Richard Foerster Interview, with Kaite Hillenbrand
Editor-in-Chief Ken Robidoux said you told him that you’ve battled some doubt at this point in your career about becoming too old school or over-the-hill as a poet. Ken wrote, “I found it compelling to hear that level of honesty from someone who has spent a lifetime developing a clear, fluidic working relationship with an artistic genre. Your work is still quite obviously vital and engaging, but as someone who is also getting older every year I know your concerns warrant some consideration. What is the root of your concern? In what ways do you think age and diminished engagement with contemporary trends in poetry relate to relevancy, and how much does that work its way into your thought process as you prepare to launch another collection?”
I suppose I’m insecure as a poet since I work in relative isolation. I seldom share drafts of my poems with writer-friends for the purpose of feedback, and so I operate by gut instinct when judging whether a poem is finished or any good by my aesthetic standards. When I send poems out to magazines it is generally with a mixture of confidence and trepidation as to their artistic worth. If they are rejected by an editor whom I admire and respect, I console myself knowing that a certain degree of self-doubt is healthy if it leads to reassessment and/or revision and new resolve. And when a poem is accepted, I must confess, my doubts may linger despite the obvious satisfaction from knowing that someone finds value in the words I’ve cobbled together. After all, there’s always someone out there, perhaps thirty years your junior, who you think writes better, more masterfully, more dazzlingly, or with greater depth of experience and insight. Faced with that, how is it possible to grow and maintain faith in one’s own work over a course of decades without a chronic case of self-doubt? An exuberantly confident ego would answer Yes, forge ahead, but even Whitman expresses self-doubt and frustration; see “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” And like Emily Dickinson, most poets “dwell in uncertainty” even though it is not always a comfortable house to inhabit.
I suppose another aspect of my sense of diminished engagement, as you put it, is that, by choice or happenstance, I am not an academic, I am not immersed in a livelihood that requires daily engagement with colleagues and students, a livelihood that demands participation in a public arena where exposure to the latest literary trends is an integral part of one’s occupation. Does that put me at a disadvantage as a poet? Not to be part of a community or network? To be in an outer orbit, far from the hot center of literary activity? Perhaps—if I were to view my role as a poet solely in terms of “career.” But there’s no escaping the feeling I have that my style of writing might be judged by the younger generation as passé. That does trouble me, though I’m not sure why it should since nowadays I write primarily to please myself, irrespective of current literary trends. Perhaps I always have. I write as I am best able and hope the poems find favor with readers. I strive for beauty; I strive for musical form. I explore, almost obsessively, the same subjects book after book: love and loss, the helplessness of desire, the conundrum of family, the soul in conflict with itself, the immanence that resonates within Nature, the salvations of art, the juncture between sexuality and spirituality. And, of course, death. There’s always that, especially as I grow older.
After the loss of two partners to cancer, and writing about it in two books, I thought I had exhausted the subject of death. In 2008 I found myself blissfully on the threshold of a new relationship and a new house. With River Road, the new book, I initially planned to explore “being happily in love,” but I quickly discovered that the subject of love in the absence of conflict would be, well, sappy. And so I allowed my old concerns to come back into play. As the book evolved poem by poem, I realized I needed the speaker to exhibit a vulnerability that would allow him to be open to the possibility of love and at the same time prevent him from easily surrendering to it. How’s that for dwelling in uncertainty? The book finally settled into two sections. In the first, which includes the five poems you are publishing here, the speaker is constantly beating himself up; he is consumed not just by the absences he perceives in his life but also by a nagging awareness of moral failures. He seeks “clarity in open confusion.” He needs to come to terms with the ever-presence of death.
A decade ago, my friend and mentor Irene McKinney led a workshop at a small conference I attended. She reminded us to feel grateful because we were all lucky to be there, no matter what our circumstances were. Some people, she said, never get to go to a writing conference, or even to write poetry at all. It was a humbling moment for me; I haven’t always realized my own luck. I adored Irene. She taught me a lot about what it is to be a writer and how to live as an artist. She had a cathedral-ceilinged room in her home, with an artisan-built wooden spiral staircase and a beautiful wall full of windows made from cheap porch doors. She taught me yoga poses with animal names in Ireland, where the lovely black scarf she’d tucked into her collar turned out to be a pair of pantyhose, which was, as she laughingly said when she pulled the crotch from under her shirt to show me, all she had with her to keep out the cold. I could go on and on. Would you share with us a mentor that deeply resonated with you?
