Q&A with Rebecca Foust: ‘Only’ & Communicating Across the Centuries

Meryl Natchez

I first met Rebecca Foust when we worked together for Marin Poetry Center starting in 2014. Foust is the author of seven poetry collections, including The Unexploded Ordnance Bin, Paradise Drive, All That Gorgeous Pitiless Song, and God, Seed. Her work has received the  2020 Pablo Neruda Award, the 2017 CP Cavafy Award,  and the 2016 James Hearst Poetry Prize, and was runner up for the 2022 Missouri Review Editor’s Prize. In 2017 she was appointed Marin County Poetry Laureate.

I have been intrigued by her new book of poems, Only (Four Way Books 2022; 88 pages), a varied, tender, and intriguing collection, and sat down with her to discuss her work, and the origin of some of these poems. We met at my house on a sunny afternoon and first talked about her growing up in the Rust Belt of Pennsylvania, in the isolated community of Altoona, and the many poems in this book that reference that childhood. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ZYZZYVA: A number of poems in Only  reference your childhood and how it affected you. To some extent, we all leave behind the person who we were as a child, but in your case the division between your present and how you grew up seems dramatic.

REBECCA FOUST: Yes, as I said in my poem “Altoona to Marin” in my first book, you think you leave it behind, but it’s still there. We were a big family and had fun the way kids do. I had a roof over my head, and food, and even though there were  flaws, it was basically a good childhood.

I had a very loving mother. She was demonstrative and made me feel I was the most wonderful thing in the world. That was a very important part of my life. She was a great reader and is the one who initiated my love of literature. She didn’t have a college education—my  twin brother and I were the first in our family to go to college—but Mom  read every book in the Altoona Public Library. We had a ritual for years: every Friday check out a bag of books, read them, and bring them back the next Friday. My Dad was pretty remote. He was really ruined by the war.

Z: The war? World War II?

RF: Yes. He was drafted at 18 and was a medic. He just saw so many terrible  things—he was one of the liberators of Dachau—and he never talked about them. He was also an alcoholic. But it was really his war experience that isolated him. If you brought it up, he’d just go quiet and check out. He never really recovered from that.

Z: You mentioned that the two of you were the first in your family to go to college, so how did that work in the family dynamic?

RF: Well, my twin and I have a similar sensibility—he made it “out” to  Pittsburg, where he lives now. It’s hard to communicate just how far that is from Altoona, psychologically. The Altoona of my childhood was isolated, a world of its own. Until they widened the highway that goes to Pittsburg, it was very difficult to get to. It still is, unless you are OK with taking a tiny plane out of a runway in a corn field. You have to fly to Pittsburg or State College and drive a couple hours. And whatever way you drive is sometimes unpassable in the winter, because Altoona is in a bowl of mountains. A beautiful valley with mountains all around it—green, lots of water and wildflowers, but all I could think about growing up was getting out. I felt like an alien, like I’d been dropped into the wrong life.

Everything I did, like working hard to get a college scholarship, was directed to leaving. But it was also hard to leave. I was super homesick for my first few years at college, and what seemed normal to the people around me wasn’t easy for me—I think the first time I was ever on a plane was when I went to law school. There were many things that were new and scary, and I had so little experience outside of the limited, sequestered world I’d grown up in. I maybe went to Pittsburg two or three times as a kid for a ballgame. I can see now it would have been easy to go to New York City on the train, but I didn’t know hardly anyone who’d ever been to New York City. That’s what rich people did, and it seemed scary and impossible for someone from my family.

Z: When there’s that big a disconnect between how you grow up and the way you live your adult life, is there a lot of disassociation?

RF: Yes, there are a lot of times I wonder even now, “What am I doing here?” And things that are easy for others are often still  harder for me—like traveling, although I’ve had to get better at it, being a working poet. I didn’t even learn to drive till I was about 30—there was often no car available for me to practice on. Then I went to college and law school and didn’t need a car. When I was practicing law, I was embarrassed that I couldn’t drive and kept it a secret. If I had a deposition or an appearance, I had to allow about three extra hours to get there by bus or train. Eventually I did learn, but I am still a terrible navigator—thank God for GPS.

Z: There’s a poem in Only that seems to speak to this, the rendition of the Cesar Vallejo poem “Black Stone on White Stone” called “Epitaph after Vallejo.” I love what you’ve done with it. Can you talk about that?

RF: I wrote this six or seven years ago when I was still writing a lot of sonnets. It came together very quickly. I became intrigued with the idea of writing a poem that would be read at my funeral, that would describe things about me, about who I’ve become as well as things in my the landscape that were important to me.

