by Jon Riccio
Rebecca Foust’s Paradise Drive (Press 53) highlights the trappings of a humanness as agonized as it is Americanized. That she conveys these struggles and their triages in a book composed entirely of sonnets is no small feat. Foust’s collection excels in its alcoves, each iteration of the 14-line form simpatico with “the limestone walks/ to houses glowing like over-lit cruise boats/ docked under old oaks.” Inspired by Foust’s “The tiles are set in cement, but we’ve seen what a few/ cigarettes or million bucks can shake loose,” Jon Riccio tours the neighborhood, the author serving as his guide.
Jon Riccio: We met at The Frost Place Poetry Seminar where you were the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence. You won my respect right off the bat after I heard that Robert Frost’s clothesline served as your primary canvas for determining the page order in Paradise Drive. Have you always employed such creative methods in the assembly process? What’s the best advantage to the book-by-clothesline technique?
Rebecca Foust: I laid out my first few books as I imagine everyone else does: on the bed, on the floor, on the kitchen table. The table was never big enough and the bed had to be cleared at night to sleep in, so the floor always ended up being the best option. But it’s hard on your back and knees to be bending over and stooping and creeping around like that. An open door or window can have disastrous effects on your carefully-aligned piles. And you eventually have to pick the pages up to mop the floor.
When Cleopatra Mathis came to visit at The Frost Place (TFP), she told me that when she was a fellow there, she tacked her poems up all over the living room walls. I loved that idea, but I knew those walls had been freshly painted and did not think TFP would appreciate my pockmarking them with thumbtack holes. Instead, I set up two banquet-size folding tables on the screened-in back porch and laid my poems out in rows. The porch faced west, and I liked working there in the late afternoons with the sun slanting in; I’d look up now and then to see if I could catch a glimpse of the mother bear and cubs who lived in the back field. One day I looked up and noticed the clothesline hung right over my head. That’s when I got the idea to pin the poems to the lines.
Two clotheslines ran the length of the 32-foot porch, so I had 64 total feet, enough room to hang about 85 poems. The rest got spread on the banquet tables, but I no longer had to have them in piles, and for the first time I could see all the poems that might go into the manuscript in nearly one glance. I used the tables as a discard pile and the clothesline for various incarnations of the book. I could see the “pages” at eye level and move them around at will. And I could leave them up for the whole summer! I always think better and get ideas when walking, so being able to pace back and forth along the clotheslines allowed me to see connections between poems that had not occurred to me before and to imagine many, many different possible sequences. Everything was fixed in the pinned moment but also infinitely fluid—all I had to do was unfasten a poem, slide the others down, and voila!—a new order. An added benefit was that the process was much easier on my back and knees than the “floor” method I’d used before.
JR: Polident and Percocet are a few modern-era amalgamations featured in the centuries-old sonnet forms throughout Paradise Drive (Ritalin, Tupperware and d-CON appear as well). Is it me, or do our times feel sonnet-made?
RF: All times are sonnet-made, in my opinion, or perhaps I should say the sonnet is for all times. I have found it to be an infinitely elastic and highly generative form. People have been breaking the rules with sonnets for so long that breaking the rules has become part of the form. But even staying within the rules permits infinite possibilities for expression. Wordsworth’s poem “Nuns Fret Not” (a title I borrowed for a poem in Paradise Drive) makes the case for structure allowing for greater artistic freedom. In an article written for the Cortland Review, Tony Barnstone says it this way:
In the words of the great Tang Dynasty statesman and writer Han Yu, to write in form is to “Dance in Chains.” That is, the joy of writing in form comes not in slavishly following the rule of prosody, of pouring content into a predefined form, but in creatively interacting with a tradition, renewing and modernizing it.
Poet Sam Gwynn calls it “pouring new wine into old bottles,” and it’s all just another version of Pound’s idea that the poet’s job is to “make it new.”
JR: Was it harder writing about your father’s life (“I’m ready to tell the truth about Dad,/ extolled as a death camp liberator…He was false and flawed and still/ someone’s god, each 3-a.m. sobbed drunk-dial call.”), or your mother’s death (“At my mother’s wake, other gray faces/ who’d worked the looms in rooms/ so thick with thread that noon/ was dark.”)?
RF: In some ways it was harder to write about my father’s life because he was so private, even secretive, and what I know of his inner life and even of his history is largely imagined or re-constructed from going through his papers after his death. I think it was his experience in WWII that made my father turn inward, because in the photos before he was drafted, I see a very different man from the one I knew. My mother, in contrast, was open and willing to share details about her passions and frustrations, joys and griefs. It’s been easier to write about her life and death because she let me in, and the raw material for the poems is more accessible. Also, when writing about my father I feel a reticence that comes from, I suppose, a fear of violating his intensely-held privacy. I don’t have that fear when writing about my mother. I feel her blessing on everything I write.
