Rebecca Foust’s books include The Unexploded Ordnance Bin (2018 Swan Scythe Press Chapbook Award) and Paradise Drive (Press 53 Poetry Award), reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, Washington Review of Books, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere and in literary journals including the Georgia, Harvard, and Hudson Reviews. Recognitions include the CP Cavafy and James Hearst poetry prizes, and fellowships from The Frost Place, Hedgebrook, MacDowell, and Sewanee. Foust was Marin County Poet Laureate in 2017-19 and works now as poetry editor for Women’s Voices for Change, an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine, and co-producer of a new series about poetry for Marin TV, Rising Voices.
Jon Riccio: We meet again—your Volta blog interview was one of my earliest. Congratulations on The Unexploded Ordnance Bin being named Swan Scythe’s 2018 Chapbook Award winner. The work contains twenty-nine poems in three sections, in addition to the prologue, “Only,” that unfolds “In a room with green walls” where your son is born. We’re given both scope and stakes in the space of three lines: “The cord was torn / too soon, so they cut off / his head to save his heart.” I experienced The Unexploded Ordnance Bin—listed by Entropy as one of 2019’s best poetry collections—on a larger-than-chapbook scale, though the length is forty-five pages minus front and back information. You address autism, border crises, martyrdom, and transgender identity, each topic enough to warrant a manuscript of its own. How did these elements arrive at their current incarnation?
Rebecca Foust: Thanks, Jon. I loved that Volta blog interview and am so pleased to be working with you again. The poems in TUOB pretty much chronicle my current obsessions—encapsulated in your list—since my last full-length book came out in 2015. The big event in that timeframe was the 2016 election, which threw a lot of my ongoing issues into greater relief and urgency, as what I thought of as purely personal concerns suddenly were revealed to be highly political. Many of the poems in the chapbook are also in my current full-length manuscript now making the rounds to find a publisher. Basically, the elements you list are what has preoccupied me for the past few years.
JR: “Autism” opens steeped in superstitions of “cast salt,” “first steps under ladders,” and a broken mirror. It pivots to the list of items found in the son’s room, a motherboard and rusted lock among them. The catalog leads to the realization that
In a less amber time still illiterate
in entrails, stirred ash, and bones
of small birds, she’d have tipped it all
into the trash. But she’s seen these things aligned
to make a jeweled matrix, heard them
sung to under the modem’s hum.
How would you describe augury poetics? What factor does it play in The Unexploded Ordnance Bin?
RF: I’m not familiar with the term “augury poetics,” but I’ll take a guess at its meaning. If augury is divination from the flight of birds, then augury poetics must be poetry that uses or refers to omens as a way of predicting the future. It’s interesting that you bring this up, because this poem (now titled “Autism”) was in fact called “Augury” for a long time, right up until its inclusion in the manuscript. This poem is less about predicting the future, though, than it is about looking back and realizing that the signs then for predicting the future (what is now the present and the past) were there all around the speaker, who could not see them. There is also a kind of nature v. nurture discussion in the poem, with the family “totem” meant to capture nature (gene pool) and nurture represented as the kind of environment that makes expression of autism more likely.
The main thrust of the poem is the speaker—a mother—looking back and realizing that her youthful attitude towards things like superstitions—and having children—was naïve and cavalier, even blind, and that maybe she should have paid more attention. Not just to the warning signs of the possibility of autism in the family, but also in the larger sense of having respect for a greater power, for things beyond our control or even comprehension. Or maybe there is no “should” here, just the recognition that time teaches us all that we are less free than we believe we are when we are young.
JR: The titular poem describes a hollow munitions shell as “snub-nosed & finned,” aquatic-ness diluting but not eradicating the danger of your son finding a bomb instead of an oceanside clam. You compare the gene that causes autism to the aforementioned weapon, “first words / blown off & away.” You write of your “own caution,” granting it a firepower that leads “to the same spectacular / dismemberment of the future.” Explosion metaphor braces the celestial by poem’s end—
as if it weren’t going to blow all to hell
any second all those bright dreams
lit up like tracer fire
over the dark dunes like the Perseids
only not at all like the Perseids
How does your work walk the line between shrapnel and literary meteor shower?
RF: That’s an interesting question. If my work does walk that tightrope, then I am pleased. I strive to make my poems edgy and fierce (like shrapnel) and also, when possible, to be abundant and luminous and beautiful (like that meteor shower). I’m with Phil Ochs who said that beauty is the last and best form of protest in an irredeemably ugly world. And I believe that poetry can and should cut us, should penetrate our shells the way Kafka said poetry can function like an ice-ax to access the frozen lake of the human heart.
