interview: Brett Foster


Posted on November 22nd, by nicholas in creativity, interview, making manifest, poets, rumination, vocation, writing. 1 Comment

interview: Brett Foster

{an interview with professor and poet, Brett Foster, who discusses what is behind his creative process.}

when you picture someone reading your poetry, how do you see them? what do they think about, wear, and do? or, maybe a better way to say it: who do you write for? and how do you see your writing nourishing others?

Wow, I do care about readers and wish to have them, and find it gratifying when I hear from them, but I really haven’t thought about the question in quite this way. I’ve always enjoyed about poetry that it’s a “low-admission-fee” kind of genre, despite its intimidating reputation. I love that you can pick up a poetry book, read a few poems, think about whether or not you’ve liked what you’ve read, and either read a few more or put it down. Or read a couple a day, on the train, perhaps.


Poems suit well our attention-deprived times, or an era of hyper-attention that flames out fast. That’s the brevity, immediacy, and intimacy of lyric, basically. So, as for audience, I’m perfectly content for a poem to skim a reader, for the book to graze him or her. Avid, serious readers are great, too, obviously, but let’s give and take our pleasures where we can get them.

For someone to find a devotional poem online and be encouraged by it— that delights me. For a different kind of poetry reader to find a less predictable devotional poem surprisingly engaging, better than he or she would have expected— that delights me even more. If your poems are ranging – some more cerebral or historical, some more imagistic or emotive, you probably wish most of all for a mixed audience, for each reader to find the poems that will be speak to that person.

 

how do you use poetry as a practice for spiritual exploration, discipline, or growth? can you offer any practical advice or sure-fire practices for folks interested in allowing writing to inform their spiritual discipline?

My first thought is, writing can indeed inform spiritual discipline, but it can also work the other way around, where a spiritual practice, be it prayer, scripture study, reading of devotional works, confession even, can have some connection with the writing life, and can impress itself upon that life. For me, there’s a saving grace in poetry insofar as it is not doctrinal. Now, religious poetry may be very interested in religious doctrine, although I’m tempted to say “curiously interested,” because I think the most memorable religious poems often concern themselves with different things— the experiences of belief, for example, the struggles and the exaltation and the glimpses of deep meaning. Yet poetry for me is not usually a place where truth-telling is the main goal. Not that poetry, like Pilate, should ask “What is truth?” and then walk away before receiving an answer. Poetry by its nature is not dismissive of truth. I simply mean that poetry is for me, and here’s where it does play some role in spiritual practice, a place to work out ideas, sure, but more centrally the heart’s matters, the cries of the heart— those things that the mind would deign to ponder, or might be confounded by. That’s poetry’s forge, and when it’s most exciting and satisfying (on poetry’s own terms, I mean), it’s a place that is free, open, safe, and surprising. Poems aren’t catechisms. They are, in their insights and vulnerabilities, better than that. And similarly, I try to take care not to confuse poetry or the writing of poems with prayer, but for Christian artists, it seems that there is usually a vocational investment (and I mean that last word more clerically than financially!) in the work they feel fortunate to have before them. This makes me think of a quotation by the English painter Stanley Spencer, who while in the midst of a painting project writes that he felt “fresh, awake and alive; this is the time for visitations. . . . I leave off at dusk feeling delighted with the spiritual work I have done.” To that I say, Amen.

 

when you approach your desk, journal, computer—where ever it is you tend to create—what are some of the processes you use? what’s going through your mind? tell us about your habits of writing, no matter how quirky, mundane, strange, or small.

