Jul 12

Blot Lit Review: An Interview with Rebecca Foust

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It’s not often a piece of work challenges our Co-Founder Julie Demoff-Larson, but Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive sure did.  It made us at Blotterature curious to see how she ticks and what this incredible poet has been up to. Spoiler: She got to live (AND WRITE) in Robert Frost’s Freakin’ Farmhouse. How cool is that?


Blotterature has a strong connection to our place – industrialized Northwest Indiana – and it is reflective in our writing. Tell us where you are and how your place fits into your art.

My new book, Paradise Drive, is a linked sonnet sequence that recounts the spiritual and physical journey of a modern-day pilgrim named, well, Pilgrim. The journey begins in debt and despair and debt in rustbelt western Pennsylvania and ends in affluence and despair in Marin County, California. I like to say that Pilgrim is six-tenths me and four-tenths wildly made up. But the places and people she reports on are places and people I have seen, or composites of them. The street that gave the book its title is in Marin County where I live now, and the sign on the cover is from a photograph taken a few miles from my home.

I grew up in Altoona, home of the Samuel Ray Shops where for many years all the trains on the eastern seaboard went for repairs. Until the sixties Altoona was a bustling industrial city, with actively-worked coal mines, factories, and mills and many, many trains moving through. That changed, and by the time I came along, the town had fallen into serious economic decline and was suffering the disastrous ecological after-effects of all that industry. There were no jobs to be had, and it was an unhealthy place to live. Both my parents, along many others of their generation in that area, died from lung cancer.

And yet, just outside of town lay acres of rich farmland bordered by chain of mountains with mile after mile of old-growth trees. So I grew up in a dichotomy of land ruined by industry surrounded by land of unspoiled natural beauty. In this, it somewhat resembles northern California, although this state seems better at clearing away the eyesores left in the wake of failed industry. For natural beauty, Marin County has few rivals. Just 12 miles north of San Francisco lie the pristine Headlands and a whole mountain (Mt. Tam) of open space. Because of the climate, the trees and flowers bloom in lush abundance all year round. And yet not so far away, in parts of Oakland and South San Francisco, lie wastelands. Even gorgeous Marin has its dark side, with tent encampments of the homeless, skyrocketing breast cancer rates, and the rash of suburban housewife suicides that in part inspired me to write Paradise Drive.


Who/What has impacted your work the most and how does that come through?

The book that had the biggest impact on Paradise Drive was James Cummins’ The Whole Truth, linked sestinas populated with characters drawn from the Perry Mason series. Reading it piqued my interest in poems that could work together to tell a story, and I began to search them out, reading Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and books of linked sonnets by Tony Barnstone, Julie Kane, Ted Kooser and Ellen Bryant Voigt and others. I also read and was very influenced by John Berryman’s Dream Songs. My work generally has been greatly shaped by the poets I’ve loved since high school (Dickinson, Frost, Yeats, Shakespeare, and the metaphysical poets), but the newer poets I am reading now are having an impact. I didn’t read much modern or contemporary poetry until I returned to poetry eight years ago after neglecting it during the decades I was busy with law practice and raising three kids. In 2008 I went back to grad school (Warren Wilson) for my MFA, and that was when I began taking poetry seriously again, catching up on modern and contemporary poetry. I have a strong attraction to form, but I like it best when the forms are challenged and bent and infused with new ways of thinking about poetry.

How do you generate new ideas for your work?

I don’t do this consciously or proactively. It’s more like I try to pay attention and notice the ideas that are always there. I like to think of them as flowing by in a current, and try to have my net ready to catch them. I never go anywhere without pen and paper and when an idea comes, I write it down. Ideas come more often when I am in motion, walking and especially driving. And I’ve noticed that a brain emptied of everyday task-oriented or internet-generated is more able to receive them. That’s why I like to go on writing retreats, to clear that space.

When have you been most satisfied with your work?

What I find most satisfying is a reading of any size where I’ve felt a real, electric connection with the audience. After that, each time I’ve held one of my books in my hand for the first time. Making a book takes so very many layers of loving work! First, making each poem the best it can be. Then, figuring out which poems belong together and determining the sequence. After the book is accepted for publication, all those rounds of last revisions and then fine-point proofreading until you feel like your very eyeballs are peeling. It takes tremendous effort to keep on task, to keep paying attention when reading the same pages for like the hundredth time. So, it’s very satisfying when the book is finally incarnated, there in my hand.
Last summer as the Dartmouth Poet in Residence, I got to live and write for two months in Robert Frost’s farmhouse and also to be part of two really terrific writing communities at The Frost Place (the Summer Conference and Seminar). That may be the most satisfied I’ve ever been, period; not so much satisfied with my work as satisfied with where it had brought me.

