Tonya Foster (Ph.D. '18, English), Poet and Essayist, Receives $100,000 Creative Capital Award

February 11, 2020

Her multimedia work explores issues around race, and she says poetry is diversifying. She offers guidance to aspiring writers, especially ones who share her African American heritage.

Tonya Foster reads her work. (Courtesy of Tonya Foster)
Tonya Foster reads her work. (Courtesy of Tonya Foster)

Tonya Foster (Ph.D. ’18, English), a poet and essayist based in the Bay Area of California, received a $100,000 Creative Capital Award to support her current project, Monkey Talk, a multimedia exploration of issues around race, surveillance of artists, and performances of authenticity.
The project incorporates poetry, dialogues, and nonfiction prose as it delves into the relationship between a black female writer from the South and a film industrialist who wants to be the writer’s patron. The industrialist is being followed by an FBI agent, who in turn writes a book. “The germ of the idea came to me a long time ago,” Foster says. “Someone asked me to write about race, and I ended up writing what I called a transcription of a phone conversation between two characters.”

Foster is the author of the poetry collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court and the bilingual chapbook La Grammaire des Os, and is a co-editor of Third Mind: Teaching Creative Writing Through Visual Art. Her work has appeared in CallalooObsidianBoundary2Poetry Project NewsletterThe Harvard ReviewBest American Experimental Writing, and Letters to the Future: Black Women/Radical Writing. She is an editor at Fence Magazine and at The African American Review, and is an assistant professor at California College of the Arts.
The Creative Capital Award provides $50,000 in project funding and an additional $50,000 in career development services. “My main concern is having time to write,” Foster says. “So this award is incredible in that it gives me time and space to write.”
Foster says her time at The Graduate Center provided her with chance to work with inspiring poets and scholars, including Distinguished Professors Meena Alexander,  Édouard Glissant, and Wayne Koestenbaum (English, Comparative Literature, French); Professor Ammiel Alcalay (GC/Queens; Comparative Literature, English/Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Cultures), who is the general editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative; Professor Kandice Chuh (English, Psychology); and her dissertation adviser, Professor Robert Reid-Pharr.
“It took me a while to find the kind of poetry that got at the experience of whatever it is that I was seeking to create or realize,” says Foster. She would advise current students and poets to “read widely and wildly. To not feel that you have to be straight-jacketed into writing in one particular mode. To play.”
The field is being changed by African American, indigenous, Latinx, Asian, and other writers and scholars who are challenging ideas of what poetry looks like and of what the term poetry encompasses. Foster says. “Read everything, even what you hate,” she says. “Read what you hate to understand why it doesn’t appeal to you.”