Bloom: How did you come to writing poetry? From the sound of it your poetry life burst open like a clematis blossom on a sunny day!
Rebecca Foust: Thank you. This year so much has happened that it feels that way to me, too! I wrote poetry as a child, fostered by my mother who did not go to college (my twin brother and I are first-generation college in our family) but was a great reader and loved poetry. She knew many poems by heart—especially poems in form—and recited them while doing dishes, hanging laundry on the line, and tucking us into bed at night. At Smith on a scholarship, I majored in English with a minor in poetry. And what do practically-minded English majors do after graduating from college? Go to law school of course! I got my JD from Stanford in 1982 and practiced in SF for about 10 years first in private practice then doing appeals for indigent criminal defendants. Then I got married and started having kids. After the third was born and the first was showing symptoms of Autism, we moved to New York, which did not recognize my California license to practice law and it seemed like a good time to go on inactive status.
During this time I was writing poems but not taking it very seriously, and my reading of poetry beyond the poets I already knew all but stopped. First my father, then my mother died from lung cancer, and during mom’s illness I began to write regularly again, creating the pool of poems that 10 years later became Mom’s Canoe. But I didn’t even think of publishing my work at this time; I had no real role models and literally did not realize that people like me (as opposed to say, people like Yeats and Frost) published books of poetry. I did not even know about the existence of literary journals until I came back to writing in 2007, the year I turned 50, through a memoir class offered in a local bookstore (Book Passage Marin). My teacher, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, encouraged me to write poetry and it was she who urged me to send out my very first poem, “Mom’s Canoe,” to the 75th Writers Digest Awards. When that poem won first place, I took it as a yes from the Universe. I enrolled in Warren Wilson the next year and got my MFA in 2010.
Dark Card, poems about my son with ASD, was scribbled in a walk-in closet at night during my son’s difficult middle school years and came out in 2008. Mom’s Canoe followed in 2009. My first and second full length books, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song and God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World (a collaboration with artist Lorna Stevens) came out in 2010. The poems in these books were either retrieved from the years prior to 2007 and revised or were gestated during those years and came out like water pouring from a faucet. In 2008 while still in grad school I started the sonnets that became Paradise Drive, writing the core of the book—about 30 sonnets—in one insomniac rush in just a few days.
Bloom: Why the sonnet? What attracted you to the sonnet in the first place? Did the process of writing sonnets change as the book progressed? Did it get easier, or did you find yourself challenged in new ways?
RF: I read sonnets by Shakespeare, Herbert, Donne, Hopkins, Yeats and Frost early on and have always love the compression and tension of the form. I wrote about two sonnets (by Bishop and Frost) for my long third semester essay at Warren Wilson and took the modern sonnet as the topic for the graduate class I was required to teach in my last residency. For about a year, all I read were sonnets and it got to the point where it was like learning a language: I thought and even dreamed in the form. And for 2-3 years I wrote almost nothing but. I did not feel in the least constrained, though, because my reading gave me so very many examples of poets who felt free to vary, depart from, and even explode the form.
As my book progressed, I allowed myself more and more liberties with the form when the poem seemed to demand it. Many poems that were Petrarchan or Elizabethean with regular meter and rhyme ended up barely resembling sonnets except for adhering to the standard of 14 lines. And even that got abandoned in the end; there are two poems in Paradise Drive that do not have 14 lines. I wrote and published about twice as many sonnets as are in the book. As I put the book’s poems through literally hundreds of revisions, I continually found myself challenged to let each one find its best expression and shape while still having what I eventually began to call, after Wittgenstein, a “family resemblance” to the sonnet form.
Bloom: How do you know when a poem can or should be a sonnet? It seems like some of the poems in Paradise Drive were originally published in journals not as sonnets.
RF: All but one or two of Paradise Drive’s poems emerged as sonnets and were first published as such. But not always in the form you see here in the book; many poems were revised 100 or more times. Some started in strict Petrarchan or Shakespearean form and then, through revision, emerged as wholly unmetered and un-rhymed. Others started as free verse fourteeners but got shaped into something more formal as time went on. I tried to let the poem tell me what its best form was. In some cases I pushed very hard at the traditional limitations of the form, and two sonnets (and I maintain they are sonnets) in Paradise Drive do not even have 14 lines: “Dirt” and “Forgotten Image.” I had 14-line versions of the poems, of course, but since they were not as good, I let the anomalous ones stay in the book.