Z: I love how you poke fun at your own ambition, which must have been formidable: “she longed to arc meteor, loom large with myth / —and fell short. Only One-Great-Book shy / of epic…”

RF: I definitely wanted to have some humor in it, and I had fun with the word play (“issue” relating to offspring as well as to editions of a publication) in the second stanza.

Z: There is a lot of religious imagery in Only, too. Did you grow up in a religious environment?

RF: Yes, very much so. I have a line in another poem about how every block has a church on it.

Z: Yes, in “Dream of the Rood”—“…each corner’s bar facing a church.”

RF: There were churches everywhere, across from bars, churches across from the quarries, churches across from the railroad repair yard. There was a lot of extreme Christianity—fundamentalist, charismatic, and evangelical. And all my siblings got infected with this at some point except me, even my twin. That was one reason I felt like such an alien. I would do all the things—put my head down on the table and ask Jesus to come into my heart, etc., and it just never happened. I couldn’t pretend, and that was a wedge. My parents insisted we kids all go to church. My oldest sister is married to a fundamentalist pastor and they are both very outspokenly opposed to anti-abortion, etc. My twin brother went to a Philadelphia Bible college and learned how to do magic tricks as part of his proselytizing training, but he eventually dropped the religion part, transferred to Penn State, and for a while was a very accomplished professional magician.

I did get confirmed in the Presbyterian Church, because the pastor there was young with new ideas, and I attended his teen groups where we’d read Bob Dylan’s lyrics and talk about them for hours. That was exciting. But after that, I never went to church regularly again.

Z: So, the religious references, like “exsultate jubilatefromMozart’s religious motet, “Compline,” and “Dream of the Rood…”?

RF: The rood is a big deal in this book—it was really my introduction to literature. It became a preoccupation when I went to Smith. We had a lot of books on the shelves at home, but very few real classics—a lot of Dickens, Reader’s Digest condensed books, popular anthologies, that sort of thing. But in my Introduction to English 101 class, the first thing we read was “The Dream of the Rood,” an anonymous medieval religious poem. The ecstatic feeling of it resonated with me, maybe because of my religious upbringing. But what really opened the world of literature to me was the way we analyzed and discussed it. I had never looked at a piece of literature critically before, with the tools and people who knew how. That stayed with me for years and that initial encounter inspired several poems in Only. In fact, it is bookended with poems titled “The Dream of the Rood.” The second of these is a villanelle, and the fact that “rood” has a lot of homonyms (e.g., “rude” or “rued the day”) was very helpful. But in both poems, the idea of ecstatic rebirth resonated with me, along with the discovery I’d made in reading the medieval poem, that we can communicate across the centuries with writers and readers who came before us or who will come after us. Of course, the original poem is religious, but in my poems it’s much more about my own transformation: discovering a broader world through literature, leaving home, coming to California.

For a long time, the book Only was called “Dream of the Rood.” I came up with the title “Only” by using Wordcloud, a program that tells you what words come up most often in a manuscript; “only” was the word that came up for me.

Z: What significance does that have for you?

RF: Well, the poem “Only,” about my son’s birth, is an important poem for me, so I liked naming the book after it. And the word itself can have so many different meanings. It can mean something singular like “solely” or “but for,” or it can be a diminutive, as “I only did half the job” In that sense, it is its own oxymoron, and I love that about it.

Z: Do you think it also relates to what you said about being the only one of your sisters who left that life?

RF: It could be, though that had not occurred to me until you mentioned it. Even though my brother got out in his own way, I did feel very alone growing up and leaving home. I felt “only,” which also has the echo of lonely.

Z: Reading the book I thought about how, even though there is a lot of tenderness toward your past, there is also a separateness—a world that you can never really belong to again. You’ve left so much behind—you speak a different language and have a new aesthetic, and you’ve lived two very different lives. I’m thinking especially of the poem “I Learn to Field Strip an M-16,” which so beautifully expresses the aspects of that alienation.

RF: That was also an important poem to me—it is about how you relate to people you love who are so very different than you—politically, religiously, aesthetically, etc.—and your own conflict over who you are. When I was in that life, I didn’t really feel a part of it, and yet coming from that life prevents me from fully embracing who I am now. And there’s some survivor’s guilt, too.

Z: Yes, you get that perfectly into the ending of that poem.

RF: It’s not that my family have had terrible lives, but I’ve certainly enjoyed some advantages they haven’t. Of course, “only” can also mean singular—it has some positive connotations. But I think the hardest thing about growing up in the way I did is that it puts boundaries on the imagination. Because to create things in your imagination you rely first—and maybe even “only”—on what you’ve experienced. For example, my aspirations when I first went to college were to possibly be able to teach at Penn State, Altoona Campus. I couldn’t imagine anything much beyond that, because I hadn’t seen it. I hadn’t seen girls like me grow up to be judges or senators or scientists. Your dreams are limited by what you know.

