Rebecca Foust’s books include All That Gorgeous, Pitiless Song (Many Mountains Moving Book Award, 2010), Mom’s Canoe and Dark Card (2007, 2008 Robert Phillips Chapbook Prizes). Her recent poetry appears widely in journals including Hudson Review, Margie, North American Review, and Spoon River Review. God, Seed (Tebot Bach Press), a book of environmental poetry with art by Lorna Stevens, is forthcoming in September 2010. Foust received her MFA from Warren Wilson College in January 2010. For more information, please visit her website.
ALTOONA TO MARIN
Go ahead, aspire to transcend
your hardscrabble roots, bootstrap
the life you dream on,
escape the small-minded tyranny
of your small-minded Midwestern
But when you’ve left it behind, you
may find it still there, in your dreams,
your syntax, the smell of your hair,
its real smell, under the shampoo.
Beware DNA; it will out or be outed,
and you’ll find yourself back
where you started, back home,
unable to refute the logic of blood and bone
you’ll slip, and pick up Velveeta
instead of brie. It’s inexorable.
Kansas one day will turn out to be Oz
and Oz Kansas,
with the same back porch weeping,
the same husbands sleeping around,
addiction, cancer, babies born wrong;
the same siren nights pierced
with stars seeping light, all that
gorgeous, pitiless song.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I did not begin to take my writing seriously until 2007, the year I turned fifty and it was in the summer of that year that this poem came to me. I’d gone back and read some of the poems written (and shoved into a drawer and forgotten) in my teens and early twenties. The first in my working-class western Pennsylvania family to attend college (on scholarship), I’d left town, gone on to Stanford Law School and then settled 3,000 miles away in the golden state of California. Anyway, I was re-reading those old poems and mulling over how things had changed—and how they hadn’t changed—since then. The poem started with that very first line, the challenge of the older, wiser speaker to the younger, idealistic speaker, to “Go Ahead” and try to break out of what seems like an imprisoned life. It is unusual for me to start with a the first line—generally, I think of a poem’s ending first and then write towards it, like a fisherman pulling in his net, but this time the first line came to me and the poem unfolded from there.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I often put a poem through a hundred or more drafts and some poems get put away for a year or more before I can bear to look at and revise them again. Not this one. It started out pretty much the way it now appears, except that I cut a few extra lines in the last stanza. I wrote the poem early in the summer of 2007 and it got accepted by The Dos Passos Review in August, the second acceptance I had received in my life up to that point.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Yes, absolutely I believe in inspiration. But I think of it more in terms of a river that flows about or above us at all times such that when we raise our net, we snag and catch the ideas and poems that are floating by. The trick is to always have your net with you and to always have it out. That is harder than it sounds—so many things in life can get in the way. When I am able to tap into that current of what is real, what matters, then poems come to me in a spontaneous, whole way that feels like epiphany or something close to religious experience. Only a handful poems have come to me this way. I have heard other poets call them “gift” poems. But I think of them as the true found poems—as if all the poetry is already written, and we have only to figure out how to find it again.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
Just in deciding where to break the lines—I did play around with that a bit, trying to make the music right and my technique here was breaking the lines in different places and then reading the poem aloud over and over to see what sounded best.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
It was a few months—the poem was written in early summer 2007, accepted in August, published in the fall.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
It varies with every poem. I write poems as they come to me and put them in seasonal files. Then I go back to those poems when time allows and work on the ones that interest me. When a poem feels finished, I move it to a file where I keep work ready to be sent out. Every time I send a poem out again, I look it over to see if I can revise it to make it stronger. If I am having a problem with a poem and know it, I will run it by other poets in my critiquing groups for their comments. The process varies from poem to poem. I have had poems that felt finished after just a few drafts, written within a few days and others that I have been working on for years and are still not finished.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Well, my poetry is rooted in personal experience in the sense that if I write about flowers it is going to be the ones I grew up with or see now on my morning walks, and if I write about cheese it is going to be Velveeta. And brie. But my poetry is not memoir and the “stories” and “people” in them tend to be amalgams not actual people or necessarily true events. I hope to tell a larger truth in my work than just recounting the story of my own life and, as Picasso famously said (or words to this effect), you must lie to tell the truth. So I might talk about my grandfather buying corn on the cob with his dentures in his pocket, and perhaps an aunt or cousin might protest that it never happened, and my answer would be that I was not writing about Papap so much as about the indomitable human ability to—in the face of all evidence to the contrary—hope for the experience of joy. So, the stories in my poems are not “literally” true but yes, they spring from my life experience, plus what I’ve seen and read in my life.
