Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Jack Foley

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Jack Foley

has published 15 books of poetry, 5 books of criticism, a book of stories, and a two-volume, 3,000-page  “chronoencyclopedia,” Visions & Affiliations: California Poetry 1940-2005. He became well known through his multi-voiced performances with his late wife, Adelle, also a poet. Many of these are on YouTube. Since 1988 he has presented poetry on Berkeley, CA radio station KPFA. In 2010 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Berkeley Poetry Festival, and June 5, 2010 was declared “Jack Foley Day” in Berkeley. In 2018 he became the recipient of the Albert Nelson Marquis Lifetime Achievement Award. His recent publications include EYES (selected poems); The Tiger & Other Tales, a book of stories; Riverrun, a book of experimental poetry; and Grief Songs, a book documenting his grief at the death of his wife. He currently performs poetry with his new life partner, Sangye Land.

Jack Foley and Sangye Land featuring at Sacred Grounds Cafe, September 2018.

Jack Foley

The Interview

When and why did you begin to write poetry?

I had come to my hometown, Port Chester, NY, in 1943; I was three years old. When I left to go to college in 1958, I understood myself to be a poet. My essay, “Home/Words,” in my book, Exiles (1996) deals with the moment at which I discovered poetry. It was 1955; I was fifteen.

Someone—probably a teacher, very likely Angela Kelley, who was Italian but who had married an Irishman—suggested that I read Thomas Gray’s 18th-Century poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751). I have no idea why the teacher thought the poem would appeal to me. Certainly I was interested in writing at that time—Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel was my great example—and I had written some songs (lyrics and music), but I didn’t believe I had much interest in poetry. I thought it very unlikely that I would have much interest in Gray’s poem, but I looked it up in the library and took it home:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Wolfe’s word, “homeward” was in the very first stanza!

To begin with, the poem seemed to me the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. It affected me so deeply that I wanted it to have come out of me, not out of Thomas Gray, and I immediately sat down and wrote my own Gray’s “Elegy,” in the same stanzaic form and with the same rhyme scheme as the original:

I see the night—the restless, eager night
That spreads its shadow softly on the day,
And whispers to the sun’s red, burning light
To vanish like a dream and pass away.

I see the night—the darkened mist of night—
And feel the velvet sorrows mem’ries bring;
September’s leaves have fallen, old and bright,
And autumn’s winds have blown the dust of spring.

I think of days long past, and gone, and dead,
Of all the ancient, withered hopes I’ve had….

Etc. Unlike Gray, I took myself as the subject of my elegy. But its mournful tone—and words like “mem’ries”—was directly traceable to him. I understood the state of mind named in Gray’s “Elegy” to be the state of mind of poetry itself; and in reacting so deeply to it, I understood myself to be a poet.

It was by no means a simple state of mind. It had to do with the enormous power of words not merely to reflect but to create a “reality,” a “mood” which moved me away from the daylight world in which I ordinarily functioned and had identity: “I see the night….” In some ways Gray’s lines hinted at sexuality—surely an issue for me at that time. His rose “blushes” and, virginal, “wastes its sweetness on the desert air”; he writes of “the dark, unfathomed caves.”

Speaking the words aloud let me experience them physically, with my own breath, coming out of my own body. In this situation, mind and body seemed not to be at odds: thought seemed sensuous, sensuality seemed thoughtful. Self and other were joined here too. Thomas Gray was a long-dead poet of the 18th Century. It was his mind that was being expressed in his elegy. Yet his poem seemed to be expressing my own inmost thoughts. It was almost as if Gray’s passionate words had allowed him to be reincarnated in my body.

