Richard Foerster Interview, with John Hoppenthaler
You’re a contemporary rarity, a poet who does not make a living in academia. What have you done to make a living while writing? What do you see as the benefits and potential drawbacks of life beyond a university’s gates?
Thirty years ago, I was a language arts editor and department head at Prentice-Hall in New Jersey, commuting fifty miles each workday across the Tappan Zee Bridge from Westchester County. I had recently joined the staff of Chelsea after answering an ad in Coda (the forerunner to Poets & Writers Magazine) calling for a “second editorial assistant to the editor; no pay, but good literary company”; I was also beginning to see my poems appear with greater frequency in little magazines. After my boss became aware of these extracurricular activities, he called me into his office and presented me with an ultimatum: “Either you give up this poetry nonsense or you can forget about advancing your career with this company.” Perhaps time has already proved I was a fool back then to opt for poetry, but his disapproval was just the kind of nudge I felt I needed. I resigned that salaried job with its window office and secretary and began a sort of minstrel life as a freelance editor. My wife never fully approved of that career decision, and the marriage dissolved within a few years. After that, though freer, I felt more vulnerable than at any other time in my life, and yet I managed to pour my energies into poetry. At a critical time emotionally, good things started to happen: the “Discovery”/The Nation Award, a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony, the first acceptance of my work at Poetry, a new person in my life, my move to the coast of Maine to be with him, the eventual publication of my first book in 1992. Patience and persistence.
Over the years I have had the occasional gig as an adjunct professor teaching creative writing and since the early 90s have done desktop typesetting and design for small literary presses. I never pursued an MFA. I’ve lived by choice (or default) at the fringes of academe and the literary world and, in general, have managed to get by, sometimes quite comfortably. But in the wake of the recent economic recession, I’ve had a difficult struggle and seen most of my freelance opportunities evaporate. Since May I’ve been supplementing my income by working as a reservation clerk at a nearby resort hotel. And yet, for three decades I was able to set my own agenda, to travel the world (with the good fortune of several fellowships), and to complete six books of poems. In retrospect I can say I have accomplished most of what I set out to do. I’m at work on a seventh collection. If I had made other choices, I’m certain those books would be very different from what they are—or not exist at all.
I’ve always felt it is a trap to think that an academic career is the optimal or only choice for a poet. No doubt it can offer financial security and ample personal time in which to write during vacations and sabbaticals. There’s also the stimulus of being immersed in an intellectual environment where poetry is valued and ideas about it are nurtured and challenged. But does that environment guarantee the creation of poems that speak more effectively to the minds and hearts of those outside the college gates? I don’t think that argument can be made. Some of the most boring poets publishing today have college affiliations—and some of the most vibrant. Though you are right, John, to say that we on the outside are contemporary rarities, I’m grateful there are oncologists, department store clerks, undertakers, soldiers, and even underemployed editors who are contributing to the vital mix of American poetry. Ultimately, we each do what we can to survive while waiting for the next poem.
For many years, you were the Editor of Chelsea, a long-lived journal with a stellar reputation; later, you founded and edited, for a while, the Chautauqua Literary Journal. Could you tell us something of your career as an editor? The joys, the disappointments, the nitty gritty of it all?
Working at Chelsea was perhaps the greatest pleasure of my life in publishing. The staff was small, never more than four or five; we’d meet once a week at Sonia Raiziss’ 32nd-floor apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to tackle the various chores of producing a magazine that prided itself on its quirky independence. The magazine lasted fifty years; I was there for twenty-three of them, beginning as a second assistant to Sonia Raiziss and then serving as Editor after her death in 1994 till my departure in 2001.