I also value the use of deflationary humor in poems and wanted to capture the peculiar cartoon-like quality of that bomb—for there was a real bomb, really found by my son. I hope the poem captures a tension I experienced then, between understanding that the thing was lethal at the same time that I could not quite take it seriously. Plenty of people said I was being overprotective when I insisted on taking it away from my son. Mantlepieces at the Cape still display artifacts like this, and until recently you could easily buy dud grenades at local souvenir shops. Our culture, partly through the depiction of weapons on TV and in video games, has taught us to view weapons as toys, and I wanted that to come across in the poem.
JR: I loved your foray into Dungeons & Dragons with “Like Birders” and its comparison of role-playing gamers to those whose leisure time favors avian. Imagination lands the adventurers
on a grid penciled on butcher paper. Eyes closed, each boy
plots his plan for survival.
Friends drowned in frozen fens, the enemy everywhere hidden,
and burned is the grail and the ark,
Rites of dice-thrown passage wend past “beak sizes and shapes”; concealed foes harken back to the autism gene. The poem appears after “Head Injury Odyssey’s” Homeric allusions, a great example of intra-manuscript dialogue shifting from myth to magic. How much of your aesthetic is influenced by fantasy?
RF: I’m so happy you caught that allusion! I’ve always loved Science Fiction and Fantasy—Ursula Le Guin, Judith Butler, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, and Margaret Atwood come to mind here, and I was thrilled when I discovered Le Guin’s entry in the house diary of the cottage I occupied at Hedgebrook last year. The bulk of my exposure to fantasy now is through my kids, who are avid fans. They regularly DM at Dungeons & Dragons (and Magic) events, and we hosted a lot of those games at our house when they were young—not the online version, but the version where players sit on the floor around a big grid. Those games are heroic quests in the Odyssey mold and are incredibly creative. At their best they represent a new kind of literature, one that draws from some of the same impulses as those that led Homer to write his epic. I like the way the game sees the world as a place filled with magic and myth and allows players to take on roles that transcend the limitations of their daily lives. I also very much appreciate the way they provide a way to socialize for people who are maybe not so comfortable doing that in more conventional ways. One hope for the poem was to communicate genuine admiration and respect for another way of seeing and being in the world. The poem originally came with a note that reminded readers that advocates on the autism spectrum flip the paradigm, seeing us “neurotypicals” as the ones who are limited and challenged by our narrow imaginations and inability to hyper-focus on our interests, but the note did not make it into the book.
JR: Section one closes with a villanelle, “First Gratitude.” A second villanelle, “Requiem Mass for the Yuma Fourteen” marks the antepenultimate poem of section two. I find this one of the hardest forms to write, more than the sestina, though your villanelles are eloquently nuanced. “First Gratitude’s” varying sentence lengths provide enough momentum so that the repetition is barely noticeable. “Requiem Mass for the Yuma Fourteen’s” upticks in diction—seraphim, delirium, and requiem aeternam—contrast with the more general home, sun, and rain. There may be others, but the last collection I remember with two villanelles is Mark Strand’s Blizzard of One; he’s in good company. Were the villanelle’s rules challenge or permit? Is this indicative of form’s place in poetry of the 2020’s?
RF: Those rules were much more permission than challenge. I love writing in form and especially enjoy repeating forms like the villanelle. For one thing, form makes it easier for me to tackle difficult emotional subjects. For another, it alleviates the terror of the blank page. With a villanelle, if you have a really good rhyming couplet, then a good bit of your poem is already written. But what I like best about form is the way it frees me from the strictures of rational thought. I was trained as a lawyer and tend to think logically, sequentially, and within safe bounds. Searching for a good rhyming word opens the field and makes me consider wildness I’d never otherwise have considered. I like to say that form unhooks the carbineer of rational thought, freeing the mind to moving in unexpected and sometimes risky directions.
Form is enjoying a renaissance in contemporary poetry. Terrence Hayes and Diane Seuss are just two examples of poets writing in form now. I’m developing a formal poetry thread for the 2020 Frost Place Seminar on Poetry run by Patrick Donnelly and so have been asking poets about use of form in their own practices. For a long time, form was considered fusty and irrelevant and, worse, one of the Master’s tools used to build and protect his house. It seems to me that poets are much more open to writing (or at least learning about) form than they were just ten years ago.