That would be Sonia Raiziss, a fine poet who is perhaps better remembered as the editor of the independent literary magazine Chelsea from 1960 until her death in 1994. I joined the staff as “second assistant to the editor” in 1978 and would meet with Sonia regularly in her 31st-floor apartment on the Upper East Side with its astounding views of the Manhattan skyline. I recall she had a baby grand piano in the living room, which I never once heard played. In her cramped galley kitchen the oven served only as a breadbox. There was a vile feline named Julie that skulked about and would bite anyone who tried to pet her, even Sonia. One bedroom, crammed with file cabinets and boxes of past issues, served as Chelsea’s office. After the clerical chores of opening mail or proofreading galleys or fulfilling subscriptions or applying for grants, we’d retire to the living room for cocktails, which Sonia invariably served alongside a small bowl of peanuts and a dish of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. We’d gossip then about all things literary, but occasionally she’d ask for my opinions about manuscripts under serious consideration. Sonia’s tastes ran toward the extreme avant-garde; mine at the time were quasi-New Formalist. No surprise then that our opinions were seldom in sync. But she respected my judgments as I hers, and in time, I think, we both evolved into better editors. Though I was in my late twenties (Sonia would have been in her sixties), I’d had little success placing my poems in magazines, and my first book wouldn’t appear for another fourteen years. Now I realize how naive I was back then, still very much a “struggling writer” in search of a voice. When I joined the magazine, I was offered “no pay, just good literary company,” and that I certainly had with Sonia. Over my fifteen years of working with her, as I grew in editorial discernment, I was also learning to find my way as a writer. After her death I was startled to learn she had remembered me in her will. That bequest has allowed me a degree of financial freedom to live as a poet, albeit modestly.
Life requires major decisions, which require sacrifices. From reading your interview with Mia Avramut, it looks as if pursuing poetry came with its own set of sacrifices for you. Why did you choose poetry? What about it compelled and compels you?
In 1979, when I quit a promising editorial career at Prentice-Hall to have more unfettered time to pursue poetry, I knew I was risking financial stability. (Sonia’s gift eventually alleviated some of that precariousness, but did not eliminate it.) Still, je ne regrette rien.
I chose to pursue poetry because I sensed its compression of language would allow me a powerful means of introspection while simultaneously probing (to borrow Hopkins’ terms) the inscape and instress of things beyond the Self and connecting the dots between the two. Though I’m not denying that prose can accomplish the same tasks, to my mind and ear poetry is the more facile tool. I’ve always been drawn to the musicality of verse and the challenge of fashioning images into metaphor, of crafting lines and assembling them into stanzas. My poems distill who I am and what I know of the world.
Reading “Marley’s Bequests” made me think of how much of life we spend figuring out where to put things. That is, we constantly categorize things, giving ourselves at least a sense that there’s a logical system for understanding life and all of the things in it. When categorizing goes bad, we get things like racism and other damaging stereotypes. But categorizing things isn’t all bad; for example, we can categorize certain sets of circumstances as “dangerous” and use that to stay safe. Are there categories you see others using – or are there categorizations – that particularly upset you? Or that bring you joy? Or that make you laugh?
What I like about Dickens’s ghost is how he is, only now in death, fully aware of the sins of which he was oblivious in life. His Hell is the torment of eternal self-awareness. In assembling my list of Marley’s bequests I toyed with the cadences of a litany like the ones I used to hear chanted in church.
All categorization is a form of discrimination, whether positive or negative—e.g., a list of foods or behaviors that promote good health vs. those that damage it. The danger comes in not having the judgment or moral discernment to know one from the other. Is Homosexuality, for example, to be listed under the category of “Things Intrinsically Evil” as the Vatican and many others would have it? Such categorizations particularly upset me, especially when things like War and Capital Punishment can be excluded via catechistic circumambulation. Even categories like “Things That Bring Me Joy” can pose dangers: four martinis per night, dancing to thunderous music, driving at great speeds on country roads, tornado-chasing. For me, under the subcategory of Music, I’d list Mahler, Pettersson, Sibelius, Britten—it’d be a long list. Not a day goes by that I’m not tuned in to the joys of classical music. For “Things That Make Me Laugh” I’d list the names of all the TV comedians whose genius and timing have made me convulse uncontrollably with laughter since childhood: Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, Phyllis Diller, Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, Tim Conway. How’s that for marking me as “over the hill”!
As a poet, what brings you satisfaction? What brings you joy?
I’m privately satisfied when I’ve pushed a poem through the umpteenth draft and get a tingly feeling that alerts me it’s done, or when I can read a poem of mine from years ago and not wince. But what brings me the most joy is encountering a new poem or one previously unknown to me and getting goosebumps and being able to say, “Wow! I wish I had written that one.”
I love “August, Late.” The metaphors and visual imagery are stunning. The fear, though, is what reaches inside me. I spend too much time fearing endings to come, death and others. It seems to me that everyone must, at some point, have felt that fear and that the fear of endings must have shaped who all of us are. Do you think so? How has it shaped you?
I think the speaker in this poem is not so much fearful of endings to come as he is of negotiating his way through the present and avoiding the hazards of life, which of course includes death somewhere out there in the future. He’s perfectly aware of what the hornets’ nest truly is—a “chambered womb” humming with life—but he’s incapable of embracing only that truth.
Yes, our fears definitely shape who we are and set up all sorts of roadblocks to becoming the person we might have been. We may fear rejection, for example, and so won’t approach the person who might become the great love of our life. Or we fear sharks and so won’t go snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef and thus miss one of our planet’s incomparable beauties. I’m bewildered by friends who won’t try new foods for fear of an unpleasant taste, or who won’t sit in my garden for fear of mosquitoes.