JR: This excerpt – from “Stepford Wives Theme Party” – “stovetop Jiffy Pop, its swollen tin orb as frail/ as a paper wasp nest or spacesuit worn/ on the doomed Apollo.” has forever changed my outlook on movie snacks. What is it about lines like this and others, such as “She found the kill switch (every miracle has one),” that makes them so successful?
RF: I like that Jiffy Pop image too! It’s a very rich, visceral, accessible pop culture image that triggers several senses at once, but is not one that has been overused. And I think its comparison with those old spacesuits is surprisingly apt. Surprise and precision are two elements that can empower a figure of speech. Also, perhaps, oxymoron. The fragility of the foil torn through to get to a snack seems trivial, even fun, until you consider the same fragility as applied to space suits meant to protect the human body from harm. That kind of yoking of opposites adds tension and vigor to simile and metaphor. Something of that nature is at work in your second example as well. Miracles are large, profound things, often sacred, so it is surprising and even sacrilegious to conceive of them as being “rigged.” And since we generally think of miracles as being life-affirming, the idea of one having a “kill switch” adds another little jolt of surprise.
JR: Paradise Drive, the street of wizened sonnets. An impromptu blurb, but since we’re on the subject of wisdom, let’s jump to the second poem of “The Market” where the futures trader trades “his clogs for a new pair of Adidas – / traction against those pesky subpoenas.” Give us another item essential to residency on your book’s titular drive.
RF: I love “the street of wizened sonnets!” Can you please put that up in a review on Amazon?
I can think of a number of items one needs in order to live on Paradise Drive. A Bird Dog, apparently. A two- or three-car garage to house the SUV for ski weekends along with the requisite PC-Prius. A home gym. A plastic surgeon on speed dial. Blinders are helpful. A Rolex is good. It’s all there in the book, everything you need for the Paradise Drive survival backpack.
JR: I enjoyed the ways you incorporated other poetry forms – the list (“Three-Car Garage”), persona (“Gone to the Dogs”) and elegy (“Bourbon Elegy,” “Anastrophe Elegy”) – into the sonnet. What impact did multi-layering have on your generative/revision process?
RF: If it had any impact it was at a subconscious level. Aside from trying to follow the sonnet form (then later trying to see how much I could deviate from it), I didn’t think about form. I never thought: I’ll make a list poem, I’ll make an elegy. Once I had an idea in about 14 lines, I just kept revising to try to make it a better poem. Most of these sonnets came to me whole. I started the book in 2008, during my second semester in grad school, a time when I became interested in, then obsessed with, the sonnet form. For a year or so, sonnets were all I read. I was immersed and it was like learning a language. I eventually found myself dreaming in sonnets, making grocery list sonnets and even thinking in chunks of about 14 lines. For a while almost every poem I wrote just came out that way. I wrote hundreds of 14-liners; some became sonnets, and a few were good.
Paradise Drive began in one insomniac three-day period during which I wrote about 35 core poems without stopping, one right after the other, half filling a notebook that I afterwards carried with me everywhere. You know how it is when you are in one of those fertile creative periods, when everything—I mean everything—seems directly to feed the work? It was like that. I just looked around me and listened to what people were saying and read the local papers and there were poems everywhere. And because of my mindset and obsession at the time, the poems emerged as sonnets. It was like spitting out owl pellets—I’d take everything in, digest it, then expel these small, condensed packages of bones, teeth and fur.
JR: Your sonnets on bridges – “Romance” and the abovementioned “Anastrophe Elegy” – address suicide. One could see them as structures within structures exploring the unsayable. What do you hope readers will take away from these poems?
RF: That’s what poetry is supposed to do, right? Get as close as possible to expressing the ineffable, saying what is hard to say or can’t be said. It’s an impossible mission, and one I rail against in the poem “No Words.” But yes, I found structure very helpful for taking on really difficult subjects. The hardest poem in the book for me to write, the hardest line to write, was the one in “Don’t Talk About this” that addresses the mother’s fear that her child has used the belt of his bathrobe as a noose behind the closed bathroom door. That one, and the line about what the child says to her after she’s tucked him into bed. Thinking about form is one way I distract myself from what I am afraid to write, and I use it to trick my inner censor into looking the other way.
JR: “Death by Dodge Sportsman” contains the immortal epigraph Man Gets Six Years for Motor Home Chase. What’s your advice for writers turning truth-is-stranger-than-fiction moments into poems?
RF: That epigraph was an actual headline taken from the Marin Independent Journal. You can’t make these things up, but they are everywhere if you look and listen. I wrote several poems from Marin IJ headlines but “Death by Dodge Sportsman” was the only one that made it into Paradise Drive. I had way too many “Seven Deadly Sins” poems for the book; one, “Rage Gets a Court Date” has an epigraph from a headline that read “Novato Women Guilty in Stabbing over Romantic Rival.” Most of those sonnets, like “Death by Dodge Sportsman,” combine humor with something that is not funny at all.
My advice? We always hear about Emily Dickinson’s dictum to “tell it slant,” but I guess I’d say something along the lines of “experience it slant” or even “experience slant.” We take all kinds of utter insanity in the world around us completely for granted. My advice is to look for the strange in the everyday, really look at things and really listen. The more you do this the better you get at it. And then something else begins to happen—you can begin to mis-see and mis-hear things in very interesting ways.
Then, of course, it is important to capture the things you notice. I try to carry a pen and index cards with me always, but when caught short I’ll make notes on my phone or even on my hand and all the way up my arm. If you don’t write things down in the moment, they are lost.
JR: There’s a sentence from “The Quest” that resonates, stronger every time I return to it: “Maybe the chance/ to do an angstrom of good, make beauty/ or protest or laughter.” How does Paradise Drive serve this quartet of intent?
RF: Well, let’s just say I hope the book does an angstrom of good. I love that word “angstrom” by the way, and I stole it from a poem written by my friend Roy Mash. I like how the word sonically evokes the narrator’s anxiety about whether she has the power to do any good in the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about that old chestnut about what can poetry do, what good is it, does it matter. We all know all the various lines that get quoted when this subject comes up. I’ve pretty much devoted my life to poetry since I retired from autism advocacy about eight years ago. That’s a lot of hours spent at my desk moving commas around, and it sometimes feels more than a little self-indulgent. So the preoccupation of the narrator in “The Quest” is my preoccupation. And her conclusion is pretty much how I rationalize spending so much time on this art. I do believe poetry can do that “quartet” of things, and that they are important things and maybe the most important things any one person can do. I often think about that line by Phil Ochs, how in times like these, beauty is the last form of protest. Some poetry does outright protest and bear witness, of course, and a small subset does it well. But I agree that beauty is itself a form of protest. In an age of cynicism, acknowledging and building beauty takes courage. And yeah, just making people laugh is a good thing. Beauty, protest, laughter—these allow for hope, and hope may be the only thing with the power to make the world better. In an essay written for the Georgia Review last year, Ann Pancake talks about the obligation of artists to “dream forward”—to see the world not just as it is but also to envision how it might be. Seeing and making beauty can, I guess, be a way of dreaming forward.
JR: The Volta derives its name from “the turn in thought in a sonnet that is often indicated by such initial words as But, Yet, or And Yet” (thank you, Encyclopædia Britannica). Which volta has inspired you the most, and why?
RF: The word volta contains its own unit of electricity, and that is what you find in the best sonnets: electricity, pure energy. Urban dictionary calls sonnets “Pop-rocks for your mind. Deceptive packages that set off unexpected explosions.” Sonnets can indeed be like little bombs, with the volta where the explosion happens. Before the volta is set up (the fuse) and after it is, well, aftermath.
Voltas that are cued in obvious ways with disjunctives like “but” and “yet” are often the least interesting ones, because you can see them coming a mile away, and they can end up sounding didactic and over-explicative. These are the signals for rhetorical voltas, turns in argument or logic, but there are many other more subtle and powerful ways a sonnet can make a turn, for example by changing tone, setting, point of view, verb tense, subject, etc. Some poets, like Billy Collins (in his poem, “Sonnet”) actually employ the word “turn” to make the turn. The last poem in Paradise Drive, “Preparation for Pirouette” executes the steps of a balletic turn (“whip-pivot-spot”) in its 13th line.
Once I understood there are many kinds of turns besides a shift in thought signaled by disjunctives, I began to see that many sonnets have more than one turn. For example, some Elizabethan sonnets with strong voltas in their closing couplets also make a less obvious turn where we expect to see it in a Petrarchan sonnet, after the first eight lines. I was thinking about voltas when I wrote “Contradance,” on one level about a turn-and-dip dance move called a “Gypsy Meltdown,” and on another level about turning away from a turning away from faith, not quite the same thing as embracing faith. In that poem I tried to insert a turn in every single line; I wanted it to be continuously revolving.
So, to answer your question, sonnets that make more than one turn and whose turns are subtle are the most inspiring to me. Some poems in Paradise Drive strictly adhere to form and others bend the rules; others break nearly all the rules. What makes a sonnet a sonnet, I kept wondering, and how many conventional criteria can I jettison before the form falls apart? Two poems in Paradise Drive don’t have 14 lines, but I still consider them sonnets. I ended up deciding that if there is one element that must be retained, it is the volta. A sonnet has to end in a different place than it began; there must be compressed tension and change. So it’s great to end the interview here, on the volta, my favorite part of and what I believe to be the sine qua non of the sonnet form.
The 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence, Rebecca Foust is the recipient of the 2014 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Award and recent fellowships from The Frost Place, the MacDowell Colony and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and can be ordered at http://www.press53.com/.
Jon Riccio graduates this December with an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Qwerty, Redivider, Mountain Gazette, White Whale Review and elsewhere. He serves as the poetry editor at Fairy Tale Review.