Kelly Franklin’s poem “Trespass” is about a childhood memory dis­cov­ering a shack in Guatemala. Courtesy Pixabay

Assistant Pro­fessor of English Kelly Franklin uses poetry to process his memories.

“In the poem, ‘Trespass,’ we found this shack and broke into it thinking it was aban­doned. But once we got there, we realized, ‘Oh, somebody lives here,’” Franklin said.

As a child, Franklin spent three years in Latin America: one year in Costa Rica and another two in Guatemala. His parents were missionaries. 

“It was a pretty for­mative expe­rience,” Franklin said. “There’s just a lot of strong feelings there from some of the des­perate poverty that I saw as a child.”

Although Franklin and his parents lived a happy life in both Costa Rica and Guatemala, they were sur­rounded by civil war, strife, and extreme poverty. While in Guatemala, they expe­ri­enced a mil­itary coup (his parents told him the radio sta­tions all played music, instead of news for a while) and an old drifter with an AK-47 coming up to their house asking for “security” money. 

These col­orful, unusual mem­ories left an imprint in Franklin’s mind. They are ripe for poetry. Trans­lated into lyrical verse these expe­ri­ences enable Franklin to make sense of other hap­penings in his life.

“There’s a little Christian mag­azine that’s going to publish a poem that’s from a memory in Latin America. But it’s really helped me under­stand some­thing that hap­pened to me in the last year or two,” Franklin said. “So some poems are about the memory itself and other problems. Other times I’m thinking about some­thing that hap­pened as a way to under­stand some­thing else.”

Two of Franklin’s poems on his expe­rience in Latin America were recently pub­lished. “Trespass,” is about a memory from when Franklin broke into a shack he thought was aban­doned, and then found out it was inhabited. 

“On a day with no breeze / we found a shack in a for­gotten field / lit­tered with stones and husks of ancient corn. / We were afraid, / but we broke through the ragged bamboo fence / and went inside,” the poem begins. 

The extreme poverty of the inhab­itant of the shack made a deep impression on Franklin, pro­ducing a sense of guilt and shame: “Even now I wish that I had shut my eyes, / not to look upon the poverty of that man’s house,” the poem continues.

Franklin’s interest in writing “Trespass” was to recount the memory itself, but also, as a Christian, make it a metaphor for Jesus’ empty tomb. Franklin said that as a kid, he went into the shack and didn’t find what he was looking for (an aban­doned hut), rather it was some­thing else entirely (someone’s home). Franklin sees this expe­rience as a med­i­tation on for­giveness and redemption.

“There was a horror in real­izing we had broken down someone’s fence and messed up their house,” Franklin said. “The next day when we came back, we could see that the fence had been repaired. And so I began to think that’s what God does: lov­ingly restores what we have destroyed.” 

Given this double-meaning, “Trespass” is rife with Chris­to­logical imagery. As the poem ends, “But had we sought the dead among the living? / The next day we saw / that some hand had restored the damaged fence, / and patiently / destroyed all traces of our trespass.” 

The other poem, “Civic Duty,” recounts when an old soldier armed with an AK-47 came to Franklin’s house and asked his parents for money in exchange for “pro­tection” in Guatemala. A leftover from a long-ago civil war, the pen­niless drifter evokes more sadness than anger or fear. 

“I think in both of those poems, the lyric speaker has com­passion for somebody who’s com­pletely des­titute in one way or the other. And that’s what I mean when I say I’m pro­cessing these mem­ories,” Franklin said. “Nobody really pre­pared me for what absolute des­ti­tution looks like.” 

Franklin’s poetry evokes empathy from readers, even when its subject is deplorable, such as in “Civic Duty.” 

Two stanzas of the poem read, “And maybe she was right. / Maybe he had raped / and plun­dered in those early days, / when the war was young. / But I saw his hand shake, / when it held his cig­a­rette, / like those quiet after­shocks when the earth­quake is done./ And his cheeks were pitted like / pumice stones, / and his face drawn like a lobo / by hunger and thirst.”

Franklin’s focus in both “Trespass” and “Civic Duty” is the inherent dignity of the indi­vidual, some­times lost due to circumstance.

“In ‘Trespass,’ there’s poverty there, but there’s a lot of dignity. The blanket is folded. There are pic­tures on the wall. It’s a human habi­tation, not an animal habi­tation, even though the person living there is very poor,” Franklin said. “I was trying to portray that dignity, that everyone has a story and that these are human, dig­nified qual­ities to the people in the poem.”

Franklin started writing poetry at a young age. He wrote throughout school and college, and studied and pub­lished poetry in graduate school. After he accepted a job teaching English at Hillsdale College, he stopped writing for six years, which he attributes to “poetic writer’s block.” 

During his time at Hillsdale, Franklin has focused more on scholarly and jour­nal­istic writing. But last fall, Franklin met-up with friend and Hillsdale alum Andrew Kuiper, who started a poetry workshop with him.

“I would say part of the reason Kelly and I get a lot out of our work­shops is our con­trasting styles,” Kuiper said. “His work tends to use natural style and con­ver­sa­tional diction which sud­denly opens up into a pow­erful emotion. It’s extremely effective.” 

Since then, Franklin has expe­ri­enced a “rebirth” of his poetic mind. He writes poetry reg­u­larly and has mul­tiple poems pub­lished (“Trespass,” and “Civic Duty,” among them). A new poem entitled “Failed Adoption, Michigan,” will come out in the latest Ekstasis Mag­azine. Prac­ti­cally, Franklin writes his poetry using archival ink and a fountain pen, (“I am kind of fanatical about fountain pens,” he says).

Franklin dis­tin­guishes poetry from jour­nal­istic and scholarly writing by describing it as “pri­marily feeling and memory.” He’s drawn to nar­rative poetry espe­cially and believes a poet can do a lot with a word or image, evoking the emo­tions of the reader.

“Our hardest expe­ri­ences can actually be trans­formed into our greatest art,” Franklin said. “When you suffer greatly, you touch rock-bottom on the most important things. And that’s what the great writers are in contact with, the most fun­da­mental things.” 

So too, is Franklin’s poetry, espe­cially in “Civic Duty,” and “Trespass,” where he com­mu­ni­cates a fun­da­mental thing: the dignity of the individual.