Writing into the unknown: a conversation with Marcus Endowed Chair Tonya M. Foster

Author: Matt Itelson, SF State News
August 11, 2022

The acclaimed poet joined SF State’s Creative Writing faculty last fall

Tonya M. Foster uses all types of words in her poetry: big and small, beautiful and vulgar. It is a key tactic of the San Francisco State University Creative Writing assistant professor’s ongoing study of language.

Publisher’s Weekly praised her 2017 book-length poem “A Swarm of Bees in High Court” as “the rare debut collection that displays a marvelous understanding of how to merge form and content … sonically rich, complex in its formal elements and constraints and haunting in its examination of dislocation.”

“AHotB,” the title of Foster’s forthcoming poetry book, is an acronym for “A History of the B---h.” Adopting Fanny Lou Hamer’s idea that “a Black woman’s body is never hers alone,” Foster completed it last year during a fellowship at Harvard University.

Foster joined San Francisco State last fall as one of four Marcus Endowed Chairs, tenure-track positions established with a $25 million donation from alumni George and Judy Marcus. Now, SF State students work closely with the New Orleans-raised poet known for electric lyricism and expansive interpretations of language.

What inspired you to pursue poetry and academia for a career?

For a long time, I think that I considered myself a reluctant poet — someone who wrote poetry but thought, OK, there were all these other things I did, and teaching was one of those things.

Teaching was, for me, a space where you could be in community around learning something, discovering something. I’ve never been particularly interested in mastery. I’m much more interested in ideas of expertise and being open to discovering.

What made you choose to come to San Francisco State?

SF State has an incredible history in terms of Black Studies. To be at an institution that’s important for ethnic studies, I thought that’s a wonderful place for me. What I hope to learn is how these questions of justice — and where Black students are concerned — are energized and more animated, and how can I be a part of that.

Tell us about your new project, “AHotB.”

It’s poetry and prose. There are autobiographical elements in it, but it’s certainly a meditation on and about Black women. An interrogation of the [fictitiousness] of Black womanhood is what it is. I’m very interested in multiple registers of language.

And where does the “b-word” fit in? What does it represent in this project and the meaning behind it?

Well, it’s the word I would never say to people I care about, right? But it is the word, it’s the vision of Black womanhood that has been pervasive in many ways. I’ve been trying to track both uses of the term and also the ways that women have tried to reclaim that term and make it mean its opposite. That kind of intervention is rarely successful, and yet I think it’s a mode. It’s an attempt to do something else.

I’m just trying to sit with it, think through it, imagine through it. When are the moments when women are being called out of their name? By this name? What are the actions, what are the engagements that are being disapproved of and remarked upon?

I don’t just want to describe it, actually. I guess I want to interrogate it. I want to see where it leads. I don’t know yet how the dots connect. I’m curious about that.

It goes to this point I’m often talking to students about: writing into the unknown. If you’ve already decided what the conclusion is, why write it? Somehow, you write into the unknown — you write into the discovery of something that you didn’t otherwise know.

Read Foster’s poem “Testimonial Testify,” excerpted from “AHotB,” in The A-Line: A Journal of Progressive Thought.