'The performance of freedom'
Close Listening with Tonya Foster and Charles Bernstein
Editorial note: The following conversation is from Close Listening, a program hosted by Charles Bernstein and produced by Clocktower Radio, in collaboration with PennSound, on June 18, 2013, at Studio 215 in New York. It was transcribed by Mariah Macias and subsequently edited for publication. The conversation, between Charles Bernstein and Tonya Foster, discusses Foster’s then-forthcoming poetry collection, A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Belladonna*, 2015), as well as topics surrounding Foster’s writing process and African American poetry communities such as Umbra and Cave Canem. Foster is the author of the bilingual chapbook La Grammaire des Os, translated by Olivier Brossard (joca seria, 2016), as well as the coeditor of Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art (Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 2002). She is also an assistant professor of writing and literature at California College of the Arts. Charles Bernstein is the author of various poetry collections, the most recent of which include Near/Miss (University of Chicago Press, 2018), Recalculating (University of Chicago Press, 2013), and All the Whiskey in Heaven (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010). He was the Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania prior to his retirement in the spring of 2019. A recording of Foster’s reading can be found here, and a recording of the full conversation can be found here. — Kelly Liu
Charles Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, ArtOnAir’s program of readings and conversations with poets, produced in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today for the first of two programs is Tonya Foster, whose book A Swarm of Bees in High Court is forthcoming from Belladonna. My name is Charles Bernstein. On today’s program, Tonya will read from her new book. Tonya, welcome to Close Listening.
Tonya Foster: Thank you.
Bernstein: It’s good to have you here, and good to have you read from your book, which is going to come out in the fall of 2013.
Foster: Yes, finally.
Bernstein: Yes, it’s been a while. How long have you been working on this book?
Foster: I prefer not to answer that. It’s kinda like telling your age.
Bernstein: [Laughing.] Well, that’s a great answer, for time immemorial. Okay. Well, the first book is often like that. It sits and gestates and transforms itself.
Foster: Yeah. I mean, I’m thinking about two poems that I wanted to read, and how those poems mark a very kind of different voice, trajectory, and all these things that in some way this poem has in pieces, that it marks a — I can’t say development, because I don’t think that’s accurate. But it marks a kind of … well, you used this term: “echolocation.” That there are these kind of voicings that I have that mark the “where” of a particular time period — and then there’s something else that marks the kind of “where” of another time period.
[Foster reads from A Swarm of Bees in High Court.]
Bernstein: Welcome to Close Listening, Artonair.org’s program of readings and conversations with poets, produced in collaboration with PennSound. My guest today, for the second of two programs, is Tonya Foster, whose new book A Swarm of Bees in High Court is forthcoming in the fall of 2013 from the great Belladonna. Foster lives in New York, where she is a doctoral student in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. My name is Charles Bernstein. Tonya, welcome back!
Foster: Thank you!
Bernstein: Good to have you again on Close Listening.
Foster: Thank you.
Bernstein: So, just sort of bouncing off your reading that you just did here, I wonder if you would talk a little bit about the role that sound plays in your work. There’s lots of sound associations and inchoate sounds in your work, and a lot of it seems to move through progressions of sounds. I noted just one example: “salt and startled.” Which of course, if you just scramble the letters of startled, you get salt in there — and yet it’s not an expected kind of rhyme, assonance, and alliteration — but you seem to have a lot of things like that. And at one point you say toward the end of your reading: “follow thought and sound.” How do you follow thought and sound?
Foster: Well, I feel like I hear when I’m writing, and that for me, the sort of sound of language — I’m not even clear what I’m about to say. I feel like the sound of language produces meanings in unexpected ways, and that sometimes a word will sound right without my necessarily thinking about what it means — that musically it feels right, which makes no sense, ’cause I can’t sing. But that’s how I write for me. The thought is so much about sound, what I’ve heard, and what I’m hearing.
Bernstein: So you don’t have a particular message or anecdote in mind that you try to set into the poem? But rather, compose in some other way.
Foster: Really, it’s what’s in the language — what are the syllables suggesting? Which is why sometimes, within the poems, there’s that shifting between “there” and “here,” between “she” and “he.” There’s also for me that kind of visual reference within the word to some other word, but there’s also the musical, the sonic, reference to some other word.
Bernstein: Do you think of the work as lyric poetry?
