Tonya Foster in Conversation with Aisling Daly

Aisling Daly: A common thread in reviews of A Swarm of Bees in High Court is the tendency to focus on or in “language’s ambiguities.” Your work is described as being drawn toward the “unsayable.” In Leah Souffrant’s A Slowing series, she asks about the value of a poetics of the unsayable, acknowledging the tenuous grasp language has on meaning: what is unsayable and yet worth attention? Can you speak to this idea of focusing on the unreachable or the unsayable, and what you hope to achieve through this attention?

Tonya Foster: It’s interesting. Well, I am interested in that moment just before a choice is made about what is spoken, and what is seen. That moment of the pivot from one direction to another. And as it relates to the unsayable, I think there are things that we actually refuse to say, and it’s not that we can’t say them, but we refuse to articulate them. So, that may also be a moment of pivot, too, right? That choice to speak one way or another, those moments when what we say hides what we mean, and the multiple meanings, multiple ways that what we say means—I’m interested in that as well. So we say one thing, but there are all these other things that are signified in the saying.

AD: I can definitely see that in this text. It’s the swarming that emerges in many different ways throughout the text. I’m also thinking about visual art, and I know that, in addition to being inspired by Max Ernst’s painting A Swarm of Bees in the Palace of Justice, you also co-edited Third Eye: Creative Writing Through Visual Art. Is there something about visual art that influences your attention on these hard-to-reach or pivotal moments? And, as a follow up, does your work today continue to be influenced by visual art?

TF: When I was in New York in January, I saw the Kerry James Marshall exhibit, which is magnificent in the sense of mountains being magnificent. It’s this amazing exhibit, and I was inspired by that work, inspired to think about mastery, but also the modes next to mastery; if there’s some improvisation, not as a form of mastery. I am very inspired by artwork. I saw the Kerry James Marshall exhibit again in LA, or the mounting of the exhibit, the versed iteration, and was deeply moved. Recently, in New York, I saw the Arthur Jafa exhibition Love is the Message, the Message is Death, and was brought to tears. I was really interested in how that seven-and-a-half minute film could draw together a range of experiences and performances of blackness into this small space, and suggest, in fact, through the proximity of images from different registers, both the impossibility of encapsulating experience and the possibilities for encapsulating experience. So I am very inspired by artwork. I was in LA and I saw the Marshall, I saw the Jimmie Durham exhibit at the Hammer Museum, saw the Power exhibit [Power: Work by African American Women] at Sprüth Magers, and then went to the underground museum and saw the possibility of fostering community, and that art happens in community. I’m deeply inspired by visual art. Now, what that inspiration means I don’t know. Sometimes it’s language; sometimes it’s modes of approach. It’s just the possibility for me of what art can do. With the Durham, there was so much humor. With the Jafa, there was this magnificence and pain, as well, juxtaposed with each other.

AD: That’s something—the juxtaposition of humor and beauty and music with grief is something that occurs in A Swarm of Bees in High Court. Is there something about juxtaposition or the places in between these two differing emotions or experiences that attracts you or that you feel drawn to?

TF: I think it’s the nature of being. You can’t disentangle misery from majesty. Right? They’re all bound up. And so, as a person who tends toward a certain kind of dark humor and a willingness to look into the abyss, at the difficult side of things, in order to not be swallowed by that darkness, I also have to be able to laugh. And to recognize the moments of majesty—even in the middle of that.

AD: Which brings me to the first thing that struck me when reading this book, the rhythms that just tripped off the tongue and made reading aloud a really pleasurable experience, in spite of it being a book permeated by grief. How do you think sound, rhythm, music influence this work, and also, more generally, our journeys through and with grief?

