Vera Falenko, Contributing Editor
Interview with Featured Writer
Kate Hanson Foster
Kate Hanson Foster‘s first book of poems, Mid Drift, was published by Loom Press and was a finalist for the Massachusetts Center for the Book Award in 2011. Her work has appeared in Birmingham Poetry Review, Comstock Review, Harpur Palate, Poet Lore, Salamander, Tupelo Quarterly, and elsewhere. Foster was recently awarded the NEA Parent Fellowship through the Vermont Studio Center.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Why don’t we begin today’s conversation with an introduction, Kate? What are you willing to share with us about your background and about your creative work?
Foster: I grew up with my mother and father and three sisters in Ballardvale—a mill village that lies along the banks of the Shawsheen River in Andover, Massachusetts. There is word-of-mouth history that my house was once a schoolhouse and was later moved to Ballardvale by horse and trailer in the mid 1800s and renovated into a home. This would be about the time the mills were world renowned, and Ballardvale had the economic character and infrastructure of a small, but bustling mill community. I don’t know why I have never thought to try and dig up a paper trail on my house, but the idea of it as a converted one-room schoolhouse would explain the hodgepodge of asymmetrical angles of walls and floors. There are divisions of rooms that make little sense—at least to the Old Colonial or Greek revival architectural-style standards. There are three small bedrooms upstairs, and a single bathroom at the end of the hallway big enough to fit just a toilet and bathtub side-by-side. A modest addition of a kitchen and a back porch were added to the house at some point in its history. But aside from that, it’s hard not to view the rest of the house as trying to squeeze a family floor plan into a strange wooden box. The mills had obviously stopped functioning for a long time before I was born, and Ballardvale is no longer considered the center of town. I tell this story because most people assume that to be from Andover means you come from big money, and Ballardvale is sort of the “other side of the tracks,” if you will.
I grew up Catholic at the passionate insistence of my mother. My father has always shown an indifference to religion, but my mother, staunchly devoted, had all of her girls baptized. So much of my childhood memories consist of prayers and religious relics. We went (mother and daughters) to church every Sunday. I attended Catholic school until high school. I can still smell the black shoe polish in August before the beginning of the school year, and feel the itch of the navy blue knee socks and the heavy plaid uniform skirts.
In church, I mostly zoned-out and daydreamed, marveling at the stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross lining the walls—all the statues and images that to me seemed so dramatically lugubrious. I also found the ritual of mass excruciatingly boring. Even the homily – the one part of mass where the priest deviates from script – seemed like predictable commentary on the same old scriptures. I tuned it out. Unfortunately, I approached school the same way. Just sitting in my own head, waiting for time to pass. I was a mediocre student at best.
Falenko for O:JA&L: So how did you start writing poetry? You talked a lot about where you come from, geographically and personally, and that sense of place/history does seem to come through in your work. Do you see yourself as a “poet of place” fundamentally? As rooted in the literary tradition of Massachusetts and the larger region?
Foster: At first, it was probably music. My father was always playing music—if not with his buddies in our cellar, than on the couch with a few chords on his guitar. He was a huge fan of James Taylor, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills & Nash—all incredible musicians, but also remarkable songwriters. The buzz you can get off a great song is not unlike reading the perfect poem at the perfect time. You feel it with your whole body. And then you wonder what kind of incredible combination caused your body to react that way. It’s outside of the mind, I think, even though all we have is our minds to make sense of it. To this day, I still get that feeling when I hear my father singing.
I have this addiction to language when it comes to the right line, the right turn of phrase, song lyric, or even a good joke. I’m always trying to perfect my ability to craft words in a way that surprises and delights. Am I a poet of place? No, I don’t think so. My first book, Mid Drift is very heavy on place because I was living in the city of Lowell, Massachusetts throughout my 20s and had a sort of “coming of age” experience there. “Place” was crucial in writing the poems of that book because the city, like myself, was in the process of a transformation. There was this art renaissance happening—mills being renovated into artist lofts, and galleries. But at the same time, the city was still rather underdeveloped—lots of abandoned mills and empty storefronts. You might say the city of Lowell was its own character that accompanied me through the book. In the poems I’m writing now I think more in terms of basic psychology. That’s not to say place doesn’t play somewhat of a role, but I’m more interested in the landscape of our own minds, especially how life experience changes and molds our inner voice. And after children I had this terrible bout of postpartum anxiety that sort of forced me to turn inward.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Oh, yes. These new poems. I think there is an anxiety in them that every mother knows, maybe? That essential anxiety of loving somebody so much and knowing you are basically powerless to protect them from the world? But also there’s the extreme of postpartum anxiety, and it just radiates through the work you’re doing now.