Bernstein: What gives the particular shape or structure to the individual poems or to the poems’ sections? In fact, were those individual poems you read, or is there just, would you just say, one poem that has many sections, the poem called Swarms of Bees in High Court?
Foster: I think it’s one long poem, many sections. The focus for me was on writing haiku, ’cause I started this at a time when I was working six days a week and doing other things and —
Bernstein: You mean that you did not devote all of your time —
Bernstein: — to just composing verse, Tonya?
Foster: I know, doggone it, I know! Man, I often feel like a failure [laughing], because I’m not —
Bernstein: A failure not to be a rich person.
Foster: — not to be a rich person. [Laughing.]
Bernstein: I wonder why you feel that way. I wonder if it’s something about the culture you’re in —
Foster: [Laughing.] You think?
Bernstein: — that encourages that sort of thinking.
Foster: Why aren’t you rich? No, I did once ask my mother what happened to my trust fund.
Foster: [Laughing.] “What were you guys doing?”
Bernstein: The sound of the language is your trust fund.
Foster: Yeah, well that is it.
Bernstein: You’re a rich person when it comes to having beautiful sounds that you can make — or clashing sounds, too, but intricate and powerful sounds.
Foster: There’s also something comforting. I mean, there is a structure in that each stanza is seventeen syllables, or sometimes each line, if they’re stretched out to a line, are seventeen syllables or fewer. That many of the little poems or little parts within are pairs of haiku, except for the initial ones, where then you’ll have a long poem in which each stanza is seventeen syllables.
Bernstein: It sure don’t sound like haiku.
Foster: It doesn’t, and I think it’s the serial nature of it that breaks it away from — I mean, haiku are incredibly contained.
Bernstein: Well, it also doesn’t have the thematic structure of haiku, so that’s why it doesn’t sound like it and it’s run together. But the seventeen — something you hear with your ear or you count or, I guess, both, probably?
Foster: I’ve begun — I probably hear it now more than — when I started, I was counting. Now I hear it. It’s a very specific rhythm.
Bernstein: So would you allow it to go eighteen, sixteen —
Bernstein: — do you allow oddness or variation?
Foster: No. I do allow fewer than seventeen, but not more than seventeen.
Bernstein: Everyone’s gotta have standards, that’s what I say.
Bernstein: How about the rhythm? Somewhat different, although related perhaps to lyric and sound following thought. There’s a lot of rhythmic propulsion, very much unlike haiku in its traditional form, in your work, through the use of parallel structure, for example. You have similar kinds of things starting a sentence and repeat slight variations on it, which create a rhythmic propulsion through — what do you feel about rhythm?
Foster: You have to have a beat. It’s — the measure of breath, I think, that there’s a rhythm to our breathing. How do I think of rhythm in relation to this? Wow. What I think of is growing up in a Baptist church and the rhythm of the sort of — there’s certainly the old sense, the sort of breath, and those kind of sonic things — but the rhythm of speech was incredibly important. And I think it’s important here. It’s through the repetition, through the control, that it sets off the certain kind of rhythm — but there’s also the beats.
Bernstein: Now, you wouldn’t be the first person to mention the black church in relationship to poetry, and the sermonic tradition, oral tradition, of speaking. So is that something that emerges as part of the content of the work? Because we’ve talked about it up until you mentioned the black church and the South — you grew up in New Orleans, and I want to come back to that — it’s kind of technical and abstract in the way I was asking the questions. Yet your work, listening to it, has an incredibly strong thematic aspects to it. So how does that come about?
Foster: For me it has to do with place and arriving. But I’ve always been thinking about place and that places have very particular sounds, very particular rhythms and language, and that the bulk of this was written living in Harlem. Harlem has a very different life rhythm than where I grew up in New Orleans. The difference is in speed but also insistence, that there is this very strong, pointed beat that’s repeated again and again in ways — and it’s both the rhythm of movement, but it’s also the sounds of cars, the sort of constant sound of voices on the street, even when you’re in your house. And so that, for me, informs the music of the poetry — that particular location, that particular block, and the activity sort of living on the block.
Bernstein: Did you feel some connection with the sound of New Orleans, which was very powerful to you apart from the church? Did you go to church often and hear sermons?
Foster: I was in the choir.
Bernstein: You were in the choir.
Foster: I was in the choir. And at some point I may have even taught Sunday school.
Bernstein: So it’s the whole sound of the black church of New Orleans that’s part of your sonic inheritance — the choir, the singing, as well as the sermons.