Smith gave me my big break. On my high school counselor’s recommendation, I planned to apply to just one school—Penn State. It’s a great school, cheap for in-staters, and no one suggested any alternatives. I literally knew no one who had gone to the Ivies, had not even heard of some of them. But the year I was applying, a cousin going to my grandfather’s wake drove through Northampton and fell in love with the Smith campus. He picked up an application form and agreed to pay the $25 fee if I applied. With the financial aid Smith offered, it was less expensive than Penn State, so I went.

It changed my life in just about every way, being exposed to that level of education and especially to students with levels of worldliness I hadn’t ever encountered. Smith was the time in my life when I became aware of doors opening outward into other doors. I hadn’t realized before how my imagination had been circumscribed by the limits of my actual experience. Just seeing women in the roles of head of college, orchestra conductor, scientific researcher—that was all a very big deal for me. But even today, I don’t feel I move with ease in the world.

Z: And then you went on to law school. Not a usual route for a poet.

RF: That was another leap. Mom wanted me to go to college, but Dad wanted me to just get a job. In our house, kids began paying board at eighteen. Even Mom, though, balked at the idea of more school after college. There was a lot of pressure to just get a job and make some money. Mom had another concern, too, that I was somehow getting ahead of my station, headed into dangerous waters. “People like us just get knocked down,” a line from the poem “Dream of the Rood,” was something Mom actually said to me.

To me, law seemed like a no-brainer for an English major who loved words and loved to argue. I did a clerkship at the local public defender’s office one summer—worked there during the day, waitressed at night—and just loved it.

Anyway, neither parent wanted me to go to law school, and they were perplexed by my choice of Stanford, which they called “Stamford.” I got a full ride there, scholarship and loans, so did not need my parents’ support or permission. I got there via the first plane ride of my life—and again—it was doors opening onto other outward-swinging doors. California was a revelation. What I liked about studying law was its emphasis on exegesis of text, critical thinking, and disciplined writing. And I felt drawn to  the fact patterns—the stories—in the case studies.

Z: And then you practiced law for years. How did you make the transition back to poetry?

RF: I  stopped practicing law after my third child was born, and I became involved in advocating for children with autism. Poetry was always deeply important to me—in college I minored in poetry—and I began writing poems again seriously around the time of  my fiftieth birthday. I wrote an essay about this for Writers’ Digest.

Z: I love the way you use form as a lever in Only—there are poems that echo the sonnet, there are some formal poems, but it’s almost like form was the launching pad for the poems. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Remember,” a sonnet that is not immediately recognizable as one till you go back and look at it.

RF: I’m so happy to hear you say that. Form has been important to my development as a poet. It is one way—not the only way, but one important way—to give language the kind of shapeliness that distinguishes poetry from prose. Poets are “makers” and poetry, well, all good writing, is an art. You can’t just line break your journal entries and call it art. You have to wrestle with it, shape it, sculpt it—and form is one way to do this.

“Remember” was a poem where I really let myself loosen up a bit—it echoes a sonnet without being slavishly adherent. I was fascinated by the sonnet for years. To me the form seems almost like magic. I studied it the way you study a language and almost everything I wrote for a time came out as a sonnet—even grocery lists and notes to my kids. But when it started feeling wooden, I began to change it up a bit. The thing I love about the sonnet, especially for beginning writers, is that it’s almost like an app. A lot of work is done for you.

Now I am trying to get beyond form but not totally forget about it. Some of my favorite poets, like Donald Justice, W.S. Merwin, and Diane Suess, began writing in form and then moved through and past it, making it their own.

Z: You include several poems from your chapbook The Unexploded Ordnance Bin (Swan Scythe Press) in Only.

RF: The first section of Only is mostly about my childhood, the second is more about my family and children, and the third is more looking forward and outward and contains some political poems. Most of the Ordnance poems in Only are in the second section. I think of the arc of Only as an inverted funnel—widening spheres of reference, radiating away from the self with its very personal issues in the first section, into the wider realm of family in the second section, then outward and into the larger world and its broader issues in the third section. This is the same movement, by the way, that I see my writing taking in general.

I feel a little vulnerable about publishing poems about family, but fortunately for me, I guess, my family does not tend to read my poetry. I remember first reading that title poem from The Unexploded Ordnance Bin when you and I  read together for Lit Crawl in San Francisco a few years ago. I was concerned that it was too personal, and you told me it could be about any family, that every family has unexploded ordinance in its history.

Z: Yes, I think as soon as you peel back the top layer of the happy family, there are plenty of explosive issues.

RF: That really helped.

Z: Well, I’m glad, and so pleased to have had a chance to hear about your unusual path to this book. Thank you.

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