Many people have an idealized image of editors ensconced in plush leather chairs, doing nothing more than passing judgment on manuscripts that then by some miracle of transmigration materialize on the printed page. At Chelsea, especially before computerization and the Internet, the editorial process began with a trip to the Cooper Station post office to stand in line at the call window to retrieve the bags of mail and schlep them back to the apartment; followed by the opening of envelopes; the logging of submissions; the reading, the rereading, and wavering over manuscripts; the acceptances and rejections; the drawing up of contracts; the attending to subscription renewals and other business; the grant-writing and handwringing; the copyediting and typesetting, the proofreading and layout, the finalizing of the cover and contributors notes; the managing of production and schedules; the bill-paying; the fretting over budgets; the updating and printing of mailing labels; the waiting for the magazine to arrive. Finally the boxes would appear on Sonia’s doorstep, twenty or more, and then we’d put aside our blue pencils and take up the X-Acto knife to release the better-than-fresh-bread aroma of the latest issue. That moment of satisfaction would quickly pass as we then stuffed the copies into envelopes, sorted them by ZIP code, and hauled the packages to the post office for mailing. For decades we did this twice a year without pay, and when funding did allow us to take salaries, it never amounted to more than a few thousand dollars a year.
I would be disingenuous if I claimed it was all a labor of love. Editors generally possess healthy egos, which they project through the works they publish, and the best have well-defined aesthetic tastes that are integral to their personalities. Those traits can lead to friction among a staff, and at Chelsea we were often at loggerheads. When our disputes remained focused on the magazine, they were fruitful, as I believe any appraisal of Chelsea’s history would attest. But when our disputes sank to a personal level, they caused rupture. Toward the end of my tenure at Chelsea, we had become a dysfunctional family.
Chautauqua Literary Journal is a different story. It began in 2003 as a grassroots effort by a group of longtime Chautauquans who had formed a Writers’ Center on the grounds with the goal of enshrining the literary arts among the permanent programs offered by the Chautauqua Institution, such as the symphony, opera, and lecture series. The problem from the start was that the magazine had a staff of one, me, who performed all the tasks I described above. Also, the Board of the Writers’ Center that oversaw the magazine operated as a cohesive group mainly during Chautauqua’s summer season. Communication during the rest of the year was spasmodic at best and nonexistent toward the end. When I agreed to edit and manage the entire production of the magazine, I insisted on two things: that I receive a modest salary and that the journal have a national character and outlook that extended beyond Chautauqua’s front gate. In other words, I insisted on being treated as a professional and not as a volunteer; I also was adamant that the magazine set high standards and not serve as a mere house organ and easy avenue for board members and other Chautauquans to get their writing into print. A few on the Board resented these stipulations. Moreover, they did little, in my opinion, to help raise funds, which frustrated me greatly, especially since securing NYSCA grants became impossible: NYSCA would not fund an organization that they perceived as a “gated community.” One generous Chautauquan, however, finally stepped forward to support the magazine and provide me with a small freelance stipend. Before I got the boot in 2007, I produced four issues of which I am extremely proud. I am especially proud of the short stories and contest award winners, a few of which were the writers’ first national publications.
You ask about my joys and disappointments. The scales by far are weighted toward the former. It was always a pleasure to serve as a midwife and share with readers works of art that I myself found exciting. To facilitate a writer’s debut was always the greatest thrill. And in the long view, I’ve come away with the sense that for thirty years I contributed in some small way to the cultural vitality of American letters. The disappointments are far fewer though not without their lingering sting. I’ll mention just one: After my perfunctory dismissal from CLJ, which came without warning and no official explanation, rumors began to filter back to me—that the short stories in the last issue I edited were deemed “offensive,” “like getting one’s nose rubbed with manure,” and “not about people like us.” When I dwell on that hearsay, I’m bewildered and disheartened by the possibility that guardians of the literary arts can actually harbor such thoughts.
What can you say about the contemporary scene, as far as literary magazine publication is concerned?
