Linda Nemec Foster, like her poetry, is the blanket put over your shoulders in a chilly room. Her voice, warm and welcoming, puts anyone who talks to her at ease. This calming effect cascades through her writing, reaching her audience at their very core. I was honored to have the opportunity to chat with her about her work at a small coffee shop one afternoon.
During the interview, she told me not to impress an audience with intellect, but with the heart. Though an intelligent, educated woman, she did just this. She impressed me with her deep passion for the world around her, not ignoring it, but noticing it, and listening for what it has to say. This inner spunk and drive is mirrored in the handwritten pages of her yellow legal pad, where all her poems begin.
For Linda Nemec Foster, writing was not always her focus. She majored in political science and social science at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Then, after encouragement from Faye Kicknosway, a teacher at Wayne State University, Linda went on to receive her M.F.A. in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont.
She has accomplished so much since then, publishing nine books and chapbooks as well as in over 250 journals. Her poetry has also appeared in many anthologies, and she has even published translations of the work of Polish poet, Ewa Parma. Linda's book, Amber Necklace of Gdansk, was nominated for over ten book awards. The Humanities Council chose her as the first poet laureate of Grand Rapids from 2003-2005. In addition to being a wife and mother to her supportive husband, Tony, and grown children, Brian and Ellen, her titles include lecturer, teacher, workshop leader, and is main sponsor to the Contemporary Writers Series at Aquinas College, which she and her husband established in 1997. These accomplishments demonstrate Linda Nemec Foster’s desire to touch lives, which she does brilliantly through the medium of her poetry.
Her love of poetry communicates the deep exploration of the human heart with topical forms, like rhythm and tone. She says poetry is special because you cannot communicate images and reflections of the heart as powerfully in other genres. Poetry allows form and content to work together at its core, where communication and mystery rest. Communication with the heart, the human experience, and striking a chord with the audience is a writer’s purpose. A little mystery must remain at the heart of the poem so everyone can take away from it and are able to relate to their life or the life around them better. You must be able to gather something new each time you read it. She says, “Poetry, like life, can be filled with the power of transformation." Indeed, what a master Linda Nemec Foster is at transforming the world around her with language!
Her inspiration to communicate the human experience flows from anything and everything. Quoting poet, Ken Mikolowski, she says, “Anything can be poetry, not everything is." She definitely has the ability to use anything-whether it is art, nature, magazine clippings, an overheard conversation, or photographs to transform language. Her family history and Polish heritage served as inspiration for her book, Amber Necklace from Gdansk, which helped her gain a sense of self.
In Living in the Fire Nest, inspiration stems from the routine of everyday life, where she gives meaning to ordinary acts and unlocks strangeness buried within seemingly normal human experiences. Photos were inspiration for her newest book, Ten Songs from Bulgaria. Released in June, Ten Songs From Bulgaria includes ten poems, ten lines each, in which she describes striking photos that capture the raw history, landscape, and impoverished people of Eastern Europe. Just as she is moved by the world around her, Linda Nemec Foster’s writing serves as inspiration for others. She actually inspired jazz musician, Steve Talaga, to compose an original score based on her poetry from her book, Contemplating the Heavens.
Reading of all kinds has encouraged her own writing. She loves all the great writers and more, including favorites, Lisel Mueller and her book, Alive Together; Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass; Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea; and Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Other authors whose work she especially admires are Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke and contemporary poet Stephen Dobyns, and several Polish poets including Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, and Wislawa Szymborska.
When asked about other encouragement she received along her writing journey, she talked not about numerous prestigious awards she received, but real people: her family, for teaching her perseverance, hard work, believing in oneself, and bringing her identity; her teachers, poets and friends, including Faye Kicknosway, Liesel Mueller, Stephen Dobyns and Steve Talaga for wanting to transform her poetry into an original score. She even mentioned a man from the audience of a reading of Amber Necklace from Gdansk, who said she gave him hope to explore his past. Subordinate to these was the publication of her first chapbook, A History of the Body, and being a finalist for the Ohio Book Award in Poetry for Amber Necklace from Gdansk, among other encouraging awards and recognitions.
Linda Nemec Foster’s own encouragement to fledgling writers is to read widely, and read work by different authors. It is the best way to understand poetry. She advises them to take classes and not to expect to get published right away, and not to be afraid to show poems to others in order to receive feedback. In her own writing, she says having form like sestinas or sonnets helps, but a good way to write is for a poet to set goals and give themselves assignments. She also encourages young writers to be open to new ideas and themes. A writing exercise may not create a poem, but something must be there already, some striking idea or thought. The more specific ideas are, the more interesting the poem becomes. When is a poem finished? She quotes W.H. Auden for her answer: “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” At the same time, she admits that a poem reaches a point where it seems "to have said as much as it can say."
New Issues Press will release her newest book, Talking Diamonds, in Fall 2009. She says “It is about change, death, loss, and the power of art to transform lives from loss to acceptance." This will be the 9th addition to her collection and her fourth full-length book.
Throughout the interview, I was able to catch glimpses of Linda Nemec Foster's heart, parts of it poured into her writing, the rest devoted to her family and teaching others about her love for poetry. Exploration of her heart inspired me to listen to my own heart and to unearth communication from within it.