Barbara Claire Freeman interviews Graham Foust

Photo 3Graham Foust lives and works in Denver. His latest books are To Anacreon in Heaven and Other Poems (Flood Editions, 2013) and In Time’s Rift (Wave Books, 2012), a co-translation, with Samuel Frederick, of Ernst Meister’s Im Zeitspalt.

Barbara Claire Freeman is a literary critic and professor of literature who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. She is the author of The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction (University of California Press, 1998, pbk. 2000), among many other works of literary theory and criticism. Formerly an Associate Professor of English at Harvard, she teaches creative writing and poetics in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley.

Incivilities, her first collection of poems, was published by Counterpath Press in November, 2009; a chapbook, St. Ursula’s Silence, was published by Instance Press in 2010. Selections from these collections won the Boston Review/Discovery Prize and the Language Exchange Prize. A second chapbook, titled #343, is forthcoming from Chapvelope Press. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Public Space, Agriculture Reader, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Denver Quarterly, Forklift, Ohio, Jacket 1, Lana Turner, Laurel Review, The Offending Adam, The Volta, Seattle Review, Volt, Washington Square, and Wave Composition, among others.

A poem by Graham Foust is included in the interview.

Barbara Claire Freeman: You’ve recently published a new collection of poems titled To Anacreon In Heaven And Other Poems and readers who are familiar with your previous books may be in for a surprise. Other collections, such as A Mouth In California and Necessary Strangers tend toward, if they don’t indeed exemplify, “the minimal”: they’re composed primarily of short poems, short lines, short-ish words. This new book, however, is very different. It’s a collection of poems written in long lines (or sentences) and, with the exception of the one-line poem titled “Sonnet” and a handful of others, most of the poems are quite long. “To Anacreon in Heaven,” for example, is fifty-three pages and “To Graham Foust on the Morning of his Fortieth Birthday” spans twenty-eight. What’s up?

Graham Foust: At least a couple of things were up. (I’m back to writing shorter, more traditionally lineated poems now, so I’m having to think back a bit here…) First, I’ve always had an infatuation with the concept (and the deployment) of the sentence, which in turn led me to teach a couple of graduate courses on the subject alongside the many composition courses I taught while at Saint Mary’s College of California. (When I teach composition, I teach grammar and mechanics—that’s the course’s “theme,” which is as it should be, I think.) We read (and diagrammed!) a lot of fantastic sentences, and so for a few years I was thinking quite a lot about the music and meaning that can be achieved by way of the sentence and not so much about how to break the line, which is something I’d been used to thinking about alongside or in relation to sentences. (Obviously, most of my earlier poems are also “in sentences,” but they also make use of the line.) At any rate, the music of this latest book is generated by sentences and the spaces between them. That said, I suppose it’s also the case that one could see each sentence as a stanza—that certainly would seem the case if one simply looked at the poems without reading them, given that there’s a space between each of the sentences—but I think of, say, “To Graham Foust on The Morning of His Fortieth Birthday” as a stichic poem, not a stanzaic poem. But perhaps that’s cheating a bit—wouldn’t a stichic prose poem be one in which all the sentences were squashed together in a single paragraph? That seems better in theory than in practice I guess, at least with regard to these poems…

Second, I think I just got tired of writing little poems with relatively clipped lines, so I decided (after a long period of not really writing anything at all) to just try something completely different. That I had gotten very, very tired of reading poetry, generally, and had both returned to and discovered a lot of terrific prose writers (Sir Thomas Browne, Jeremy Taylor, William Gass, Renata Adler, Leonard Michaels, Diane Williams, etc., etc.) was probably also the reason for such a drastic change.

It’s funny—I began writing this stuff when I was away at a writers’ colony—the first and only time I’d every done such a thing—and the minute I arrived there, I began to worry intensely about absolutely everything: how was my family getting along, what was the “proper” use of all this free time, exactly how much euchre can one play on the computer without going insane, etc., etc. So maybe not having to worry about line breaks was just an attempt to at least not worry about one thing…

BCF: I’m also keen to know which poem was written first? I’m asking because “To Anacreon in Heaven” seems a bit different from the other poems, both in terms of the kinds of music it creates and in terms of its tone. To my ear its sentences bear more stress than I’m used to hearing in your work; they also create rhythms (or variations in duration and pace) that I haunt me differently than many of your other poems: sonic rather than syntactic patterns keep me re-re-reading. Was the title poem the precursor to the collection? Does it function as a kind of template? I’d also love to know if you diagrammed or scanned any of the sentences from which these poems are made, and if so to what end?