Foster: Absolutely. When I think of — I used to think about these moments in church where — like I went to the Stronger Hope Baptist Church as a kid, and I went to Ebenezer Baptist Church. And I was in the choir at Stronger Hope, ’cause I was too young to be in the choir at Ebenezer. And there would be these moments where … I mean, it feels weird to describe it. I can recall writing about it. You hear a kind of — something happens in the church. And it’s this moment, as a kid I used to just think, “Boy, what fun!” But as I grew older, I realized that this was about a kind of blues aesthetic. And that it was this moment where you have not just a call and response that everybody knows about, but this — this exploration of suffering and at the same time of joy, and that it can only could occur in the rhythmic spaces created by preacher and the choir at the same time, in sonic collaboration.
Bernstein: Now that’s a community space, as well as a place. Often when one thinks of lyric
Foster: Think of the lone voice.
Bernstein: — one thinks more of a person by themself, if not necessarily just a single voice, but nonetheless a person by themself, often displaced or alienated from community — in one tradition of poetry, though certainly not the dominant and main one as the history of poetry goes, but one that is common for people that you know in New York. So where does that connection come, then, for you? Even autobiographically, in New Orleans, where do you first — how does poetry emerge from that sonic and communitarian experience?
Foster: Well there’s the — I mean, this is a great question. In this particular book I’m troubled by the idea of “I.” I actually think the lyric “I” — it keeps going between “she” and “he” and “we” and “us,” because “I” is a troubled space that isn’t necessarily — doesn’t exist independent of the community. So there’s that sort of idea that I have, somewhere. But in — at the church itself, you know, as a kid, at some point, it was discovered that I was writing poetry. And I remember the teachers went on strike, and so I was asked by the school librarian to write a poem about the teachers’ strike. It was published in the Louisiana Weekly, a black newspaper. And the church would also ask me to write poems, and I would read these poems at church.
Bernstein: This was when you were how old?
Foster: Teachers’ strike … I would’ve been in sixth grade? Sixth or seventh grade? And then church … probably would’ve been about that time, yeah. So that poetry was — there was the idea of me as a poet, that I was welcomed into this space —
Bernstein: Remarkable. As a twelve-year-old you are asked by the primary institutions with which you are involved — school and church — to be the voice of the strike of teachers or of things related to the church. Let me go back to my question, which relates to your scholarly engagements as well as your poetry. How do you make that transition to a very different conception of poetry as a genre and a practice, which is now so central to you. I could sort of intuitively, see how we can make that jump-cut, but there’s enormous transformation that has to go on because you’re not speaking as the voice of an institution or as a child, but as an adult with a much more ambivalent and complex relationship to all to such institutions and indeed to voice.
Foster: Well I feel like you’re asking me a mighty hard question. That the truth is —
Bernstein: Well that’s why I brought you here to Studio 215!
Foster: [Laughing.] No, it’s a great question. And part of what — like, I feel like that transition is incredibly — has been incredibly difficult for me because I recognize the impossibility of speaking for a community. I have no interest in speaking for an institution. And it leads me to the question: what’s the work of the poem and the poet, as I see it?
Bernstein: And do you have an answer for that? For yourself?
Foster: For myself? In this work, I feel like what I did was I listened a lot. And that there — in some ways, there are moments when it’s, you know, journalistic. So that there’s the report of what’s heard on the street. There are the voices, the street, that enter and are in quotes and italics. And those things are a part of the construction of the poem. I try to make a space to acknowledge that this poem is not created in isolation, but that it’s created in this context of, you know, these other bodies and voices.
Bernstein: So that would be the title, the “swarm of bees,” and that “high court” to be something like literary tradition or a high literature or something like that? It’s one possible way to understand how you think about that. But let’s go over the court, the “high court” or low court, as it might be. The place of poetry writing in the community of poets that you’re part of, at least here in New York, where you’ve been — when did you move to New York?
Foster: A long time ago.
Bernstein: Okay, a long time ago.
Bernstein: In the nineties, and you were a relatively young poet and hadn’t published that much when you moved here. So do you feel a part of a community of poets or a connection to not just — I’m not talking locally in New York, but what is your feeling of your relationship to contemporary poets.
