Who's Zoomin' Who? An interview with Gerry LaFemina and Franetta McMillian in song by Kari Ann Ebert
Updated: Jul 1, 2020
Songwriters have long included questions in their song titles and lyrics as a vehicle to deepen their audience’s experience. Many of these question-songs induce listeners to feel an intimate connection with the artist: “Do You Want to Know a Secret?” (The Beatles) or “Do ya Think I’m Sexy?” (Rod Stewart). Some illuminate the relationship between lovers: “How do you Sleep?” (Sam Smith) or “What Have You Done for me Lately?” (Janet Jackson). Many are brimming with social commentary: “(What’s so Funny about) Peace, Love, and Understanding?” (Elvis Costello) or “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye). Some may even seem nonsensical, but still entertain and bring joy to millions of fans: “Are we human? Or are we dancer?” (the Killers) or “What Does the Fox Say?” (Ylvis).
It is interesting to ponder what answers other writers might give to the questions contained in select songs if given the chance. The following interview puts that to the test. It was conducted with two writers who are both well-versed in music, poetry, and creativity on a deeply personal as well as socially conscious level. Franetta McMillian and Gerry LaFemina give readers a peek into what fuels their writing, interests, and concerns in today’s ever-precarious world. Their answers resonate with the care they take in crafting their own work, and thankfully neither embraced the lyrics by the Sex Pistols in their 1977 song “Pretty Vacant”: “There’s no point in asking, you’ll get no reply.”
Broadkill Review: As a published writer, your professional bio usually accompanies your work. Readers have easy access to it. They can look it up, find it at the back of your book, and hear it at readings or on podcasts. That small blurb is what most readers know about you. Here’s the thing, the entire sum of you— your passions, aversions, history, pet peeves, favorite ice cream flavors, Hogwarts house— is not limited to your fifty-words-or-less-third-person-bio. You are so much more than that, which begs the classic question The Who has asked since 1978 (and at the beginning of every CSI episode): “Who are you?”
Franetta McMillian: My name is Franetta and I’m an artoholic. It’s true. I have organized my life to support my art habit. For me, the primary reason to have a job (besides shelter, food, clothing, and medical insurance) is to buy art supplies: pens, paper, software, 4-track tape recorders, microphones, origami paper, saddle staplers, CD blanks, paints, turntables...you name it. I’ve been creating almost obsessively since I started talking. I might not always be writing, but I’m always doing something.
I wrote my first short story when I was six. It was shamelessly autobiographical, about a little girl who moved from Camden to Willingboro, NJ. I remember being really proud that it was almost 1000 words. The new house in Willingboro had an intercom system and I used to write and produce my own moralistic “radio” plays (mostly stop smoking shows since both my parents smoked) much to my parents’ chagrin. I’ve been writing songs ever since I learned my first chords on the piano. I’ve been taking pictures since high school.
I’m heavily influenced by 80’s punk/DIY and published my first zine, Sweet Jesus, in 1988. I’ve been doing zines and mail art for the last 30 years. I’ve also released a cassette of ambient electronic music, Delusions of Clarity, a CD of spoken word and ambient music, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, as well as a book of photography, Under An Alien Moon.
I’ve often been asked why I choose to publish myself instead of sending it out. (Actually, I do a mix of both.) First, even though I’m always working, I tend to work very slowly. Secondly: I really do enjoy the entire physical process of putting together a publication. Back when zines were literally cut and paste, I reveled in cutting up paper and spending an hour or two leaning over a light board. I loved browsing through paper samples. I loved learning the quirks of various printing methods. Now that everything’s gone mostly digital, I love learning the software. It helps keep my brain sharp.
Gerry LaFemina: The very nature of being is transitory. I’m not the guy I was seven years ago or even seven minutes ago. For instance, seven minutes ago I was a thirsty Gerry LaFemina, I got some water and went to work on these questions, so I am no longer thirsty—that time is gone. More though, consider this, I’m a different person to my mother than I am to my grown son; a different person to my partner than I am to my musical collaborators. My undergraduate students don’t know the me my friends see, which explains my undergraduates’ surprise when I run into them at the bar. The self is always momentary dependent, and yet, if we believe in something akin to the soul, then there must be some sort of constant, some black hole in the center around which spins the galaxy of Gerry LaFemina. Of course, the nature of black holes are enigmatic. I write to explore this enigmatic nature.
BKR: “Why men great 'til they gotta be great?” Lizzo asks this pertinent question in her 2017 song “Truth Hurts.” A slew of people in authority positions, in the public eye, and hey, even in everyday life just don’t seem to be living up to their word. You know the old sayings: the proof is in the pudding; put your money where your mouth is; diamonds are formed under pressure. Which is to say that it’s not until someone steps up with action that the world can see their true commitment to follow-through. Instead of giving the spotlight to those who let the world down, can you talk about a person or group of people you see in the world today who live up to the hype and might change Lizzo’s mind?