The map of our lives includes so many roads not taken, for better or worse. Some fears, without doubt, are justified; most are irrational, based only on a kernel of fact or an unpleasant past experience. For me, I fear appearing awkward at social gatherings, and my fear guarantees that I probably will. Sometimes that fear makes me decline invitations altogether. I have a fear of dying a natural death without friends at my bedside, of making that passage without the comfort of those I love, without the ritual of leave-taking. Worse, I fear that they will be gone before me.
And yes, I am afraid of sharks, but when I sailed out from Port Douglas toward Opal Reef and the catamaran anchored a few hundred feet away in deep water and I looked down into that dark and felt my heart begin to race, I took a deep breath and jumped. Often that is how I must find my way into the next poem.
Already summer’s cast
a tattered shroud,
its uncountable green
the patch-quilt sky.
This season’s hornet
queen abides inside
the chambered womb
her spittle’s made
and anchored with a petiole.
Her court is globed
in chewed-up bark,
fibrous, weathered gray,
like a skull left dangling
by a shank of hair.
How well fear has taught me
not to see something wondrous,
a paper Chinese lantern,
or the floating ark it truly is,
sealed from storm, where cell
by cell, life enjoins itself
to life. My ominous beacon,
immutable moon, I sense
the constant sting of you,
your humming through the air.
an ampule of my amplest love, a hatbox for your hate,
a cash-box of compassion with hinges rusted shut,
a coffer for your cares, the war-chest of my wiles,
a portmanteau of profit/loss, the diptych of my life,
Canopic jars for jealousies, a locket long unopened
with initials I forget, a closet for your catamite,
a wardrobe for your whores, an iron safe of promises,
its combination lost, a canister of vices, a pillbox
for the poor, this gilded pyx of wafers for communion
with your pride, an iron-lidded casket with who knows
what inside, a ledger for lies, a case of broken vows,
a rucksack for your ridicule, my padlock on remorse,
this crate of insecurities, bankruptcies, misdeeds,
my finest luggage packed with everything you’ll need
They begin innocent enough, lowly
splayed leaves, like penitents with palms
upraised, held wide less in pleading
than in the surety grace will fall
from the undercanopy of the trees.
Tenderest catechumens, they absorb all
heaven and earth can afford, brim
like cisterns with spring rain, branch
and rise till each tip bears a jeweled flame.
If you forgive how their zealotry shines
above a strangled light, how the heal-all
and ivies creep withering in their shade,
praise this gardeners’ bane—how the blooms
are threaded like lanterns hung for a feast,
tiny cornucopias where hawk moths
and hummingbirds sip through summer
and in the slant-lit hour of dim blue light
pulse like harbingers of frenzied nights,
then fade, swelling day by day to pods—
so seeded and sow-heavy, so tripwire taut,
no devotion you might harbor, no lover’s
most loving touch, no secret vow you’d whisper
should forestall the detonations that await you.
. . . as in the way negative space informs
a canvas, forces line and pigment toward
solider realities, beyond illusion—like oxygen,
taken for granted except when it is not there;
. . . as in this photo from ’49 after my sister’s
courthouse wedding, the name of the restaurant
unknown and thus made relevant to the whole:
the table in less than formal disarray, the festivity
over, and left for a waiter nowhere to be seen;
. . . or in the way the linen’s curtained folds confront
the lens to imply a stage set for a different drama,
the act already in progress, or nearly ended—
who can tell? The small party is posed behind
with faint smiles: the raven-haired wife, slim
at eighteen; the groom, swarthed even then
with shadows, his beard ever at 5 p.m. The childless
aunt who loved well, but never married, perches beside
our blond-tressed sister on the cusp of puberty,
bearing the hint of a Lana Turner-like future.
And Mother, vacantly perplexed, stares across
some permanent divide at the one who arrayed them
as if in haste: our aunt’s common-law spouse,
I learned five decades later and asked, “Then where
was Dad?” “At home, because he thought I’d been
knocked up”—with the boy she bore in refutation
a full year later. Unseen within the crumpling
of these stories—like a crumb enfolded
in the napkin my mother has propped
before her like a Walküre’s shield,
as if to bar all eyes from some unspoken
indignity and for all time deny further witness—
lay her son waiting absently to be born.
The strobe-blue flash
of cruisers, like shrapnel
shot through the house,
became in time a bruise
inflicted faster than panic.
At the church front where
they’d parked, the black
gaps’ brief healings fell
between ticks of the clock.
Six dusk-dimmed cops
strode beneath obscene
applause of storm-wet leaves
along a turn in the road, toward
some unknown, something
they learn to look upon
unmoved. And so I let my supper
cool and stood a steady watch
through the nicotined dark,
sure in my knowing
the address and his name.
After the obit came rumors,
like fog with a kelp-laden tang—
how some urologist punctured
his bladder and piss rotted
a nerve. Then pills and depression.
Didn’t you see him using a cane?
I saw him hardly at all,
I confessed. And never with crutches,
or the rope, as they claimed,
or the ladder he kicked away.