Photo courtesy of Kerry Foley
FOLEY'S books, CDs and cassettes include Letters/Lights – Words for Adelle (1987),
Gershwin (1991), Adrift (1993) and Exiles
(1996). His critical writings are collected in O Powerful Western
Star (which also includes a CD) and Foley's Books, both from
Pantograph Press. His weekly literary column "Foley's Books" can
be found on-line at The
His radio show, "Cover to Cover", airs every Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. on
Berkeley station KPFA. The program can be accessed at
KPFA’s web site.
here to read Jack's poem "The Poet's Tango."
SUZANNE LUMMIS: Jack
you're a hard man to sum up. In fact, you may be un-sum-up-able. I
could say you're a poet and performer, Berkeley's KPFA f.m. radio host,
essayist and reviewer for Poetry Flash and for your on-line column Foley's
Books, defender of the down-trodden and – in the
case of our friend Dana
Gioia – the up-risen, and a vivid Bay Area personality. But, obviously, that
hardly covers it.
So I give up. How do you
describe, define, or convey yourself?
JACK FOLEY: I would call
myself a poet. Of course one might ask, "If you're a poet, then what
does one do about all those critical essays you write, or the performances you
do, or the radio shows, or...?" All these are ways of clearing a space for my
poetry to be heard. If your poetry has some
originality, people often
react to it in a puzzled or dubious way: "poetry" – the sort of thing they
expect--isn't usually like that. Consequently, a good deal of your energy will
be spent simply in educating people to what it is you're doing. In my
earliest readings I always was careful to explain what I was doing even as I was
doing it. The various activities you mention rhyme with each other, are
mutually illuminative; together, they constitute what I mean by "being" a poet.
S.L.: You say, "The
various activities you mention rhyme with each other,are mutually
illuminative; together, they constitute what I mean by ‘being’ a poet." And further, "All
these are ways of clearing a space for my poetry to be heard."
Do you mean poetry
resides at the center, and all the other activities not onlyhelp support and deepen
people's understanding of the poetry but are in a respect extensions of
it? That is, they're all a part of one who lives as a poet, makes his life from the
substance of poetry?
JACK FOLEY: Yes, though I
need to add some qualifications. One could say that poetry is the
central activity of spirit (or self-consciousness) in my life – or that I
"dedicate my life" to poetry. But I don't wish to make that sound as though it were
some sort of religious "calling"--which would be to
romanticize it or even to
sentimentalize it. At various times in my life I learned to play the
guitar, to tap dance, to paint (I started out wanting to be a painter, as many people
do); I enjoy singing and acting; I write criticism and stories. Something I call
"poetry" is the central thing I do--but, instead of
abandoning these various
other activities, I have used them in making poetry.
I think one of the
central tenets of Puritanism is the insistence that we MAKE CHOICES--and we live in a
puritanical country. If in a sense I have made the choice of poetry as a
central activity, I have also labored to incorporate the other activities as
well--to put, as James Broughton once said, a little multi in my media.
I have a poem that's
partly words and partly tap dancing (my own); I have choral pieces
in which I'm singing and playing the guitar while my wife Adelle
speaks--as well as choral pieces in which both of us are speaking,
sometimes simultaneously; there are visual effects in both my
written poetry and my performances.
I wrote of a mentor of my
father's—the actor-dancer-playwright-songwriter- producer George M. Cohan—"People
speak of him as having been ‘talented' in various areas
(songwriter, dancer, actor, playwright, etc.) and, while that's obviously true, it
doesn't quite hit the mark. I think Cohan was variously ‘talented' because his
psyche was multiple. It was perfectly natural to him to function in various
contexts rather than in a single context. He was in this respect closer to being a
twenty-first-century man rather than the nineteenth- early-twentieth century
man he also was."
I think one of the
deepest things we are experiencing as a culture is a shift from thinking of people
as "individuals" (the word by etymology means "undivided") into
thinking of them as "multiplicities"—multiply (even contradictorily)
motivated and functioning. In Modernist poetry one can see
this quite clearly in the
shift from the "dramatic monologues” of Robert Browning – a poet both
Eliot and Pound studied — to the "dramatic multilogues" or "polylogues"
of Eliot and Pound: in their work ("The Waste Land," "The Cantos"), a
single poem is the utterance not of one but of many voices. Moreover, the
single poem is not, in the conventional sense of the word, "unified." It's not
that this large entity POETRY "unifies" all these other activities
("they're all a part of one who lives as a poet") but rather that
the activity of poetry –
of "making" – is necessarily a multiple activity; it is constantly crossing
American literature draws
upon so many traditions and even, as in Eliot's and Pound's work,
on so many languages that the possibility of its utter lack of unity
is very great. Perhaps it will be the burden of the twenty-first century
not to despair at this fact but to recognize a new definition of
"unity": not something all-embracing, not something which insists on touching
absolutely everything, but a looser coalition in which various patterns
and peoples emerge.
S. L.: Who were the first
poets to seize your attention, and why? Were there poets who prompted
you to write, or made you want to be a poet? Or did you come to poetry
by some other route?
JACK FOLEY: I had been
making various experiments in writing, mostly in imitation of the prose
of Thomas Wolfe. Someone – probably a teacher – suggested that
I read Thomas Gray's poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"
(1768). The poem hit me like a ton of bricks, and I immediately wrote a poem
in response – and in imitation. At that moment, I was given an identity –
the identity of poet, writer.
