Environmental Studies Professor Peter Schwartzman
Environmental Studies Professor Peter Schwartzman

Gina Franco’s new poetry collection, The Accidental, contains countless sources of inspiration;  memories of family, Franco’s upbringing in Arizona, Mexican-American identity, body and soul, the borderlands, and Catholic faith, are deftly woven together by Franco in poems that are searing and full of poise.

The Accidental was awarded the 2019 CantoMundo Poetry Prize in November 2018 and published by the University of Arkansas Press. Since its publication, The Accidental has been named one of the top ten Latinx books in 2019 by NBC Latino.

Can you talk about how the book got its shape, where it came from?

The title was really given to me when a friend of mine who has since passed away told me that Thomas Aquinas said most human error arises from a confusion between the accidental and the substantial. As in, people think that that which is substantial is actually accidental and that which is accidental is actually substantial. The thing we confuse is something spiritual, perhaps. 

I really wanted to know what I could write towards that might be, in truth, substantial and necessary and wasn't just an extension of accident that became meaningful. And what is accidental that could be let go of, that didn't become ultimately meaningful? 

This was very important in trying to think about my grandmother's death. She was born on this side of the border, but in poverty, living in the flatlands in a town very near a creek that is known to be floodland. Now you can't actually build there without building on stilts. And when it flooded, she also happened to be elderly, she happened to be using a cane, and she happened to be unable to get out of the house. Those in the neighborhood who were able to somehow get out of their houses, help themselves, climb to the roofs, those are all accidents. There are a lot of accidents that go into the making of that one event that we're calling an accidental death. Her drowning, the current of the water taking her down the street, which happened at a bend to meet with a tree, and then for her body to be caught up in that tree: in my imagination, it became connected accidentally—but meaningfully, substantially—with the crucifixion.

So that's the beginning of the book. You can't look at the poems and say, these are poems about that which is substantial, or, these are only about the accidental. Aquinas’ idea suggests that you can sort out the difference, but it's a rabbit hole.

Do you think that it's kind of the work of the human, then, to attempt to sort through the accidental and the substantial?

I mean, it became a useful way for me to think about things, because so much of my own personal seeking landed in a spiritual path and a spiritual tradition that used that discourse. And I think that it's a logic in that it looks familiar. It's a dualism, and we tend to put things in binaries all the time. I mean, what is the border? It is a binary. That’s all it is. But, in reality, the border is a spectrum. It's a borderland. We just tend to treat it as a thick line rather than a whole landscape. 

So, maybe it is particularly human work, or particularly human for me because I just get stuck there trying to know truly how to identify what's important.

The Accidental

What advice do you find yourself giving writers who are interested in poetry?

I think that everyone arrives at the page looking for themselves in some personal question that they have, and then you realize that there's something that's happening in your life that has given you this question. It's a question because it is a tension that you can't overcome, and so you need to sort out what that tension really entails. You start with the image of it. And then I would tell you, and do tell you, go to the journal with it. Write and think it through—just free write, free write, free write—until you pick up the threads of the tension. And then you can put that into a page where you're going to make a poem. 

If you're writing poems, you're creating the narrative of your life, you know, you're explaining stuff to yourself, and you want to know that you're choosing well what you make into a monument. Every poem is a monument in the narrative that you're making.

Gina Franco, professor of English, has taught at Knox since 2003. In addition to poetry writing, Franco's teaching interests include literary critical writing, modern and contemporary American poetry, British Romantic and Victorian literature, poetry translation, literary theory, Latino literature, women's writing, 18th & 19th-century philosophy, and theology.

Franco’s poems have been previously published in her 2004 collection, The Keepsake Storm, as well as many poetry anthologies and literary magazines such as Poetry, The Academy of American Poets, Crazyhorse, Diagram, and Los Angeles Review.