Our Generation: An Interview With Tonya Foster
When I decided to do this series of interviews based on how poet and scholar Tyrone Williams defines and depicts our "generations" in his intro to mary wants to be a superwoman (Third Man Books, 2017), the second book in my box set trilogy, I was most anxious to find out what Tonya Foster would have to say. Although we have many mutual friends, we've only known one another for a short time, corresponding off and on for the past couple of years, seeing each other once in a blue moon, but always having "grown folks" conversations.
I can't think of a better way of ending this series than by interviewing a vibrant female poet who feels that it is high time to come in from the woods.
mary wants to be a superwoman retraces the history of the women in my mother's family, starting with The Trail of Tears and moving into the present. It is a personal history of race in America. My family history is complicated, like any family history in America. mary is all about processing that history, the day to day, dealing with a history that has been passed down, to an extent, stories and memories that I had nothing to do with, and how to live and move on from that history and its implications.
In his introduction to mary, Williams begins what I consider to be a conversation about "generations" of poets, ancestors, and kin, who may or may not be blood relatives but are somehow related. I wanted to continue that conversation with poets of color from the very generations Williams designates, his generation and my generation, and invited a small panel to join us. I am hoping that these four conversations, interviews with Foster, Harmony Holiday, and Tongo Eisen-Martin, in addition to Williams, will lead to wider conversations within the poetry community, inspire new works, or at least allows us to have a family reunion.
erica lewis (el) : Hello, miss Tonya Foster.
Tonya Foster (tf): Hello, miss erica lewis.
el: What were your initial thoughts when you read the intro to mary wants to be a superwoman? I know that you have some strong feelings about the designation of "generations."
tf: Tyrone's taxonomies, his identification of the various parts of your "identity" caught my attention: part African American, part Cherokee, part white. I'm curious about how each part designates location, except for the murkily differentiated "white," which is apparently all over, "universal." The African in the American (U.S.) context and the Cherokee in (and out) of the Americanizing context both point to boundaries of nation(s). White is not nationally limited, and yet it is readily legitimated as citizen by the U.S. American nation. Those seem to be the conventions. And what does any of this have to do with poetry? I’m thinking how we identify is bound to where we are, where we are at, in the bloodline, in the social space, in the political space, geographically. I'm rarely more American than outside of the national/geographical boundaries of the U.S. There is also the impossibility of accounting for "all" of who we are, particularly when we are rarely only who or what we think we are, and who and what we are shifts, like bodies, through and in time.
el: So, then who do you consider your direct aesthetic kin and why? Can you talk about tracing your lineage (poetic or otherwise)?
tf: Tyrone's distinctions between the two groups—aesthetic kin and blood relatives—are, for me, not so clear, not so definitive, especially as some of my blood relatives are aesthetic kin, and because things keep changing and circles of relation and affinity shift. As a girl, I was in a singing group, "The Chocolate Delights," with my cousin Toni, a visual artist and graphic designer, and my cousin Cynthia, a singer. Much of our childhood was spent making plays and art, and singing in each other's company. My speaking voice is informed by my mother's voice when she read to me. For years, I read what I was writing to relatives. Of course there are aesthetic kin who are not blood relatives.
el: I'm gasping here because my mother tells me that my voice reminds her of her mother's voice, a voice I’ve never heard. She says the inflections in my voice when I speak reminds her of when her mother would tell her stories. I attribute the way that I read and tell stories to my mother because she used to read to me and with me every night before bed. It was a bonding ritual, but also, as I've now come to realize, a way of maybe keeping the past, and the rituals of the past, alive.
tf: When I think about lineage, I think about reading Nikki Giovanni's "Nikki-Rosa" as a 6th grader at Samuel J. Green Middle School. Ms. Monet, the school's white librarian, gave me book after book—Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and so on, and I devoured a lot of what was on the library's shelves. Even as a child, I think I understood something about an observing eye outside of what was home. My notion of literature as a possible mode for invoking ways of being was shaped by works by these writers. Yusef Komunyakaa was a stand-out visitor to New Orleans Center for Creative Arts for me. Rita Dove's Yellow House On the Corner and Thomas and Beulah suggested possible subjects and articulations that made sense (affective and in terms of who I imagined talking with). I was also listening to jazz and the blues under Ellis Marsalis’s tutelage.
Also, four direction-changing things happened for me during my time at University of Houston: 1. I met visiting poet Jay Wright. 2. I got lost driving visiting poet Michael Harper from the airport, and Harper talked about the importance of tending to family, to kin, in poetry, in the work. 3. Visiting poet Allen Grossman recommended that I read Susan Howe’s Singularities, which I threw across a room as I first read it. Later, I wrote opposite poems of each of the pieces in the book. It opened some gate in my thinking about language’s possibilities. 4. Lorenzo Thomas, Edward Hirsch, and Lawrence Hogue were my M.F.A. thesis advisors. Ed talked about the necessity of imagining an audience beyond blood kin. Lorenzo challenged me to take account of the political and aesthetic implications of mythological, historical, and personal references. When I wrote about home language, he asked, "Does moving away from 'the home-language' mean abandoning any 'ethnic authenticity'? Or expanding it? Is an individual—even a poet— capable of expanding ethnic authenticity, or is that the work of a collective?" He directed me to M. NourbeSe Philip, Amiri Baraka, Wole Soyinka, Sterling Brown, and Zora Neale Hurston, who’ve all approached these questions in various ways.
