Rappahannock Review Contributor Spotlight: Interview with Richard Foerster
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: Your piece “To Someone Somewhere After All These Years” focuses on personal narrative but also leaves some questions up to the reader. How do you choose what details to include and what to leave out in a poem?
Richard Foerster: What details I include or decide to omit becomes apparent to me in the course of revision as the poem moves through various stages toward its final shape. I am an obsessive reviser; my poems usually go through a dozen or more drafts, whether it be fine-tuning or major overhauls. Revision and re-envisioning, sculpting line by line, stanza by stanza, pushing the poem forward or trimming it back, are essential in personal narratives because what is left out can be as telling as what is put in.
“To Someone Somewhere After All These Years” had an odd beginning: After 25 years of absolute silence, my ex-wife decided to reach out to me in an email. As startling as that was, it got me thinking about not just the particulars of my divorce but the meaning of divorce in general. Even when I’m writing from personal experience, I want the “I” of the poem to be representative, to remain vulnerable in some way, to invite readers to enter and consider the poem in light of their own experiences. Haven’t we all been touched by divorce, either directly or indirectly? It’s an event with life-long reverberations, and how we negotiate that disruption defines who we are and determines in many ways the kind of person we will become.
In revising this poem over the course of many weeks, I decided to extend the wine metaphor through all four stanzas. Those details not just lightened the tone but also helped me characterize the speaker. He’s not exactly blameless in the matter of his divorce, is he? How much time does he really think he’ll need to perfect his “art” of divorcing? This is not, after all, a jug wine he’s producing. Perhaps he’s passive-aggressive, or too much of a perfectionist—neither of which is a trait that would have served him well in a marriage.
I’ll leave it up to the reader to guess the actual source of the ex-wife’s lines, which I’ve put in italics. Those details, I think, are revelatory on many levels, especially in how they hint at her character and motives for writing. The reader must ponder what sort of response they are meant to induce or provoke in the ex-husband. In the last line, in early drafts, I had “hovered” and then “lingered” before finally settling on “wavered.” Is “wavering” a strength or a flaw? Does it reveal deliberation or paralysis? Does the speaker eventually reply, or does he ignore and delete the email? Perhaps neither. And what does that say about where he is in his life? Another question
for the reader to decide.
RR: “Boy on a Doorstep” seems less driven by narrative and more descriptive and lyrical in its evocation of the moment of the speaker’s encounter with the photograph. Is the photograph in the poem one that you encountered in real life? Can you tell us more about your connection with the image and history you develop?
RF: The boy in the photograph is me, at age three and a half, on the doorstep of a saloon in the Bronx, where I spent far too much time in my early years. The photograph resurfaced after several decades in a desk drawer very much as I describe it in the first stanza. I hope it will find its way onto the cover of my forthcoming book:
The poem is essentially about looking simultaneously outward and inward, about straddling the threshold between adulthood and childhood, between present and past—and vice versa. It is a triad: the speaker looks at the child he was; the child looks out at the speaker; and the speaker, remembering, looks through the child’s eyes at the photographer—the “one crouching deep inside,” who, in his ghostly way, peers troublingly from the past at the adult speaker.
That bar and elevated railroad were demolished long ago; and so too, that child no longer exists—his innocence and beauty gone. The poem tries to recover that time and place in an attempt to make sense of it; it tries to portray the child as a vessel of burgeoning awareness. I intentionally avoided using “I”; I wanted to position myself within the poem as as the photographer in the saloon’s “brooding dark,” whose identity the reader should easily infer. The child’s gaze ultimately interrogates not just that drunken man but also the adult that the child became.
RR: Both of these poems have a focus on speakers looking back into past events. How do you think poetry helps when describing or reflecting on the past?
RF: Retrospection can be a trap for a poet if it doesn’t somehow inform the present and point toward a future. I’m not saying a poem of retrospection must be didactic and end in a moral, and it certainly should avoid syrupy nostalgia, but it should most definitely retrieve something of value from the past—subtly, beautifully, even when dealing with painful experience.
On a purely personal level, even if we have forgotten the past or choose to ignore it, we are still shaped by it—genetically, physically, mentally, spiritually, subconsciously—in so many ways. For me, poetry, by its very shapeliness, its concision, its syntax and music, can bring those aspects of the self into the light, render them in sharp focus, and set them down before us for close inspection.
RR: We’re interested in the different formal shapes and structures in your work, such as the stanzas in “Boy on a Doorstep,” which are evocative of the scalloped edge of the 3 x 5 photograph, or perhaps are also a kind of stair step. How do you approach formal structure in your poems?
RF: The formal structures of my poems evolve over the course of drafting and many revisions. I seldom set out to write, say, a sonnet, but at some point in the drafting process I may realize my syntax and thoughts are insisting on an octave, a turn, and a sestet. Then it’s a matter of sculpting the lines to allow the form to enhance the poem’s meaning without confining it in a straitjacket.
In the case of “Boy on a Doorstep,” once I realized I had set up the triad of speaker, child, and “the one crouching deep inside,” I began revising to cast the poem in tercets. After that, the way the boy in the photograph is positioned on the threshold—with his legs turned to the sunny outdoors, with his torso and head torqued to the dark interior, with his hand probing the depths of the Cracker Jack box to retrieve his “prize”—suggested to me the stepped lines. In and out, back and forth between past and present. I hope they mirror the way the speaker’s thoughts move from the photograph’s surface images into the dark interior of the saloon where his eyes, delving, unsettle all he sees.
RR: We understand that your New & Selected volume will be coming out next year—that’s very exciting news. Any other projects on the horizon? What have you been writing most recently?
RF: Long ago I realized I am not a master of poetry; I cannot command poems to happen; rather, I am its servant. Most of my time is spent waiting to be summoned upstairs. I may write a dozen poems a year, usually fewer. Right now I am preoccupied with assembling and revising the section of new poems in my forthcoming volume. I am focused on word choice, line breaks, sequencing, revising or culling those poems that strike me as unfinished or flawed in some way. I fiddle with punctuation.
For some poets a New & Selected is both a milestone and, sadly, a tombstone. I will turn 70 when my book appears. I hope I have a good number of years ahead of me. Any future book will evolve slowly, poem by poem. I have no set agenda.
Richard Foerster’s work appears in Issue 5.2 here.