The Berkeley Poetry Festival is an annual celebration organized by Louis Cuneo and his Mother’s Hen press.
This year’s event is slated for Saturday, June 5, at Telegraph and Haste near the University of California Berkeley campus, and will honor Bay Area poet Jack Foley with its 4th Lifetime Achievement Award.
Foley is a poet, critic, raconteur, lit-historian and a long-time friend (we met at Cornell in the 1963).
[The following is excerpted from Jannie Dresser's SF Examiner article/interview with Jack Foley.]
"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 [Jannie Dresser] 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.
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 Shelley 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.
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