Rebecca Foust was the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence at The Frost Place and is the recipient of a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry. In reference to the linked narrative, Thomas Lux says, “There is great music in these poems, and sonnet after sonnet is masterful. Not since Berryman’s Henry have I been so engaged by a persona . . .” Fourteen Hills Press Staff Editor Renée Hamlin was excited to interview Rebecca Foust regarding her newest book and her creative process.
Fourteen Hills (14H): You’ve said you put the poems in your upcoming book, Paradise Drive, through hundreds of revisions, and you mentioned a similar process in a 2010 interview, with some poems being put away for a year or more. Now, five years later, has your revision process changed?
Rebecca Foust (RF): I think it’s still the same. I find revising vastly easier than original creation, and it’s kind of my fallback when I’m not feeling creative, to pull something out and revise it. And—knock on wood—I’ve never experienced “writer’s block” because I always have drafts of things that I can go back to, so when I’m not feeling creative, or new things aren’t coming to me, I just go back to my files and pull something out and start playing around with it. It happens two ways: either the poem comes out whole the first time and then I do slight revisions, often for years, or sometimes I just get a fragment, and sometimes it takes years for a poem to even come together as a poem, where I can revise it as a poem.
The other thing that sometimes happens, very occasionally, is a poem will come to me completely whole; it’s almost like taking dictation. Those poems I just write as fast as I can to get them down, and when you write poems like that, you always think they’re great when you’ve first written them because you’re in this flush of creation, and those in particular I like to put away before I come back to them; you’re supposed to write drunk and revise sober, so I like to come back to those when I’m not in that “flush,” and see what I think then. So I would say that my process is still pretty much the same. You know, something inspires you, you get it, capture it, so you don’t lose it, and I find if you don’t write those things down immediately, they’re gone.
14H: The way you have described inspiration is so lovely—the river above us and us raising our nets to catch the ideas that are floating by. You also acknowledge the difficulty of always being open and ready for those ideas. What ideas would you give to other writers, perhaps ones just starting to tap into their poetic potential, that might help them to keep their nets “at the ready”?
RF: Oh, I forgot about that image. I like that image, because I feel that when you’re writing poetry you’re discovering things, not really inventing things, that poetry is a way of accessing some inexpressible and not necessarily coherent truth. Bits and pieces of it float by and if your net is out you can catch them. The first thing would be to maintain an openness, and whichever side of the brain that’s creative is easily overpowered by the side that’s not. If you have too much stress in your life, if you’re working super hard, if you have kids, if you have issues, problems, whatever, the brain is full of noise. A brain that’s full is not a brain that’s open to reception. What I’ve learned is that you have to empty yourself to step in. What are some techniques for doing that? Well, last year was the first year I ever went on a writing residency. Not everyone has the luxury—these residencies are paid for, but not everyone has the time. But if you do, that’s the first thing I would say to do: go to a residency. They open vast vistas of space and time where you can empty yourself and remove all those layers and thoughts that surround us when we deal with everyday life. If you can’t do that, there are other ways. I know a poet in Pennsylvania who goes on a retreat once a year by locking herself in her bedroom. She does it in the summer when she’s not teaching. There’s a bathroom there and a separate entrance and she puts a little fridge in there, and a hot plate, and she has worked it out that she is “on retreat”; there’s no phone ringing and no one knocking at the door unless they’re dying. She manages to put a book out every other year doing that.
You have to create space in your own life. Some people use meditation. Some people get up in the morning before their family is awake. My method is to stay up way later than everyone else. I love to stay up late at night. I could never indulge that when I worked full time and when I had small children, because I had to be up so early in the morning. But I start working typically at eleven at night, and often write until the sun comes up. I don’t need a lot of sleep, so I’ll sleep for a few hours and then get back up, and I can do that for a couple of days at a time.