el: Do you feel that the generations are talking to each other, that their works are in conversation?
tf: Always. The past is omnipresent. I think of Gwendolyn Brooks when she says, "It frightens me to realize that, if I had died before the age of fifty, I would have died a 'Negro' fraction." She’s pointing to her impassioned engagement and exchanges with the younger writers of her time. The Fisk Writers' Conference of 1967 marks a significant turning point for her. She was attentive to her time across time—her peers, her progeny. I think of that attentiveness as an openness, a guide for how to be a poet in the world.
el: That's beautiful. I never think of the past as omnipresent, I think of everything as being cyclical, time, and history repeating. My favorite poem is Leroi Jones's (later Amiri Baracka) "in memory of radio." It always does me in. it takes me back to something familiar, something that feels like home but not my own recollection or experience. I always feel like it’s an experience my mom would have had because she used to sit with her family and listen to the radio. Is there a poem(s) that does that to you?
tf: Nikki Giovanni’s "Nikki-Rosa" deeply affected me, haunts me, and suggests a possibility for how the line and how the poem can be pitched for me. I’m as interested in who I’m talking with as in who I’m talking to. Audience and company. There is the idealized beloved of the poem who may or may not be beloved. "Beloved" is direction, to whom the poem is pitched, and is environment, place in which the poem is. There's so much about joy in "Nikki-Rosa," much about remembering joy despite "outside" descriptions and designations, which would reduce and simplify experience. The poem has a kind of blues aesthetic that acknowledges the entanglement of misery and majesty that informs black experience. What has shaped my idea of what’s possible in the "poem" is Giovanni's distinction between the social and aesthetic convention that opens the poem—"childhood remembrances are always a drag/if you’re black"—and that designates "black life" as "a drag," and the lived experiences of working-class black life that the poem celebrates—"how happy you were to have/your mother/all to yourself and/how good the water felt when you got your bath/from one of those/big tubs that folk in Chicago barbecue in…"
el: What is "authentic" blackness?
tf: I read authentic and I can’t avoid authenticate and authentication, which have something to do with legal validity. Too many permutations to validate. Black being(s) slips the ready stroke of the pen, of being penned in.
el: I've been operating under this feeling that we are all having the same conversation, saying the same things in different ways. We are not just extensions of the Black Arts movement or generational desires and societal and cultural change as much as we are still trying to be truth tellers, trying to drive the same points home, telling the stories that need to be told, giving voice to our voiceless, etc. Do you feel that way? Do you feel that our generation is doing that? Are we simply surviving or actually being heard? Are we articulating our "now" or just re-living past traumas that are in our blood?
tf: I've long-wondered about the parameters, limits, and possibilities of home, and am invested in tracking strategies for surviving (and thriving) despite personal and state difficulties.
el: How so?
tf: For years, I regularly dreamed of my maternal grandmother's shotgun house on Melpomene St. in New Orleans, dreamed of wandering through the rooms and neighborhoods. That house is my earliest memory of home. I'm remembering and learning what the people who raised me knew about making something out of apparently nothing, and am as committed as they were to being present to the state of things as they are, and to engaging joy as the sanest form of resistance.
el: How are you keeping the past alive?
tf: Over the last few months, I've been transferring video footage from mini-video-cassettes to my computer. My home has been ringing with the voices of the women who were the matriarchs of my New Orleans clan, ringing with the sounds of family in long-ago gatherings. I recorded many of the cassettes well before and after Katrina, and they are a part of my attempts to keep track and take account, part of learning deep strategies for survival. Poetry is a part of that—a mode and account of being.
el: What’s for dinner?
tf: Summer rolls and lemon chicken stir fry.
el: I love you, Tonya Foster.
tf: I love you, too, erica lewis.
There is a poem in mary that I feel best sums up this entire journey of article writing, conversation, and manifesting kinship. The last lines in "you can feel it all over" ("there are no more / secrets / you have to / as james baldwin said / 'go the way your blood beats' / so we exist / as we are beholden / everything i feel / returns to you") epitomize the idea that you can't escape who you are or who and where you come from, that everything is out in the open now, past and present, and there is a certain freedom in finding and accepting that.
Tonya M. Foster was born in Bloomington, Illinois, and raised in New Orleans. She earned a B.A. from Newcomb College, Tulane University, and an M.F.A. from the University of Houston. Foster is the author of the poetry collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Belladonna*, 2015) and coedited the book Third Mind: Creative Writing through Visual Art (2002). Her work has appeared in Callaloo, MiPoesias, Western Humanities Review, The Hat, and elsewhere. She is an assistant professor of writing and literature at California College of the Arts.
erica lewis was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her books include the precipice of jupiter (2009, with artist Mark Stephen Finein), camera obscura (2010, with artist Mark Stephen Finein), murmur in the inventory (2013); and the first two books of the box set trilogy: daryl hall is my boyfriend (2015) and...