Interview by: Amanda Riggle
I first met Jack Foster at school when he won a scholarship, the Ted Pugh poetry award, for his poem, Romance of the Three Physicists. I listened to him read his poem and, while I could tell he was nervous about reading his work out loud, his poem was excellent. During the next school year, we kept running into each other at work (since we both work as English related tutors) and I ended up in Taiwan with him this summer in a teaching English abroad program.
Talking to Jack I soon learned that he was not only an accomplished poet but a published poet, with one book, Slouching Towards Pakistan, under his belt and a new book, To the Lost, on its way. Jack was kind enough to grant us an interview before he travels abroad once more to China for four month to teach teachers the teaching methods he’s developed abroad (try saying that three times fast). Jack was extremely forthcoming and provided very helpful information that aspiring writers, poets, or people who just love to read good writing and poetry will find both insightful and invaluable.
The Poetics Project: What writing process do you go through when creating a work?
Jack: First of all, thanks for the interview; I appreciate the time you folks took out of your schedule to have a discussion with me—I apologize in advance for my long answers. Getting right into it, my writing process isn’t something set in stone—really it depends more on the type of project. For instance, much of Slouching Towards Pakistan was written during July 2012. My girlfriend and I wrote a poem a day during that month, though I stopped about halfway through because I started obsessing over eight or nine poems, all of which made the final cut. I then spent the next four months writing the remaining poems in the series and rewriting/editing what I already had. This is different than my usual process, though, chiefly because all the poems were connected through a narrative.
That said, my process for my other work—poetry and prose alike—involves a lot of thinking and not much writing. I know this is blasphemous to say, but I usually think about a poem for about a month before I start drafting and probably four to six months before starting a prose piece. After it has matured in the pressure cooker, I write as much as I can without stopping. This works best for me.
The Poetics Project: Who are some of your favorite writers? How have they inspired you?
Jack: I’d have to say that some of my favorite classic poets are folks like T.S. Eliot, Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, Czeslaw Milosz, Frank O’Hara, and W.B. Yeats (Robert Frost is not a favorite, but I am inspired greatly by the way he treats images); my favorite contemporary poets would have to be Billy Collins as well as my friends William Winfield Wright and John Brantingham—they are terrific poets.
As for novelists, I’d have to say that Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Atwood are my current favorites, with Stephen King, J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald on the shortlist (if you can’t tell, I have a thing for 20th century American literature with the exception of Atwood who is Canadian and Milosz who is an ethnic Pol); I’m also a fan of Jensen Beach, though he is relatively unknown.
For the second question, I think I take the same thing from all of them; each of the authors I mentioned are masters of cultivating theme through image, and I think this is the hallmark of a wordsmith. That’s the short answer, anyway.
The Poetics Project: Now, how many times have you been published, including poems in journals/magazines?
Jack: So far, I’ve published around 25 poems and short stories in journals thus far—and I have two chapbooks. I haven’t been submitting to any journals as of late because of a current project and my busy schedule.
The Poetics Project: How many times did you have to submit your work before you were first published? How did you feel when your first poem was accepted for publication?
Jack: It actually took a few months to get my first acceptance letter—I had quite the collection of rejection letters. I still do. The first publication was a great feeling, as was the first print publication, and as was the first bigger journal into which my work was placed. Each step a writers takes up the ladder of the literary world pays exponentially large emotional dividends because each step is exponentially harder to take. I can’t even imagine how I would feel to publish through an agency like Doubleday or Scribner.The Poetics Project: Slouching Towards Pakistan was released early February of 2013 and was written from the narrative point of view of a child. What inspired you to take that perspective on in this work? Will you have a similar view in your second published work, To the Lost?
Jack: This is a question I love being asked, actually. A few quarters ago I took a Poetry of Witness class. In said class my professor, to whom STP is dedicated, introduced me to Czeslaw Milosz. I spent ten weeks reading through Milosz’s work and researching the hell out of him. During that time I came upon a poem titled “The World.” It is a sequence much like STP. The poem is broken down into several parts, and much of it is told from the perspective of a child; also, many of the poems use a meter that emulated Polish nursery rhymes. I found this to be insanely interesting, as the sequence tackled eschatological themes as seen through political and familial filters—the former muddies the ideals of the latter, and it’s superbly executed. It is an incredibly elegant series of poems and I wanted to take that structure and make it new regarding today’s hot themes (which is funny because a few days after STP’s release, Rand Paul initiated the filibuster regarding Obama’s usage of predator drones).
To the Lost, on the other hand, was not written with any theme in mind. In truth, it’s actually a compilation of some of the first poems I ever wrote; many of them dealt with my childhood and adolescence, and much of the collection is about death—you know, rookie stuff. I actually sent out To the Lost a year and a half ago, and the manuscript was complete long before I even wrote STP. Finishing Line Press just takes longer than Sweatshoppe because it’s a bigger press.The Poetics Project: Your first book had an obvious tie in with politics – is your follow up book politically based as well? Do you often find that your political views inspire your work?
Jack: I don’t foresee myself writing poetry about politics or world events, though if things go awry in Syria I might have to take to the keys again; that said, I might be cooking up something about domestic issues sometime next year.
The Poetics Project: If you could go back now and say something to yourself when you first started to write poetry, what would you say?
