Space, Place, and Poetry? An Interview with Peterson Fellow Dr. Tonya Foster

Iolanthe Brooks, ’15

It sounds like an intergalactic poetry class, and its mysterious teacher, the Peterson Fellow, like some sort of enigmatic guide. As it turns out, Dr. Foster’s “Space, Place, and Others” class isn’t even a little bit about outer space, but it doesn’t fail to live up to its exciting expectations. The class examines the ways poets and prose-writers deal with and imagine space and despite its late unveiling, the class has quickly filled to capacity. If you are one of the many Bardians who have no idea what it means to be a Peterson fellow, or before this moment had never heard of Tonya Foster, then worry no more: in an interview she told me all about her background, interests, and the class she’s teaching here at BHSEC.

The Peterson Fellowship, in honor of Ray Peterson, BHSEC’s founding principal, invites scholars to teach a class here for a semester. Applicants propose a class and must go through an application process, which includes an interview. Dr. Foster is particularly interested in writers of multiple genres, like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, and in tracing how they define space across those genres. Dr. Foster’s class focuses on four very different writers. One assigned book, Baraka’s “The Dead Lecturer” stands out to Foster personally in terms of Baraka’s ability to “blend humor and fury, that there’s a real sense of fun even as there’s a sense of rage; and that to me is remarkably hard to pull off.”

Dr. Foster grew up in New Orleans, but is a bona-fide New Yorker of 20 years now. Ever since her third-grade class, when she proudly decided she wanted to be “a lawyer or a singer, and I’m going to live in New York” she has gravitated towards this city. As she explains it, she’s always been drawn to the “myth of New York.” This is not to say that she does not love her home city: as she put it, “for me New Orleans is the home of my heart and my imagination.” Rather, she feels more comfortable and at home in New York than in the very different, post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans she’s now in the process of re-familiarizing herself with. Foster, who lives in Manhattan, has found “[poetic] communities that have been incredibly supportive and embracing” here, and is, at times, stunned “by [the city’s] diverse possibilities.” 

Dr. Foster is currently writing a dissertation that mirrors some of the major points of her class, called “The Aesthetics of Difficulty,” that looks at, in part, “how writers,” of poetry, prose or drama, “[are] engaged with bodies in space, and in particular locations,” especially difficult, uncomfortable spaces. The fellowship excited her because it enabled her to design a class that centered on the things she’s interested in: poetry, prose, and space. She has taught at many colleges, including Bard and Wesleyan.  

Tonya Foster is not just a writer, poet, and teacher. She is also the proud owner of a new television. “I just got a TV,” she says with a laugh, “I’m astonished! Like, TV!” She then explains that some shows, with great dialogue and compelling plots, are interesting to her as a writer. Apart from her new TV set, Dr. Foster likes to “go to movies, hang out with friends” and go dancing. She is a winter-baby: “there was a blizzard when I was born” she explains, and is drawn to winter. “At least you can wrap up against the cold” she jokes, “You can’t do anything against the heat. Nothing! You could run around naked and it would still be hot!” Yet, Dr. Foster loves rebirth of springtime.

At the moment, her favorite poetry includes M. NourbeSe Philip’s “Zong,” which “blows my mind, in terms of what poetry can do.”

Dr. Foster, who has made her home in the English office, is full of stories, jokes, and insights into so much more than just poetry, and we are very lucky to have her here at BHSEC!


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