Habits of writing! I may be a teacher of writing, but when it comes to my own writing, I hardly feel like a model citizen. I applaud those serious people who arise at 5 or 6 a.m. to begin their day of writing before the world’s other demands call them forth. I am not one of those people. On the contrary, I used to write a lot late at night (that’s truly my most restful time), but as I’ve gotten older, I’m more often worn out from the day, and often there’s no longer the concentration and energetic attention that poetry writing happily demands from us. One habit that I try to encourage in students is to listen to and look for words everywhere. In speech overheard in the restaurant, in the blogs you read. Words and phrases and quotations, these are the raw materials of poems, right? Or at least for me, that’s the simple level of inspiration where I am usually operating. And if I can just get a line or a few lines, often the poem is poised to take off and take me somewhere. Others, though, take a while to come to a boil, and those rattle around the head for a few months; tiny little decisions get made as I’m walking to work, or mowing the lawn. (You asked about the mundane!) Reading is a regular source and instigator of writing for me, whether it’s a passage from Augustine that leads to a formally cast poem on the liberal arts, or a clipping from a newspaper or magazine. Those may have an incident, or again, just a single word, that I know I want to encounter again in a more lyrical way. Sometimes I see a little pile of newspaper clippings on the nightstand, and think, Oh man, my poor wife is living with a crazy person! And it’s a great good fortune, too, if you have inspirations surrounding you. I’m rarely as pleased with my writing life as when I’m working on a love poem, or am writing a poem that emerged from some memorable activity with one of my kids, or that begins with some oddball-genius thing he or she said. Occasional verse is satisfying in this way, too. I think I grew interested in commemorative poetry of this sort because of my interest in Renaissance poetry practices. It’s such a strange idea, in our post-Romantic milieu that idealizes the solitary writer, to think of poetry written for a specific event, being ceremonial even, or a part of a social network of readers. Poems for friends are a noble thing, and con often turn out surprisingly good. Read Horace’s Odes if you don’t believe me. Now, these kinds of poems may not be the most successful ones you ever write (and let’s face, parents’ poems about their kids can be a particularly treacle-filled sub-genre), but these poems promise unique satisfactions to the writer who’s having a little faith in them, in what they could be, and in how it may be received by the person addressed or described in the poems.

 

when you go to revise work, how do you typically go about it? are there best practices you follow? give some wise instruction for those of us ready to get cracking on revision!

Oh, I fear that I may not be a good model for this, either! It’s not that I don’t revise— of course I do, but a phrase like “best practices to follow” sounds foreign to my experience of revision. Obviously a workshop setting can be a place where writers have crystallized for themselves some of the key decisions that they are facing with any given draft of a poem. And barring that, it’ s helpful to have a few readers who know you and your work well, and whose suggestions you trust. The writer always retains perogative, I think. It’s finally your poem, and I like to remind students of that fact. In a workshop, you’re hearing all of these suggestions, some repeated, some at odds with others, and finally you’ll have to decide which path to take with that particular piece of writing. Even if you decide to dimiss a suggestion, it wasn’t a wasted suggestion: you weighed the possible change, the suggested edit, and you recommitted yourself to what was there, or maybe to something else entirely different from both the original version and the suggestion, something that arose because of this occasion to look again at the aesthetic question you’re confronting. In such a case, no word in a line may change at all, and yet I think of that as its own rarefied kind of revision, all the same—I’m talking about the thought process, the honest assessment of what’s going on in a poem, and what’s working, once the thrill of initial writing has worn off. For me, the experience of revision varies considerably.


Some poems need repeated reassessments, and with those, the final shape, the shape that may ultimately appear in print, can take years to take hold. Others are right there and feel nicely settled, as if emailed from some hothouse of the muses, pretty much as soon as the lines hit the computer screen. Those always feel like satisfying poems, but they are also the rare ones.

Denise Levertov wrote that those poems feel like gifts of the Spirit, as if they were composed for her, and the faithful writer proves her faith by working tenaciously on all the poems that don’t feel like that. I love the sound of Levertov’s distinction there, but for me, in truth, I think a poem that seems so quickly and effortlessly finished mainly makes me nervous. So, is that the Spirit at work, or my own overconfident-writer’s voice?

 

what’s the best advice you can give to a person just beginning to write, struggling to write, or feeling stuck? what’s something you wish someone had told you starting out?

