Poetic Profile



Graham Foust












General Questions


1) Where did you grow up? Was poetry and writing part of that mix?

I grew up in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.  There were always books and records and pens and pencils and paper in our house—some mine, some not—but I don’t recall reading much poetry in Eau Claire, save for whatever I might have been assigned in high school.  (If I recall correctly, though, novels and plays made up the bulk of my school reading.)  As a teenager, I read a lot of fiction on my own and listened to a good deal of punk and country and “classic rock” music—I suppose those experiences count as time spent with something that might loosely be called “the poetic.”  I remember being most affected by James Joyce, Waylon Jennings, Black Flag, Emily Bronte, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I still love all of them.

Speaking of Eau Claire, they have this slogan on some billboards up there now:  “Eau Claire:  We’re Up to Something Funn.”  That’s right.  Two n’s.  If someone out there could tell me what this means, I’d appreciate it.


2) Who are your poetic influences, favorite poets, writers, artwork, and other things that inform your work?

I’ll start with the majors and spill forth from there in an associative manner:  Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, W.C. Williams, Robert Creeley, Barry Hannah, Flannery O’Connor, Henry James, Herman Melville, Ellen Gallagher, Paul Celan, Milo de Angelis, Gerhard Richter, Frederick Seidel, Susan Howe, Agnes Martin, Rae Armantrout, David Lee Roth, John Hawkes, Michael Burkard, Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Mary Robison, Percival Everett. Laura Owens, Sarah Sze, Nina Nastasia, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Echo and the Bunnymen, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Schumann, The Go-Go’s, The Go-Betweens, Blue Oyster Cult, Helen Frankenthaler, The Pretenders, Prince, Jack Spicer, Joseph Ceravolo, LeRoi Jones, Amelia Rosselli, Bruce Springsteen, ham.

More often than not, these lists get boring rather quickly, perhaps more for the maker than for the reader.  I don’t know.  Am I moved by someone or something that someone might assume wouldn’t move me?  I’ve always found Louise Glück to be a fine poet.  I love Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and Rick Springfield’s “Jesse’s Girl.”  I collect found photographs and the limbs of action figures that have seemed to litter the streets of the places I’ve lived.  But maybe this is all old news.


3) When did you 'become' a poet; when did being a poet become part of your everyday life?

 Like many young people, the college-aged me thought he might able to write novels and stories, assuming he had enough free time and—ahem—life experience.  During my sophomore year, a visiting writer who shall remain nameless told me that my fiction was wretched but that I managed a lovely sentence now and then, adding that perhaps I was better suited to being a poet than being a novelist or short-story writer.  Strangely enough, I think that that comment was the first time anyone had praised my writing—I took this person’s word for it that my sentences were of some quality—in any specific way.  (I’d gotten decent grades on “creative” assignments in school, but I’d never really been informed of their cause.)  So I took the advice, went to the library, and got myself interested in poems.  The first poetry books I ever checked out of the library were Bruce Andrews’ Give ‘Em Enough Rope, Jim Carroll’s Living at the Movies, and the collected poems of Emily Dickinson.  This was before I learned about “schools” of poetry, of course—something I often wish I were ignorant of all over again.


4) Where were you educated? Was this important?

 Great segue! 

I have degrees from Beloit College, George Mason University, and SUNY-Buffalo.

Yes, this is important, although it’s difficult for me to think about my time at all these places as time spent at “institutions.”  As Creeley would say, it’s the “company” that’s important, and I’m fortunate that there are people whom I encountered at all three places who remain very dear to me.  In the last several weeks, I’ve reconnected with people from Beloit whom I’d not seen in a long time and lost a much-loved friend from Buffalo, so such places are in fact on my mind quite a bit these days.


5) Do these “facts of life” make their way into your poetry? I guess what I’m asking is, do you consider yourself an autobiographical poet?

Sometimes.  How could they not work their ways in?  They’re probably also working their ways out, too.  I mean, if you read my poems and say to yourself “this guy likes Van Halen and he’s read a little Heidegger and he’s dug Creeley’s linebreaks and oh that sounds like something Dickinson would say and boy he must really love that woman he lives with and golly gee he may well have been a real screw-up at one point and hey I think this fellow likes a good joke now and again” then I guess you’d have a not-inaccurate description of what’s happened to me “off the page,” so to speak.  But I expect my poems—if they’re any good at all, which they may not be—are “about” more than that.  Allen Grossman says that art is about its subject in the same way that a cat indoors is about the house.  If the poems are “about” me, I hope there’s room enough in me for language to make its necessary rounds; I also hope it finds its way outside once in a while.


6) What is your favorite food?

I like to make risotto, and I like to have sushi made for me.  I like Armadale vodka.  I like bacon.


7) Sports Team?

Green Bay Packers.  Buffalo Sabres.  And the “Air Coryell”-era San Diego Chargers.


8) Vacation Spot?

Madeline Island and New York City.  Frankly, there are very few places in the world that I can say I’ve been to with any regularity, so I can’t really speak to the idea of “vacation.”  My regular trips are usually spent visiting my family or my wife’s family.  I like to do this, but I don’t really think of these visits as “place-oriented” visits, given that I’d probably go see these people no matter where they lived. I had a very good time in Slovenia last summer.


9) Curse Word?