Foster: Oh it’s definitely a combination of both. Becoming a mother redefined my entire mentality and voice as a writer. When you become a parent the freedom and personal autonomy you once had is completely capsized. Your body, your schedule, your physical and mental space are no longer yours alone. It’s amazing how much you have to give up and how much compromise is involved in simple things like taking a shower or eating a balanced meal. But I also felt this incredible spiritual burden. I was struggling with parting with the Catholic Church, so it was a huge decision for me not to baptize my kids. So yes, there is a feeling of powerlessness, but also a sense that you hold all the power to make xyz decisions as a parent to ensure they at least start life off right. But you are right, on the clinical scale, the physiological changes I was experiencing went into the writing at that time. I don’t think I had much of a choice in that. Honestly, the poems that came after my youngest was born sort of wrote themselves. I was in such a state at that time that I when I look back, many of the poems I don’t even remember writing.
Falenko for O:JA&L: I get that. It can almost become dissociative. So many poets live with mental illness and write through and about it. Do you think there’s a connection of sorts, like creativity and struggle sort of travel together? What has your experience been of trying to write through that?
Foster: Mental illness and dissociation is something I’ve actually thought about a lot. I mean, people always speculate on how poetry may relate to madness. I just can’t get down with the idea that mental illness somehow confirms the authenticity of a writer—if that were the case, mental illness would have more power than the art itself. But I do think when our mind and body descend into chaos, our natural instinct is to reach for some kind of grounding medium. If you have the inclination for art, music, poetry, etc., than it would only seem natural to turn to it in times of suffering. It’s possible that some of the poets we love that struggle or have struggled with mental illness made extraordinary work because they were pushed to their uttermost limits. All of this is to say I don’t have an exact answer. I know I had no initial intention to “engage” mental illness in my writing, but at some point I simply had no choice. I’m thankful that I’m no longer in that place, and I don’t want it to be a defining characteristic of my work. But there is no telling it won’t happen again. How could I know? So I keep doing what I love—creating not because of what happens to me but in spite of it.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Does all of your poetry come from personal experience? How would you classify your style of poetry?
Foster: So there was that article last month in the Walrus that got everyone all upset, right? “The Narcissism of Contemporary Poetry.” The article commented on the deluge of personal lyric poetry that dominates the art right now and how it is creating a wave of “professionalized mediocrity.” Obviously there was some warranted backlash—to critique the first-person lyric in its entirety largely overlooks marginalized voices that are only at the tip of the iceberg in telling their stories. But there is some reality to what was being said in the article. Generally speaking, in our own microcosms we are all dealing with our own struggles and traumas and pain. I think many writers including myself took some pause at what was being said—who are we to think we are all capable of transforming our individual impressions and feelings about our own lives into good art? For a brief second that article made me want to throw my manuscript in the trash and start over. But I’m guilty of leaning on the personal lyric in my work and really fond of the personal lyric poetry when it’s done well. And those are the poems that have a first-person perspective but expose a univocal truth to the human experience—even if the story is not our own. Joanne Kyger’s “September” comes to mind:
The grasses are light brown
and the ocean comes in
long shimmering lines
under the fleet from last night
which dozes now in the early morning
Here and there horses graze
on somebody’s acreage
Strangely, it was not my desire
that bade me speak in church to be released
but memory of the way it used to be in
careless and exotic play
when characters were promises
then recognitions. The world of transformation
is real and not real but trusting.
Enough of these lessons? I mean
didactic phrases to take you in and out of
love’s mysterious bonds?
Well I myself am not myself
and which power of survival I speak
for is not made of houses.
It is inner luxury, of golden figures
that breathe like mountains do
and whose skin is made dusky by stars.