How do you know when a piece is finished?

When I’ve read it to an audience more than once and can tell that it has had an impact. I don’t rely much on workshop feedback or what individual readers say, but I do pay attention to how a poem is received in a public reading. Sometimes it is just a feeling I get, that the poem is done and ready to be shared. But I don’t trust this feeling if it happens too soon after the poem was conceived. I like to let poems alone for long periods of time, then come back to them with fresh eyes. If I’ve done this with a poem several times and can’t think of a way to make it better, then I start sending it out.

What has been your biggest failure and what − if any − lessons were learned?

When I went back to get my MFA I was 50 years old and had not been out much in the world while raising my kids. I lacked confidence in all areas, not just writing, and I let fear dominate my experience. I regret now that I did not enjoy it more and just relish the chance to be part of that amazing community, privileged to dedicate two weeks a semester to reading and writing poetry. I’d love to go back and repeat each of those residencies, this time with more confidence, appreciation and joy. I try to take those feelings into every writing conference and residency now and don’t waste time worrying about whether I belong or am measuring up.

Foust's pup Smoky.

Foust’s pup Smoky.

Tell us about your commitment to the writing community. Outside of your work, what else do you have going on? Or what do you see starting up in your future?

I write a weekly Poetry Column as the Poetry Editor for Women’s Voices for Change and have been an assistant editor at Narrative for four years. I’ve been a Board Member for Marin Poetry Center since about 2009 and used to run Events there. Also claiming a lot of my volunteer curating time these days is the popular Poetry World Series for Litquake, along with the 2-3 other poetry readings I organize each year—this means everything from lining up readers and venues, to sending out press releases, hosting events, and setting up and taking down folding chairs. I mentor beginning poets and periodically teach workshops and classes. For the past five years I’ve been reading for the Northern CA Book award and a number of other poetry competitions.

What is your biggest pet peeve with the writing community, trends, etc. today?

I’m really struggling with the number of poetry books that is being published each year. On the one hand I rejoice in the erosion of traditional barriers to publishing and believe that in the long run poetry will be enriched by the multiplicity of voices and perspectives. In the short run, it’s tough on readers and poets. As a reader, I find the sheer number of books overwhelming; how even to figure out which ones to buy and read? It’s difficult to formulate a quality standards for a poetry that is so multifarious and splintered. As a poet, it is tough to find and build readership when there is so much competition; on many nights here in the Bay Area, audiences can choose to attend any one of three equally alluring poetry events. I’m constantly marveling at the number of terrific poets out there. And despairing when their work gets overlooked for work that not only does not seem to me as good but that I sometimes literally cannot—fathom. But as I said, I think all this largesse will benefit poetry over the longer term. Time will sieve out the dross, and what remains will be better for having been infused with voices more diverse than the ones that dominated the Norton Anthology when I was in college.


What are you working on right now?

Paradise Drive released on April 24, so quite a bit of time now is going to efforts to get the book out. It’s a big deal for a small press to publish a book, and I feel a sense of responsibility to sell at least enough copies so the press breaks even. This means doing a great number of readings, and I’m spending way more time than I would like on the administrative tasks of lining up, making travel arrangements, and executing on reading commitments. The actual readings, I love. Beyond that, I’m working on my next manuscript, choosing and trying out different sequences of poems and, of course, always revising those poems. New ideas do not come freely to me the year I have a book out; I’ve learned not to fret over this and to trust they will come when I have a brain less distracted by minutia like updating the Readings page on my website.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished reading for the Northern California Book Award and spent months with those books, especially the finalists: Small Disasters Seen in Sunlight by Julia Levine (winner of the Award), Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass, Here by Maxine Chernoff, Beyond the Chainlink by Rusty Morrison, Animism by Dennis Schmitz, and Sun Bear by Matthew Zapruder. Other standouts were David Koehn’s Twine, Roy Mash’s Buyer’s Remorse, Connie Post’s Floodwater, and Randall Potts’s Trickster. We read nearly 60 books, an amazing array of voices and aesthetics.
I recently reread Debra Allbery’s Fimbul Winter and Maudelle Driskell’s Talismans and am I’m reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Messenger now. I like prose, too, and this month read Falling Man by Don DeLillo, Twelve Women in a Country Called America by Kelly Cherry and Young Widower by John W. Evans. A giant stack of books I brought back from AWP is clamoring for my attention, right after I get to the giant stack brought back from last summer’s Frost Conference.

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