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Jack Foley Interview


Jack Foley is a poet and critic living in the San Francisco Bay area. Foley’s radio show, Cover to Cover, is heard every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. on Berkeley station KPFA and is available at the KPFA web site; his column, “Foley’s Books,” appears in the online magazine, The Alsop Review. His poetry books include Letters/Lights—Words for Adelle; Gershwin; Exiles; Adrift (nominated for a Northern California Book Reviewers Award); Greatest Hits 1974-2003; and Ash on an Old Man’s Sleeve. In June 2010, he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from The Berkeley Poetry Festival.  



Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino lives in New York City where he edits the online journal, eratio postmodern poetry. His poetry and prose have appeared in a variety of print and online publications including Barrow Street, jubilat, The Germ, Xcp: Cross-Cultural Poetics, 5_Trope, In Posse Review, Nthposition, Xcp: Streetnotes, Cordite Poetry Review, Softblow, Rattapallax--Fusebox, Aught, Malleable Jangle, Movement One: Creative Coalition and can we have our ball back?  He has a degree in philosophy from Fordham University.   




GVST: Happy Birthday, Jack! Today is Tuesday, August 9th, and today you turn 65! I had the pleasure of being in your company recently and, if you don’t mind me saying so, my impression of you, of your spirit, is that you are an ancient man, sort of like a time-traveler, one who has traveled through the consciousness of the ages, as that consciousness is found, is documented in poetry, and has absorbed so much of it; the ease and comfort with which you traverse the different periods, via their poetry: I say I am very impressed by someone who can recite Chaucer, in Chaucer’s language, as easy as he can Browning or Frost or Eigner! I can’t say this about just any poet, but about you I think I can situate you in any poetic period, the troubadours for instance, and think that you are at home there. Certainly, your poetry, your lyrics, are both amorous and satirical and political, and you were obviously made for courtly love. Our ages say so much about us, our mundane chronological age places us into context, culturally, historically, poetically, intellectually: so why don’t we begin in the present tense, where you find yourself now; how is Jack Foley at 65, the man, the poetry, and what does he make of his current context?


This past April (April ’05) you and Adelle were in New York City for two readings (at the Where Eagles Dare Theater and at The Bowery Poetry Club). These readings were billed as your “first readings in New York City”. "First readings"? That strikes me as, well, as counter-intuitive. How is it that this was your first reading in NYC? Is there a cultural indicator in here somewhere?


JF: My wife Adelle and I have had much to do with New York City throughout our lives. She was born there; I grew up in Port Chester, New York—not too far away. I have been writing poetry since about the age of fifteen, but my “career” as a poet didn’t begin until some thirty years later when Adelle and I first performed my work in public in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the twenty years since our first performance in 1985 (in Berkeley) we have performed in various places—including Mexico City, Paris, Damascus—but we had never performed in New York City. I came to New York City as a California poet.


In some ways, my work may be nothing more than an attempt to recreate the ecstatic initial moment in which I first discovered poetry—and so I’d like to begin by talking about that. I have a clear memory of the moment at which I “became” a poet. It was about 1955, when I was 14 or 15. I was writing seriously—but not poetry. I was writing prose and some songs, both music and lyrics. For the prose my model was primarily Thomas Wolfe. A teacher suggested that I read Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, originally published in 1768. I thought it very unlikely that Gray’s poem would appeal to me. Why should a blue-collar, Irish-Italian kid living on the East Coast of the United States have any interest in the work of an aristocratic, 18th-century Englishman? But I looked up the poem in the library. It turned out to be an epiphany of my life at the time:


The curfew tolls the knell 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.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,

And all the air a solemn stillness holds….


The word “homeward” in the third line is very important. I had encountered it in the title of Thomas Wolfe’s 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel; Wolfe took the phrase from Milton’s “Lycidas”. (Wolfe later wrote You Can’t Go Home Again, published posthumously in 1940.) Gray’s ploughman goes “homeward”, but the speaker of the poem—presumably Gray himself, the poet—remains “outside”, in the churchyard. The churchyard is a sort of “home” but it is a home of the dead, a necropolis. Somewhere at the edge of my consciousness was the thought that my “home town”, Port Chester, was itself—at least for me—a necropolis. Look Homeward, Angel concludes with the image of its hero, Eugene Gant, turning his back upon the town and moving towards parts unknown: “he was like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say ‘The town is near’, but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges”. You Can’t Go Home Again is even more explicit:


At the end of it he knew, and with the knowledge came the definite sense of new direction toward which he had long been groping, that the dark ancestral cave, the womb from which mankind emerged into the light, forever pulls one back—but that you can’t go home again.


