A Conversation with Rebecca Foust
Interview by Cody Todd
Cody Todd: So to begin: Paradise Drive. Where is it? What is it? How does this title speak to the book as a whole?
Rebecca Foust: Paradise Drive is an actual street in Marin County that winds through Corte Madera and Tiburon, two towns south of here. I picked it for the word Paradise–Marin is paradise in many ways of course, and also for the sort of oxymoron that it makes when paired with “drive.” Because the setting of the book–Marin (metaphorically any affluent suburb in the US–could be Rye NY for example) IS an oxymoron, a yoking of contradictions.
CT: But the book is also a journey towards and a shying away from paradise. Can you speak on that profound ambivalence of the book?
RF: I was inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy (for a time the section titles were Paradiso, Inferno, Purgatorio and Terra) and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and C. S. Lewis’s Pilgrim’s Regress: there is this drive in Judeo-Christian culture (and in other religions of course) this drive towards Paradise.
At the same time, there is a shying away from conventional paradise, the paradise of my Christian upbringing as a child. The idea that if you follow those rules you will earn a spot in heaven in the afterlife. That I don’t buy. But it was drummed into me as a kid and I still have, among close family members, several born-again and even what they call “charismatic Christians.” There were strong, strong forces pulling me into that when I was growing up.
There was also this working-class idea of Paradise as achieving financial security—do this, do that, and you’re in heaven on earth. My father believed that. And since he never achieved it he never learned the fallacy of that kind of thinking.
CT: “Charismatic Christians” seems to be a dangerous term. How do you feel about that and how does it resonate in your work?
RF: To me charismatic Christians are among the most dangerous because their faith is so deeply rooted in the irrational. They speak in tongues, they fall into trances, they prophesy, all from a vantage point that is like quicksand in the sense that it is based on a literal interpretation of a bible that, uh, was actually written in HEBREW and GREEK and was translated by some very fallible human beings. But these charismatics take the King James version absolutely literally as the word of God. And THAT is scary.
I guess irrationality is the essence of faith, but there is a very deep difference between the childlike, easily-led and highly suggestible charismatic Christians I know and the muscular, always-questioning faith of a man like CS Lewis. But I have to admit to some kind of attraction to all that. To be so taken up in belief that you achieve true trance, and speak in tongues—I wonder what that is like?
CT: Those ideas are very embedded in this poetry. It is essentially ontological with a declaration like in “How to Live, Reprise,” which settles on this: “Pilgrim decides,
/is keep asking the questions./ Admit when you’re wrong. Go on/ for the kids, especially for the kids.” This seems to be a seminal moment in the book. What do you mean by this?
RF: Pilgrim decides there are no easy answers and not to heed the siren song of the faith of her family—how seductive that is, how wonderful it would be to be able to live by clear rules and to feel vindicated, to feel like you were a good person doing the right things. The truth is so much more messy, complex, and difficult to negotiate. Sometimes it feels impossible. But if I believe anything it is that you still have to try and must make what small differences you can. I’ve lost faith in my ability to affect, say, national politics. But I can still help a single person, sometimes.
You just have to do what you can and not get paralyzed or thrown in to despair by the vastness of what you cannot do. Or so Pilgrim decides.
CT: Let’s talk about Pilgrim. Thomas Lux compared the work to Berryman. Persona is a major component of this book in my mind. To speak of the great masters of the “borrowed ego,” we are talking about John Berryman, Shakespeare, Eliot, Norman Dubie, Sylvia Plath, H.D., Pound (mentioned in the book) and others. What of the marriage of persona and dramaturgy and poetry?
RF: Well, for one thing, it makes for a great read and helps to achieve that goal we were discussing of reaching an audience who thinks it dislikes or normally dislikes poetry. It does this by offering things the human psyche finds irresistible: character, story and characters-in-action (drama). I’d add Jim Cummins to that list at least with his book, The Whole Truth. The other great thing, of course, about persona is that it untethers the author from the constraints of his or her own lived life and opens the imagination. It can avoid solipsism and offer[s] great opportunities for empathy. Which some writers, like John Gardner in the Art of Fiction, say is one of the goals for great art.
CT: How does persona poetry align well with the sonnet form, in this book specifically?
RF: The form lends itself to persona and I love that you can have each sonnet speaking in a different voice (as with the seven deadly sins sequence) to achieve a kind of Rashomon Effect. I also want to point out that most of the characters in the book, including Pilgrim, are composites in the craft sense that fiction uses that word. Pilgrim has some autobiographical elements, of course, but she embodies traits of other people, some of whom I’ve known and some just plain made up. But the sonnet form gives you a handy way to switch off between personas, or even between the consciousness of the same person in different emotional states or moods. It makes it easy to switch off because each new sonnet offers an opportunity to change persona.
CT: About this “Rashomon Effect?” Can you elaborate on that?