Foster: I feel like I’ve been welcomed into a community, into different communities, and I didn’t necessarily — I didn’t know that they existed before I moved here. And so I moved here — I mean, I have friends who are ecopoets, friends who are considered experimental poets, friends who are considered Language poets, friends who are — I was gonna say straight-up lyric poets, but I feel like that group of people that I’m tied to is smaller than the sort of traditional lyric poets. It’s smaller than before the move to New York, and especially because my education was very much Theodore Roethke and a particular line of poetry.
Bernstein: Well you went to the University of Houston, didn’t you —
Foster: I did.
Bernstein: — which has a somewhat different aesthetic, at least at that time, than would be reflected by this book.
Foster: Yes, it’s very different. And I —
Bernstein: So there’s that transition, too. So your first transition was actually towards that more conventional conception of the lyric — much more “I”-centric —
Foster: And I couldn’t do that.
Bernstein: — probably much more subject matter-centric, much more craft oriented. Would those be fair characterizations?
Foster: That’s fair. And I couldn’t do it. Or, you know, I haven’t —
Bernstein: Couldn’t or wouldn’t?
Foster: Well, I think there are a couple of things —
Bernstein: Or shouldn’t? [Laughing.]
Foster: Like I have a couple of poems that are more like, “This happened. Here’s the story. Here I am, reflecting on this happening.” And I wouldn’t allow myself to — I don’t know. Like, I want to do improv standup. Giving myself over to the sound of language is kind of an improv standup moment. Where does the syllable lead, where does the word lead? As opposed to deciding beforehand that this is where I think it’s gonna take me. And I think that had to be the transition for me to kind of shake something loose and let myself say, “Wait a minute. I’m just gonna look at this word and see what happens.”
Bernstein: So in New York you mentioned overlapping communities or cadres of poets grouped along, to some degree, stylistic affinities, but there are other ways that poets are related, in terms of conceptions of identity. Is that not part of the affiliations that you have, too?
Foster: Well, I’m not a part of Cave Canem —
Bernstein: Which is what?
Foster: Which is an amazing organization — African American poets. It was founded by Cornelius Eady and Toi Derricotte. And there are African American poets with whom I’m very close, and those friendships matter in the way that those identifications matter. Like I think the body is the soul, or at least that’s how we know the soul, and so that idea of transcendence has always troubled me ’cause it seems to be a notion of leaving the material, leaving the body behind.
Bernstein: But it also has to do with reading values, that’s what I would say as a teacher these days, rather than something intrinsic in the work. What difference would it make if we read this poem and assumed this person is x or y, Jewish or non-Jewish, for example. There’s a lot of different things that you could say about a poem, but much of it has to do with reading values (what you look for) and what projection into the poem, to some degree based on your identifications. Things that are not necessarily intrinsic to the poem, even if cued by the poem, but are part of the framing of the poem, the community, perhaps you could say, that the poem affiliates itself with (or that reader affiliates the poem with). So the poem is not just the body — the soul is not just the body, but the body is, as you just said, is in a community, is in a space. And so when you confront the body of the poem, respond to the “I” of the poem, you also confront the space that surrounds the poem. You don’t just burrow into and under the alphabetic letters, which you hear as this swarm of the bees inside the poem. The more you plunge into the letters, sound the letters, the more you hear something which is outside them and outside also the eye/I of the poem.
Foster: Yes, yes, exactly. I mean, it’s interesting ’cause we just did — I teach at Bard’s Language and Thinking Institute and we just did these workshops with Mahmoud Darwish’s — a poem of his — and I thought it was interesting that decontextualization of Darwish … in part because, I think, we need to know the context that this voice is not only reflecting but that actually shapes the voice and the nature of the poem. So, I’m with you, I think —
Bernstein: Right, and in that case, you also have the translation, which suggests a number of different aspects. Let me circle around one more time to the issue of the presentation of the poem, but it relates to this, that we talked about in the beginning, the performance. What is now — you’re publishing your book, so, you have some recordings on PennSound of yours, you’ve done a lot of readings … You’ve published work, but you haven’t had a book before, poems that are bound together on the page. How do you think of the difference between the printed book read as a book and a performance of your work?