The message was clear: One had to leave home, and once one had left home, one could never go back again. Yet home was all one knew. The speaker of Gray’s “Elegy” is not at home, though presumably his home is not far and, like the ploughman, he could go there if he wished. He is in a state of distance, a state of what he calls “darkness”. The landscape is “there”, but it is not overwhelmingly there: it is merely “glimmering”, part of a “solemn stillness”. For him, that “stillness” contains the possibility of thought, meditation, poetry—of writing:


Let not ambition mock their useful toil,

Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;

Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,

The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,

And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,

Awaits alike th’inevitable hour.

The paths of glory lead but to the grave…

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark, unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.


Note the word “homely”, used here in a positive way. Nothing the poet says is “new” though he is putting what he says in a deliberately “elevated” tone. Yet his position—between the realm of the dead and the realm of the living—is of considerable interest. I surely thought that, caught in my home town, with all its limitations and ignorances—its “deadening” aspects—I was “wasting my sweetness on the desert air”, that the town had far to go before anyone in it “fathom’d” my particular “ocean”. Later, I learned the virtue and usefulness of the “homely”—of slang, for instance. At this point I was learning how to distance myself from that. Gray’s position encompasses both the present and the past—history. He is, precisely, not at home, yet home is his subject. His language even glances at sexuality—certainly an issue for me at that time. His rose “blushes” and, virginal, “wastes its sweetness”. Moreover, his primary theme is death—always an issue for adolescents. For adolescents, “death” is not so much the awareness of the end of life as it is the perception of a radical change in themselves, the perception that they must change their mode of being. Like all transformations, this change involves the conclusion of something as well as the beginning of something. For the adolescent, the “paths of glory” not only “lead…to the grave”: they begin with the grave—with death. Wolfe was telling me that I must “lose the life you have, for greater life”.


Of course none of this was very clear to me on the day I read Gray’s elegy. All I could tell for sure was that the poem seemed to me to be the most beautiful sound I had ever heard. I kept repeating Gray’s lines aloud. In fact, the poem affected me so deeply that I wanted it to have come out of me, not out of Thomas Gray. I immediately sat down and wrote my own Gray’s “Elegy”, in the same stanzaic form (“Sicilian quatrains”) and with the same rhyme scheme as the original. Unlike Gray, I took myself as the subject of my elegy. But its mournful tone and words like “mem’ries” were 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 or “express” but to create a “reality” which moved me away from the daylight world in which I ordinarily functioned and had identity. Speaking the words aloud let me experience them physically, with my own breath: they were an affirmation not only of “ideas” but of my own physicality. In this situation, mind and body seemed not to be at odds, as at times they seemed to be when one was doing other kinds of “intellectual” work. Thought seemed sensuous, sensuality seemed thoughtful. Self and other were joined here too. Thomas Gray was a long-dead English 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 allowed him to be reincarnated in my body.


In fact, of course, the Thomas Gray I was experiencing in the “Elegy” was not the man who actually existed and who did a number of things beside write poetry: I was experiencing 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 “home” (58 Prospect Street) and who was fifteen years old and 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.


But a person with two homes can be understood to be an “exile”—or perhaps an immigrant. Writing moved me into a world of words. It was not a world I could touch or taste or see, but it was not a “fantasy” world either. It was a world which words caused, which could not exist without the words, but it was no less real for that. In that world, words were the substantial “reality”, and at that moment in 1955 I took the word-world to be my true “home.” Writing became a “home” which allowed me, in good conscience, to leave my “home.” I might perhaps have been able to find a better balance between these two “homes”, to have felt less like an exile as I moved from one to another, but the pressure from Thomas Wolfe and others was too great. My true life would have to begin elsewhere. First, of course, I had to get out of town.


GVST: “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. And to be a poet meant to be transformed.” 


And in this way, Jack Foley, poet, was born, was born into a world of words, his true home, and yet—he is an exile. Exile is a major theme in your work—it’s also the title of a book of poetry you published in 1996. But is it only a matter of place, a need to skip town, or is this also an exile from those first fifteen years? A good-bye to all that. Is there any sustenance for you—for the poet and for the man, I don’t want to separate the two—to be found, to be had, from those first fifteen years? Anything idyllic there, anything to draw from, to measure by?


So you had an awakening, an insight, and at such a tender season. And now you saw yourself, you knew who you were or who you had to become, but now you had to cultivate that. And in a sense you were causa sui, perhaps the most awesome state of exile of all. But you had poetry, and you had your insight. Was anyone there for you? A mentor? Did you read philosophy? How did you begin the work on yourself?


