W/R/T David Foster Wallace

Read an Introduction from FPR Editor-in-Chief Jenni B. Baker

Found poetry is both a metaphor for death and a mechanism for coping with it.

When we write found poems, we have no choice but to work with what we have – to use the words and phrases someone has left us to describe our core thoughts, feelings and experiences. Sometimes we find enough in what’s left behind to express ourselves. More often than not, we find ourselves wanting more.

With David Foster Wallace now five years gone, his writing is all we have left to know both him and ourselves by. We are left to rummage through his pages, coming away alternately full-hearted and empty-handed. What sense and meaning will we make of what we find and don’t?

Reading is a reaction to a text. Found poetry is a conversation. Through the process of dissecting Wallace’s word choices, sentence structures and plots, we enter into an intimate dialogue with him – one where we get to understand better the inner workings of his mind and where we get to develop a personal response to what we find there.

Though Wallace’s articles, interviews and books are like he was — finite — our capacity for conversation with him through found poetry continues. In this special issue, nearly 30 poets share their conversations with David Foster Wallace. As the world remembers his life and work this September, I invite you to pick up one of his texts and consider what conversations of your own you might have with him.

Jenni B. Baker

September 12, 2013, marks the fifth anniversary of David Foster Wallace’s passing. The Found Poetry Review remembers his life and contributions with this special online edition of our journal.

Click on the slides below to read found poems generated from Wallace’s writings and scroll down to read our poets’ personal reflections on his work. Rather view the poems in a list? Go here.



In addition to soliciting submissions from the public, we also invited Francesco Levato, director of the Chicago School of Poetics to curate a special selection of poems from current  graduate students at Illinois State University, where Wallace once taught. 



We invited the poets published in this issue to optionally contribute a short commentary on David Foster Wallace. They shared the following reflections.


All I have to do is imagine David Foster Wallace in Maine considering the lobster, and I know that’s the type of writer I want to be. Thorough. Intense. Good. He was not afraid to investigate, doubt or let the lack of clear answers dictate a story’s direction.

As we know, the creative mind is often a depressed, anxious and bewildering mind. Sometimes there is just too much to feel and express. Or, there is suddenly nothing at all.

The death of David Foster Wallace has perhaps impacted my writing even more than his life and work have. Many of the stories and poems I create have mental illness standing in the background in all its subtle spasms or flashing madness. That inspiration comes in part from Wallace as a writer and as a human being with a dazzling, complicated psyche. Five years after his death we can mourn a little less and instead feel fortunate in the opportunity to re-read and celebrate his material.


David Foster Wallace’s work is a reminder, to me, of what is possible when approaching the blank page: largeness, liberty, revolt, normativity, compass, and unashamed hope.


The first time I ever read David Foster Wallace, I had just finished college, just started a corporate job where I was impossibly awkward, and had gone through a string of breakups.  But that doesn’t matter.  I could’ve had any kind of combination of events in my life, and I would’ve responded the same way to reading the short story collection Oblivion.  Wallace understood and could capture something about all of us that was so precise, so jarring, that no writer has been able to provoke the same in me since, even five years later – I purchased his book on September 8th, 2008, just days before his death. Around that time, I’d also been preparing to apply to grad school for an MFA in poetry, a decision that I’d come to almost two years earlier. By the time I’d finished reading the story “Good Old Neon,” I folded the book in my lap, a finger sandwiched between the pages, and had the most sudden change of heart: this is what I wanted to do.  I was so taken by all those things that people talk about when they talk about Wallace – the self-awareness, the honesty, the precision, the mix of tones ranging from playful to pedantic – that I decided I wanted to write fiction instead. Regardless of what genre I work in now, I try to remember that, in Wallace’s own words, all writing is a place “where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”


I never wrote a letter to David Foster Wallace telling him how much his writing meant to me. I regret that now, because I know he would’ve responded. I did get the chance to tell his parents in 2010, though, and I took it. If there is a book that you read and it changes your life: tell the author. Did DFW ever get sick of those letters? Did they really mean anything to him? I think they did matter to him as they represented a connection forged by art.