Jack: I’d probably tell myself to edit less (by that I mean serving as a production editor for a journal) and write more. I’ve actually taken steps to do this by serving on the advisory board for Kudzu Review, a CLMP certified review. I’d also tell myself to establish a more rigorous routine in the infancy of my writing career, but I know myself and I know I probably wouldn’t listen.
The Poetics Project: What advice would you give to people looking to improve their writing?
Jack: No one reads as much as they should. As Stephen King says, if you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write; and don’t just read in one genre or in one style—read prose and poetry from around the world. I know this sounds odd coming from a guy who spouted off a list of 20th century American writers, but it is important to read from around the world. Each culture has its own conventions and storytelling methodologies—Freytag’s Pyramid isn’t the only way to tell a story (nor is it the best way to tell as story some of the time). Reading much and reading well improves one’s writing. There’s some level of innate skill, and by that I mean someone who doesn’t write well to begin with almost certainly will not become the next Faulkner; but that doesn’t mean that someone who is of intermediate skill cannot become something great if he or she dedicates time, energy, and some blood/sweat/tears.
The Poetics Project: What type of writer are you – do you wait for inspiration to strike or do you set up a schedule for writing and stick to it – or are you somewhere in the middle?
Jack: Italo Calvino wrote an interesting essay about types of writers; if I’m not mistaken, he compares writers to crystals and flames—I’m sure that doesn’t need much clarification. I tend to find myself the former much more than the latter. In the early stages of a project, I’m more of a flame—that is, I hold onto inspiration and allow myself a lot of flexibility while I work out the specifics in my head. During a project, though, I tend to become more methodical and cultivate the story with images and symbols and lower order syntactical choices. So I suppose it’s somewhere in the middle.
The Poetics Project: What, to date, is your favorite poem you have written? What makes it stand out in your eyes?
Jack: My favorite poem is my Ted Pugh Award winner, Romance of the Three Physicists. I dedicated a whole hell of a lot of time to that poem. Each line is very intentional, and I think I did my best job constructing the themes through allegory and image. I could probably make the poem better, but as it is right now I think it’s close to as perfect as I can make it.
And I mean, come on, who doesn’t love physics?
The Poetics Project: What is your favorite poem written by someone else? What makes it a favorite?
Jack: The first poem that comes to mind is the 52nd movement of Song of Myself by Walt Whitman. It’s one of the only poems that can bring me to tears when I read it. The poem is beautiful in every sense of the word. If I ever get a tattoo, I want it to be the last three lines: “Failing to fetch me at first, keep encourage/missing me one place, search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.” It is a momentous ending to Song of Myself, which as a whole is an American masterpiece. Folks like Twain, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Wallace may have the Great American Novel, but Whitman has the Great American Poem. I don’t know of a poem that better illustrates the portrait of America.
I also enjoy Eliot’s Lovesong and Hollow Men, Milosz’s Child of Europe, and Collins’ The Lanyard.
The Poetics Project: Because I know you personally, I know that you travel. Do you think that traveling has had an influence on your work in any capacity?
Jack: Oddly enough, my travels have not influenced me to a large extent, which is sort of funny considering there is a poem called “Blackout in Nan Ning” in To the Lost. I’ve also written a short story about China, too, but aside from that my travels have not made their way into my writing on the whole. I’ve been to Paris and Dublin, and I just think too many people have written about those amazing places—especially the writers I admire most, namely Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Eliot. I’m no Wilde or Joyce, so I can’t write about Ireland, either. I do plan on visiting Thailand in the near future, though, and that will probably take me to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bali. So maybe those future travels will influence me in some way.
The Poetics Project: Is there anything else you’d like to mention in this interview?
Jack: I think you covered most of the bases. I would like to say that I’m in the process of revising a novella. I’ll be giving it to my confidants for advice and then I will send the final product to Spout Hill Press—I’ve talked to them and they are interested in giving it a read. I have high hopes for the project, and I’m looking forward to hearing what the publishers have to say.
Actually, there’s a question I was hoping would be here:
What advice do you have for people who want to publish their work?
The Poetics Project: Go ahead and answer it here and we’ll include the answer.
Jack: Publishing work can be a difficult prospect, but it isn’t so bad if you do a few things. First, a writer needs to be familiar with the journals to which he or she sends work. This is probably the biggest mistake novice writers make when they send out their poems and stories. A writer can write the next Great American Novel/Short Story/Poem and have that poem rejected by a huge number of journals; every journal has their own aesthetic and thematic preferences—knowing these preferences is imperative to an author who wants his or her work to appear on a page. Secondly, and I can’t stress this enough, it is of paramount importance to follow the submission guidelines—cross “T”s and dot “I”s. Read and reread the submission guidelines, then go ahead and reread them again. Editors sift through hundreds of submissions; and if the submission guidelines aren’t being followed, the editor can and most likely will discard the submission without even giving it a read.
Once you’ve become familiar with the aesthetics and the submission guidelines, it is important to write a good cover letter. I personally believe that less is more and that one’s work should speak for itself; however, when submitting to publishers for longer projects—that is, novels, short story collections, poetry collections, and the like—it is usually a good idea to include a reference, synopsis of the project, a list of qualifications and merits you think make you a marketable candidate for publication, and a concise discussion of why you think you fit for the publisher.
Taking these things into consideration improves your chances of both being read—and if all goes well—being published.