FM: I have a lot of artists on my Facebook and Instagram feeds and during this time of topsy-turvy, they have really been stepping up their game. I think for the first few weeks of this thing we were all like deer in the headlights, we were paralyzed (Now what the hell am I supposed to do with this?) but eventually we picked up our pens, cameras, instruments, paintbrushes, etc. because creating keeps you sane. It gives you a place to work out the anxiety. And if you share what you’ve made, it allows others to process their anxiety as well. Because a lot of things have gone virtual, they’ve become more accessible. I’ve been able to do things I wouldn’t have been able to afford if I had to do them in real life. One of the most powerful virtual events I’ve attended during the pandemic has been Theater of War Production’s (theaterofwar.com) Oedipus Rex Project.
I decided to go because although I’d read Oedipus Rex for several classes, I’d never seen or heard it performed. The reading was very bare bones (it had to be, Zoom is very buggy and the more stuff you add, the more that can go wrong) but still engaging enough to keep me glued to my tiny phone screen for two hours. After the performance, there was a discussion led by community leaders from New York City. The discussion question was: Why would Sophocles write something so depressing during a pandemic? Listening to people’s responses was one of the most powerfully cathartic things I have ever experienced. There were over 600 people in that discussion room from all parts of the country, all parts of the world. We’d all been in isolation for at least a month by then and were looking to unload. Sharing the play provided a safe space to experience tragedy as tragedy, which is vitally important. I mean: I’ve got nothing against being positive, but as one participant said, “You gotta stare down the darkness before you can kick it in the face.”
The ironic thing is: as we restart the economy, artists of all types and art organizations will suffer greatly. Already school districts are talking about laying off music and art teachers as a way to save money. You really want to say to the bean counters: “You know all that TV you’ve been binging? All that music you’ve been compiling into your pandemic playlists? Where the hell do you think it comes from? People make that stuff, actual human beings, and they should not be starving.”
GL: My gut instinct is to say Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, both of whom I think are good people and have tried to do, to the best of their abilities the good thing, even when it wasn’t easy. I think the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh should definitely be included in this. Perhaps Madeleine Albright, Mother Teresa.... I can come up with any list of “public figures” that would lead us to debate why this person and not this other, etc. The fact is, though, people are flawed and rising to every call to be great isn’t always easy. That’s why we need hero stories (but even most heroes tend to be flawed).
The fact is I’m more impressed by the courage of ordinary people to do something beyond themselves. In these recent troubled times I’ve been taken by a young African American Frostburg Student, Jahill Scott, who has stayed in this small, mostly white college town and led Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, working with police, the city, and local businesses to not only allow the protest, but to have them show up.
BKR: Speaking of minds… in 1988, Pixies debut album featured one of their most popular songs, “Where is my mind?” Some authors say they’re driven to get their thoughts and ideas down on paper in order to find some sort of mental relief, some peace of mind. At the very least the page is where a writer can organize those thoughts and ideas. When it comes to your writing, what thoughts won’t leave you alone? How do you generally reconcile them to the page? In what stage of writing do you feel mental relief (if ever)?
FM: Way out in the water
See it swimming...
Sorry. I just had to finish it. That’s one of my favorite songs of all time. Anyway...a long time ago, back in college, I heard Alice Walker speak on the process of writing and she said something that really stuck with me. She said she used her fiction writing as research. A question would haunt her -- say -- What do we mean by cultural appropriation? -- and she would dream up characters and settings to attempt to answer that question. Sometimes she’d discover an answer quickly; other times she would wind up only generating more questions. Generally the stories that spun questions of their own were better.
I suppose I work pretty much the same way. I began my novel, Love in the Time of Unraveling, the day after Deepwater Horizon blew. I was pretty much a shut-in then since I was recovering from my fourth surgery in a little over a year. I got to thinking about what the Gulf Coast would look like in about 100 years, since I knew, despite what BP said, the damage done to the environment would be permanent. From that flowed a tsunami of questions...How would people react to a degraded environment? How do you build an effective political movement? Will there be a time when we are essentially ruled by corporations? Can you be extremely wealthy and a decent moral person? How do you rebel against the hand that feeds and poisons you at the same time?
From those questions I dreamed the world of the shattered states and Crescent Region, and eventually characters started chattering away in my head. I never start writing fiction or poetry until I can hear the story in my head. If I’m writing from a concept, I write an essay. If I’m struck dumb by the emotion of it all, that’s music or visual art. I’m a very auditory writer, probably because I hear the world as music, first and foremost.