Is this a narrative poem?
I suppose you could say it tells the story of the prodigal son or daughter come home in the metaphorical sense; come to the realization that home is what inhabits you no matter where you live. But I hope that it has lyrical moments and that it moves the reader to a new place; I hope that it sings. So my ambition was for it to be a lyrical poem.
At the heart of this poem is the specter of morality, the idea of right and wrong. Is all good poetry in some way ethical or just?
I don’t see the specter of morality in this poem—just the speaker’s stunned realization that no matter how far she has traveled, “improved” her station, run away from the place of childhood memory, she understands in the end that she cannot escape all that, for two reasons. One is that what she came from is what she is; and the second is that all places are fundamentally the same and the things that make us happy and not have more to do with the universal human condition than with the specific place or class we inhabit. And I think that there is a sort of redemption in realizing that—it ameliorates the implicit judgment that Altoona was a place to be escaped from and also, it acknowledges that as pitiless as life can be in its various subtractions, it is also staggeringly beautiful.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I’d not written much in the twenty years before 2007—was very busy practicing law, raising three kids and then, when one turned out to have autism, with volunteer work and grassroots political organization for kids with learning disorders. So except for one class I took in my forties, my study and practice of poetry really waned for about thirty years. The year I turned fifty I signed up for a writing class at a local bookstore and from that point on it was like turning on a spigot. It did not take long for me to figure out that if I wanted to grow as a poet I had to read like my life depended on it—every second I could—to make up for all those lost years when I was not reading poetry. I had not read much past Yeats, so there was a lot of catching up to do! That was the entire rationale for deciding to pursue my MFA—and with Warren Wilson, because I’d heard theirs was the most rigorous reading curriculum among the low-res programs. But to answer your question, I was probably at the time this poem was written reading poets that my teachers in various workshops were suggesting to me: Louis Simpson and Sharon Olds are two that come to mind.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Someone who is willing to do a bit of work, who appreciates complexity and layering and who likes music in poetry. Someone who loves language the way I do.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I am part on an online group and also an in-person group that trades one poem a month. I tend to use these groups as a way to vet poems that I know have problems, that I am stuck on and need some ideas for solving the problem. Very often I do not follow the advice given to me in these settings, but the questions raised get me thinking in ways that are fresh and can lead to me solving the problem on my own. The vast majority of my poems, though, begin and end in the solitude of my desk. Like all poets in workshop, I’ve had the experience of one group hating a poem while a second group loves it, or of having a poem thoroughly dissed in workshop only to come home and find some editor’s acceptance of it in the mail. This has taught me that most poetry criticism is highly subjective and that the point is to develop that inner voice that tells you yes, yes, you’ve got it, or rather, no, this one is just not happening.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
It is less structured than most of my poems, especially my more recent ones, many of which reflect a recent obsession with form and a preference for extreme brevity.
What is American about this poem?
Well, it is specifically set in two places in America—Altoona, in the Allegheny Mountains of western Pennsylvania and Marin County, near San Francisco, California, and it mentions others—Kansas, the Midwest. To some extent, it recounts the classic historic American impulse to push westward. The poem also incorporates elements of popular culture—Velveeta cheese, The Wizard of Oz, back porches.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
It feels finished to me. Every now and then I may tinker a word here and there, but by and large it says what I wanted it to and is a very fun poem to read to an audience—the line about Velveeta versus brie usually elicits a laugh and so is a good set up for the lines that follow.