There was of course a “real” Thomas Gray, a man who actually existed and who did a number of things beside write poetry. The Gray I was experiencing was not that person but Gray the poet, the bard. Aspects of both our lives seemed suddenly to fall away, to be of little consequence. What did it matter who the man Thomas Gray was? What did it matter who I was—born in New Jersey, growing up in New York? My powerful reaction to Gray’s words allowed me to recognize not only who he was but who I was: I “was” a poet. And to “be” a poet meant to be transformed, to move away from the person who lived at 58 Prospect Street and who was 15 years old and who had a mother named Juana and a father named Jack. Poetry offered me another identity, that of the poet; and, in so doing, it offered me another “home”—that of words. The life I led “at home”—“in my house”—was one thing; the life of words was another: Look homeward, Angel!

Thomas Gray’s poem offered me another state of mind, a state of mind that was far more expansive and open than my ordinary state. But once the “spell” of the poem was over, it was over. How to return? It seemed to me that there were only two ways: one was to read poetry; the other was to write poetry.

Gray’s poem was a kind of baptism. It was at that moment that I discovered that I had two homes—the home of words and the home of the world. But a person with two homes can be understood as an exile.

  1. Who introduced you to poetry?

Thomas Gray (December 26, 1716-July 30, 1771).

  1. How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets? 

Are you speaking of notions of Harold Bloom’s “precursor poet”? Why does “the presence of older poets” have to be “dominating”? I found older poets to be doors into areas of consciousness that I greatly desired to inhabit. Shelley? Let me see if I can get there. (Every time I mention a leaf in a poem, Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” is present, encouraging me.) Yeats? What brilliance! Dickinson! Whitman! I wrote this about Whitman’s great poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” (1859):

I don’t think there is another poem
More unique
And, simultaneously,
More representative of
What we may call the American spirit
Than this amazing
Presentation of the making of a poet
Of the transformation of anyone
From childhood to a condition of knowledge
How do we enter the world in a deep way
It is an aria, a performance
Something Whitman saw in the opera houses,
It is a multi-voiced, multi-selved poem in which
All sorts of styles and “voices” are brought together

(Including the hissing voice of the old crone, the sea, and the voice of the bird, “my dusky demon and brother,” “the lone singer wonderful”)

It is a poem about family (the he-bird, the she-bird)
It is a poem about the stunning fact of Death the Opener
And the great representation of the sea (Melville)

(The sea is the openness of consciousness)

It is a nature poem
In which the “outsetting bard” merges with what he sees
It includes Quakers (“Ninth-month midnight”)
And Native Americans (“Paumanok”)

It is Whitman giving himself over to the sheer possibilities of music
As world becomes word (“translating”)

It is an act of marvelous empathy and compassion in the literal sense, “feeling with”

It is a poem about the body and its transformation
Even as Whitman speaks of the soul
It is a poem in which the lorn bird and the transforming boy
Move us to what Wallace Stevens called
A new representation of reality.
This, camerados, is the great mythic moment of American letters

And it takes place not at a desk but outside,
Not as writing but as brilliant spontaneous unexpected utterance.
It ushers in (under the magical multivalent moon, in the presence of the vast, talkative

sea)

Nothing less than the world as song.

“Dominating”? Who would not converse with such spirits if the opportunity presented itself? Isn’t poetry precisely a way of conversing with such spirits?

The idea of being dominated by previous poets makes sense only if one thinks of oneself as a “individual,” only if one thinks of others as possible threats to individuality, to one’s “individual voice.” But I don’t think of myself as an “individual.” The word individual is from the Latin individuus—not divided. In a political context, the notion of the individual makes sense to me: there, the rights of the individual are everywhere to be respected. But if I am trying to understand what is happening in my consciousness, then I find that I am as divided as I can be: I am not individuus, not an individual. I think of myself rather as a multiplicity, an entity of many voices. Bloom admits that his notion of the precursor poet is a version of the Oedipus complex. Bloom undoubtedly had problems with his father. Pound, on the other hand (his father was named Homer), begins the Cantos with the sudden discovery of many voices: “These many crowded about me; with shouting.” For him, those voices are at once a live tradition (others, history, the dead) and a representation of the complexities of his own consciousness, his “personae.”