TF: Well, I write by hearing. For me, there is something, the possible sound of a word triggers something in me, triggers other words, triggers other modes. I think that it is…I don’t know. Moten writes about Aunt Hester’s scream [In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition]. I think about being a young woman, a young girl, in a Southern Baptist church singing in the choir. I feel like a cliché when I talk about these things, but what was clear to me in the sonic experience of the church was that the call and response was creating a sense of experience and being that was both individual and about community. That it was an expression of joy, but also a profound expression of grief. And so, I don’t know. I think it’s interesting. My mother said to me—there was some point when she was reading the work, and she said, “Tonya, we’re going to have to talk about this; you’re going to have to explain to me what you’re doing,” and then she called one day and she said, “I was reading this aloud to myself, and something happened, and certain things became clearer.” So, I guess for me there’s some way that sound articulates meaning. I almost want to say that it’s a different iteration of the meaning than the text conveys. And that it is written for the voice. There are so many things: I used to say that when I write, when I’m really in a space where the poem is coming or the essay is coming, that it feels like I’m in tune with the hum of the universe. And I don’t know exactly what that means [laughing], but it’s this sense that it’s something outside of me. It’s almost like a listening, an intense listening. It’s both outside and inside me. In the sense that sound enters us.

AD: Moving now to the poetics of place, which I know that you study, and which I am also drawn to. I was intrigued and inspired by the Norwegian-American writer Siri Hustvedt’s essay “Yonder,” in which she writes that “language is the most profound feature of any place.” How do you respond to that statement and how has A Swarm of Bees in High Court influenced your study of the poetics of place?

TF: I love that. Now I’m writing down this essay so I can look that up. But my response is: absolutely. We speak language, but language speaks us and tells us who and what we are. Language is inevitably influenced by us. I’ve been watching Underground, and there’s this episode (it’s the second season, first episode), and the actors are portraying slaves, and they have hoes and are singing. And they’re hitting the dirt and working, singing as they work, to get a rhythm, to help their bodies along. And I think about the ways that our bodies are influenced by the rhythms we enact, as a result of specific locations. So how you talk when you’re walking up and down a hill is different from how you talk when it’s flat land. It’s different from how you talk when it’s tropical weather because you breathe differently in those spaces. So, the geography of a place influences how we say whatever it is that we say. So I say, “yes” to that. Language is a profound feature of place.

AD: That’s fascinating. In the same essay, Siri Hustvedt writes that she is attracted to “words that wobble,” which I think refers to what you’re speaking about. In this text, you explore the multiplicity and, often, the instability of language. It seemed to me that—with your use of punctuation, hyphens, dashes, and parentheses—you were exposing the skeletons of language. Could you speak to that and your linguistic experiments in this book and beyond?

TF: Well, I think that grammar constructs the sense of who we are, the notion of who we are. It regulates our thinking about who and what we are. And, that . . . I’m really curious about that regulation and how do we lay bare that regulation as not being natural. That it’s an artificial structure. And how do we see that? And what does it mean to say that it’s an artificial structure? It certainly means for me, as a black woman, that the idea of who and what I am cannot be regulated by this. And so, as I think about this question, I think about the fact that when I was a kid, people used to ask me where I was from. They asked me that because I didn’t have a New Orleans accent. I think, well, why didn’t I have a New Orleans accent? I think it was because I spoke the way that my mother read to me. And I speak—there’s this weird thing for me; I used to walk around, I was very shy, so I’d walk reading books down the street because it’s easier to do that than talk to people. I’d also be reading all the time at night. So there’s something for me about seeing the word that helps me to retain it and then speak. So it’s this kind of feedback loop. But, in trying out the words that I speak, there’s a sense, a desire, to turn it over on my tongue, to see what it is, to see what it feels like.

I learned German because I like the feel of German words in my mouth. And so that sense, for me, of language as this texture one feels on the tongue, becomes this way of looking at grammar, playing with grammatical structures, becomes a way of adding different textures to the language. That’s my first response. I’d really like to think about that question more . . . Grammar! Well, it’s another tool . . . Recently I’ve been thinking about Audre Lorde’s quote where she talks about the impossibility of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. There are two responses that I have to that quote. And one is, well, but you can use those tools to build a bolt or a bonfire. And so, that’s saying, okay, I’ll use it this way. On the other hand, I think, exactly, you cannot use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. So then, what do you use the tools to do? Do you expose the function of the tools? Do you dismantle the tools themselves? I think perhaps that may be part of the work for me: breaking apart the language or at least exposing these moments where pivoting is possible within the structures of grammar and within the structures of language. That it’s not dismantling the house, it’s dismantling the tools. Or, looking at the function of the tools in some way to see if there are other potential uses.

AD: Wow. That’s beautiful. And I think, with that, we’ve circled around to the first question, talking about pivots . . . Thank you so much.