Pamela Grieman

 

My memories of the man whom I will always know fondly as “Folly” are inextricably linked with my memories of the diverse characters who constituted the National Poetry Foundation board in 1987. (I don’t mean to speak of Jack as if he were dead, but since my move away from the Bay Area poetry scene in 1990, this era of my own past seems encased in an amber warp.) Folly was one of the most inventive, prolific, brilliant and yet rational of the poets who made up the NPF board, whose responsibility it was to produce the somewhat grandiosely named National Poetry Week II in October 1988. I had been hired by Victor di Suvero, a poet and publisher of Pennywhistle Press, to help coordinate and publicize the ten-day event, with each day featuring four thematic readings, and each reading featuring three or more poets.

Meetings were held weekly and—typical, I suppose, of such artistic endeavors—it was not always easy to keep discussions focused and egos at bay. Meeting minutes revealed some of the inanities and idiosyncratic behaviors that threatened to derail the planning process. Folly was highly organized and adept at negotiating the sensibilities of the board members, though no slouch in the ego department himself! This I say with great affection and respect: as Victor always said, “Without ego there is no art.” Obsessive and organized, Folly served as secretary of the NPF board. He showed up on time each week, kept everyone on track good-humoredly and graciously, and provided me with armloads of written material: poetry, book reviews, criticism, and biographical articles written by others.

New to the Bay Area, I was woefully ignorant about the various jealousies, theoretical disagreements, and poetic debates animating the local poetry scene. As the point person for the program somewhat flamboyantly dubbed the Festival Folio, I was the one chosen to nag poets for their bios, photos, and descriptions of readings. Ever on the alert, Folly, Victor and Joyce Jenkins took me under their intellectual wings so that I wouldn’t utterly offend a poet whose name and literary history I should have known but didn’t. To this day, I admire their unwavering commitment to the production and promotion of poetry.

Present at all of the events, I remember particularly Folly’s Performance Poetry night as an assault of light, sound, and outré performance. I won’t attempt to describe it—you just had to be there. The entire festival was history-making, ambitious, phenomenal, indescribable. It was recorded by the omnipresent Kush, the grand video master of the Bay Area poetry scene.

As a result of our work organizing NPW II, Folly and I became tremendous friends. I was new to the Bay Area and going through some despairing emotional times, and would talk to Folly for hours, in person, on the phone, and later, after I moved to Santa Monica, by letter. We laughed over his son Sean’s disdainful response to my request to speak to “Folly” on the telephone. “The name is FO-ley,” Sean enunciated forcefully as if I were a bit slow. Folly searched the genealogy of my name, tackling his research as obsessively as he tackled life. He sent me his new poems (always accompanied by cassette or, later, CD), essays, translations of Baudelaire, a poet he knew I admired, and we discussed intimate details of his work and life.

I find his readings just as vibrant as the first time I heard him perform with Adelle, when I recall being riveted by the sonorous intensity of their contrapuntal reading. Beginning en moderato voce and rising to an orgasmic crescendo, Folly invoked a powerful, prophetic voice to explore the intricacies of desire, death, aging, and quotidian life in a complex patterning of nonlinear poetic form. Strings of dialogue quoted directly from various sources were interspersed among his own lines, the whole composition transformed by juxtaposition and context.

His work must be experienced live to be fully appreciated. I don’t say this to toe the Folly theoretical line (that poetry must be heard, that the body, the breath, is inseparable from the word). I say it because it is absolutely true of his work. His readings with Adelle are breathless, thunderous, captivating. “But does it move you?” a friend—an experimental poet in his own right—asked. This I had to ponder, since a listener/reader of Folly’s poetry has to work, to think and forge connections, to make sense of the seemingly disjointed phrases. But, yes, in the rhythmic energy of the embodied word, I find his work to be incredibly moving as well as intellectually provocative.

I hope that his work can be heard on a much wider stage.

                —Pamela Grieman