Berkeley Poetry Festival Honors
Renaissance Poet & Critic Jack Foley
The Berkeley Poetry Festival is an annual celebration organized by Louis Cuneo and his Mother's Hen press. This year’s event took place on Saturday, June 5, 2010, at Telegraph and Haste near the University of California Berkeley campus. Bay Area poet Jack Foley received the Festival's 4th Lifetime Achievement Award.
"It’s a very strange feeling to think you’ve had a ‘lifetime.’ And then it’s even stranger to think someone is giving it an ‘award,’" says 69-year old Jack Foley. “Awards are encouraging but really they have little to do with the me that gets up and eats breakfast, or the me that writes the poems."
When I tried to pin the epithet of "professional poet" on Foley, he would have none of it: "I don’t profess myself as a poet," he says. Nevertheless, Foley is a word-excavator and artist par excellence, a widely respected critic and a booster of those whose work he admires. A conversation with Foley always leads to an interesting and mind-bending place where etymologies spin excitedly at the center of the discussion.
By the time Foley was in college, he had already had an epiphanous encounter with a poem, in his case at age 15 when he first read "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by English poet Thomas Gray (1716-1777):
"The curfew knells the close of parting day
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness and to me."
He attended Cornell University and later the University of California at Berkeley as an English major but eventually skedaddled from academe’s confines for a variety of reasons. One instructor dismissed Romantic writer Percy Bysshe Shelly as a bad poet; in his heart, Foley knew otherwise. And his efforts to write a paper on Shakespeare’s play “Cymbeline,” brought him up against terrible criticism that had previously been written about the play.
He was already a questioning lad, having been liberated by his observation that there was often a gap between what authority figures said (parents, priests, professors, etc.), and what he had experienced. As an example, he notes that his mother "would say things with great conviction that I knew to be false." He saw his nominally Catholic parents not attending Mass in spite of church teachings that this was a mortal sin. When he asked his mother why she didn’t go to church, she explained that she didn’t have anything to wear. "And," Foley exclaims, "for that, she was willing to brave Hell!"
Foley established his niche outside the academy and is the consummate poet-writer-raconteur in the Renaissance tradition. These days, we are in far too short supply of poets who are as excited about the work of others as they are about their own recent scribblings. Foley is as erudite as any Princeton lecturer but he is a critic of a different stripe, always linked to the community that he both boosts and regales, providing us with another model of what it is to be a working writer.
Foley’s mind makes rapid-fire connections--and not necessarily obvious ones--a mind filled with decades of reading literature, poetry, philosophy, music history, and critical theory. If he had to be on a desert island and could only take five books, he says they would all be blank ones that he would fill with his own thoughts and responses to what he has already read or experienced.
While interviewing Foley, we had hardly gotten out the gate, before we were embroiled in a discussion about the seemingly simple pronoun "I." As I tried to get a fix on how Jack saw himself as a poet and writer, the man would simply not hold still! He instructed me in the ways "I" is distancing. While claiming to be "indivisible," "individual," the root of "I-dentity," it inherently sets up a dichotomy where there needn‘t be one.
Foley explains by way of poetry--what often happens while talking with him. Lately he has been reading Chinese poet and critic Wai Lim Yip. In Chinese, there are many personal pronouns, although they hardly occur in Classical Chinese poetry. While a poet speaking an Indo-European language might say, "I weep" or "I am weeping," the Classical Chinese writer would say, "Weeping is taking place." The effect this has on the reader is to include her in the experience of the poem, while the use of "I" is alienating, dividing speaker from reader.
Foley believes the mind is a multiplicity. One hears Walt Whitman thundering, "I contain multitudes," and must acknowledge Foley as a direct inheritor of the god-father of American poetry. But his is a Whitman that has been synthesized through Heidegger and post-modern language theorists. (Foley was a student of Paul de Man at Cornell.)
Poet and publisher, Lucille Lang Day commented: "I have never met anyone more open to or knowledgeable about all types of poetry, from the experimental to the formal, than Jack Foley." She suggests that what Foley is doing for California--and specifically, San Francisco Bay Area literature--is a great service of acknowledging and articulating both our history and our current responses to that history for future generations of poets and writers.
Visions and Affiliations
Foley’s latest project is an 1,800-page "timeline," entitled Visions and Affiliations: Poetry in California from 1940-2005, which traces a 65-year period of California poetry. Lucy Day believes the book "will be indispensable to librarians, historians, writers, and others interested in our literary history,” and that “No one else could have done it!"
