Heather Foster of Sardis, Tennessee
The psychology of the Southern mind incorporates both realism and surrealism. While the subjects and characters within poetry are often depicted with stark realism, the settings and surroundings often draw from surrealistic imagery, offering psychological insight into themes through a character’s surroundings. While surrealist poets seem fewer and farther between today, we still find the remnants of its manifestations in the merging of genres. Surrealistic elements are what I found in Heather Foster’s poetry this week.
Heather Foster teaches English and Humanities at Jackson State Community College. She also serves as poetry editor for Parable Press and assistant poetry editor of New Madrid. Currently, Foster is completing her first collection of poems, A Heart Like Texas. Foster grew up on a small island off the northeast Florida coast. She’s lived in Sardis, Tennessee since she was nineteen years of age. Foster lives on a farm with her husband and two sons in a rural community with about 250 residents. Foster’s poetry is found in Moonshot Magazine, South Dakota Review, Superstition Review, damselfly, Country Dog Review and PANK.
Interviewing Heather Foster, I gained great perspective on how the shadows of Southern poetry reflect off the Southern mind.
Shanna Dixon, Blogger:
The grit and dark side of the Southern mind often seeps onto the page for many Southern poets. As I read “Donkeys,” published in The Country Dog Review, I thought about the voice and culture that reverberates in the Southern poetry that I love. Clinging to the dark mind of the South aids the mystery and success of the genre of Southern poetry. Do you find that the cultural remnants of the mythic South are a part of what defines Southern poetry?
Heather Foster, Poet:
Absolutely. First, the danger of the literal darkness is something ingrained in the Southern mind. Southern kids play outside all day long, sometimes barefoot and often alone, but they know to head inside at the first sign of darkness. Coyotes, wildcats, alligators—that’s what night is made of down here. It’s in our brains. Because of that, I think that mystery (especially of a spiritual or supernatural nature) and the grotesque are big parts of Southern literature. This makes me think of someone like Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are, for me, the quintessential Southern literary experience. They’re very dark, terrifying at times, but always, always full of humor. And it’s often the most twisted characters who are the funniest: The Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the Bible salesmen in “Good Country People.”
In poetry, an example would be someone like Plath, who wasn’t Southern, but missed a damn good chance to be. Think of her dark humor and her use of the macabre. All the best Southerners I’ve known are at least a little off, some of them are certified crazy. My grandma’s sister, Aunt Alma, was about as good as it gets. She lived alone, couldn’t have kids, dipped snuff, drank Dr. Pepper, loved baby dolls, once shot a snake with a 12-guage in the kitchen, and hoed her garden in a dress and stockings. I was afraid of her, but I was fascinated, too. There are Aunt Almas all over the place in the rural South, and it’s one of the things I love most about living here. As for your reference to grit, I find that in abundance in good Southern poetry, for sure. Nickole Brown‘s Sister is a book that comes immediately to mind. I love a good gritty narrative poem.
I value the crossing of genres and wonder about your take on how this will affect the future of Southern poetry. I find you use a touch of surrealism to your Southern themed pieces, and this interests me. In the digital age, we are constantly converging our physical, or maybe, geographical culture with the ethereal culture of niche interests that are available to us. Do you find this convergence has positive or negative influence on Southern poetry?
Oh I think it’s a good thing! The South has always been a kind of mash-up, a place where worlds converge. We are so grounded in the earth—working the land with our bare hands, understanding the science of farming, raising animals, hunting, fishing, children playing outside; but we are also a people of the intangible. There’s religion, of course—getting the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues, being baptized by a full submersion. But there are also myths. If you hold your breath while pinching a wasp, it can’t sting you. If you eat hog jowl on New Year’s Day, you’ll be lucky. So we’re comfortable at the crossroads. I’m glad you mentioned surrealism, because I DO use it. I’m really inspired by Frank Stanford, whose work is Southern to the bone, and very surreal. If you look at a poem like “The Snake Doctors,” reading it is a downright religious/ecstatic experience. It’s very dreamlike, maybe more of a fever dream or a nightmare. I like poems like that.
I’m interested in offering encouragement to Southern women poets, and one important way is to share with others those Southern women that have been influential to us personally. Could you share with my readers women poets that you believe are representative of contemporary Southern poetry?
When I think of contemporary Southern poetry, I think of Carrie Jerrell. Her book, After the Revival, is absolutely brilliant from cover to cover. She is formally sophisticated, but still gritty and real. She writes the poetry of county lines, storm cellars, coal mines, Dollar General lipstick, first horses, and frog gigging. So there is an earthiness, a wildness in the poems, but there is also such tremendous care in them, such a keen, honest rendering of the human spirit, and such a smartness in that book, that I am bowled over and jealous in love with it every time I pick it up. Other names that come to mind are Nickole Brown (Sister), Judy Jordan (Carolina Ghost Woods, and C.D. Wright (every book she’s written).
This week, I’m featuring Foster’s poem “Carving,” published on Anderbo.
The summer I lost my front teeth,
I stayed with my grandmother for a week.
I snuck a dull knife
and a soap bar from the kitchen.
I scraped off flakes till I made a fish
with circles for scales, small enough to fit
in my grandmother’s apron pocket.
When I gave her the sculpture,
she slapped my cheek
for wasting soap.
The rest of the week, she made me
wash with the fish carving.
By the time I left, the scales
had worn smooth, the mouth was gone.