Vermont Arts Council

An Interview with Author and Artist Frances Cannon

Frances Cannon is living proof you don’t need a New York agent to make a life in books. I first crossed paths with Frances in 2014, when I published a poem of hers in the first issue of Mount Island, my independent literary magazine. Her first poetry collection, Uranian Fruit, had just been released with Burlington’s Honeybee Press. Since then she has published four books and numerous smaller works, all with small presses save for her latest, Walter Benjamin Reimagined, published by MIT Press in May 2019. With the support of a 2020 Creation Grant, one of the Council’s most competitive grant programs, Frances is now at work on her fifth book, Vernal Thaw, an illustrated work of “auto-fiction,”—as in memoir crossed with fiction—that centers on “women’s bodies, bodies of water, trauma, and tenderness.”

The small press world suits Frances. In true Vermont style, she prefers a hands-on approach and the freedom to pursue unique projects. Her books blur the lines between literature and visual art, fiction and memoir, criticism and catalogue. Trained in printmaking and book arts, she self-published her first chapbooks of silkscreened prints and poems while studying at University of Vermont, then went on to earn an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Illustration of a cicada by Frances Cannon.
An illustration of a Cicada by Frances.

Frances is as worldly as her creative appetites. She was raised on both coasts, and writing and bookmaking has found her living in places as far flung as France and Guatemala. When she sees the world, she sees its depth of connections. In the excerpt of Vernal Thaw she submitted with her Creation Grant application, she ties an afternoon of skiing around the Waterbury reservoir with her partner to local and personal lore, stories of “girls and women, murdered and hidden in rivers and lakes,” including one day in Guatemala in Frances’ twenties, when she narrowly evaded sexual assault with the help of a woman in white on Lago de Atitlán.

Frances has come to settle in Vermont, returning in 2017 to the community of artists and educators where she cut her teeth. She teaches now at Champlain College, Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Vermont Commons School, a vocation that runs in her family. I last saw Frances at the 2019 Brattleboro Literary Festival, when she served as a judge for the literary game show I was hosting. Funny, candid, and earnest, Frances is one of my favorite people in Vermont’s literary scene. We spoke over email after she received her 2020 Creation Grant.

Desmond Peeples: Vernal Thaw, like many of your books, is an interdisciplinary project, a work of literature and of visual art. It’s also a work of “auto-fiction,” a memoir and yet a novel. What attracts you to hybrid forms?

Frances Cannon: In many ways I feel like every aspect of my life is “hybrid,” not only my art but my existence: I’m an artist and a writer; I grew up on both the east and the west coast, I’ve lived as a city and country mouse, I’m bisexual/queer, and I’m half-luddite but I seem to spend all of my time on a computer. Perhaps the spaces in-between genre and categories feel the most natural and comfortable for me, or maybe I’m just a greedy creative, I want to work in many mediums at once. When it come to the question of memoir versus auto-fiction, I’m still trying to trace that line in my own work, and how to answer the questions of “what is the difference” or “why not one or the other?” I don’t know yet. I have a story that is my own experience, but it’s a vulnerable story that still feels too raw for pure memoir. 

In the excerpt of Vernal Thaw you provided in your Creation Grant application, there’s a moment when you’re relating your partner to a Virginia Woolf character, and you mention your “life-literature confusion.” Could you explain that idea a bit?

Yes—I often subconsciously merge the stories that I’m reading with my own life. If I am truly absorbed in a book, as when I read Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, or Orlando, by Virginia Woolf, the characters and their experiences seep into my dreams, and I feel their struggles and successes as my own. I fall in love when they fall in love, I grieve when they grieve. To be upfront about this current manuscript, Vernal Thaw, given that the book is autofiction, the line between my truth and my fiction became blurred during the writing, as well as the line between my truth and the fiction of the books that I was reading at the time. For this reason, those characters occasionally make an appearance in my manuscript, such as Sasha the Russian princess who skates on the ice with Orlando. 

What’s some literature and media are you enjoying right now? Anything that has been particularly influential to Vernal Thaw?

I’ve been a book maniac recently, which isn’t necessarily new, but the volume and intensity of my reading habit has increased now that I’m teaching at three schools. For better or worse, my inclination is to assign new texts and reading lists for my students every semester, to keep my syllabi fresh, and to keep myself interested. This also means that I’ve been re-reading many of my favorites, such as Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Lorrie Moore, and Marilyn Robinson, but also branching out and reading new literature. My critical essay students and I just wrapped up a month discussing an anthology titled Shapes of Native Nonfiction, edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton, which is an essential and illuminating collection.

I also always have a stack of graphic novels and comics on my desk, including Sarah Mirk’s Guantanamo Voices, which is a fine example of contemporary graphic journalism. And, like a fool, I subscribe to both The New Yorker and The New York Times, and each week I frantically try to read as many features as I can, starting with the cartoons and working my way through the book reviews, restaurant reviews, and if I’m lucky, I make it to the poems and fiction.

In terms of art and literature that I use as sources for inspiration in my writing process, particularly while I write Vernal Thaw, I would include Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House and Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness. I have also been meaning to read Iris Murdoch’s novels, as well as Tove Jansson’s, which friends and collaborators keep recommending and I keep running out of time or motivation. Soon, I hope! And, artists who currently occupy my attention and obsession: Carson Ellis, José Antonio Suárez Londoño , Paolo Puck, and Elizabeth Haidle.