JR: The second stanza of “Miguel” reminds us that in Hitler’s time your son “might have worn the black badge / of the mentally impaired and been euthanized.” The third stanza jumps to present-era ICE Deportation Centers in adjacent towns, segueing once more to Nazi Germany where “the villagers / dig a mass grave while soldiers stand guard.” You place yourself among them, “fingers [curled] around something hard / and unforgiving as I am handed the spade / and made to dig.” What facets of your poems serve as resistance acts?
RF: I like to think of all my poems as resistance acts, and in a way they are, resisting the muteness and submission that was, before poetry, my way of being in the world. I wrote this poem after attending a panel on political poetry at Marin Poetry Center. Someone asked a panelist—Javier Zamora—what he would like to see from non-immigrant poets who write about immigration issues, and his response was that he would like, as a starting point, to see such poets owning up to our responsibility and privilege. This poem was my attempt to own responsibility for the atrocities being committed now by ICE and the current administration. I’d grown up thinking of my dad, a medic for US troops who liberated Dachau, as one of the good guys, even a hero, and so by extension assumed I was also one of the good guys. But in the poem, the speaker comes to understand that she is part of and a continuing agent of the problem. At Dachau, the soldiers were so appalled by what they saw that they rounded up local villagers and made them help dig the graves. How different is that from living, as I do, under the shadow of nearby Alcatraz or in proximity to ICE Detention Centers and to apartments where children keep go bags packed in anticipation of ICE raids? Easier said than done, I know, but it feels like we all need to hold the spades necessary to dig those mass graves.
JR: You mentored Javier Zamora whose Unaccompanied (2017) details his leaving El Salvador for the United States, sans family at age nine, along with several false starts that ended in apprehension—“green-striped trucks surrounded us and our empty bottles / rattled. When the trucks left, a cold cell swallowed us (Zamora, “Saguaros”). Zamora’s family are the dedicatees to “Remembrance of Things Past.” The poem’s couplet construction of longer lines atop shorter ones made me think of planks to be walked, no doubt my mind’s way of connecting physical and emotional perils associated with border-crossing narratives. You write
The odor that evokes
his childhood, he says, is no madeleine
but instead a rich stew
of sweat, shit, and vomit. Struck match
and spilled gasoline.
The sensory recall focuses on what critic David Perkins refers to as the creatural, a medieval term “to characterize contemporary verse because it emphasizes man’s vulnerable and suffering body and mortality.”[i] If you wrote a manifesto on the creatural’s relevance to today’s political landscape, what would you say in the opening paragraph?
RF: The idea of writing a manifesto on anything is paralyzing to me—the longer I live, the less convicted I feel about just about anything. But I do believe very strongly that the best poetry is rooted in bodily experience. We experience reality through our bodies and senses, and also truth, to the extent that it is apprehensible. Suffering and death are two constants in an otherwise always-shifting reality, and so are perennially important to poetry.
JR: The epigraph of “Iconostasis” references “the YouTube examination of the body of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb, 13, tortured and killed by the Syrian government.” “Iconostasis” and “Flame,” which is for the Palestinian martyr Fatima Omar Mahmud al-Najar, adhere to the plank couplets discussed earlier. An image of “the gloved hand, // the pale, powdery fingers of a terrible angel” dominates “Iconostasis;” the black smoke at “Flame’s” end rises, each connoting ascendency or ascendant beings. Why is the relationship between poetry and martyrdom explored so frequently, and does it risk exploitation?
RF: I suppose that martyrdom draws writers’ interest for the same reason—a kind of prurience—that we rubberneck at disasters and car accidents; a fascination with horror, maybe. At its best it is a form of witness, and at its worst, it is a kind of sensationalism. To that I’d add the desire to understand why and how a person could get to the point where they could decide to destroy themselves. I know I write, often, as a way to understand or process difficult information. I can’t speak for others, why they write poems about this kind of subject matter. In this case, I ran across the video and was profoundly disturbed by it, and my natural response to something like this is to write about it. Not necessarily to write a publishable poem or even one I want to share. Just write to help me understand what happened and express what I feel about it, perhaps a way to expiate the pain I feel.
Your second question is important, not just for this time in writing in which people are paying more attention than before to who gets to tell what stories, but also for me personally, since many of my poems are directly inspired by people I know and love. I write a lot of poems, for example, about having a son on the autism spectrum. Any time we write about the experience of others we risk exploitation, the more so when we write about events and actions—like martyrdom—that enflame our passions. My feeling is that no subject—not a single one—is off limits for writing. When you decide what writing to share, though, you have to be sensitive to the dangers of exploitation. The consensus seems to be that what matters is how good a job the poet does; really well-wrought writing seems to get a pass from charges of exploitation. And how good a job a poet does, aside from using “sensitivity” and “inclusivity” readers to check over the work, is a function of being well informed about the subject, which can come from research as well as from direct, personal experience.