GF: The first poem I wrote in this collection was actually “The Only Other Life Then,” which I left out of A Mouth in California. I then wrote the title poem, then “To Graham Foust on the Morning of His Fortieth Birthday,” then “Ten Notes to the Muse,” and then the shorter poems. The poems got smaller as I kept using the form, and then they disappeared. Though the number eleven continues to be important. The last half of the title poem is in eleven-sentence sections, and the new book I’m working on makes use of an eleven-syllable line. I blame Spinal Tap.

I am an obsessive scanner of my own poems, so yes, every sentence got that treatment. Oddly, though, I don’t remember ever diagramming any of them, but I definitely diagrammed the sentences of others and then stole ideas from those diagrams. “The Only Other Life Then,” for instance, is heavily based on the sentence structures in the last paragraph or so of a short story in David Gilbert’s book Remote Feed.

BCF: Before I switch topics: is there anything else you’d like readers to know about this wonderful new book?

GF: I think readers may end up knowing more about it than I do. Or I hope that’s the case. And if it is the case, I hope they tell me what it is they know.

BCF: I’d like to circle back to your comments about scansion, but this time in connection with “pedagogy” as well as poetry writing. You just said you’re an “obsessive scanner,” and I’m wondering if by scansion you mean simply counting stresses per line and/or breaking a line into feet and examining its accent patterns and syllables? Why is this necessary to your practice as a poet? And, I’d wager, to your practice as a teacher of poetry? I’d love to hear your thoughts about teaching scansion: for example, if and/or when, in the best of all possible worlds, it should (or shouldn’t) be taught? Do you scan poems in your workshops? If so, are they poems written by your students, poems the class is reading together, or both?

GF: Yes, counting stresses, looking at stress patterns, counting syllables, all of it. It’s a necessary part of my practice because I’ve not given up on the idea of poetry as patterned language. Mind you, this isn’t something I do as I’m writing, really, but something I do when I have what I would consider to be a solid draft of a poem in front of me. And it’s not something I do when I first encounter a given poem by someone else, but rather something I do after I’ve made my way through a poem several times and determined it to be of interest to me as an object of study. If the poem impresses me and I have the sense that I can learn something from it, then I’ll start to take it apart. If it doesn’t impress me, I don’t feel the need to bother. No need to spend the time scanning a poem only to come away saying, “Yep, just as I suspected: another pile of vague, groovy images…”

In the best of all possible worlds prosody should be taught in any introduction to poetry class in, say, junior high (just as diagramming a sentence should be taught in any introductory class on prose composition). Given that we don’t live in that best world, I teach it when I can and as necessary at the graduate level, and when I teach undergraduate intro courses I make sure to talk about prosody at the beginning of the course. I should say, too, that I consider scansion a kind of “gateway” activity with regard to looking closely at the structures of literature. Obviously, scanning a section of Stein’s Tender Buttons is probably less useful than diagramming its sentences; and scanning a section of Clark Coolidge’s Space is often not even possible. And yet those are books that really start to dehisce when one takes a hard look at how they’re built. I would argue that if a book doesn’t reward study, it’s probably not a very good book, but I’d also argue that the range of works that reward study is stylistically quite a vast one. Clark Coolidge and, say, George Herbert are vastly different poets, and yet one can spend a great deal of time with certain of their poems and learn much. Some students and I just recently took apart Eliza Griswold’s “Epithalamium” and Brian Young’s “Before Daybreak”—we found we had a lot to talk about.

I do scan student poems for workshops if I think they’re worth scanning, and I’ll sometimes give little talks on prosody with regard to other poems that we’ve read. I find that the backgrounds of workshop participants often vary quite a bit, both within the class and from year to year. Sometimes, my workshops are populated by students who have a pretty good grasp of how to scan a poem; at other times, my class is the first they’ve heard of such a thing. In my experience, the people who are most resistant to thinking about prosody are often those who think of themselves as already deeply involved with poetry in some way, while those who really seem to appreciate it the most are those who are relatively new to poetry.

I often wonder if my interest in this sort of thing has something to do with having lived with a handful of very serious ceramicists for a couple of years when I was an undergraduate. They sat around and talked about clay and glazes, about how different kinds of kilns worked, etc. I really envied that deep involvement with materials and methods, and I guess I wanted to have the same relationship to words and sentences that they did to dirt and fire.

BCF: Any thoughts about the pros or cons of trying to diagram a sentence from a poem such as “Clepsydra”? I’m wondering what poets might learn from such a practice, or if it’s even doable…

GF: Obviously certain sentences from that poem would be very difficult to diagram, and I should say that when I do this sort of thing in a classroom, it’s a very controlled environment. That is, we use a textbook called Doing Grammar that I find very useful, along with Virginia Tufte’s book Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. And then we sort of do what we can from there given whatever else we’re reading. But I don’t know that I would necessarily spring “Clepsydra” on them… The point isn’t to get students to be able to accurately diagram a sentence from Proust—as in the famous poster that hangs in the halls of many English departments—but rather to help students to become more familiar with the structure of their language, which in turn allows them to talk more accurately about what they’re doing (or not) when they write.