I was just reading about this poem in History Matters, Contemporary Poetry on the Margins of American Culture by Ira Sadoff. He puts it better than I could when he says, “I find myself drawn to poems that seem to reflect more of the world where we actually reside: a world of great speed, a world suspicious of truth and ideology, a world where the medium can be acknowledged and explored as artifice as well as be seamlessly invisible…or one that layers contrary voices and actively wrestles with cohesion and difference.”
All of this is to say, poetry shouldn’t need personal trauma and struggle to fuel it. But if we are to write about ourselves, I think we need to tap into that strange ubiquitous macrocosm outside our own stories.
Falenko for O:JA&L: I think there may be things to critique about poetry now, but is it really any more “narcissistic” than it’s always been? I kind of doubt it. I wonder if some of that isn’t more of a backlash against who is telling the stories? That being said, I do think the narcissism of society in general may naturally bleed into our art. You mentioned backlash. It seems like that is constant in poetry now – outrage and backlash. Do you have a feel for why that is? And for how it affects the “community,” as it were?
Foster: Poetry may not currently be more narcissistic as an art form, but certainly the internet landscape of social media and “Instagram poetry” and the like is making it easy for the personal lyric to become dangerously prolific. I mean, the Instagram and Twitter models are built entirely around springboarding micro observations into relevance. And with instant affirmations, “likes,” and shares, it can make any ordinary occurrence appear extraordinary. Many writers today let Twitter tell them what is good or worthy of our time. And on the topic of outrage and backlash—most of that happens to exist on Twitter. So for instance, it caught on quickly through social media that the article about poetry and narcissism was “bad” because it was short sighted, or ahistorical, or because it was written by a white man, and it was immediately “cancelled” before a more nuanced conversation that could be had. There is a disproportionate balance of constructive dialog and knee-jerk outrage that makes a sense of “community” very difficult or perhaps even impossible online if you don’t comply with the hot take of the day. My real sense of community and constructive conversations/debates happen offline, when it’s all passion and interest in the art and there is no online performance involved.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Performance is an interesting idea. I’ve heard that discussed before – this sense of so much of the online world being about making sure people see you being a certain way. Do you think social media and the move toward “online” mags, etc. has been good for poetry? Or bad? Neutral? It doesn’t seem to me like there is really a place for those nuanced conversations to happen online.
Foster: A lot has changed in poetry over recent years. And it is exciting in many ways—social media has changed the entire publishing paradigm. Some really amazing journals exist entirely online, and that means quality writing can be accessible fast, and for free. A far-reaching platform like the Internet gives opportunities to otherwise marginalized voices. It also allows me, a 39-year old mother of 3 in a quiet cow town quick access to friends I wouldn’t otherwise meet because I can’t get out as much. I can open my computer and read the sudden achingly gorgeous poem written by a young poet from Sokoto, Nigeria reacting to the recent terrorist attack in New Zealand. Even though the Internet has been around for a while now, it does feel like we are in the thrust of an amazing transition in how we publish and consume poetry. That is not to say kinks haven’t cropped up. It also means anyone with a domain and a decent website template can create a magazine and call themselves an editor. If there is one thing I respect as much as a great writer it is a great editor, and they are not easy to come by.
Falenko for O:JA&L: Who do you think is doing the real work? What do you like to read? And say more about that editor thing, because we hear a lot about online being a way to maybe decrease the consolidation of gatekeeping power? But it sounds like you think that hasn’t been entirely helpful.
Foster: There is trendy criticism out there that some editors are evil “gatekeepers” of their publication. And of course, historically speaking, in a field dominated by white male editors you will find a history of white male bias. But there are so many diverse publications out there now and diverse editors—and why shouldn’t they be the gatekeepers of their own babies? If we don’t insert some level of our own taste and bias into our publications then there would be no artistic sentiment to make one publication different from another. I’ve thought about both sides of this debate a lot. There is one thought that all work should be read anonymously, and should be autonomous of its creator. The idea being if the excellence is there, then it deserves a platform to be read. There is another argument that all writers should be screened—not just of their identity, but also for their politics, religion, or any infractions they may have committed in the past. Editors are now afraid they’ll be targeted for publishing a “problematic” person, (by some arbitrary Twitter definition) even if the work itself isn’t “problematic.” Editors are crunching numbers to make sure that they are publishing equal parts of all races, identities, genders and non-genders. And I guess I fall somewhere in the middle. I think a good editor chooses work that is excellent, and work that has something to contribute to the larger literary conversation. And maybe that process should be part blind, part curated. It’s an overly optimistic standpoint, I realize, but I think some editors aren’t getting the credit they deserve. I hope I’m not rambling too much here—it really is a tough subject. If you look at the guidelines of some of these newer online magazines there is a bit of an obsession with whom they will and will not publish. And I understand the importance of publicly honoring and promoting diversity. But what I’m finding is this obsession is less about being an excellent editor and more about conducting a performance of ideological and editorial purity. This new woke model of publishing, for all its good intentions, is all nest and no bird, as a friend of mine likes to say.