10) Your work often alludes to, quotes from, misquotes, popular music. What’s the relationship between your poetry and music?

I grew up listening to and buying and loving pop music, and again, I think it’s what put me in touch, in some way, with the idea of speaking to the world from an unsettled place.

Lines for poems come to me in the same way that lines from songs—by which I mean the songs of others:  I’m not a songwriter—come to me.  Sometimes during the day, a Led Zeppelin song or a Merle Haggard song or a James Brown song will pop into my head and shards of it will stay there for a while.  Sometimes something else—some words other than those of others—will do the same thing.  Like most of us, I think, I get wormed into by these little conglomerates of language and tune.  I tend to want to keep them, play with them, care for them.

Sometimes it’s more intentional than something popping into my head, though.  I hear something and I say, right then and there, “I want to use that in a poem” or “I want to use that in a poem, but it has to be slightly different in some way” or “I want to use that in a poem, but it has to be slightly different in this particular way.”  A lot of times I’ll hear something incorrectly and then like it better than the “correct” version and then decide to use it in a poem.  I’d wager that a huge number of lines in my work were happened upon or “written” in that way, though I’d also wager that I couldn’t go back and label which ones with any certainty.


11) Many contemporary poets are writing long poems or serial poetry; your poems tend to be smaller. What are your ideas about the short poem?

The shortness of my poems might have something to do with the fact that I tend not to get whole songs in my head, but rather bits:  a chorus, a drum sound, a couple of chords. 

Most of the “moments” that cause my poems (whether linguistic or experiential, though I’m not sure one can separate the two) are sudden or brief or fleeting. These events are akin to stabs or slashes or nap jerks, I guess.  That’s what I’m most interested in recording, attempting to stay with.  Or that’s what I feel like I’m most capable of recording well.  When I get sick of it or feel as if I’m not doing it so well, I’ll probably do something else.

I can’t say that the idea of writing a long poem or a “project” poem really ever occurs to me, though I like them often enough when other people make them.  But then again, I don’t know that I think all that much about my work when I read other people’s work.  When I see a book like Taylor Brady’s Microclimates—just to name at random a book that I like very much but one that bears little or no relationship to my work, at least on a formal level—I don’t say “Hey, Foust, maybe you should think about doing something more like this.”  I say, “This is a great book.”

Is there an argument to be made that the poems I write are all in fact part of a serial poem?  Very likely.


12) What are you reading right now? What books (poetry, fiction, and/or non-fiction) have you read in the past year that you thoroughly enjoyed? Any books that thoroughly disappointed you?

I just finished George Orwell’s Keep the Apsidistra Flying and Sandra Miller’s Oriflamme and I re-read Nathaniel Mackey’s School of Udhra because one of my classes was reading it (and because I like it).  I also re-read Timothy Shea’s Unflux because someone borrowed if from me for a year and I was so happy to get it back.  Maybe I wanted to make sure that it was all still there.

Emily Wilson’s The Keep was probably my favorite book of poems over the course of the last year or so.  I’m finding Lance Phillips’s poems sustaining lately, as well as Susan Stewart’s book of art criticism, The Open Studio.  And the poems of Christian Hawkey in the recent “Beyond Arcadia” issue of Conjunctions blew my mind.

The latest Richard Buckner CD really disappointed me, but I might need more time with it.  Truth be told, I find the Arcade Fire CD to be colossally overrated.  It reminds me of what might happen if someone mashed up The Who’s worst moments (which are terrible) with Tears for Fears’ best (which are worse).  Sorry, folks, this is not the record of last year or any year. 


Craft Questions


1) How do you form a poem?

I generally write poems by sitting down with several months’ worth of scraps or germs or lines and then arranging them and shaping them according to the way they resonate with or knock against one another.  This is actually the best part of the process for me.  I find that once the poems begin to take shape as poems, the excitement of what I know to be “poetry” actually begins to dwindle a little bit.  It’s not that I’m opposed to the act of crafting poems—quite the contrary, actually; it’s just that what’s most satisfying for me is wading through the city of grammar in my notebooks (if I may borrow a line from Jack Gilbert).


2) Do you use collage, found language?

My sources say “yes.”


3) Is poetry an organic or synthetic process for you?

Poetry is an earthly, inevitable, formidable, chemical, delicate, optional, and necessary artifice that’s at once good and terrible for me.


4) Where do you write? Is ambience important? Do you have rituals or habits when you write?

I write wherever and whenever I happen to feel the need.  Ambiance is likely important, though not a specific ambiance or a single ambiance.  Whatever ambiance a poem needs is fine.  I don’t really have any habits or rituals, though I prefer small notebooks and ATM receipts for surfaces on which to write.  (I recently tried carrying around legal pads because I got a pile of them for free, but I didn’t like them so much.) 

I meet with students and colleagues and play Nerf Hoop in my office at school, so not much writing gets done there.  And I don’t have an office or a study at home, so the backyard or the porch or the kitchen or the living room or walking down the street—I hope—suffices.


5) In the balance between found language and created language, where does your work fall? Do you use many sources?

I’ve never created language.  You want someone to create a language for you, call Christian Bök.  (And really, you should—he knows where all the good used bookstores in Toronto are.)  Sometimes I look for language, but on the rare occasion that we actually hook up, it’s usually language that’s found me.