Occasionally I’ll begin a project to tackle some creative conundrum. Reveries of the Solitary Walker began with the question, Why doesn’t more spoken word sound like Laurie Anderson? I heard “Rapper’s Delight” and “O Superman” around the same time (late 70’s/early 80’s) and was inspired by both, but Anderson’s methodology better played to my strengths as a performer. Plus, I wanted to learn digital music production. So it was like, “Okay. Let’s see if I can make this work.”
Do I ever find peace? Yes, I suppose once a project is done. But it’s only a brief respite. It’s not too long before more questions present themselves.
GL: I haven’t thought of writing as mental relief since high school. I’m trying, as a writer, to create an emotion/psychological landscape on the page that I hope helps me (and the reader) experience the world afresh, and in that help to generate empathy. I don’t write for myself in that way. I see the page as a place of communion in which the work of generating a poem is the same work a reader has to do to read through it. It’s a communal and egalitarian experience; it is not driven by either my need to be heard or my need to express something. It’s in the writing of the poem that I figure out what’s trying to be communicated. I am just its conduit. It goes back to something Frost said, about writing a poem to discover what I didn’t know I knew.
BKR: Heated discussions are taking place between artists of all genres about their ability or inability to create art at this moment in time, and whether or not it has a lasting effect on the state of the world. The heaviness of the pandemic isolation, bigotry, racially motivated killings and hate crimes, political woes, religious/anti-religious bullying and a general rage-driven divisiveness abounds in America. Even though Morrissey answered his own question in the 1984 song “What difference does it make?” by The Smiths, what would your answer be when it comes to creating art in the face of what’s happening today?
GL: Well, Morrissey’s recent actions sure have killed The Smiths, hasn’t it? What makes Buddhism different than Christianity or Islam, is that the latter two ask the devout to convert others. Buddhism asks us to convert ourselves and be a beacon so others will convert themselves. I don’t expect my poem, or any poem, to change anybody. But I do think it changes me and makes me a better person, and that’s not nothing. And a good poem can make others want to do something similarly.
I don’t mean to sound jaded or self centered, but in the 80s when I was playing radical leftist punk at Rock Against Racism concerts, I thought I was making a difference, but really, I was playing to the people who came to those concerts: in other words, people who already agreed with the cause. That doesn’t belittle the cause, but it made me reevaluate what it means to protest. In 1989 I gave a reading at an arts collective and it was a weekend of protest art. There were photos on the walls of police violence, of polluted rivers with fish laying belly up on the water surface, and the readings and songs were all voices of anger. I got up and said, “We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what we humans are doing wrong. I’m going to celebrate what we do right and read three love poems.” When I was done, nobody clapped. I had broken the rules. If anger isn’t tempered by love for each other, I fear the end result of any movement. That’s not to say one can’t or shouldn’t write angry poems: if you’re not a little angry you’re probably not paying attention, but we should be careful about only being angry. Focusing only on the things you’re angry about will lead you to a kind of tunnel vision. The best art is in argument with itself and pays attention to the broad range of the human experience.
It’s this paying attention, that makes a difference, I think. Poetry as a whole (ditto music as a whole, art as a whole, etc) asks us to pay attention to it the way the writer paid attention to it in its making. That’s what I mean about a communal experience earlier. When a poem or a painting or a song or a meal takes our breath away, keeps us there, holds us in its artistry, we are forced to slow down, to think, to pay attention. And being attentive is what allows us to make changes to ourselves and thus the world.
FM: What difference does it make? It depends. On darker days I’m not sure it makes any, but that pessimism goes with the territory. I think that any artist -- writers especially, because they generally work alone -- have to get used to spending extended periods “working in the dark.” You have to work because you feel compelled, not because you expect what you’re doing to have any lasting effect. And even if I’m satisfied with what I’ve done, that satisfaction is always temporary. It doesn’t take long for me to wonder, Okay. Now, what next?
My most successful work, the stuff I think has made a small dent in the universe, is work that gives people space to deal with difficult topics and allows them to feel less isolated, work that allows others to hear the voice inside themselves. A few years ago I published a short story, Sweet Ride, about a brother and sister diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease who spend their life savings on a euthanasia roller coaster ride so they can leave this mortal coil on their terms. I guess I was wondering what I would do if diagnosed with an incurable degenerative disease.
Just after the magazine was published, I got an email from one of the editors asking if it was okay to give my personal email to a reader. I said sure. A day later I received an email from a woman who was in the process of deciding whether to be tested to see if she carried the gene. She wasn’t asking for advice (I don’t think I would’ve given it either...I wasn’t a doctor or family member. It wasn’t my place) she just wanted someone to listen. I’d like to think my story helped make her difficult decision easier.
Recently I had the experience of something going semi-viral. I posted a personal essay about my experiences with racism. I literally got thousands of responses, so many that my computer can’t load them all at once. Most of these were from White people who admitted they had no idea what racism was like, that yes, your body and soul can be broken by a thousand little cuts.