What can I offer here, besides some of the old chestnuts? Things like “Write all the time” and “Revise” and so on? First of all, as Shakespeare says, “Let your fancies lead you.” Write about things that interest you, and that you feel passionate about, and things for which you have a smarts and a vocabulary. And if no one else is writing about those things, then all the better for you. It’s helpful, too, for young writers I think, to try to minimize the sense of importance surrounding their early writing. Early on, for me writing poems felt like some sacred showdown, and it would concern me greatly if I felt I hadn’t arrived at the “perfect” form for something. Overall, I think my poems these days are less concerned with the poise and polish of some of the poems in my first book. There are exceptions, and I continue to love and aspire to write formal poetry, but this is just an impression I have. My point is, I think if we can minimize that sense of importance, the sense that there is so much riding on this poem turning out well, or getting finished, or what have you, then it is very likely that we’ll be writing more frequently. Some poems will work and make you happy, some will be crash-and-burn experimental poems or mere exercises. But all of that is valuable. And even the ones that turn out and make you happy, they don’t have to be, you know, “The Idea of Order at Key West,” to find some worthy place in the world, and be appealing to readers. There’s no reason to make a goal of writing average poems, but very few poems are truly great poems. So no worries. And finally, going back to revision, we live in a technological age where it is SUPER easy to preserve and retrieve various drafts of writing. So there’s no reason not to be bold and inventive in at least trying out some revision possibilities. You really are not at risk of losing anything, and a first draft can always be returned to, if later revisions don’t turn out going where you hoped they would. I’m always saying to writing students, “’Save As’! Just click on ‘Save As’ and try this particular poem this way.” The earlier version is always there waiting for you, that way. Ok, this is my truly last piece of advice.


Defend your time. If you’re not writing because you never have time to write, then it’s just not important enough to you. That may be ok. Maybe you’re not a writer. But if you are, and if you want to be a more active one, then you simply have to dedicate sufficient time to it, as with anything, and particularly if you’re a slow reader and writer, as I am.

As Thomas Lynch says, no editor is ever waiting around saying, ‘I want that sonnet by Tuesday,’ so the motivation and sense of urgency have to belong to the writer. Along the lines of Lynch’s comment, no one cares whether you write or not. So that means you have to care. Needless to say, we can find incentives: writing conferences (Sewanee, for example, is an awesome experience), the excitement of seeing your writing in print, participating in local readings. But none of these things replaces the burden, or thrill, of the writing itself.

 

would you like to share a poem you’re working on or have recently finished and comment on how it was written in light of the comments above? if so, please do so below…

You bet, and thanks for asking! Let me find one….

 

Talisman or Charm

“When are we going to go down?’

asks the boy in the back row of the flight.

Soon the attendant sets the question right,

responding, “Do you mean” (he sounds

 

like a grown up, with reasonable care)

“Do you mean when are we going to land?”

Unnecessary, maybe, but as my hand

reaches to activate the light up there,

 

I’m glad to hear “About an hour.”

A small reminder, middle of the sky,

that none will say the words I want to die

voluntarily. Words still carry their powers.

 

To be perfectly honest, I’m sharing this poem with you because it’s quite recent, was written “on the run” while on a conference trip, which they often are, and it is, probably in both good and bad ways, representative of a pretty common type of poem I like to write. The quotation that is the opening line here indicates the inspiring, overheard moment that led to the three quatrains of this poem. I think the genre is great for this— you overhear a really interesting, totally brief exchange, and it catches your attention because you sense there was the exchange itself and then there were the various meanings surrounding the exchange. In this case, what was said and then said back quickly got me thinking about the words we use— are they powerful or not? And if they are not, then why do we do these funny things sometimes? Make these principled, possibly necessary, little corrections or safeguardings? The title hearkens back to poetry’s ancient origins, when words were thought to have correspondence-creating powers. You say something in a certain way, and a certain something happens. It’s like the spells in Harry Potter, for instance. That would be our most familiar version of this history today.

+++++

Brett Foster’s first poetry book, The Garbage Eater, was published in 2011 by Triquarterly Books / Northwestern University Press, and was featured in Poets & Writers and on Poetry Daily. A second smaller collection, Fall Run Road, was recently awarded Finishing Line Press’s 2011 chapbook prize, and is forthcoming. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Atlanta Review, Cellpoems, The Common, Green Mountains Review, Hudson Review, IMAGE, Measure, Pleiades, Poetry East, Raritan, Seattle Review, Shenandoah, and Southwest Review. Other writing has appeared in Books & Culture, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, and Literary Imagination. He is also the author of Shakespeare’s Life, a volume in a “Backgrounds to Shakespeare” reference series, and he regularly speaks at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at Wheaton College.

 





One Response to “interview: Brett Foster”

  1. nicholas says:

    Very insightful! I enjoyed reading this.

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