In those hours, everything stops. Email stops, the phone doesn’t ring, it gets really quiet . . . I find those hours the most creative. I also take walks. I try to walk every other day, and when I walk, I walk with a notecard and a pen in my back pocket. I have found that just going outside and lying down on the grass is a great way to clear my head. I keep a to-do list, and on my list it actually says, “Sit down on the grass!”
14H& RF: [laughter]
RF: A whole day can go by in just a flurry of answering emails and you won’t have given yourself any of that space. So I think the secret to getting inspiration is to create space. The other secret is to live, experience life widely, which is one of the reasons I don’t mind that I didn’t start writing until very late in life, because I really lived a life before I started writing. I think a lot of people decide they want to be writers when they’re young and it’s easy to get sucked into the world and do nothing but live, breathe, and speak about writing. But if you do that, you cut yourself off from experience, and where are you going to get your content? I think the third thing is to read really, really widely, because if you read widely, you experience life, and it gives you great ideas. And I’m not just talking about poetry. Kay Ryan used to read prose—at least, I read somewhere that before she even got out of bed in the morning, she would reach over to her night table and get a book of essays, and read an essay before rising, and sometimes compose a poem before rising. I often get ideas from prose, from novels, and from other kinds of reading. So I think the three things are: create space in your life by clearing out all that clutter and chatter that fills our modern brain; and second, to read very, very widely; and to live, make sure you’re having experiences.
14H: You have mentioned Louis Simpson and Sharon Olds were two poets you read very widely when you were getting back into poetry. Were there any others that caught your attention?
RF: I think a really influential book for me when I was in my third semester of grad school was The Whole Truth by James Cummins. He’s a new formalist, and The Whole Truth is a book of sestinas based on the Perry Mason series in a very tongue-in-cheek way. His protagonist is Perry Mason, but it’s a bipolar, lunatic Perry Mason, and the sestinas really hang together. It could be a movie. It certainly is a story. The characters are drawn from Perry Mason, but what he does with them is incredibly creative and funny and interesting. I remember reading it and thinking, “Oh my god.” He takes a form, and he makes it alive. And I read a lot of books by James Cummins, but The Whole Truth was a book that was really influential, and I read a lot of poetry that was trying to tell a story, and I’m not talking about the narrative poem: I’m talking about books. I read The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, I read Eugene Onegin [Aleksandr Pushkin]. And then I read Berryman’s The Dream Songs, and Berryman was a huge influence. Those aren’t sonnets, per se, each one of those is eighteen lines long but they are very similar to sonnets and how sonnets work. They have a beginning, a middle and an end, a turn, and each one is a thing unto itself, but they’re connected in a strange way. There are characters that continue—Henry, and the other voices—that just go through all the poems, and that’s one way they’re connected. That’s what led to Paradise Drive, when I was in grad school.
And the other thing is, I’m a really committed supporter of buying poetry books and subscribing to journals. I have a massive collection of journals, look at all these journals I have here. I subscribe to at least a dozen or probably more journals. They pile through the mailbox all the time, and it’s really hard to get through them all. I try to at least scan them, and if I see a poet that I like or a poet that I know I try to at least read that poem. That’s one way of keeping up with contemporary reading, subscribing to good journals and trying to read them. There are so many journals now, and I try to support them, especially if they've supported me, and I can't keep up with them all, but I try.
14H: Your book, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, is infused with myth and fairy tales. What draws you to incorporate these ancient tales into your work?
RF: Well, I'm sure it was my bedtime stories. My mother never went to college, but she was one of the most self-educated people I've ever met because she was a voracious reader, very bright, and had a great memory. She read to us all the time. I still have the books she read to us from. These were my father's books, volumes of mythology, fairy tales . . . we didn't have a ton of books in the house, we had a couple volumes of poetry that I still have on my shelves. My mother felt very strongly about having an encyclopedia in the house, so we had The World Book. I read all the way through that. It had some great stories, sections on mythology and fairy tales. I'm really drawn to those origin stories. And I'm not a religious person, so perhaps in some way, it's a hunger for spirituality and a larger connection that draws me to world mythology, and especially to making a mythology from nature.