The prototype of Visions and Affiliations was published as "A California Timeline 1940-1999" in Foley’s O Powerful Western Star (Pantograph Press, 2000). After it appeared, he was told he should amplify the timeline, and the monumental new book will be filled with copious annotations and quotations. "Over a 60-year period, you get people saying a lot of stuff," Foley says. Although he had thought to have finished Visions and Affiliations on a number of occasions, he felt compelled to add more information as new books came out, new writers were discovered. Foley quotes John Donne: "When thou hast done, thou hast not done, For I have more."
Share and Share Alike
Foley is a prolific writer, regularly contributing essays and reviews to Poetry Flash, online zines and blogs. His column, "Foley‘s Books," has appeared for many years online at the Alsop Review. He frequently shares his work in public readings and on radio. I once heard a poet complain about the "ubiquitous Foleys," but the comment revealed envy as much as annoyance. If Jack Foley is at many events and in the thick of scenes, it is because he has devoted a good deal of his life to this art, an art that requires sharing.
One reason for his community activity is that he got a late start, giving his first reading at age 45. He wrote for a long time without hope of publication but then "things happened quickly." In 1986 he was running a successful reading series begun by someone else at Larry Blake’s restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley. Around 1988, KPFA Radio approached Foley for ideas about how to get poetry on air. An initial taping led to a weekly show that Foley has hosted for two decades, during which time he has interviewed hundreds of poets--local "unknowns" and national laureates. He has also presented essay-format shows on music and other topics, such as one popular one that focused on songwriter Cole Porter.
Foley came to writing criticism because he wanted to be understood--as succinct and candid a reason for turning to that dark path as any. "Initially, I started to show my poems to friends, people who were English majors." He had expected them to understand his work, but he explains, with a hint of incredulity, "they did not." He realized that he may not be understood by a lot of people. Finding himself in "an alienated situation," he determined that writing criticism would "allow people to understand my own work as well as the people I was going to criticize. It was to clear a space for my work," while providing "a way into understanding my poetry."
The Dancer & the Dance: A Book of Distinctions (Red Hen Press, 2008), a recent collection of Foley’s critical essays was recommended by Marvin R. Hiemstra, editor of the Bay Area Poets Seasonal Review, who suggested, "Put this spiffy book on your Reference Shelf to relish when The Web is having a bad day. You may learn something." Hiemstra calls Foley, a "poetic historian" who makes critical distinctions with understanding, not the usual ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ pronouncements." He regards the impulse that drives him to write literary and cultural criticism, however, as the same for getting his verse out as well: "I don’t see a distinction between poet and critic."
Often Foley is touting the work of a neglected poet or unknown younger writers. He has written passionately about his friend Ivan Argüelles and published a collection about James Broughton, the Modesto-born poet who was part of the San Francisco poetry Renaissance (All: A James Broughton Reader, White Crane Books, 2007). The book was voted # 1 Gay Book of the year by the web site Afterelton.com.
Of late, Foley has been impressed with Palo Alto poet Mary-Marcia Casoly and Santa Rosa poet Katherine Hastings, whose book Updraft he reviewed in the Seasonal Review (Winter 2010). He even "corrupted" his wife, Adelle (pictured above right, with Foley), who frequently performs multi-voiced pieces with him, adding an essential choral element to his verse, but she also writes, publishes and performs her own work.
Foley has also gotten into literary sparring matches with other critics, defending his friend Dana Gioia for one, which led to publication of The “Fallen Western Star” Wars. The book presents responses by a number of Bay Area writers to Gioia’s essay "Fallen Western Star: The Decline of San Francisco as a Literary Region.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti commended Foley for "doing great things in articulating the poetic consciousness of San Francisco."
Foley has been generous with writing back-cover blurbs for fellow poets, which both he and popular writing instructor and poet, Clive Matson, consider an art form. Says Matson, "Part of Jack’s genius is to see what’s in a poem very clearly. His brilliance shows even in blurbs; it takes only a few words to nail what is going on in a volume of poetry. But it takes persistence, devotion to the poetry, a very open mind, the discarding of one’s inclinations, and clarity of heart to understand what that is. Add to this Jack’s broad understanding of the historical context in which we write. To come up with the words takes more persistence, more openness, more willingness to risk. . . . He told me more about my book than I knew myself. Kudos to Jack."
And about that desert island--Foley‘s five blank books that would be filled with his writings, ponderings, remembering--he suggests: "I wouldn’t need five books to give me ideas, awarenesses. I already have hundreds lodged forever in my memory. . . . The problem, of course, would be that there would be no one to share them with, so I would need the hope that someone would find me eventually, or at any rate, find them. Failing that, I suppose I could toss them into the ocean (in bottles?) on the chance that they would find some ready hands somewhere, sometime."
Jack & Adelle Foley regularly appear at poetry events and readings. We will be posting upcoming dates here in a few days.