Your most recent book, Walter Benjamin Reimagined (MIT Press, 2019), is a “graphic translation” of the ideas of the literary critic and “urban flaneur” Walter Benjamin. What significance have Benjamin’s ideas had to your work beyond this book?

I’m drawn to artists and writers who seem to have obsessed over their work, and who assembled portfolios of messy notes, files, archives. This is my own personal style as well, and I found similarities in Benjamin’s approach to writing and philosophizing. Similar collectors of multi-media ephemera that I’m drawn to are Claude Cahun, a photographer, poet, performer, etc., And Virginia Woolf, whose letters and journals far exceed her body of published writings, and Paul Klee, an artist and writer who seemed just as interested in the marks he made in his notebooks as his masterpiece paintings. All of these examples seem kin to Walter Benjamin in their depth of curiosity, as well as their interdisciplinarity. Me too! 

You’ve made your career largely through small and independent publishers. What attracted you to that world?

I wish I had a more noble answer for this, but to be honest, I’m stubbornly independent, and impatient. I have so many ideas and projects that I want to get out into the world, and the process of finding and winning over an agent has not seemed appealing. I’m not ruling the possibility out for the future, but up until this point, I have preferred to work directly with small publishers so that I can have more knowledge about the process, all of the design details, and can actively participate in the shaping and making of my books.

"Louise," one of Frances botanical illustrations.
“Louise,” one of Frances’ botanical illustrations.

So much of your creative work is nature-based, at times even ecological in its detail. When did this focus begin, and does it extend beyond your art–are you a secret scientist as well?

I wish that I could say that I’m a secret scientist, but I will claim the title “amateur” scientist, or hobby scientist. I have always been surrounded by botanists, including my paternal great grandfather, my maternal grandfather, my uncle, and my partner. This list doesn’t even include the hobby scientists in my family, which is… everyone else! I grew up tagging along on mushroom forays with my father, and wildflower-identification hikes with my grandparents Helen and Larry, who are my true heroes and mentors in all subjects. I’m also a foodie and a gardener, which may explain my tendency to paint and draw plants. There is also such a rich history of illustrated botanical journals and texts throughout the world, which I find to be the most beautiful intersections of art, science, and literature, and sometimes mythology, witchcraft, and magic. What could be better?

You grew up on both coasts, and your bio lists you living everywhere from Italy to Mexico. What brought you back to Vermont, and what keeps you here?

When I completed my MFA, I felt torn in several directions: to stay in Iowa City where there were more job opportunities in the fields of teaching and writing; to move to Colorado, where my sweetheart of that era was living; to Oregon, where my father and stepfather live and where the city of my youth, Portland, offers a continuous font of creative inspiration; or to Vermont, where my mother and sister live, and where the community of my college years has remained generally intact. I chose my Vermont community, and I’m so glad that I did. It turns out that friendships are more important for my well-being than I had thought. This sounds obvious, but it hadn’t been so clear in my final year of grad school. 

You currently teach at three Vermont schools to students of all ages. Why did you become a teacher?

So many reasons: my teachers in high school, the St Johnsbury Academy, particularly my poetry teacher Jenny Mackenzie, and my art teachers Bill and Kim Darling, all of whom inspired me and treated me like a peer. But, perhaps more importantly, my grandparents Helen and Larry, who taught at the University of Utah: English and math, respectively, and my mother is a professor of anthropology, and several of my aunts and uncles teach creative writing, biology, and art. Apparently it’s our family trade, and I am gladly carrying on the tradition. I’m now also teaching at the Vermont Commons School, where I’m teaching both English and art classes. The combination is fruitful and a bit chaotic, admittedly, but I try to synthesize the subjects by talking about zines, comics, and graphic literature.

How has teaching changed you as an artist? Has it affected your creative process over the years, or changed your mindset in any way?

Great question, and this is something that I ponder every day of the week. It’s certainly a challenge to juggle teaching and my own personal work, and I often feel that I’m unable to manage both. However, today I taught two literature classes and three art classes, and I was still able to paint, albeit only one small and boring watercolor of a maple leaf. Step by step! The other benefit is that I’m constantly aiming to expose my students to sources of inspiration in visual art and creative writing, which forces me to read and consume art and culture every hour of every day. My hope is that some of this ‘homework’ also trickles into my personal work; perhaps through writing my own curriculum and assembling book lists for my students, my writing and artwork becomes more well-informed and nuanced. 

How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your practice as an artist? As a teacher?

Oh, the pandemic. Well, the most significant change is that I’m teaching almost entirely remotely, except for one class through the Vermont Commons School called “Encounter Experiences,” where my co-teacher and I guide students in outdoor sculpture building in the style of Andy Goldsworthy. This one in-person class has saved me from the computer doldrums, and all of the other classes are an experiment for me, and a struggle. I’m not a computer person, but I’ve had to become one to continue teaching through the pandemic. As an artist and writer, I suppose there are a few benefits; I’ve finally forced myself to begin learning skills that I should have acquired years ago, such as basic digital drawing and photo editing.