Mimi Smartypants writing about his death was the first I heard of him. Then I read Brief Interviews with Hideous Men with a headache. Then “The Depressed Person” followed me around for a few years. Then the guy climbing up the building in Oblivion waved at me every morning. Then I was unemployed waiting for Infinite Jest to return to the library. Then my dad sent me Everything and More saying son this knit my brain but it’s quite hilarious. Then my twenty-first or twenty-second or twenty-third job was in an office and I read The Pale King. All of it’s like an annoying and generous friend. Sometimes he drinks all your beer and sometimes he drinks all your spinal fluid.


Perhaps I had read DFW’s work prior to 2009, however if so, none of it had impacted me like his story “Incarnations of Burned Children.”  I remember reading it in Esquire while waiting in a doctor’s office with my own sick child.  To say it moved me would be glib; it changed me.  The intensity, emotion, and characterization had seldom ever been matched in my reading.  I sat there with the magazine in my right hand, holding the hand of my young sick daughter with my left, tears welding up in my eyes.  I remember thinking, “How can I develop my writing to absorb the audience with such intensity, determination and thought”?   Whether it is a poem or a story, I strive to have such enlightenment possessed by DFW.  After my introduction to his work, I began searching for other works of his and have consistently been moved by his passion.   The 2005 commencement address from which my poem “Living” derives, demonstrates DFW’s passion for life and consciousness.  He had such an ability to write and speak with both presence and irony.  As in the story I first read, his writings often take a reader to a place we might be afraid to go, but feel safe in his artful hands.  It has been an honor for me to tribute a found poem in his name.


My first introduction to David Foster Wallace was through the story “Good Old Neon.” I have to admit, it took some time getting into, but isn’t there just something about the way he writes that really curls your toes? The story “Good Old Neon” in particular, and of course sections of “The Depressed Person.” My friend updated his status the other day to something like “saw someone reading Infinite Jest on the subway. I was like, good luck finishing that.” I feel like the size of that novel and the name is a joke on all us readers, like he is testing his audience to see how far he can push us before we give in and give up. He puts pressure on us. For me, I think this is a great thing for a writer to do, constantly trying new things,  really pushing his audience with everything new thing he writes. How he experiments, how we as readers are his lab partners or test subjects. No one says they want to write like Belva Plain. I really think that Wallace, despite what people will say, in yay or naying him, really opened the door for new voices, and showed those voices what prose can do, how you can bend it and how the author is a scientist first and foremost, and that prose won’t die if you keep looking at writing  as a science, always  evolving.


I formed “The Sad-Near Pink” with language taken solely from DFW’s phenomenal coming-of-age story, “Forever Overhead.” This story is the first DFW piece I ever read, and when I came across this Found Poetry Review issue, I knew that this story would lead to a nice poem. Each line in his piece is poetry. The sounds of the piece jump, and while I was constructing my poem, sound informed my decisions.  Like a 13-year-old boy (the subject of DFW’s story), each paragraph moves and builds and explodes. I was particularly grabbed by the way DFW describes hair in his piece. It’s animal. It’s thick. It’s inevitable, like puberty, and at first, we don’t know what to do with it. And of course, the story is set at a swimming pool, a place all young people with morphing bodies love to expose themselves. And this boy, on the start of his 13th year, gets to a high-dive board and has to decide if he is ready to jump or not, just as all boys have to consciously decide to become men, or not.


I met DFW during the summers of my high school years, which I spent reading on the back deck of my parents’ house, under a TV antenna covered in birds. To me, at 17, Infinite Jest didn’t look like a challenge so much as a new friend, an invitation not to be lonely. I read every footnote and sub-footnote, every detail of Eschaton strategy. The book has now become legend, and transcends any individual reading of it. But mine is still the one I like best: alone in the backyard, propping the massive thing on my knees, getting lost in Wallace’s dizzying imagination. That will stay with me forever.

In my adulthood, though, I’ve found Wallace’s essays to be his most resonant works. It’s where he lays out his thinking most clearly, and his heart most messily. A piece like “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, ” which my poem is taken from, is filled with a longing to understand what we are, and why we’ve created the world we live in, that is staggering in its empathic reach. Wallace has been accused of being abstruse, but I believe he was trying to be as honest as possible in addressing, in his words, “the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”

I find it deeply sad that he was unable to find solace in writing like this, which has provided so much to me.