  1. What is your daily writing routine? 

I am fortunate enough to be able to live fairly well on inherited income: no job. Because of that, I can write whenever I like—and I do so frequently. I have no “routine,” just the desire to write whenever those voices pull at my sleeve.

  1. What motivates you to write?

The desire to get back into that space that writing opens up for me. I want to feel that way again and—as Gray did for me—I want to find ways to allow others to feel that way too. I have no name for that space, but it is an illumination and a “higher” consciousness than I ordinarily experience. Rilke wrote, Du mußt dein Leben ändern (You must change your life). Perhaps Whitman’s term, “song” is as good a name for it as any. I wish to re-enter the condition of song.

  1. What is your work ethic?

If I had been brought up Protestant, I might feel that I ought to have a work ethic. But I was a Roman Catholic—not that I am a believer any more. As an ex Roman Catholic, I don’t think I need to have a work ethic. Do you have one? Pleasure motivates me: the experience of song is immensely pleasurable. People say, “No pain, no gain.” I would rather say, “No pleasure, no treasure.”

  1. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I discovered the “older poet” Thomas Gray in 1955. It’s 2019 and I’m still talking about him. I love that Robert Duncan referred to himself not as an “original” but as a “derivative” poet—and that the word “river” is hidden in that word “derivative.” History lives in language; everyone we have read “influences” us. James Joyce: “riverrun.”

  1. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most?

I admire many writers, many of them dead, sometimes recently dead. Would you count John Ashbery as one of “today’s writers”? I loved Carolyn Kizer’s work and knew her. The same is true of David Meltzer and Heathcote Williams. Larry Eigner was a dear friend; so was James Broughton. (I put together a Broughton reader.) I admire Michael McClure, Al Young, Dana Gioia, David Mason, Lewis Turco, Neeli Cherkovski, Jerome Rothenberg, Lucille Lang Day, Marilyn Stablein, Judy Grahn, Ishmael Reed, Maw Shein Win, Kalpna Singh-Chitnis, Robert Adamson, Jan Steckel, Janine Canan, Nina Serrano, Leza Lowitz, Nguyen Phan Que Mai, George Wallace, Amos White, Koon Woon, Helene Cardona, Tom Hanna, Jennifer Reeser, John L. Stanizzi, Marvin R. Hiemstra, Jacob Smullyan, Olchar E. Lindsann-all of whom I know personally and am constantly enriched by. The list could easily be extended. Christopher Bernard. Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino. The two writers to whom I am closest are Ivan Argüelles (who “discovered” me—I’m grateful!) and Jake Berry, both of whom constantly astonish me with the breadth and interest of their work. I have written extensively about them both and find them to be a constant inspiration. “Would to God that all the Lord’s people were prophets!”

  1. Why do you write?

There’s a moment in Waiting for Godot when one of the tramps asks the other to listen to his description of a dream he had. The other declines. The first asks, “Do you prefer this?” He gestures, indicating the Universe.

  1. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

I agree with Ivan Argüelles that “you don’t become a writer.”

It falls on you like a brick.
It falls on you like a feather.
It falls on you like a father.

  1. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I recently finished a book of collaborations with the wonderful photographer Wayne Sides. His photos, my texts. It’s called EKPHRAZZ: One of Them Dreams. I’m putting together a book of recent poems, probably to be published by Sagging Meniscus Press. Its working title is When Sleep Comes, though it may be called Shillelagh Law. I also plan to put together a book of my late wife’s work. Sadly, we weren’t able to work on it together. It may be called Early the Next Day. The Sagging Meniscus Press book will have many love poems addressed to my new love, Sangye Land.

DUET WITH MYSELF

 

The function of memory

            My name is Jack

is to soften the blow of death

            I was born

to create the illusion of a self

            far away

though it is also memory

            on the east coast

that creates

            of america

the fear of death

            in a city near the roaring sea

 

This is the function

           I live

of memory:

            now

to soften

            in the far, far west

the blow of death

            near

to create

           the roaring

the illusion

            of another

of self

            sea

 

 

 

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