RF: Hope I am spelling it right. It is a technique most well known in film, where a story is told first from one point of view, then another, then another as a way of showing the unreliability of memory and of people’s propensity to see reality differently. TV writers love it now—it was used (pretty clumsily) in “The Affair.” You get a constellation of versions of the same event that, read together, presumably approximate the truth (whatever truth means!).
CT: Wonderful! Let’s talk about the liberties you used with the sonnet form. Gregory Orr has a great book (out of print) on poetry called, Richer Entanglements (I have to thank the wonderful poet, Gail Wronsky for first bringing this to my attention in a class of hers). In it, he essentially developed a foursquare grid on poetry outlining disordering principles in poetry: “Image and Music,” as well as ordering principles: “Form and Narrative.” In a very concrete sense, your use of form is both ordering and disordering. Could you please talk on your relationship with the sonnet form in this book and what you wanted to accomplish? Before you answer, I found the “incompletion” in your treatment of the sonnet form invigorating and true. Please talk on that too?
RF: I like Orr’s idea of ordering and disordering principles. Form is obviously an ordering principle when working in sonnet: we’ve come to expect some sine qua nons like 14 lines and the presence of a volta in the second half of the poem. Other things that used to be written in stone such as Petrarchan and Elizabethaean (and other) rhyme schemes are freely discarded in many sonnets. But most people still hang onto the 14 line rule. 14 lines do not, of course, a sonnet make. What they make is a fourteener. I think that a sonnet does require a turn, or some explosive event that makes the poem end in a different place than it began. Sometimes I think of the sonnet as a machine which you can allow to break down. Or an edifice, held in place by opposing forces of load and lift always on the verge of collapse (and that sometimes does collapse). Or as a tiny drama with its own plot pyramid of rising and falling action. I like the basic shape and size of the sonnet which Annie Finch says generally fits in the palm of the hand (like another ubiquitous device I could name). I also like the urban dictionary definitions for a sonnet, one too bawdy to repeat here and one that likens sonnet to pop rock candy that seems innocuous then explodes in your mouth. The form is just the beginning, a way of framing what you are trying to say. If you DO choose to work in rhyme, it can lead you to some wonderfully unexpected places, because rhyme is utterly irrational. Insofar as the sonnets are concerned, I basically agree with Orr that the ordering principles are form and narrative, but want to make that point that the form itself, e.g. when following a rhyme scheme, can lead you to some crazy places. Maybe a rhyme scheme is as much part of the disordering “music” Orr talks about as it is part of the form. Anyway, once you allow the form to break down, a tremendous freedom comes in. Several people who read the manuscript suggested I loosen up the forms; one reader wanted me to abandon the form entirely and rewrite the whole book in free verse. But I liked the sound bytes of the sonnets. I liked their integrity, their ability to stand alone AND be read as part of a greater story. So I went back and loosened up the form only in those poems where I felt that the form was holding the poem back from being its best self. For awhile I felt fluent in sonnet the way you can feel fluent in language or in playing an instrument. I was still blowing through a flute, but not following a classical score and sometimes bending notes and making sounds that are not part of what is taught in conventional flute lessons. But whatever I was doing, it was coming through the flute.
CT: Your previous books are not wedded to this form in this fashion, what is it like as an artist to succumb to a book of sonnets? Did the work come easily and how so?
Please speak on the craft.
RF: It’s not like I made a conscious decision to bust up form in a given sonnet. But in revision I am guided most often by my ear, and where a sonnet set say in Petrarchan form felt stiff or was not expressing something with the precision I wanted, I felt free, finally, to leave the form behind. Sometimes traces remain–you might find the volta in the expected spot at the end of the first octet for example. I just kept reading these things out loud–they really ARE meant to be read aloud and performed–and where it felt wrong, I changed it and form be damned. Two of the sonnets in the book (“Dirt”) and “Forgotten Image” don’t even follow the 14-line rule. But I still consider them sonnets because they deliver the drama (tension), pungency (condensed language) and explosion (volta) that for me defines a sonnet. I have, of course, 14-line versions of both of these poems. They are not as good. The Dream Songs are 18 lines long and to me they feel quite like sonnets in embodying the qualities I’ve been talking about above. Though they are longer, they are proportionally similar to sonnets in terms of how they enact their dramas and where the turns come. You know curtal sonnets? They are just 12 lines long, but they make the same moves as a conventional sonnet in terms of where the turn comes. So, it turns out that 14 lines is one of the rules that can be bent. Other ways I exploded the form: the lineation in “Contradance” is unconventional–instead of an octet and a sestet (Petrarchan) or three quatrains and a closing couplet (Shakespearian), these lines are all over the place. “The fire is falling” abandons caps and punctuation to reinforce the idea that yes the fire is falling and everything—Pilgrim’s lived reality up to 9/11—is about to utterly come apart.