That said, the poem’s first sentence—“Hasn’t the sky?”—is worth looking at as a sentence. Hasn’t the sky what? Hasn’t it a job to do? Hasn’t it been there before? Lots of possibilities here, because it’s missing something, a direct object, which would be, say, “clouds” in the sentence “Hasn’t the sky clouds?” And yet this sort of sentence, even though it’s a jarring beginning for a poem, would be a perfectly acceptable one in everyday speech. Think about how common it would be to reply “Hasn’t she?” to someone saying “Your daughter’s gotten taller in the last couple of months.” “Gotten taller” is understood in the reply, so there’s no need to say it, but there’s also no real need to ask a question in this case—the question, which doesn’t at all function as a question, simply indicates strong agreement with the statement to which it replies. Looking at sentences this way can clue us in to what we do with grammar and syntax when we talk to each other, and, of course, Ashbery is a master at weaving our everyday speech into poems, which are something other than everyday speech.

BCF: Thanks. Your students are lucky! Before discussing “9/10/11,” I wonder if there is any question I haven’t asked that you wish I had—whether or not you choose to answer it.

GF: I can’t think of a question that I wish you’d asked, but there are several I’m very glad you didn’t! (I always dread any sort of “desert island” question, for instance.)

BCF: Please explain what a “desert island” question is, as I’m really in the dark here. Do you mean something like: “What books would you bring with… ,” for example?

GF: Yes, that sort of thing. The difficulty of the question often forces people to show off their eclectic tastes instead of saying how they’d deal with total loneliness. I would think I’d be no less likely to succumb to this tendency.

BCF: Regarding “9/10/11”: I love the title (could you say something about why you chose this sequence of numbers which of course is also a date?) and the way you couple that great Stevens reference with excellent tequila (substituting the “Patrón” for “pale Ramon”?). You manage to keep so many hats in the air at once: cadence, the topical and colloquial, political, cultural, and literary history: the poem keeps opening the possibility of many possibilities. It would be ridiculous to ask “how do you do it?” So instead I hope you’ll say something about this poem’s generation, prosody, restraints used while writing (if any), revision, and if it’s part of a current project.

(This poem was previously printed in issue 1 of Better Magazine.)


Proximity isn’t necessarily
possibility—for example, while I
could eat my teeth, I could never say them, nor
could I say rain inscribes this page, that pavement—
but here in the marked-down hum of broken meaning
can we agree on peace’s casualties?
A decade of what I made of clarity:
idea causes pain that builds brains of its own.
Only numbers mean anything or nothing.
Oh! Blessed rage for comfort, a fifth of Patrón.
And if I curse the world’s useful miseries,
can I tell you, too, how fond I am of Earth
upon deboarding the redeye from New York
to San Francisco after jokes in my sleep,
as each sunlit minute unquietly runs
itself out, the clouds too few to have to count,
the horizon post-fuck-up untouchable?
That I always almost don’t get what I want
makes me crazy; would make me what, upper crust
in some parts of history, but never now,
when I make rent, or way back when, when I can’t.
I can say rain makes the pavement look supple—
a decade of what I thought was clarity:
ten short years of that and then actual bells.
To think to not believe I was ever here’s
the cost of my living, the rickety thing.
Health might be my having only felt alive.

GF: The poem is written in 11-syllable lines, as have all the poems I’ve been writing for the last couple of years or so. It’s also the result of a conversation with a friend about the relationship between politics, history, and poetry. I always find it difficult to articulate—in prose or speech—a definitive position on that sort of question: it’s always seemed to me that poetry itself is sometimes the best articulation of its relationship to those things, even if it’s not really a solution to historical or political problems. The poem is “set” on the day before the 10th anniversary of the events of 9/11/01. Like any poem, I suppose, it’s an attempt to trace some sort of contour of meaning in the face of the pressure of the meaningless, a pressure that seems to be increasing all the time, given that we live in such accelerated circumstances. (I think it’s safe to say that the world that my children will come to inhabit will not much resemble the world I lived in when I was a child—100 years ago, it was understood that the basic structure of one’s children’s lives would be relatively the same as one’s own.) The title is really just a figure for malleability—as a series of numbers it’s pretty definitive and unsubjective (they are numbers that are in the right order), but as a date, it takes on meaning, though not as “much” meaning as the day after (which would be symmetry of a different kind in the form of an anniversary). Anyway, I try not to explain too much about these sorts of things—the poem is either interesting to the reader or it’s not…

BCF: Thanks, Graham.