Photo courtesy of Kerry Foley

 

JACK 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 Alsop Review.  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.

Click 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 boundaries.

 

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 origins?

 

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 Rick Mahan

 

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 the eyes?

 

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 chaos.”

 

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"

consciousness but something quite different from that: an eruption of of a multiple, constantly tentative consciousness into thought.


 

 

Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach