We who love poetry and live North of San Francisco are fortunate to have among us an enthusiastic poet and spokesperson raising the flag of words we need to hear. I met Rebecca Foust at the 17th annual West Chester Poetry Conference in June of 2011. We were both happy to be immersing in “Exploring Form and Narrative” with some of the great living formalist poets. This year she was there on faculty leading a workshop on the sonnet and reading her poems!
Questions for Rebecca Foust
TK You have just begun your work as Poet Laureate of Marin County. How do you see your Poet Laureate role? What is your awareness of your various audiences? What is at the top of your list? Do you have any specific goals?
RF I see my role as promoting poetry to people living in Marin County in general; my specific goal is to do something to connect Marin’s large and vibrant immigrant community with the rest of the county, and to use poetry to do that. My “theme” is “Poetry as Sanctuary,” and of course I intend the allusion to Sanctuary in its usage in immigrant issues. I am proud of CA for its efforts to be a sanctuary state and for so many of its cities declaring sanctuary status, and I wish more cities and even the county of Marin would adopt this status. Poetry can be a sanctuary, too, in the larger sense: sanctuary from the political turmoil roiling our country, sanctuary from emotional and psychological pain, sanctuary from the pressures and anxieties of contemporary life.
I plan to organize community readings in Marin’s libraries that encourage participants to bring and read a poem (their own or by another poet) on the theme of sanctuary and other themes that will be announced as time goes on. The first of these will be held on Peace Day on September 21 at the Corte Madera Library.
TK What would you like people in Marin to know about you?
RF That poetry is not some erudite or high intellectual pursuit walled-off from the general populace. I am first generation college and my parents did not attend college; still, poetry was an important part of my childhood. My mother memorized poems (mostly ballads) and said and sang them when she did her household chores. We had two anthologies on the shelf: Magic Casements, and the Viking Anthology of English Poets. Not much, but enough to ignite a spark that would sustain me through dark times all my life. I hope to remind people that poetry can be a wonderful, positive force in their personal lives and in the political life of this country.
TK When did you know that being a poet was something that you wanted to spend your time doing?
RF I’ve always loved reading and saying poems, but those anthologies did not include many women poets, so I did not envision myself a writer of poetry until very late in life. It was partly a confidence thing, or perhaps a not-feeling-entitled thing, but it was not until I ran across a book in a bookstore with a photo of an author who—looked like me—that it occurred to me that my journal scribblings might be something others might want to read. That was in 2007, the year I turned 50, and that is when I began to take my writing seriously.
TK What advice do you give to would-be writers who feel like they’re too young or inexperienced, they don’t have anything to really say yet?
RF Flannery O’Connor said anyone who has lived to the age of, I think it was 20, has amassed enough life experience to write. Also, I think that wide and deep reading is a kind of experience, and that people who never travel but read a lot can get legitimate life experience that way. I’d advise these poets to write about what matters to them—right now—and not worry about whether it matters or whether they have much to say, and to read real books instead of watching TV. And also, of course, to live life to the lees in every way they can.
TK What is it about writing poetry that gives you the most joy?
RF The act of creating it—that moment when the right word occurs to you and the line falls into place. The most joy happens in those rare occasions when a poem comes to me whole, or almost whole, and all I need do is write it down. But I also feel much joy in revision, when the work yields results and the poem gets better. Finally, for me, reading is just joyous. I was a shy kid and had trouble for years even raising my hand in class—went through three years of law school without volunteering a single comment! Poetry has removed that gag, so much so, that I look forward to and love doing readings now.
TK Name a favorite poem and why you like it. (something I can make a short extract from)
RF AE Stallings read a poem at West Chester about the Syrian Refugee crisis called “Empathy” and it has rocketed to the top of my list, along with “Let Them Not Say” and “On the Fifth Day,” two new political poems by our own Jane Hirshfield. Yeats’ “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” is one I’ve loved since I was a kid; it’s the only poem I effortlessly memorized, and I wrote about it here: Poetry Daily, 4/21/15, “Poet’s Pick” essay on “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” by William Butler Yeats, http://poems.com/Poets’%20Picks%202015/0421_Foust.html
TK What books do you have in your reading pile?
RF Since I am just back from the wonderful West Chester Poetry Conference, I have a huge stack of books by poets I met there and heard read, including Molly Peacock, Julie Kane, Melissa Balmain, Frank Osen, Meredith Bergmann, John Whitworth, Leon Stokesberry, Sam Gwynn, Mark Jarmon, and others. Ernest Hilbert’s Caligulan just won the Poet’s Prize, and I am really looking forward to digging into that. I’m always reading books for a weekly column I write for an online magazine called Women’s Voices for Change. These Poetry Sunday feature poems by women over the age of 40, and you can find the columns at https://womensvoicesforchange.org/category/arts-culture/poetry
TK If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have three books which would they be?
RF That’s a tough one. Shakespeare’s collected would be one. Maybe the bible, not because I am religious but because it is so rich with metaphor and allegory. For the third—any one of Jane Hirshfield’s books, I guess the one with the most pages. I love her luminous essays as much as I love her amazing poems. Other books that have been important to me include Larry Levis’ Winter Stars, Louise Gluck’s House on the Marshland and Averno, and Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.
TK Describe your editing technique: do you read your poems aloud, or do you have a sense for the sound/rhythm internally? Do you have a reader or two you send your poems to?
RF Absolutely everyone should read their poems aloud during the revision process, and I do it all the time. I also participate in two online and one in-person reading groups who submit one poem from each poet per month. But in the end, no matter what the feedback from these groups, the decision about whether to make a revision is mine and happens usually because my ear tells me to do it. I’m a big fan of “aging” poems, that is, letting them alone for a few months or even years, then coming back to them.
TK What poetry book should the president read?
RF What a great question! I fear he does not read books at all, but for purposes of the question I guess we can suppose he will read a book and perhaps get something out of it. I imagine he’d resonate with Frost, a white male poet, and so am tempted to suggest Frost’s book Steeple Brush, just for its inclusion of the amazing poem, “Directive” which has a lot to say about the environmental issues facing us today. Nikky Finney’s Head Off and Split is another book he could profit from reading, or Marilyn Nelson’s remarkable crown of sonnets, A Crown for Emmett Till. That book was conceived as a book for young people, and the poems are accessible enough even for a nonreader like President You-Know-Who, but the poems have depth and resonance that make them work for mature readers, and they tell a chapter of history largely left out by our schools. Another is Black Crow Dress, a moving slave narrative written by Roxanne Beth Johnson. To be honest, I’d be happy to hear of him reading any book, let alone one of poetry.
I close with her comments and a powerful poem I heard Rebecca read at the Marin County Civic Center and again at Falkirk Cultural Center for the Poet Laureate celebration in May.
I wrote this poem Requiem Mass for the Yuma Fourteen in a workshop on the villanelle taught by Molly Peacock at West Chester Poetry Conference. I’d just read Luis Alberto Urrea’s remarkable book, Devil’s Highway, and it resonated with me, so much so that I had trouble sleeping for weeks. How bad must it be, I thought, for people to be willing to risk their lives and especially the lives of their children, to make that terrible and perilous passage to the US? Very bad indeed, worse than anything I’d before conceived. We hear every day about people killed, raped, and traumatized on that journey, and I hoped in the poem to undo some of the habituation that sets in when bad news becomes a regular occurrence in our lives. I want readers to imagine the circumstances that might lead a parent to make that decision, and to imagine what the journey must be like—was hoping to humanize and particularize the story that has become all too familiar in daily news reports. The form offered a way to contain my very strong feelings about the subject.
Requiem Mass for the Yuma Fourteen
Your lungs, now, are leaking moisture to the vampire air.
Your tears leak into the sky.— The Devil’s Highway, by Luis Alberto Urrea
Beyond the border they could smell the rain. It smelled like freedom. Freedom and home. The desert composes its requiem.
The oldest was nearly sixty, his son thirteen. One wore new jeans, one carried a comb. Beyond the border they could smell the rain.
They got lost; then, they lost their water. The sun a furnace blast. Dust. Thirst. Delirium, the desert composing its requiem.
Vampire air. Heat that bakes flesh off bone. Hands fretworked with spines, mouths crammed with bits of quartz, they smelled the rain.
The boy dreamt saguaro was bread and the stones were stars. He heard tall, cool-winged seraphim, rehearsing a Requiem Aeternam.
He made a neat stack of his clothes, and at dawn he lay down. He burst like a ripe sunset, a plum. Beyond the border, you can smell the rain. The desert composes its requiem.
First published in Zyzzyva, Fall 2013.
Rebecca grew up Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, a small town surrounded by farmlands and forests, quarries and strip mines. After earning a BA in English, she moved to northern California in 1979 to attend Stanford Law School. A decade of private practice gave way to a decade of advocacy for kids with autism. The year she turned 50, a class offered by a local bookstore inspired her to pick up the writing she had put aside for thirty years. Rebecca went back to school, earning an MFA in poetry from Warren Wilson in January 2010.
All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song won the Many Mountains Moving Book Prize and was released in 2010, the same year that God, Seed: Poetry & Art About the Natural World, won the Foreword Review Book of the Year Award for Poetry. Mom’s Canoe and Dark Card, recipients of the Robert Phillips Chapbook Poetry Prize in consecutive years, were released by Texas Review Press in 2008 and 2009. She was the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence at the Frost Place and recipient of a MacDowell Colony residence award.
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