The summer of 2012 will always be for me the summer of Infinite Jest.  I dedicated myself to reading and understanding it, and it was an all-encompassing experience. I absolutely adore DFW’s facility with words, and his somewhat bleak dark sense of humor, both of which were on display in great abundance there.  That book really becomes your whole life if you are dedicated to reading it straight through.  It changes you. The Incandenzas become your extended family.  Of course, once it is read, you have to visit online sites in order to figure out much of what you just read.  Thankfully, there are sites galore in which to agree or disagree with theories, and to enhance your enjoyment of the lengthy tome.  I always enjoyed David Foster Wallace’s writings, particularly his short stories.  At first, I had little patience for his heavily-footnoted style, but that is a minor quirk, and when I read The Onion’s 2003 article, “Girlfriend stops reading David Foster Wallace Breakup Letter at Page 20,” I knew I was not alone.

David Foster Wallace was smart, funny, sensitive, and plagued by a host of personal demons.  While the term genius is bandied about quite liberally, it actually applies to DFW.  He was my contemporary, and one I truly enjoyed reading, always.  I regret never having met the man, but am heartened by the legacy of words and thoughts that he left for us to read and continually ponder.


David Foster Wallace: I still remember how I walked into the library here and saw the German edition of his novel Infinite Jest on the board with new books – and then saw the title: “Unendlicher Spaß” – “Infinite Fun.” I borrowed it anyway, the whole 1550 pages, and was tempted to leave a note inside.

I also remember hearing the news that he was found dead, and how it felt like fiction.


I first read DFW’s Infinite Jest during a summer when I was looking for something “productive” to do and spending an inordinate amount of time in my Honda Civic, stalling in parking lots, with the air conditioning on full-blast.  He had me at ellipsis. Hal Incandenza’s dogged resistance to speech, and all of the possibilities those four dots implied, touched a nerve; as did Joelle van Dyne; as did the Union of the Hideously and Improbably Deformed; as did the parable of the living, breathing, toad-in-the-throat in The Broom of the System. Now, I turn to DFW when I’m seeking permission from on high to do something new, or spiritual enlightenment from someone who understands cosmic jokes. His books are great for bible-dipping.  (Today’s Passage: “A full universe, Ms. Beadsman. We each need a full universe”). He teaches us about the endless potential of the written word, and his work has a mixture of humor and compassion and wit that is completely unparalleled. But it’s not merely the work I love. Its DFW the man, whom, more than any other author, I feel like I know—simply because his presence permeates writing that is seemingly endless in scope, imagination, and insight. And I’ll leave us with the image of Broom’s Norman Bombardini, the self-of-all-selves, the Weight Watchers defector who combats existential angst by eating all in sight in his attempt to embody the universe. When asked of his plans, “Has anyone ever tried?” He replies:  “Not to my knowledge, no, but….”



I’d never read David Foster Wallace before fall of 2011. I had a copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again sitting on my bookshelf since 1997, but it was a teenaged pretension: like all good missed opportunities, I was too busy looking the part than being it. Fourteen years later, Dr. Robert McLaughlin assigned Brief Interviews With Hideous Men for our doctoral seminar in literature and culture. With each page turned, I was as in awe as I was horrified. The soul deadening banality of plateaued success, depression’s consuming and destructive obsessive self-analysis, vignettes in the brief lives of tried and failed affairs, and a portrait of the breath before the high-dive into forever—all written with the earnest and faithful attention to detail of reportage. I couldn’t believe I’d been missing out for so long. But David Foster Wallace had written all he would write before he passed in 2008.

That’s when the eternal heartache began.

I would only ever know just so much of his work, much like—in a very loose and emotionally unfathomable way—those who knew him had only ever have known just so much of him. Intensely, briefly, and hauntingly, like his memory told and passed on in the halls of Illinois State University, like the fragments Karen Green assembled in the aftermath.

The eternal heartache goes on.

My poem “Forever” attempts to capture the ghost of an intense but faded memory and keep it clutched to the heart, even in sleep.