JF: The feeling I am describing was less a sense of destiny—what I was to “become”—than it was a sense of recognition: without knowing it, I had been a poet. And the state of consciousness represented by “poetry”—not just by Gray’s poem but by poetry—was one I wished to return to. Writing a carbon copy of Gray’s poem was not a bad thing to do, but I realized that it was not sufficient. How to open that door? Other poets—Shelley, for example—could do it for me, and that was wonderful. But it was even better if I could do it myself. What Gray had shown me was possibilities of my own consciousness. I loved music, painting, art of all sorts—and practiced as many arts as I could. But poetry was the door.


As for mentors, there were surely some people who were of use to me—the teacher who suggested that I read Gray’s “Elegy”, for example—but I had very little sense of any peers and no guides except for the people I read, the “mighty dead”, inhabitants of their own “churchyards”. Thomas Wolfe’s “poetic” passages were, I realized, a kind of preparation for Gray’s poem and for the experience of poetry. Wolfe showed me that consciousness was like the sky—an infinity—and that loss of some sort was a necessary aspect of its growth. That moment in 1955 was a moment of ecstatic isolation and of sheer potentiality. Through anthologies I immersed myself in poetry from all periods, but I was particularly interested in the Romantics—and there, particularly in Shelley. Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” was for me a poem of almost equal importance to Gray’s “Elegy”. Whenever you see any references to “leaves” in my poems, it is always Shelley. George Bernard Shaw was also a great liberator, and I noted with delight his admiration for Shelley.


When I went to Cornell to study literature, I discovered that Shelley was completely out of fashion. The "New Criticism" had little use for him. Teachers made disparaging remarks about him. But I knew Shelley was a great poet because of the way he had made me feel. I realized—and it was a very useful realization—that the teachers were “wrong”, not Shelley.


Both Shelley and Shaw plunged me into philosophy—a labyrinth from which I have yet to emerge. Insofar as any mentor presented himself, it was Paul de Man, whose readings of Romantic literature and of Yeats I found fascinating. It was he who led me to Heidegger. While everyone else was talking about irony and paradox—buzz words of the New Criticism—de Man was talking about consciousness and being. But de Man influenced only my thought, not my poetry. Later, Charles Olson’s “Maximus” poems opened up poetry for me yet again. Someone commented to me about literature courses that only the lesser students believe themselves to be in competition with each other: the better students understand that they are in competition with the teacher. Perhaps the very best students understand themselves to be in competition with the subject matter. Literature offers you possibilities of selfhood which are precisely not found in your environment—though of course where else but in your environment can you find them? Rilke’s broken Apollo says, “You must change your life”—and that is indeed one of the deep messages of literature. But if Apollo is not in some sense already there you will never be able to “discover” him.


GVST: At this time, at Cornell, were you already making music? Did you do any acting, or, were you interested in the theatre? You have music and acting in your background—or, maybe I should say, in your blood. Do you think the theatre was ever an option for you? Was it also Shaw’s plays as well as his philosophy?


This consciousness, it is greater than, it is beyond language—is that so for you? And yet language is the mode in which it finds expression. Do you ever articulate it in such terms? Language is your medium—or, how do you think about language, language as the mode in which consciousness, in which poetry, finds expression? I mean both oral language as well as the written/printed word.


Would you compare this consciousness to the poetic imagination, and what about Keats’ notion of the “self-destroying” power of the poetic imagination, his “negative capability”?


JF: I had been making music prior to my poetry. And you know that my father had been a tap dancer in vaudeville. When I was a child he gave me lessons—and I have a couple of poems in which I tap dance a bit. I have played the guitar throughout most of my life, and I continue to do so. Theatre was always an interest, yes—both “straight” theater and musical. Shaw’s plays were certainly an influence. By my junior year at Cornell, I had discovered the great Brecht/Weill opera, Mahagonny. In 1962—before the movie opened—I wrote the lyrics to a musical version of Fielding’s Tom Jones; the book was co-written by Michael Abrams and Stephen Sahlein and the music was by Warren Wechsler. In the tradition of Porgy and Bess, we began with a lullaby. I also performed a tap dance and sang a song.


Warren recently visited me in California and we wrote some new songs together. This is one:




If you were a flower, you’d be a rose

They say that’s the best flower that grows

If you’d rather be a petunia

I wouldn’t thumb my nose

But I’d prefer a red, red rose

Just like the poet’s rhyme

I’d watch you sway

In the wind all day

And never waste my time

And were we near

To Spain, my dear

Where they eat much rice and doze

I’d call you “a rose,” my sweetest love

But they’d hear it as “arroz”…

You remember the line

By Gertrude Stein:

Arroz is arroz is arroz.