CT: What does it mean to be a Californian poet? California is all over this book. When I think of the major Californian poets, I think of Bob Kaufman, Robinson Jeffers, David Saint John, Quincy Troupe, and Larry Levis, among others. How do you fit in this longstanding tradition of California poets?
RF: Well, David St. John has been a wonderful teacher, encountered through workshops he’s led here in the bay area, and I will drop almost anything to sit at his feet and listen to him read and talk about poetry. Am embarrassed to say I don’t know the work yet of QT and BK. Remember that I came to contemporary poetry very recently and will be playing catch up the rest of my life! I love Larry Levis (and he was a giant in my MFA program) and Winter Stars is one of my favorite books of all time. Have read enough of Jeffers to know I should read more—I like his myth-building and dark visionary qualities (but am not so thrilled about the Dark Mountain group co-opting his verse to champion their cause). Some of Hass’s work, especially the earlier stuff, speaks powerfully to me, and I think he is great at capturing the landscape here, great at the new nature poem, set in California. I’m more familiar with the northern California poets because of several years of reading for the Northern California Book Award. Brenda Hillman has been an influence. Thom Gunn, Jack Spicer. I really like a new group of poets coming up: Dean Rader, Melissa Stein, Troy Jollimore, Heather Altfeld. Ellen Bass has been making waves as has Dorianne Laux, who started out here. Kim Addonizio is a terrific model for sonnet writing (Lucifer in the Starlite Cafe). DA Powell’s last book blew me away. Damn, there are some wonderful poets out here! Philip Levine has been an influence and his “Keats in CA” really nails the problem of being a poet in California. We are marginalized, yes, by the literary mainstream. But we also lose ourselves in the California dream. I don’t know how I “fit” with these poets but reading their poems has helped shape my work and to be mentioned in the same sentence with them is an honor.
I should have mentioned Matthew Zapruder also—he is doing something really fresh and original in his work. Language and experimental poetry is very strong here and has blown an invigorating wind through the streets of California poetry, clearing away some debris, knocking down some tottering edifices. I don’t love all experimental poetry but I do love the impact it has had on poetry in general, how it has shaken things up.
CT: Final question: What are your thoughts on the accessibility of poetry. How can we make the art more popular?
RF: By writing layered poems, like Frost did and like we talked about on the phone: poems with a surface pellucidity that can yield something for readers not trained in poetry craft but that have depths that can be mined by readers who do and who seek more challenge in a poem. By offering poetry—serious quality poetry—in formats less daunting and rigid than your typical poetry reading where one poet gets up and reads from his or her new book. I’ve been experimenting with new formats, like having two readers do an exquisite corpse kind of reading, each responding with a poem that works off the poem the other poet just read. Also with this “Poetry World Series” format we’ve done 5 times now, twice at Litquake and with never under 100 people (many who say they did not “like poetry” before the event and leave with poetry books in their hands)—the format is fun and even a little silly, but the pace moves very fast and when the poet steps up to the mike to “bat” (read his her poem) the room falls utterly silent and the poem receives full, rapt attention. And I guess the third way is to get people involved through things like Poetry Out Loud or Robert Pinksy’s Poetry Project (which I LOVED) that gives nonpoets the chance to speak poems, to feel the words in their mouths to feel that power. Accessibility does not mean dumbing down the poetry to make it “easier” to read. It means writing an even more complex poetry that can offer something to a wider swathe of audience than one composed solely of people who’ve studied or practiced the art.
Also, the use of techniques that have proven effective in prose writing and even in film–another way to draw people in, to give them a way to relate to and be interested in the poem.
As for the importance of Altoona and Marin in the book: all plots, Benjamin Percy told me once in a fiction workshop, boil down to these two: hero takes a journey, or stranger comes to town. Here, Pilgrim takes a journey that is spiritual, yes, but also on its surface physical: she moves from a debt-ridden grinding existence in a town blighted by industry in the mountains of central PA—she “escapes” that place to the land of her dreams, sunny CA where the economy is booming and exciting things in art and culture are happening everywhere. The very place of her dreams, she thinks at first. In a strange way though, she winds up in the same despair that drove her to leave PA (and this ring structure is the arc that is captured in the title poem (“Altoona to Marin”) for my first book (All That Gorgeous, Pitiless Song). As they say in AA, it takes more than a “geographic” (a move to a new place) to effect a real change. And another thing Pilgrim finds is that Altoona is a place that forever lives inside—it cannot be “moved away from.” So part of her spiritual journey is a coming to grips with the two places that inhabit her as much as she inhabits them. Does that make sense? It’s easy to sneer at the people in Altoona for being uncultured and obsessed with making a buck, just as it is easy to sneer at the people in Marin for leading shallow lives of easy affluence. But I hope there is in the book some empathy and compassion for the people in both those places. And I hope it is clear that Pilgrim does not hold herself above any of them—she’s in the mix, and knows it, as I hope the poem “Je Est un Autre” makes clear.