Though I felt that I had
penetrated to the heart of poetry in reading Gray's poem, I
nevertheless went out to the library to find as much poetry as I could. Gray's
poem brought me into a state of mind/feeling which I identified with
"poetry," and I wanted to experience that state again and again, as often
as possible. Reading through anthologies of poetry, I found myself
responding to a wide range of poets: I loved Burns, for example, and
the Romantics, particularly Shelley, whose "Ode
to the West Wind" became
a holy poem for me. But I delighted in Pope and other 18th-century
figures as well. And I discovered Modernism – Eliot and Pound but also, via
Oscar Williams' anthologies, people like Elinor Wylie and John Crowe
Ransom, to say nothing of Ogden Nash. (I was a great admirer of Cole
Porter and Larry Hart.)
S. L.: Interesting --
it's been a while since I've heard John Crowe Ransom, Ogden Nash and
Cole Porter mentioned within a couple breaths of each other. Meanwhile,
back in the present, you and I show up the new Heyday Books tome edited
by Dana Gioia with Chryss Yost and Jack Hicks:
California Poetry from
the Gold Rush to the Present. I love your "Poet's Tango". Well it's a
flat-out, hands-down, headfirst, runaway contemporary classic, and if you'd
don't object to the quantity of adjectives you can quote me on that.
While it's not a poem
that requires explanation – certainly not for those of us who've abided for
any length of time in the poetry monde – I wonder if you'd like to
talk about its genesis. Did some particular occasion or conversation give rise
to this poem? I know that it's not always possible
to trace the creative
impetus behind a poem, but how 'bout in the case of this one? Any traceable
JACK FOLEY: After
reading "The Poet's Tango," several people commented to me, "You're
writing about me, aren't you?" I wasn't, but people do identify with the
poem. Simple as it is, even this poem depends on the clash of two voices.
Do you know about Robert
Hass's "Addison Street Project"? Poems by various local poets were
inscribed on tiles and inserted along Addison Street in Berkeley. It's
quite a nice thing. A book will follow--from Heyday! I did a little
tap dance on my tile and it was videotaped for a TV story on the project.
I told the interviewer that I was "interested in the dance of words."
That has something to do with why the "tango"--the dance of
words. (When I was a child, I took a few dancing lessons and remember
being taught how to tango.)
Also: Richard Silberg
refers to that dreadful moment in a reading when the poet starts to
mumble, "Oh, which poem should I read next, should I read this one or this
one" etc. and goes through his/her papers as "The Poet's Shuffle"--and I
expect that had something to do with my title. Silberg meant the shuffle
of papers, but a “shuffle” is a tap dance step.
I have heard countless
ego-challenged poets saying the kind of thing that the poem says
("Nobody reads me / I'm not published enough" etc). The poem simply
exaggerates this kind of thing slightly--and sets it to a dance measure. Whining
as a tango.
S.L.: Jack, we've only
danced – tangoed – across the surface of your many activities, but your
answers are so voluminous and thorough I've only room for a few in my
little magazine. One last thing, though: tell me about your
collaboration with your wife Adelle. How did she come to be a part of your
performance? Had she been writing and performing herself and
did the two of you simply decide to join forces?
Photo courtesy of
JACK FOLEY: Performing
jointly with my wife Adelle was not a mutual idea but an idea of mine.
I knew that Adelle had some performing experience – and that she
enjoyed it – so it wasn't too much of a stretch. At the time we began
performing together, Adelle was not herself a writer – though she was to
become one a few years later.
My idea didn't arise out
of a gallant impulse to include her in my poetic "world" though she
was present in my very first performances but out of a conviction
about the nature of the mind. If I stood up by myself and spoke a
poem, I would be affirming the idea of the "individual," the idea of
the "I": this is MY experience. If I'm standing up with another
person, however, it is no longer quite clear whose "I" is being
expressed. Is the poem a joint product produced by both Adelle and
me or is it something else? What is the difference between the
performed poem and the written poem, the one taken in silently by
I like the idea of the
"individual" when it appears in the realm of politics: the rights of the
individual, etc. But when I tried to look within myself – when I tried to address
the nature of consciousness--I found something very different from
"individuality," "undividedness." I found a complex area in which many,
sometimes contradictory things were being expressed more or less
simultaneously: in short, I found an area in which I was deeply "divided"--and not in the
least "undivided." How was it possible to express that reality?
My first impulse was to
write a poem which included many voices juxtaposed (in more or
less the manner of Pound's "Cantos" or Eliot's "The Waste Land”) which I
could perform solo. (You can find one such poem, "Darkness. The light
comes slowly," on pages 25 –27 of my book, O Powerful Western Star.)
But it occurred to me that it would be even more interesting if these
various voices were spoken by different people. In theory, almost every phrase of my
poem, "Overture: Chorus" should be spoken by a separate person.
Adelle and I have at
times performed the poem with several speakers, but, from a practical point of
view, and given important considerations of rhythm and timing and even
rehearsals, it's easier to do it with two people performing all the voices. In
"Overture: Chorus," the two voices have the effect of two
strains or aspects of
consciousness both trying to find "voice"--and finally manifesting
simultaneously in a problematical duet. Someone described one of my choral poems in
this way: “The reader/listener is seduced into the willing participation in
We have also used this
technique in presenting "essays." "Words & Books, Poetry & Writing"
from O Powerful Western Star is simply an "essay" when you read it
silently: something which seems to be the production of a single
consciousness. When this "essay" is performed as a "speech," however, it
is quite a different experience: ambiguities are far more apparent,
and each voice constantly interrupts the other. It no longer seems like
the product of a single, unified, "individual"
something quite different from that: an eruption of of a multiple, constantly
tentative consciousness into thought.