grief”) was a way to write about the gatherings around the table as a way to not only celebrate the holidays and remember our collective pasts, but also the losses (or gains) a family might have within a given year.

The poems speak to the continual presence of the past in my life, in my Jewish life. To fly understand now and to help the future, the past is crucial. My husband and I made our own family Haggadah and I treasure it, and it has the Larkin poem which is why I mention it “The Passover Table.”