Literary magazine publishing in America is more fluid and vibrant than at any other time because of the rapid developments in information technology and the proliferation of MFA programs. Consequently, it is also a time of crisis for many of the venerable magazines that have been cultural staples, at least during my lifetime. I’m thinking of the recent institutional funding challenges faced by Shenandoah, The New England Review, and The Southern Review; the transformation of TriQuarterly from a print publication to a student-run online format; the sputtering away of independent magazines like Chelsea. The old regime is passing or evolving before our eyes, for better or for worse, and these changes will have cultural implications. Surely there will be fewer printed publications in the future as electronic media grow increasingly sophisticated, reader-friendly, and economical. BOA Editions, for example, recently launched its first e-books—no doubt more to come. And whatever one may think about the value of MFA programs, I believe it is a good thing that they have spawned so many new publications that involve young people in the aesthetic and practical disciplines of editing, design, and production. On the downside, I sometimes feel there is simply too much being published, too much dross circulating, too many moveable feasts and shifting mastheads, no stable centers of cultural influence. We live in interesting times.
Your poems tend to be finely wrought things; as a poet, you exhibit a thoroughly engaged eye for detail and a finely-tuned ear for sonic possibilities. Your poems are, to my mind, concerned with both surface and what may lie beneath that surface, and they are challenging yet accessible. Precision seems to be at the heart of what your aesthetic sense prescribes. What is your sense of how the sort of poem you write fits in with (or works against) what seems, more and more, to be seen as our period style, the sort of poem Tony Hoagland calls “the skittery poem of our moment”?
Thank you, John, for those insights. You have me pegged. The Well Wrought Urn. Sound and Sense. I grew up with the New Criticism, Latin, Greek, classical mythology, and daily high-school English exercises in explication de texte. I also worked on the editorial staff of a dictionary for three years. One definitely gets to crawl down beneath the surface of words as a lexicographer and to come back into the light with a heightened sense of our language’s rich resonances. And yet I hope that my aesthetic sense has not entirely calcified over the years, that I’m not repetitively writing the same kind of poem. I do consciously try to transgress my familiar boundaries when I write. If my poems seem challenging to some, perhaps that is because they are “skittery,” drawing in various cultural and historic references in an ADD kind of way while trying to make them cohere as poetic wholes—“finely wrought things.” Look, for example, at how the narrative of “Perversions” skitters about from its New Age setting to embrace Catholic notions of penance, the passion of Christ, Renaissance art, Maori tattoos, classical music, and the Holocaust—all in an effort to discover what may lie beneath the surface of SM and the prejudices we bring to bear on our “mindfulness.”
I’m not, however, really concerned about how my poems may or may not fit in with any “period style.” Without the benefit of hindsight, I don’t believe we can definitively say what that is. Was the New Formalism ever a period style, or the free-verse poem for that matter? Certainly Confessionalism was, and perhaps it still is a period style if one is willing to entertain the notion of it lingering in the guise of Neo-Confessionalism. American poetry is too diverse for there to be any one period style that lasts more than a nanosecond in the long perspective of literary history. I’m glad that for every school of Ashbery there is a school of Merrill. Our heaven has many mansions.
But getting to Hoagland’s fine essay, which in its own ingenious way is skittery in its shifting arguments: I wholeheartedly agree with his concluding paragraph. The elusive, dissociative poems that are in vogue—that eschew narrative, that pepper the page with pop-cultural references—indeed risk triviality. They strike me, too often, as theory-driven, impersonal, intentionally atonal and arbitrary in their details (one could rewrite, for example, any number of lines in the poems that Hoagland quotes without significantly altering their tone or meaning). The voice that these poets project is too often of the robo-call variety, a voice that I feel compelled to hang up on. Pardon me for wanting the intimacy of a poet’s individual voice that creates the illusion it is addressing only me about things that matter. Woo me with music. Make me more fully human in this, at times, our inhuman world.