But I’m just as likely to produce poetry like this—not comic but ecstatic, barely verbal:



bending over the in the         the





birds ‘spire and spear’



those blues utters leaves utters black barleycorn




berries &



I’m very attracted to Lou Harrison’s idea that the composer should be able to compose any kind of music, “low” or “high”. I think that’s true of George Gershwin as well. Gershwin’s symphonic pieces were wonderful collages which were continually crossing borders. One critic calls Rhapsody in Blue “polymorphous”: “it exists in many different forms, following divergent functions”. I tend to think of poetry in exactly that way—and the “many different forms” are constantly commenting on one another. My work ranges extremely widely, even within a single poem. Robert Duncan used to say that he “derived from every known source”. I think that’s a wonderful way of putting it. One of the questions my work raises over and over again is: What kinds of forms reflect a “polymorphous” consciousness? The fact that my poems are often performed chorally with my wife Adelle is one of the “solutions” to this question. You can call yourself a jazz poet—but what do you mean by that? Do you mean that you are identifying with the soloist or that you are identifying with the band? These two assumptions lead to very different kinds of poetry: ego-centered or centered in the interplay of “voices”. Identifying with the band moves you into something like The Waste Land or to Ivan Argűelles’ recent work.


You write, “This consciousness, it is greater than, it is beyond, language—is that so for you? And yet language is the mode in which it finds expression". Do you ever articulate it in such terms?


It seems to me that your assertion of consciousness being “greater than…beyond…language” is really a matter of faith—a kind of indirect assertion of God. Obviously, whatever we know of “consciousness” takes various forms: images, sounds, touch, etc. Do we have to postulate something “greater than” or “beyond” these individual forms? Do we have to assume that there is something apart from these manifestations? It may be that “consciousness” is nothing but capacity—not a “thing”, only an innate sense of possibility which is always in flux. This capacity is always making connections, assertions of all sorts, and its range is always wider than we are aware of at any given moment—but it is not a “beyond”, not a “greater than”. The question of the poetic “imagination” is for me a problematical one and is related to questions of “imagery” and even “Imagism”. (The notion of the poetic imagination begins in the 17th century: one finds it in Shakespeare: “The lunatic, the lover, and the poet / are of imagination all compact”. For Wordsworth the imagination is self-consciousness raised to an apocalyptic pitch: it has little to do with “images”.) I believe that all these terms require considerable clarification.


When I read Thomas Gray’s poem, I was thrown into an extremely intense experience of what language/writing can do to psyche. Naturally, I wished to regain that experience through the medium in which I initially experienced it. But I might have had an extremely intense experience of the visual or of the auditory. (I make a distinction between “language”—what you do with your “tongue” and your ears—and “writing”—a visual or tactile activity, by etymology a kind of drawing.) The creation of language and /or writing is obviously my central activity, but I have also produced music (songs) and drawings—and I am very interested in the intersection point between the visual and the auditory. Despite the Greek meaning of “poet”—“maker”—for me the poet is less a “maker” than he is a provoker of consciousness, of possibility.


In a recent interview, the Irish poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill remarked that “Poetry is to a large degree sound. The sound pattern emerges first, then the words, then the meaning, in that order”. There have been many assertions that “poetry is to a large degree sound”—which is one of the things that made the early L=A=N=G=U=A=G=U=E poetry project so interesting: language writers were insisting that poetry had little to do with sound, or at least little to do with speech. Robert Grenier stated bluntly, “I HATE SPEECH” and Ron Silliman insisted that the “new sentence…as distinct from the utterance of speech, is a unit of prose”. Language poetry, at least in its beginnings, was a deliberately writerly activity. Like Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Robert Pinsky insisted that poetry was rooted in the sounds of speech—and he made his statement as Poet Laureate so it had an air of authority about it. It seems to me that the actual history of poetry involves us with an art which is deeply divided. Poetry begins as an art something like singing—the Homeric “singer” sounding his “songs”—but eventually merges in an extremely problematical way with an art which is something like painting: writing. As the late Dick Higgins suggested in Pattern Poetry, the visual aspects of writing have resulted in the creation of a vast body of “concrete” or “visual” poems, many of which cannot be spoken or “sounded” at all. Such poems are hardly “to a large degree sound”, yet they are certainly poems. From a historical point of view, “poetry” is a mixed-media phenomenon whose auditory and visual elements are only occasionally in a state of balance. The title of my poem, “Bridget, Pronounced ‘Breed,’” plays upon the problem of the relationship between the visual and the auditory. Orthography is one of the aspects of this problem. Why is it that the words “Buick” and “quick” don’t rhyme? Why is “Bridget” pronounced “Breed”?


