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Jack Foley’s Response to Jake Berry’s Poetry Wide Open: The Otherstream (Fragments In Motion)


(Jake Berry’s interview where he responds to the responses can be found here)



This fascinating essay affirms the utter otherness of the imagination. It affirms astonishment—boundary-breaking—as an element of good writing. It conceives of poetry as the experience of something not ourselves (or if ourselves, so deeply hidden that it might as well be other). What Berry is asserting is what Robin Blaser called, in reference to Jack Spicer, “the practice of outside”: “The determined assertion of [Jack Spicer’s] poetry [is] that it is among the powers, forces, and events of an outside that we live…Poetry becomes an active record of that outside which draws into itself the man, the poet, and his landscape…” Spicer’s taking on the identity of the dead Garcia Lorca in the wonderfully titled book After Lorca is one instance of a determined movement towards this outside. It is similar to Gertrude Stein’s attempt to write her own autobiography as The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, though Toklas was a living woman, not—like Spicer’s Lorca—a ghost. (“Low ghosts” are Spicer’s “logos.”)


The practice of outside is not a question of “finding your own voice.” The notion of “finding your own voice” is an assertion having to do with the individuality and interiority of the writer. This is Diane di Prima, from her book Recollections of My Life as a Woman, on that subject:


These new poems of mine, with their longer lines and almost deadly certainty, had already begun before Roi [Amiri Baraka] knocked on my door. They had begun with my first peyote trip, and with the vast permission I had found in Jimmy Waring’s “composition classes.” But now, as my emotional life came to a strong, though temporary, focus—this new work, too, came to a fruition: a powerful voice found its way through me and into the world. The first of many voices that would speak through me, now that I no longer sought to control the poem. 


For isn’t it not that we “find our voice” as poetry teachers are so fond of saying, but rather that voices  find us, and perhaps we welcome them? Is not poetry a dance from possession to possession—“obsession” in the full sense the word had in nineteenth-century magick? We are “ridden” as by the gods.  


Di Prima’s emphasized “not” is a measure of her own movement away from the notion of individuality—“now that I no longer sought to control the poem.”


A friend of mine recently complained about people in workshops rewriting / suggesting lines for poems by others. She felt that if you re-write a person’s poem in a workshop, you might stifle or suggest too strongly what the person might come up with in any case. She argued that we can write better poems if we share our work with fellow poets and get feedback but that re-writing was often inhibiting—especially if you suggest something that was already on the tip of your poet-friend’s pen.


I felt that my friend’s comments were based on the notion of the “individual” and of the poem as the (sacred) “expression” of the individual. Personally (individually), I told her, I don't believe in either notion.


I suggested that what she was enunciating was what most people believe about writing and how good writing is produced. Not to “stifle” the—individual. In this context, the comments of other writers—“sharing poems and receiving feedback”—becomes the mostly friendly activity of people engaged in the same task as the writer. They are not so much “others” as versions of him/herself. There is a deliberate suppression of boundary breaking. But I think that having someone suggest a line (“rewrite”) or suggest even more than a line moves a writer out of the I-centered world he/she tends to inhabit and into a world in which the center is not what the writer individually “feels”—not the writer’s interiority—but language itself conceived of as a force to which anyone can tune in. “I can’t make the word ‘moon’ mean more than it means,” remarked Robert Duncan. There is of course no law that says anyone has to accept anything suggested—but what happens if something outside your poem begins to inhabit it, what if your words begin suddenly to mean something different, something different from what “you” intended?


One of the things I have people do in workshops is this: Someone has written a poem. Fine. Someone else has written a poem. Fine. I then have people read the two poems against one another—simultaneously. Do the words in the poems change their meaning as they encounter another poem? Often people find that they do.


Such beliefs have led me to practices such as the one I call “writing”—as opposed to “reading”—“between the lines.” Here is an example:





I wrote this poem in response to a poem in Charles Bukowski’s book, Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck. The words in the first, third, fifth, etc. lines are Bukowski’s poem; the words in italics are by me. I call this way of responding to a poem “writing between the lines.” When I perform the poem, I speak the Bukowski portion in my “normal” voice; I speak the words by me in a whisper.


the mockingbird had been following the cat

there was this cat

all summer

and I only saw him

mocking mocking mocking


teasing and cocksure;

when he gave a

the cat crawled under rockers on porches


tail flashing

and burped

and said something angry to the mockingbird

at the audience

which I didn’t understand.


yesterday the cat walked calmly up the driveway

and he read this poem

with the mockingbird alive in its mouth,

about a cat

wings fanned, beautiful wings fanned and flopping,

and a bird

feathers parted like a woman’s legs,

and he was both

and the bird was no longer mocking,

the cat and

it was asking, it was praying

the bird

but the cat

and he was devouring

striding down through centuries


would not listen.

through the poem.


I saw it crawl under a yellow car

And I listened

with the bird

letting him die

to bargain it to another place.


summer was over.



The resulting poem is neither fully Bukowski’s nor fully mine but a kind of collision of mutual otherness. I keep interrupting Bukowski; I keep adding my lines to his. But, equally, his lines keep interrupting mine. (What happens to the word “cat” between the first and second lines?)


I don’t believe that the openness to which Jake Berry’s essay repeatedly returns can really be taught. But it can be experienced. (Thelonious Monk, “Epistrophy,” Paris, 1966.) * The first thing that most creative writing courses do is to close the door to astonishment; to boundary breaking. We don’t need to open a door. We need to have something that breaks it down.



* Ed Michel: “Monk’s chords are mostly perfectly respectable chords. Perfectly respectable. It’s where he puts them that makes them seem strange.”




copyright © Jack Foley




With his wife, Adelle, Jack Foley frequently performs his work in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has published eleven books of poetry, seven books of criticism, and a book of translations of the French singer/songwriter, Georges Brassens. Since 1988, he has hosted a poetry radio show on Berkeley, California station, KPFA. His column, “Foley’s Books,” appears in the online magazine, The Alsop Review. His recent, monumental Visions & Affiliations: A California Literary Time Line 1940-2005 has received international attention with reviews in both England (TLS, Beat Scene) and the USA.