Looking through the table of contents, the only poems I recall revising into sonnets were “Indentured,” “Courtesy Flush,” and “On the Wagon,” but there may have been others. Assembling the book was like playing three-dimensional chess in which the pieces were all poems I’d written since my last book (God, Seed) was published. Once an arc began to reveal itself, so did the inevitable gaps and needs for transition, so if a poem written in non-sonnet form filled such a gap I would have looked at it, yes to see if it could be expressed as a sonnet.
Bloom: You use lines/titles from William Blake to name the sections of Paradise Drive. Why Blake? How has he influenced your writing and thinking?
RF: Blake made an early impression on me when I first read him during my college years, and I’ve always been impressed by the sound and visionary qualities of his poems. Paradise Drive is so rooted in the real that I wanted something to elevate the poems, something to give them resonance beyond the literal level. For a time my section titles were from The Divine Comedy, and in fact the rhyme pattern (terza rima) of the book’s last poem, “Preparation for Pirouette,” was intended as homage to Dante. But those section titles (“Paradiso,” “Purgatorio,” and “Inferno”) felt too literal and overdetermined: “boxes within boxes” was how one manuscript reader put it. When the wonderful poet and teacher Susan Terris looked at the manuscript she suggested I look to Blake, and then I found the evocative language I’d been seeking.
Bloom: You collaborated with the artist Lorna Stevens on a book. How did that collaboration work? Does art speak to or inspire your poetry in other ways?
RF: Lorna created all the wonderful art for God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World (Tebot Bach, 2010). I wrote a detailed account of our collaboration, which you can read here.
Lorna and I were friends through our daughters playing on the same softball team, and I used to watch her work on her art in the bleachers while we were “watching” the games. Fascinated by a sculpture Lorna was working on one season, I wrote a poem called “Bound Feet” and sent it to her. My visit to her studio inspired more poems. Then my poems began to inspire her to make pieces of art.
For about a year we did a sort of call-and-response, purely for the joy of it. We never set out to do a book, but then one day Lorna collected everything into a binder and then we saw that we had more than enough material. The second stage of collaboration came when we worked together to decide how to sequence the poems and images. For several months we met weekly, trying different sequences—Lorna created a dummy book with poems and art coated with some kind of temporary adhesive that enable us to “peel off” and move around as we pleased, and we kept doing this until the book felt it had found its final form. This was a very exciting time creatively, with both of us getting ideas for new art and poems that then got folded into the emerging book.
Beyond the God, Seed collaboration, I enjoy writing ekphrastic poems and often find myself inspired by reading about the lives of women artists, writers, and scientists; you can read a recent poem about Camille Claudel here).
Bloom: You write prose too—reviews, essays, short stories—how has your prose influenced your poetry, or vice versa?
RF: I took a class in book reviewing in 2007 and have been writing reviews regularly since then, publishing them in American Book Review, Calyx, Poetry Flash, Prairie Schooner, Rumpus and elsewhere. I love writing reviews because it helps keep my critical reading skills sharp, and I think that doing reviews is a great way to support poetry. But it takes me a tremendous amount of time to write reviews, so I can’t write as many as I would like, and I’m taking a break from reviewing this year because I’m so busy with travel and readings for Paradise Drive. I’ve always loved reading good prose and I began to write it seriously as way to break out of the sonnet form. Chautauqua Journal published an essay (“Beach Plum Jelly”) and a short story (“Ring Mountain) in their last two issues, and an essay about my son with Aspergers won the 2014 Constance Rooke Prize and is on page one of the current issue of The Malahat Review.
I never wrote a blog piece before this year but in the last few months have published perhaps a dozen on the blogs for North American Review, Mid-American Review, Writer’s Digest, Savvy Verse and Wit, and The Next Best Book Blog. I’ve also started doing interviews of other poets—a very long one with Susan Terris is forthcoming on Poetry Flash, and several others are in the works. I get ideas for poems from reading and writing prose and ideas for prose from reading and writing poetry—the genres cross-pollinate and anytime I feel “blocked” in one genre, I just switch to the other. Sometimes I use an essay to develop further an idea expressed in a poem, and sometimes a poem gets inspired by an essay. For example, the sonnet “Bright Juice” came directly from a line I wrote in a book review. I’ve had a great time writing the North American Review blogs, basically discussions of poems I’ve written and had published in NAR—what inspired them, what revision process I went through, etc.—what poet does not love to talk about process?
Click here for a commentary from the North American Review blog, in which Foust discusses a poem from Paradise Drive.
Click here to read Athena Kildegaard’s feature piece on Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive.