Flyer Profile: Graham Foust

Graham Foust


This is the first in a series of interviews profiling authors and poets scheduled to appear at The Burning Chair Readings’ Ozark Small Press Poetry Festival set for April 26-27 at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville.

The festival is a celebration of newly-released issues of two Fayetteville-based, hand-bound poetry magazines – Cannibal and Bestoned: The New Metaphysick – and will include readings from 21 poets, eight from the Ozark region and 13 from as far away as New York City and Denver.

Cannibal, edited by Katy and Matthew Henriksen, originated in a Greenpoint, Brooklyn apartment in 2007 and moved with them to their current apartment behind Nightbird Books. Bestoned is a new magazine edited by C. Violet Eaton, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop who currently lives in north Fayetteville.

Graham Foust, one of the featured readers, answered a few questions via email for Matthew Henriksen. Foust teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Denver and is the author of four books of poetry, most recently “To Anacreon in Heaven,” released in 2013 by Flood Editions. He co-translated “In Time’s Rift” by twentieth-century German poet Ernst Meister, which Wave Books published last year.

You grew up in Wisconsin and have lived in Buffalo, Iowa City, Oakland, and now Denver. Your poems often deal with place, but rarely as a source of comfort or certainty. How has moving around the country related to your writing?

Also Washington, D.C. and Santa Fe…So yes, I’ve been pretty peripatetic. I feel like it would be difficult to map a particular change in my writing to a particular move, but perhaps it’s fair to say that moving around is sort of my natural state. If I stayed somewhere long enough, then maybe that would cause a shift in attitude or behavior to which I could point.

Ozark Small-Press Poetry Festival

When: April 26-27, 7-10 p.m.
Where: Nightbird Books, 205 W. Dickson Street
Admission: Free
More info: Facebook event page

I’m generally uncomfortable with comfort in poetry, so the particular anxieties about where I’m living (or about “life stages” or what have you) tend to be foregrounded in my poems. Obviously, I experience comfort as well, but I don’t really feel the need to speak to that in poems. That’s for sitting on the porch or wherever.

I should say, too, that I always think of myself as a midwestern poet, as that’s the only place with which I feel a kind of existential kinship. If seven years in California taught me anything, it’s that. In his terrific essay “Good-bye Wisconsin,” the insanely underrated novelist Glenway Wescott says something about midwesterners being in the situation of “being born where they do not like to live.” I liked growing up in Wisconsin and later living in Iowa, so I don’t really “agree” with this—though I’ll say that I think “agreement” is about the most boring reaction one can have to a piece of writing—but I do feel like he’s onto something with regard to a kind of resigned unsettleness or restlessness. I feel like maybe I’ve just bottled that and brought it with me wherever I’ve been.

I’m very taken with Denver, and Buffalo is in many ways the best place I ever lived. Both are cities that are not quite in the Midwest, and yet are near to it in some way or just at the edge of it. Maybe they’re good cities for poetry because they resist geography (though not terrain) almost successfully . . .

Your poems reference not only other poets but also what many might consider non-poetic material, but in both cases many of the references can go unnoticed. For example, your third book, Necessary Stranger, begins with three poems that share titles with a David Lee Roth-era Van Halen album. It doesn’t seem like it matters whether someone gets the references, though it adds a dimension when they do. What is your interest in building poems that involve so many outside sources?

My very simple answer to this question is that I think this is precisely what poets do. One takes the world and puts it into one’s poems, and sometimes the world is language that’s been assembled or arranged by other people. It seems to me impossible to make poems without doing this. But you’re right, the source is often the least important aspect of it, and that’s because, as Allen Grossman says, “language always means something else.”

Your language play is often extreme and pronounced. Often one word takes on eight or more meanings. You do this consistently enough that I have to consider it more than an effect. What do you find interesting about making words resonate in multiple directions?

More uncertainty, I suppose. I am certain, though, that poems that do this sort of thing give me great pleasure (John Donne’s “Pyramus and Thisbe”; countless numbers of Dickinson’s poems; Stein’s Tender Buttons, etc.) and so I tend to want to make poems that generate effects akin to theirs, if I can. It’s important, though, that all the meanings “work” somehow within the matrix of the poem; that there’s resonance without unfathomability. There’s also the question of whether a word’s meanings feel as if they’re dammed up in or flowing out from of a particular poem. It’s not that one of these effects is always desirable at all times, but I do think both are possible and useful, depending on the poem.

Your poems are often funny, sometimes so subtly the audience doesn’t notice, but also I see a lot of death in your poems. You have a voice in your poems that feels familiar and your jokes never seem flippant or cute. Likewise, your statements about mortality seem to offer a dark honesty that is oddly comforting. What do you hope a reader receives from the contrasting humor and morbidity in your poems?

“To Anacreon in Heaven”

By Graham Foust

I think it’s a pretty common writerly attempt: When Kafka would read his stories aloud, the audience would laugh themselves silly. I’m no Kafka, of course, but I think the phenomenon of laughter (which isn’t an “emotion” in the way that, say, happiness or sadness are) is as strange and unknowable—as uncanny—as death. Laughter and death feel to me like they belong together, perhaps because they’re more or less beyond our control. It’s comforting to laugh at death, too, because it’s the only thing you can do at it. One fears death, of course, but one doesn’t fear AT it. Humor is very important to me, though it’s also important that a poem not just be a Seinfeld episode. There are certain poets who use humor in a very annoying way and others who use it brilliantly. Dickinson is, I think, an terrifically funny poet, but always in the smartest of ways. And I always laugh at the hilarious matter-of-fact-ness of the opening of James Wright’s “Saint Judas”: “When I went out to kill myself, I caught / A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.” I always wonder if Guy Clark read this poem before writing “L.A. Freeway”: “If I can just get off that L.A. freeway without getting killed or caught.” So, in short, I hope that a reader receives a bit of hope.

Ernst Meister shares many of your traits as a poet, but his work strikes me as incredibly difficult to translate. What motivated you to try translation, amid your many other projects and responsibilities?

Several years ago, somone wrote to me and said that my work reminded him of Meister’s, but I’d never heard of Meister. Just after this—a day or two, really—I stumbled upon Richard Dove’s translations of Meister at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee and indeed felt an immediate kinship, though something seemed off about the translations. I started trying my hand at rendering them in English and then met Sam Frederick, who is, I guess, my “step-brother-in-law” (he’s my dad’s wife’s daughter’s husband) and who is definitely a professor of German. He’d never heard of Meister either, but he loved the poems. So ultimately it was an experiment in poetry, family, and friendship. It’s also the thing that I’ve done (with regard to writing) that I’m most proud of. I’m very glad that my poems are in the world, but sometimes I feel sort of embarrassed by them. They’re often feel not nearly good enough, and it often makes me want to kick a boulder. But the translations bring with them all the joys of writing (including the joyful frustration of endlessly trying to get something right), but almost none of the awfulness: no blank page, always something to work on, etc. And there’s no guilt about foisting them on people. It’s like taking the reader down into some weird cave and saying, “Look at this thing I found—isn’t it beautiful?” Whereas with my own work, I sometimes feel like, “Oh, here are some popsicle sticks taped to a dead bird.”