To the Soul
I’ve never forgotten the lessons of the literal-
minded nun who outlined a bottle
on the blackboard with a stick of white chalk
and catechized through her every fluid gesture
on the milk of grace that fills the empty
vessel of our souls at the first splash
of baptism—then apprised us, still beneath
the age of reason, of sins both venial and mortal,
before effacing, in one practiced sweep,
the nourishing gift. Some afternoons, chosen,
I’d clap the erasers and wear the pure
nimbus of that dust, trying not to breathe
what I knew, opaquely, was poison,
and I’d watch those clouds lift away
into the only abstraction I understood
as real—the sky’s blue depths, the florid
illusions of a setting sun, all the motley
of the world draining endless into you.
If she had let her mind broach
the god’s embrace, to turn, as it were,
his rapid pursuit not so much from
rape into ravishment but toward
a raveling of her body’s skein—
to become at once unwound, her intricacies
undone, and in that moment
to be entangled and wholly confused
in another existence . . .
but the earth too
requires its own transformations, second
by second, as here, I let slip
a bay leaf into the scent-swirl—
an embraising of onions in oil, crushed
garlic and thyme, some pepper
ground like a primal shower atop
the seared cubes before a last essential
alchemizing cup of wine . . .
the simmering doubts, this percolation
up through the assembled matter,
each bubble rising (from where?)
into a hemisphere, a surface tensed
to an extreme, a kind of faith, bursting
with stirred aromas, so many
annunciations at the gates, till my lips
purse at the spoon’s brim, hesitant
but parting . . .
a foretaste of pleasure
or ultimate disappointment? Even the gods
must straddle possibility or cease to exist
outside some eternal elsewhere. So what
did she become as she branched into prayer
to escape Apollo’s too fleshlike clutch?
I ponder this as I sift the thickened stew
for the still undissolved bit of her, that forever
My son, my chosen beloved,
Share your wounds . . .
—Lamentation of the Holy Cross Monastery, Łysa Góra, Poland
I was torn from the start between a voyeur’s self-
indulgence and stripping away my preconceptions
of non-normative play. The workshop was a primer
in SM—a day of synaptic tango lessons in submission
and control, negotiations on the line between terra
cognita and the not so far unknown we fear
as pain. Didn’t the nuns harp on offering it up
as if we could transubstantiate each solid pang
into an ether of spiritual bliss? Easy to scoff
that the penitent’s scourge is literal-mindedness.
Now here, what unholy passion was this?
In his Flagellation, our instructor said, Piero
perfected an iconography of calm, a silence broken
only by the flails’ snap against flesh, not as sound
but as distant thoughts surfacing in the mind, not
as thunderclap but as the blank disinterested gaze
of one supremely self-composed. The paradox:
that resignation’s born of power and power’s strong arm
withers under the weight of its furious imperatives.
Or is it through transgression we transcend
the world’s cuffs and bonds, just as a satyr’s mask
unmasks the man, exposes hoof and haunch?
A Maori widower, we were told, nearing eighty,
had a facial moko done. An ancestral design
of his outcast race, which the white man long tabooed,
he turned into a mark of pride—his aboriginal
face reclaimed for all to see: recivilized.
But I only half believed the boast that after praying
to his wife he felt no pain and fell asleep
beneath the tattooer’s gun. —Willful self-abasement
or experiment, I cannot tell, but I felt safe that day
in the danger as I lay naked on the table, my skin
so expertly licked with each stroke of the lash
that I sensed my body flare like a match and rise
above the ground of Górecki’s cantus firmus
that was raveling out from a CD of his Third. Our dark
progression dawned finally on the soprano’s radiant
lament, and I felt . . . a sad yet joyous transport
as if the earth had opened below and I was one
with all the ashen souls of the camps—then struck
by that thought and the brutal incongruity
of such unexpected release. Endorphins,
I’d later surmise, but there, with the flog still threshing
like wings above me, the whirr and art of it
harrowing over grim histories locked in every cell—
My God, let mindfulness be the wound I bear.