Keats’ Negative Capability, "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” and his conception of  “the poetical character” as having “no self—it is everything and nothing” seems particularly resonant in the situation of today’s world, in which the most divergent contexts are in a state of continual interchange. But what world has ever existed in which the most divergent contexts have not been in a state of interchange and conflict? That is the substance of Shakespeare’s plays. Charles Olson saw Keats’ statements as an early assertion of the modern idea of “relativity”. I see them as a clear assertion of the notion of consciousness as multiple—not a single “self” but a plurality, a chaos, “the Chameleon poet” who inhabits many things and who is “everything and nothing”.


If there is a center to my work, it is the notion of self-knowledge. Yet it seems to me that the supreme moment of self-knowledge—the moment in which we know ourselves most intensely—is also the moment of fictionalizing, the moment in which we tell a story. Self-knowledge is thus permeated with fiction—with what might be thought of as a kind of “lying”: it stands as close to falsehood as it does to truth.


Yet this is not to say that self-knowledge doesn’t exist. It is only to say that it is never anything other than problematical: it is constantly (and only) at the point of its own revelation, in a state of struggle and disclosure. Hans-Georg Gadamer remarked in “Philosophical Hermeneutics” that Heidegger’s work “pursued the intrinsic and indissoluable interinvolvement of authenticity and inauthenticity, of truth and error, and the concealment that is essential to and accompanies every disclosure….” I wrote something similar about Delmore Schwartz: “Few poets have been so committed to art as self-consciousness; few poets have understood so clearly that self-consciousness is necessarily shot through with fantasy and fiction”.


GVST: Finally, Jack, would you make a few statements on the state of poetry currently? A diagnosis, a prognosis? Are we forever standing on the shoulders of giants, or are there giants yet to come? Is poetry walking on three legs, or has it a future? And thank you, Jack Foley, for doing this. I thank you for your time and for your patience. I appreciate it.


JF: I have an essay, “The Current State of Poetry”, in my book, O Powerful Western Star. I don’t want to repeat what I said there since it’s easily available. (You can also find it in the archives of my “Foley’s Books” column in the online magazine, The Alsop Review.)


The playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart had a phrase for the theatre: “the fabulous invalid”. If one wishes to believe that we are forever standing on the shoulders of giants, then that fact will color both one’s perceptions and one’s poetry. In the 1950s and early 1960s critics such as Arthur Mizener were saying, “The age of Yeats is over; we are living in the age of Auden”—by which they meant that Romanticism and mythology were kaput and we were left with ironic, sotto voice formulations. (This is not to denigrate Auden, who was an extraordinary poet—particularly in his early poems.) But even as Mizener made his statement, poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac were producing work of an intense Romantic nature. Poetry is a fabulous invalid. It is always at the point of death and always bursting forth in full flowering resurrection. My feeling is that the question of print versus spoken word is at the heart of what is happening in poetry at the moment and is in certain ways at the heart of the history of poetry. All my books, including my book of criticism, O Powerful Western Star, have included an audio as well as a written component, and I have dealt with this issue at some length in my critical pieces. One should speak perhaps not of poetry but of poetries. Poetry is as multitudinous as the consciousness that produces it; in fact, it is the consciousness that produces it. There are, in any case, too many pronouncements about poetry. Yeats once wrote something about poets keeping their mouths shut, and in a particularly open-minded moment Pound suggested that we should leave blanks in our writings for the things we don’t know.


I’d like to conclude all this prose with a recent poem—albeit a prose poem:




Consumerism creates a kind of metaphysics of individuality and choosing—affirming individuality (or ego) by choosing. It’s not that choice doesn’t exist but that it is far less extensive than it is given credit for being. It may well be that what we represent to ourselves as “choices” are nothing but the promptings of a situation which in fact determines why we move in one direction or another. Isn’t that the lesson of Freud and others? What about the concept of “fate”? Perhaps “fate” is one’s situation. If one ceases to believe passionately in individuality (which doesn’t mean that one therefore begins to believe passionately in the opposite of individuality, “the crowd”) then having to choose one thing rather than another becomes far less important. Consumerism loves choosing. Buy this rather than that. But choice may be damaging. Why not both/and rather than (in Kierkegaard’s phrase) either/or? Why not an entirely new arrangement of possibilities? Assertions that certain things are “best” arise out of this emphasis on choosing. The “best” is “the chosen one.” What if there is no “best”? What kind of poetry arises out of a consciousness opposed to individuality and choosing? Choose.


copyright © Jack Foley & Gregory Vincent St. Thomasino