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.