Foster: Well, the reading — the reading, it seems to me, is this sort of intimate experience, or it seems like … you curl up with the book, you’re alone with it. The performance is interactive in a different way. I was going to say “much more interactive,” But I think that’s not accurate. It’s interactive in a very different way. It’s more communal. I love the way NourbeSe Philip is now doing these readings of her work, right, where she gives the audiences pieces of the text and they become a part of the sort of public performance of that work. That’s what I think performance is about. That we’re — even the audience is part of the performance of it. When it’s published, as a writer, I don’t really know what’s going on in those sort of individual performances that happen when they’re reading alone. And I’m okay with that. I like that idea. I’m probably more comfortable with that, than with the public performances, just in terms of my nature.
Bernstein: Except that you haven’t published a book until now, whereas you have continuously done readings and presentations.
Foster: That’s to affirm my — to keep my membership in the poetry club.
Bernstein: Okay. I mean, there are aspects — you know, obviously, I’m very interested in the issue of performing poetry — but there are aspects of the timbre of the voice, the accent and so on, which are not present — to what degree that’s significant or not to you. In your case, since your recordings precede you, folks reading your book can listen to a show like this and orient themselves —
Foster: What do you think the difference is? Like, I’m okay with people — I’m curious, actually, about the voices, the sounds, that others bring to reading this text, as different from my own voice. Because I can’t get away from — I write by hearing.
Bernstein: Reading by sounding is a fundamental — it’s an aesthetic that we share, actually, so in a way that’s another affinity group that you and I and others are part of –– the subset even of the various communities that we’re involved in. But the significance of sound, and reading by sounding, is markedly different in different traditions. Just to be as reductive as I can: I’m interested in the Jewish tradition of both chanting the written text and oral and written commentary on the text. The Midrashic counts on a very fixed text, but one that is open to multiplicity in interpterion, in sounding, in performance (to push it well outside any orthodoxy). The Lord is One but a one that is sounded in a multiplicity of ways. And I’d be with Edmond Jabès and say that one, the fixed text, is a blank space. A blank space that allows it to be a gathering point. I am interested in the poetic connections allowed by certain intersections of wildly different traditions, your black church, my mashugana account of the “midrashic.” So here we are, at the utopian space that our shared interest in poetry as sounding language allows.
Bernstein: I mean, you wouldn’t want to go too far with it, because you have to recognize the great differences. But this is a leadup now to my question for you about what your work as a scholar and a researcher is. And I don’t want to make this question too general, but I still — because I want to ask you about place, which you mentioned before, but what are looking at —
Bernstein: — as a scholar. And why have you turned to scholarship — up till now, we’ve talked about you as a person, coming into different poetry communities, writing new work, the relationship of performance to that work, and so on. And, related to your scholarship and research, what is your engagement in poetics, giving talks in poetry, rather than academic, contexts? How do you approach these activities in your life?
Foster: Well, I’m at a great moment right now. I’m doing research at the Grad Center. There’s the CUNY Poetics Document Initiative. And I’m working on — I’ve been a kind of listed as an editor for Lost and Found, researching Umbra.
Bernstein: So this is a series of documents, small publications, that put back into print archival work and also create new editions of letters and other primary sources. Under the general editorship of Ammiel Alcalay. Umbra — maybe you should explain what it is, since it’s not immediately known.
Foster: Umbra was a black artist — although all the members weren’t black — black artists’ workshop, that occurred between 1961 and early 1965, when Umbra stopped being a workshop. They published a couple of magazines during that time, and then there were Umbra anthologies published between, I think, ’65 and ’75. And the members of Umbra — I mean, it was a real diverse mix of guys: David Henderson, Tom Dent, Lorenzo Thomas, Ishmael Reed Rashida Ismali, Joe Johnson, Charles Patterson, Calvin Hicks, Calvin Hernton, Lennox Raphael, Norman Pritchard, Askia Toure, Archie Shepp, Brenda Walcott — I mean, this incredible mix of writers. And then there were photographers who were — who participated in the workshop. The Umbra poets knew Amiri Baraka and were in conversation with him. I found this wonderful letter, or sort of brief article, that Lorenzo Thomas wrote about Amiri Baraka’s generosity in getting him published in a journal in France called Revolution. I think it was his first publication. And Lorenzo also talked about how Baraka saw to it that other Umbra folk got published.
Bernstein: Now the Umbra group could be understood in contrast to Cave Canem in that the Umbra group, at least some of the members — the best known members, at that — represent a more formally radical work within American poetry. Do you see a distinction between those two aesthetics?
Foster: I do, except there’s — interesting. Like in Cave Canem, there’s the Black Took Collective. Cave Canem is home to a remarkable range of poets and poetics.