JR: Section three’s “dolphin,” “valentine,” and “free” encapsulate your trans daughter’s journey, ultimately lensed as
miraculous like limb regeneration or Lady Lazarus
less reborn than restored
to the whole & intact if not before
Similar to “Only,” the cord in “free” offers thematic significance, “begun when they cut her umbilicus” and “a new child born / when s/he severed family / (specifically me).” Here, motif alongside Huxley and Plath demonstrates literature’s capacity to nullify gender stasis. Have you considered how each poem’s use of white space aids in this? As well, what is the function of “free’s” parentheticals?
RF: I was very conscious of using the white space in “Only” and in “free” to support those poems’ tone and meaning. Long dense lines could not have captured the feeling I wanted, something fragile, vulnerable, and almost ethereal, a sense of loss not of what is or was lost so much as of what could have been, a sense of thwarted potential and assassinated expectations. Sometimes with words less is more, and this is often the case when we are trying to express emotions like grief.
The parentheticals in “free” were inspired by use of that device in Bishop’s “One Art” and Justice’s “Psalm and Lament”—a more private place within the poem to express its most dangerous and honest feelings.
JR: The Unexploded Ordnance Bin concludes with technology and cabbage soup. “Second Gratitude” tells us that you’ve deciphered Pandora as a way to retrieve music gone for years, while you confess to your daughter
you are loved with all I have, recklessly,
and with abandon, loved the way the cabbage
in my garden near-inverts itself, splayed
to catch each last ray of sun.
What do the qualities of inversion and return bring to your collection?
RF: With that cabbage image, I was trying to express the abject quality of parental love for a child: the feeling is instinctive, involuntary, and inexorable and involves a great deal of vulnerability, of laying yourself open. Not just to receive the sun but also just exposing yourself to predators, to pain, to too much rain. I was literally looking at this winter cabbage in my garden and thinking about its extreme open-ness, how it splayed its leaves wide to get as much sun as it could, and how that action rendered the plant so very vulnerable—a frost that night would have killed it. At the same time, I noticed that while the outer leaves were relaxed and open this way, the sun they were collecting was going into the plant, into its heart, a tight and dense knot of green. I noticed this and was moved by it for several days, maybe weeks, before the idea for the poem came.
Inversion, or the act of turning yourself inside out—this happens anytime you write a poem in which the personal stakes are high. People call it different things—being willing to “bare your soul” or “open a vein,” but it transcends what is (often pejoratively) called confessionalism. It’s more a willingness to let what is normally on the inside come to the outside. Not necessarily so others can see it. We all know the power of saying things aloud, of giving expression to silence, and this power exists whether or not there is anyone else in the room. I guess in this collection it takes the form of being willing to say things not considered nice or polite or even always politically or socially correct. I strive to be honest in my writing, to say what I feel regardless of how others receive it, and that involves a psychological inversion, because my nature and lifelong training, as a woman, is to keep things close.
I’m also thinking here of inversion as a technique for subverting expectations, a quality of surprise that I value in poems.
Return is important to my writing generally. At the level of style, I love repeating forms, love what happens when a sound or line returns, whether in the form of a rhyme or a refrain or parallel construction, whatever. Return creates opportunity for recognition, something Aristotle talked about in his Poetics and for readers a source of pure joy. For me, repetition and return leading to recognition is where you find the power and magic of poetry. Thematically speaking, return is important to my work as well, the notion that life is cyclical and does, through happening, create a kind of pattern, even if it is one that we cannot always see. On a personal level, one of the biggest events in my life has been the literal and metaphorical journey from my roots in rural Pennsylvania to where I live now in northern California. My twin brother and I were the first in our family to graduate from college, and that just changed everything. But, my family still lives there and I still go back, often, re-enacting that journey in reverse. My poetry makes that journey as well.
Jon Riccio serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review. A past Poetry Center digital projects intern, recent work appears in Anti-Heroin Chic, Gris-Gris, Inverted Syntax, and Oxidant|Engine, among others.
[i] Doris L. Eder, “From High Modernism to Postmodernism.” https://www.vqronline.org/high-modernism-postmodernism.