Now: did my essay change the world? Probably not. But maybe I planted some seeds. That’s really all you can hope to do.
BKR: The last question is open to your own interpretation. It is the title of a classic Christmas song written by Noël Regney (lyrics) and Gloria Shayne (music) during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. It was their way of dealing with the fear of all-out nuclear war and sending forth a timely call for peace. The song starts, “Said the night wind to the little lamb…” If you were the night wind, what would your answer be to the question, “Do you hear what I hear?”
GL: In the carol, of course, it’s followed up by, eventually, A song, a song... The life of an artist is one of paying attention. I never understand my students who want to be writers and who walk around with their ear buds in all the time, shutting out what the world is giving them in terms of rhythms, language, aural images. I hear laughter and tears, anguish and pain and joy, lots of joy. I hear the lies the politicians tell and the lies that ordinary people tell, and the tenderest things someone can say. I hear birds this morning, and the wind chimes on the porch. And song. Lots of song. If I try hard though, I focus on the silence in the spaces between songs, between notes. that silence I think of as the inscrutable experience of the sublime, and it’s where poems lie.
FM: The first thing that comes to mind when I read this is Tracy Chapman’s Talkin’ Bout a Revolution...
Don’t you know they’re talking ‘bout a revolution?
It sounds like a whisper...
This year has been nuts, even before the pandemic and social unrest. The year began with us impeaching a president for only the third time in history. But now it seems everything is coming apart. For me, this is at once totally terrifying and exhilarating. Because when the virus came and everything crashed and all the wounds we thought had healed became raw and exposed, it created a whole mess of people with nothing left to lose. People are becoming receptive to ideas that seemed radical just five months ago. People are ready for things to be different. At this point it is quite literally change or die. (Actually, that’s always been the case; it’s just that now more folks feel that choice in their gut.)
We have the extraordinary opportunity to “re-myth” ourselves. The scary thing is we have plenty of old toxic myths floating around in our national ether some seem eager to revive: the Lost Cause, the Wild West, Left Behind, John Galt’s Gulch, to name a few. And the folks who want to live in those nightmares are just as desperate and disoriented as those who want to fight for the good of everyone, so the future’s completely up for grabs. This thing could go either way.
A while ago I read a book, George Anderson: Notes for a Love Song in Imperial Time, by Peter Dimock. It came out around the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal, and is a meditation on violence in American culture, from the whipping of slaves, to extraordinary rendition and the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. It is also a meditation on the function of history as myth.
The book ends with a love letter that reads more like an abstract for a thesis written after an all-nighter on acid, but it has some gorgeous last lines...
History creates an unformed future out of love’s immediacy...Make reading this into love’s
Love’s requited listening...
Someday I will write something worthy of that title
So: I hear the winds of change a blowin’, but as we work to re-myth our story and country, may we listen to each other with love.
Gerry LaFemina’s latest books are the poetry collection The Story of Ash (Anhinga, 2018) and a new volume of prose poems, Baby Steps for Doomsday Prepping (Madville, 2020). His previous books include a novel, a collection of short stories, and numerous award-winning collections of poetry, including The Parakeets of Brooklyn, Notes for the Novice Ventriloquist (prose poems), Vanishing Horizon, and Little Heretic. His essays on poets and prosody, Palpable Magic, came out on Stephen F Austin University Press and his textbook, Composing Poetry: A Guide to Writing Poems and Thinking Lyrically was released by Kendall Hunt. He’s also written a novel (Clamor), a collection of short stories, and numerous pieces of creative nonfiction. Among his awards and honors is a Pushcart Prize, A Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs Fellowship, and an Irving Gilmore Foundation grant. A noted literary arts activist who has served on the Board of Directors of the AWP and edited numerous literary journals and anthologies, LaFemina is the former director of the Center for Literary Arts at Frostburg State University, where he is a Professor of English, serves as a Poetry Mentor in the MFA Program at Carlow University and is a current Fulbright Specialist in Writing, Literature, and American Culture.
Franetta McMillian has been writing ever since her mother taught her how to use a pencil. Her poetry, short stories, and articles have appeared in The Broadkill Review, Dreamstreets, H2SO4, Gargoyle and other little magazines. She has published a poetry chapbook, Love, War, and Music through The Broadkill River Press, as well as two books of short stories, Love in the Time of Unraveling, and What We Saw in the Fire. She is also the author of Fat Black Girl in a Wheelchair. In addition to her writing, she has also published a book of photography, Under An Alien Moon. She has been active in Delaware’s literary community for the past two decades and has featured at Second Saturday in Wilmington, served as a panelist at the Delaware Writers Conference, and on the board of Dreamstreets magazine.
Infinite thanks go out to Franetta McMillian and Gerry LaFemina for their thoughtful answers and generous hearts.
"Who's Zoomin' Who?" by Aretha Franklin, 1985 Arista Records