Bernstein: Right, that’s — which would be more like Umbra in that way.
Foster: Exactly, more like Umbra. And the Black Took poets — Duriel Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin, Ronaldo Wilson — perform together, they do kind of interventions, which I think is a lot of what Umbra did. The Umbra poets were on the Lower East Side. These guys would show up at readings together and do readings and inhabit a space. Black Took Collective seems very much like that. [Founded in 1999 by Duriel E. Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ronaldo V. Wilson at Cave Canem.]
Bernstein: But do you see a split within African American postwar writing between work that’s more formally wild, such as represented by Umbra, and work that has a more conventional approach to the lyric and to voicing?
Foster: I think there — yeah, there’s that split. Definitely. I think there are many splits within African American poetry — in American poetry, period. And that the idea of what gets housed in — and I say the Academy, and then I think, “I’m a part of the Academy” — is the —
Bernstein: Yeah, you are the absolute mainline of the academy. I just think of you, that’s it. You and —
Foster: [Laughing.] Well, that’s what I’m working toward.
Bernstein: Sure. “The Academy” is metaphoric, we all use it that way. But also a very real set of institutions.
Foster: You have Harryette [Mullen] at UCLA. Nate [Nathaniel] Mackey at Duke. There’s a way that the Academy has made a space for formally radical African American poets. And is it an interest, perhaps, in poetics, in a certain kind of investigative poetics, that leads to, one, the associations with the Academy, but also to formal innovation and a radical aesthetics, in a way that attention to just the traditional lyric is not just investigated? I feel like there are a lot of poets who are writing these sort of poems about historical events, and I wonder about that. Some are doing really, kind of amazing, innovative things. I think of [Fred Moten’s] Houston’s Tavern, which is interesting. But others are just sort of writing a kind of narrative history in the form of a poem — and I wonder about those projects. What calls them to be poems, as opposed to just a history? [And maybe that’s a false binary.]
Bernstein: One thing we keep circling around, though, in terms of these kinds of splits in styles, has to do with who has a right to be — or who is assumed to be — speaking for a group, rather than from a personal, subjective space. And there is also the question of whether this is overemphasized or underemphasized and who tends to overemphasize or underemphasize, how you get framed and whether you can do some reframing.
Foster: Well I think there are definitely different struggles, right, and that there’s a way that this idea of who gets — which stories get to be told, that there’s the — if you’re a member of one group, as you say, that there are certain kinds … this is weird. I think of Frederick Douglass and the idea that he had to have someone affirm that he had written this narrative of his life. So that in terms of place within the American, you know, narrative of identity, of self, that African Americans have certainly — and other groups — have had to assert that there was a subjective self that had a point of view. And the way to prove that was through adopting certain rhetorical strategies and mastering those rhetorical strategies.
Bernstein: Countee Cullen would come to mind as the most famous exponent of that point of view.
Foster: Right. And so then the work — I mean, someone like Harryette Mullen or NourbeSe Philip or Erica Hunt or Julie Patton question the stability of that subjective self that would tell its own story, and reference the many kinds of contingencies on which that identity hinges. So I feel there are those poets doing that work, and then there are the poets who are filling in the stories that couldn’t be told. And not that those are the only divisions; that’s one of the divisions that I point to —
Bernstein: Well, it’s an important division in that it exists across many lines in poetry, although I would emphasize very asymmetrically. I have a line in a poem from many years back — “and nobody wants to hear about the pain we men feel having our prerogatives questioned.”
Bernstein: [Laughing.] Well, that’s a long genre of poems itself.
Foster: That’s very Robert Bly of you.
Bernstein: Although I don’t know whether Robert Bly was fully aware that his prerogatives were being questioned. [Laughing.]
Bernstein: That’ll be as far as I’m gonna go on this. So now I want to kind of transform that sort of reflection back onto your interest in place. What does place have to do with it? How do you see place as being a crucial missing frame for talking about … well, what we’ve been talking about? Because a lot of the discussion is in terms of identity or “stories that are told or untold,” “visibility/invisibility,” “legibility/illegibility” — outside of a context of place.
Bernstein: But you are wanting to say, “No, there’s something that’s inadequate about that.”
Foster: Oh yeah.
Bernstein: And what is that? What’s missing?
Foster: Well the first thing that comes to mind: I think of hip hop. And I think of rap songs where the accent tells you where the rapper’s from, and also determines what rhymes with what.