Falenko for O:JA&L: I agree. I think it’s a subject that needs a bit more space than can be given in a tweet, for instance. I like what you said about contributing to the conversation, because I do think art is an ongoing conversation, and I do see the need for support of all kinds of stories to be told. I think that last point is a good one. There are people who make use of that to gain their own sort of cachet, but I also know there are people really trying to add to the ongoing conversation in ways that lead to a lot more voices being heard. So if you fall in that middle ground, who is doing that work for you? Who do you see as “required reading”?
Foster: Well I think this new norm of the self-flagellating white person obsessively and publicly “checking their privilege” isn’t doing much for the overall conversation. It’s just empty activism. I think we could all benefit by doing a lot more listening than talking. Reading over tweeting. Thoughtful engagement over performative engagement. If we do this consciously and sincerely, I do think we will trend in the right direction. When it comes to my online participation in the community, I see no value in blocking or cancelling unlike minded writers and creating an echo chamber for poetry. I like to read about what everyone is reading and writing and publishing. I like reading diverse opinions and keeping my little computer mouse on the pulse of the day-to-day buzz, if you will. My required reading list is long—I say read everything. Publications that I think are doing great work are The New England Review, Salamander, A Public Space, and Rattle, to name a few. But I could write a much longer list. Moon City Review, Mom Egg Review and Waccamaw, come to mind. I’ve just been checking out Nelle, a women-only journal based out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham that’s putting out some great work. A recommended reading list of poets would take too long to write—how about I list what’s on my night stand? The Low Passions by Anders Carlson-Wee, Blood Song, by Michael Schmeltzer, Hip Logic by Cornelius Eady, The Davids Inside David by Sarah Wetzel, The Silence that Remains by Ghassan Zaqtan, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay, I Know Your Kind by William Brewer, and Still Life with two dead Peacocks and a Girl by Diane Seuss.
I talked a lot about the online world, and that’s because as a mom of three young kids I can’t make it to readings as much as I’d like. But getting off the computer and into the actual community always brings things back down to earth for me. I have been really fortunate to participate in some workshops at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA in the last few years. Last year I spent a week working with Cornelius Eady. Something that really stuck with me was when he said, “What is poetry but the poet simply saying, ‘I have to tell you something.’” At the end of the day it really is that simple, right? We are just people taking in the human experience expressing what once may have felt nameless or untellable. We just need to take more time to listen to one another.
Where do I fall in the poetry world now? I’m not sure. Like many people I find the common description of “emerging” poet to be ill-fitting. I’ve spent the last 20 years devoted to reading and writing and participating in poetry communities, publishing and getting an MFA, but by some arbitrary common slang standards I’m still just a poet in a dinosaur egg, with no way of knowing if I’ll “emerge” before time fossilizes me over. Wish me luck.
Falenko for O:JA&L: I think we all feel that way sometimes. Thank you for sharing your work and thoughts with us here, Kate. It means so much.
About the interviewer:
Vera Falenko is a 2017 graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, a State University. She is a native Russian speaker and a language specialist with fluency in English (English level C2, according to the European frame) and Spanish (Spanish level C1). She is a senior teacher of foreign languages at Alibra School, a private institution in Moscow. Falenko is an O:JA&L Contributing Editor for Arts & Letters of Moscow. She also provides selected Russian and Spanish translations for our readers in the Eurozone and in eastern Europe. She maintains an independent book review site, offering book reviews in three languages.
Image: Courtesy of Kate Hanson Foster.