Mary-Marcia Casoly

 

You meet people, sometimes you get a chance to know them better, but I had no idea that Jack Foley would come to mean so much to me, be an important guiding force and incredible friend as well as devil’s advocate.

I had ventured again to the Watershed Poetry Environmental Fair in Berkeley. Must have been about seven years ago. I’d just finished reading in the morning “lottery” open reading. It was a poem called “Australia Dreaming” After I’d finished; I settled down on the grass. First, a tall man in silver pants and yellow t-shirt approached. He wondered if I’d submit poems to his Space Alien Nation newsletter. So the next moment didn’t seem so strange, when a balding man with long thin strands of hair, some impish hippy in a Hawaiian shirt, came to me out of breath and obviously pleased. He said he liked my poem; send me the poem and a few others. He gave me his card and dashed back to the stage. I hardly had time to think when he and his wife Adelle began to read. The poem they launched into, “Chorus: SON(G),” stunned me. I held my breath. They were both speaking simultaneously. One stopped and the other started. Their words collided and bounced off each other, making me hear different things, question what I heard, and kept me listening in wonder. Words broke and reunited. I felt myself shaking with the effort. I’ve heard it many times over now and the way it collides reveals something of the whole. And definitely without realizing it, I heard exactly what I had been seeking.

Who was that guy? I’d heard of KPFA, I’d even heard the show once or twice but I hadn’t registered the name. I walked up to him shyly, afraid of all the power I’d heard in his voice, and uncertain just what to say. He made it easy to talk to him. His eyes met mine, equally interested in what I thought about poetry as what he might share about it with me. He seemed to know something about all the poets and poetry that had been glossed over during my college years. I was surprised to find someone willing to talk about Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Kerouac, Yeats and Pound, and other poets I didn’t quite know anything about, all nearly in the same breath and sentence. He was also really listening to me, considering my thoughts. I hardly realized as we walked together that he was leading me to his car, where he opened the trunk and insisted I buy both volumes of his book, companion volumes. He convinced me Foley’s Books “couldn’t do without” O Powerful Western Star. Sometime later I wrote him a letter with some of my poetry, and a correspondence developed. Where did I fit, how could I fit in the poetry community even as I balked at the way publishing and poetry groups and workshops were conducted, as if they were an end in themselves, flat as a moving sidewalk. But I also worried that my work was too much all over the place, without cohesion, I tried on too many directions. I was lost.

First thing he wrote to me was:

I should warn you that I’m trying to redefine “poetry. “

Next thing: When are you going to do a book? I will, I replied, sometime. He raised his eyebrows. How old will you be? What a nag! So I gathered up my poems and my first book emerged and he insisted on writing the introduction.

Jack has offered some astute insight, sometimes handing me the exact perfect word, but from the beginning he agreed with my judgments. What? I didn’t have to constantly bow down to fixes unless that was what I really required. He didn’t interpret or encourage me to make my poems more comprehensible. He accepted mystery or things not yet understood. He wasn’t upset to look up a word in the dictionary. This was very different from the reactions I’d been hearing for so many years in workshops or groups. Instead he wrote and talked about poetry in ways which shook me, awakened me, and affirmed similar ideas.

His radio programs—a mix of poetry and essays, interesting people, voices and poems that he has chosen and orchestrated—have given me an example: perhaps an interview, his careful questions, his replies and then an essay, or an essay followed by one of his poems which seems totally unrelated. I love his voice on the air; often there is such sympathy and emotion in how he speaks. Jack’s voice will catch at such times. When he performs it is with deliberate intention and play. I found his own poetry so much more far reaching and varied, funny and daring than my own. What follows is only one piece from our early correspondence, which got me thinking of asking proper questions of myself, of poetry

You are trying very hard to allow for disparate experience, but at the same time trying to maintain some sort of ego sense-- if only an implicit one. What if you dropped in something unrelated?

The real question is what is the poem’s relationship to your sense of “I”? Can you, if only for the short moment of writing a poem, revise the sense of “I” so that it no longer divides up so easily into “I/not I”? Even though you didn’t write the words in an inserted prose passage, they were written by someone you are intensely reacting to—and that affects your sense of them.

It’s probably more commonplace to take (“appropriate”) things in the context of visual collages—but why not in literature as well? Both have been done. What is less clear, however is the implication for selfhood—the sense of “I” that such actions imply.

Don’t confuse literary strategies—things you do in order to produce a poem—with identity. They are not the same thing. I am talking to you about literary strategies, not about identity. People will say, “I won’t try that because that wouldn’t be me,” and in saying that they congratulate themselves on their “integrity.” Such “integrity” is an illusion. They are simply being fearful or whatever. Literary strategies are many, but they aren’t “owned” by anybody: they don’t amount to an “I.” What “I” do in writing a poem has been done by many, many other people. As for when a poem seems to admit some sort of “I”—that’s a separate question—but, for the moment, understand that I am not talking about you: I am talking about things you can do with words, with texts.”

But what else is happening here? Who is this guy?

A bully cry, a whisperer. Poetry challenged beyond the consumption of consolation, though that isn’t disallowed. But what else could be? For the eye as well as the ear. If Jack could make poetry tactile I believe he would. Haiku on mints. Not so sentimental. Maybe menthol. Poetry not just what fits to a page but rather how it flows off the page, a poetry misfit on a myriad of pages written and read in various ways. A crazy juggler song and dance poet critic storyteller reaching into his ragbag of fictions or is that his basement: tossing Duncan with George Brassens, Marx Bros. and Postmodernism, Orpheus with George M. Cohan, Max Eastman to Shelly, New Formalists and Venice Beach, Poetpourri with Larry Eigner, Father O’Fondle with Malena, Hummingbird with Ziegfeld Follies, fruitful errors with Aloyisius and Djerassaffiti. Catching on something new always gets thrown into the multiplicity of the air. I almost wonder when he’s going to set up the poetic shell game. Where’s the fact? Where the accident? Where the improvisation? The answer is: you don’t have to choose. I take this very seriously. This man has opened my doors and windows and flowers. A small falcon, a Merlin flies directly ahead into near collision but this crow won’t budge.

               —Mary-Marcia Casoly