Bernstein: Which once again we come back against the importance of recording and aurality, listening. Something you can’t get on the printed page. A printed page can’t give you accent quite in that way. It can tip its hat to it, but —
Foster: And the question becomes, “how do you” — I mean, think of what [Kamau] Brathwaite does with his Sycorax font— how things are laid out, that he’s attempting to — and how he spells things — that he’s attempting to get at the aural. And how the aural is, and oral, is place-specific, and that being in a place means that you sound a way — or you sound like an insider or an outsider.
Bernstein: So this is Kamau Brathwaite and his theory of “nation language,” which he contrasts with dialect. This goes very deep into with what we’ve talking about.
Foster: Exactly. And so — I mean, I think … my first thought was I picture rappers, and I picture these different spellings, and I think of how this indicates whether you’re from the dirty south or the west coast or east coast or whatever. But that’s where sound and location — sound is embedded in the location.
Bernstein: But how about … to use one of my favorite phrases from Langston Hughes in Montage of a Dream Deferred: what does that mean for “a people in transition”?
Foster: I’ve been thinking about the transnational, but I like that you called it the non-national. I’ve been thinking about transnational blackness, and trying to — in the scholarship, I’m thinking about as I’m reading a lot of fiction and poetry of black peoples, African-descended peoples in the Americas. I’m trying to think through what are the indicators of this black country as told in these different languages, and told by people who are in the middle of becoming either more pan-African, or — which may be incorrect, right — who may be becoming less black.
Bernstein: Whatever that means. But you’re talking about, for one thing, a movement from Africa to, in our case, the Americas, through the great and barbaric, horrific violence of the Middle Passage — so that’s one transnational passage of the diasporic. But there — in Hughes, he’s partly talking about Harlem; he’s talking about people coming from someplace else, going somewhere else, people getting on the subway —
Foster: And making someplace else.
Bernstein: — people constantly moving. Yeah. And making someplace else in the context of that transition. So you’re not necessarily from the place your parents are from; you’re making the place where you are in transition. I mean, that’s a little bit more Emersonian, maybe, than what you’re getting at. So they’re the — at least those very different dynamics, the fundamental violence of the diasporic in respect to African peoples in America, and then transition and transformation within the Americas itself.
Foster: Yeah, and see, I actually think people are in the middle of incredible transition now. And that the question of moving from the kind of nationalistic stance to a transnational stance, to perhaps a non-national stance, is a movement to the global self, whatever that is. And so what does that mean — for me, the question is, “What does that mean for how we understand blackness?”
Bernstein: So you really want to go back and rethink Du Bois and Garvey.
Foster: Yeah. And well, how do we understand this moment coming out of Du Bois, Garvey, Paul Gilroy? I’m wondering about that in terms of poetry and poetics. But I don’t know if that answers your question.
Bernstein: It does. But — is there an answer? Can you say how you’re thinking about defining a tradition of people writing about these issues, scholars and poets, poets who think through multiple sides of these issues, many of whom we’ve mentioned. What are the stakes in the different approaches to poetry in terms of voicing, voice, identity, our relation to American English, relation to vernacular, dialect, nonstandardization. How, right now at this moment, how would you reconfigure those things? That’s a huge question.
Foster: Well, it is a huge question. When I started what I was thinking of — the first thing I was thinking about was how these constructions of place have to do with performances of freedom. When I think about poets who are doing more experimental, radical work, what they seem to be doing to my mind is not so much rejecting as acting out these possibilities. These different permutations of freedom, in terms of language, thought, sound, visually what it looks like. But that has consequences for the subjectivities that we create. I’m reading and trying to just make notes on, what is meant by transnational? What are people saying are the problems of the transnational moment? How do I define blackness when, you know, I have to look at — there’s a book called Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, by Jack Forbes, that talks about the evolution in the Americas of the terms “black” and “native.” I feel like I’m going along these two tracks of the transnational and the black in order to understand what poets are doing. Because I do think that the work of the poets that I’ve mentioned are about performances of freedom.
Bernstein: You have been listening to Tonya Foster on PennSound’s Close Listening, produced with Clocktower radio. For more information on PennSound, go to writing.upenn.edu/pennsound. The program was recorded on June 18, 2013 at Studio 215 on New York’s Upper West Side. This is Charles Bernstein, for whom Close Listening is a form of identity aesthetics.