14H: And so what place do you think mythology has—or should have—in today's world?
RF: For one thing, it's history, right? It's a poetic history. And I think we're learning in today’s incredible information exchange . . . I think we’re finally starting to understand relativity as tied to human events. What we’ve learned is “history,” no matter how hard it tries, can't present the “truth.” It's always filtered through perspective. So these things that are presented to us as “history,” it turns out, are lies. I mean, they’re worse than inaccurate, they’re actually lies because they present only one fragment of one perspective of what actually happened. Things like mythology are constructed, larger truths, with less specific attention to facts and more attention to . . . the bigger picture, maybe? And giving credence to feeling. I think the importance of mythology in terms of poetry, and any art, is it’s a way of apprehending truth . . . I don't know if it's more accurate, but it’s not as inaccurate as learning truth through conventional means, the scientific method or history books. And I think for some people mythology provides a belief structure, and it's certainly enriching or . . . when you’re trying to write, you read myth, because it’s so resonant and teaches you about levels of language and metaphor and symbol. It gives you great ideas and there are great plots in myth, great chapters. But I think it’s important to construct your own mythologies, too.
14H: Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
RF: Well, I think it’s important to go further than the source of what you’re reading and . . . I think I said before that it feels like poetry is not so much inventing as it is discovering what’s there, and there’s so much there left to be discovered. So I like poetry that reaches, and I'm happiest with my own poetry when it reaches for something. Maybe when I say “constructing mythology” I'm also talking about constructing voice or poetry that is somehow distinctive. It's really, really important to have read and explored what people call “the canon,” but it’s also really important to transcend that with your own work. And maybe that’s what I mean by “constructing mythology.” So in All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, I’ve lived through some of these events, and some of these characters are real, like in the poem about the child who died. I felt something. It hit me . . . what was he? The kid who was the child of a drunk and kind of a hillbilly and not your traditional hero, and yet, to me he was like Icarus. So that’s what I mean about making it your own, and extending in some way.
14H: I see a lot of landscape in your poetry, from Pennsylvania but also from California. How do these landscapes differ for you?
RF: They're extremely different, and you’re right that this book, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, is filled with the landscape of western Pennsylvania. My other book, God, Seed, has a bit of Pennsylvania landscape, but it really has a lot of California, and one reason this book has California landscape in it is because it’s a collaboration with an artist who, like me, was born on the East Coast but, also like me, migrated to California pretty early in life. And her art is very heavily influenced by nature in California. Because I was riffing off her art to write these poems, there’s a lot of California in this book. And then, Paradise Drive is in Marin County, and, it’s a more people-oriented book, in some ways it’s a comedy of errors, it’s a social satire; there’s an awful lot of interiors in this book. But the first poem and at least one of the poems in the last section are straight-up nature poems about California. The landscapes are obviously very different: Pennsylvania has seasons, California has less defined seasons. The seasons where I grew up were extreme because it was in the mountains, so in the winter we had snow higher than my head, and in the summer we didn’t have air conditioning, and we couldn’t sleep at night because it was so hot; we’d go swimming in the pond at night just to cool off, run the garden hose on our heads.
When spring came it was an explosion. You remember that feeling when spring came? You don’t really get that in California, it just kind of wafts in. You know that poem by Philip Levine called “Keats in California”? It's a wonderful poem, and to me it captures something very seductive about living in a climate that doesn't challenge you. There's something about it I don't totally trust—kind of like being in the land of the lotus eaters. And he captures that very beautifully. The whole poem sucks you in with the incredibly rich gorgeousness of nature in California, and the last line is basically, “And that's what will break your heart.” Or break you. And I feel that sometimes. I mean . . . as an northeasterner, kind of a Yankee, I have this spirit of “challenge is good for you, you gotta get out there, fight the world, and not let anything stop you.” Sometimes I miss that, sometimes I miss that challenge.