A CONVERSATION WITH: BRIAN FOLEY
Early this year, I sat down to read Brian Foley’s new (and first) book of poetry, THE CONSTITUTION. I read it, refilled my coffee, and read it immediately again. In the subsequent months, not only have I opened its pages many more times, but I have heard Brian read from it in spaces all across the American Northeast, and each time it invites me back in with its empathy and its complications, its devastation and gathering of light. I invited Brian to talk with me about some of THE CONSTITUTION’s obsessions, amendments, and origins. Our conversation is collected here.
Wendy Xu: THE CONSTITUTION opens with the epigraphs “to say many things is equal to having a home,” which Ezra Pound said, and this persistent idea of home recurs throughout–having one, not having one, building one, dismantling one, glimpsing one in others. I happen to also know that yr physical-home-place-in-real-life is western massachusetts. It was Boston for a while. It was Los Angeles briefly. What do these constellations of home, real and poetic, having and not having, do for you in thinking about how your debut book came to exist?
Subsequent opening question: which is better, flowers or trees?
Brian Foley: “Home” is a catchall for what comforts and stabilizes your you. Its something that you come into or create and can be found inside of. That’s the myth about it, anyway. I’ve come to see the idea of home as a nature, a variable outside of actual location, and you can’t read what a nature’s going to do. Not completely. Its constantly destabilized and changing. You think you’ve got it understood, then it surprises you with a storm that breaks up your damn house. You can’t build for it – you react against it, or with it. But you’ve got to learn to live with it. This is how I understand the poems in The Constitution. An attempt to build a willing-to-shift structure as a reaction to the changing nature of what’s invisibility unstable.
But to place: I’ve lived most of my life in Massachusetts. Writing that statement down now, I feel, not disappointed, but, I guess, confused by it’s fact. It always seemed that I’ve been elsewhere. I can’t say how or where. A place where another version of me is being told. “The imagined life” – Adam Phillips. But that’s what the poems are about. Locating. I’m always looking out & looking for that myth of stability to come to completion. In a person. In a town, or song. Something naive in me still asks, “Is this it?” But whatever ‘it’ may be, it doesn’t exist. I’ve wanted that satisfaction of finding it my whole life, to feel it the chest as I imagine others feel God in the chest.
So you hold two ideas in your head at once – the beliefs and the pragmatic rational ends, the myth and the falsity of that myth. In this way you stay sharp, aware to the world, but a knife is not the most comforting place to balance upon. So you say all the contradictions, all the thoughts that make your breathe, and somehow they live together, building a structure around you, and suddenly you now live there too.
That’s where Pound’s line comes in. To use a word you put out, it’s a constellation that I like. It puts the responsibility of all the things I’ve just described onto the artist.
I remember I had a red telescope when I was kid. I’d point it in the direction a star chart showed me to, but I couldn’t visualize the bonds that form the character I wanted to appear. I could pick out the Dipper, and Orion’s belt, but not Cassiopeia or Sagittarius; I couldn’t make them appear for me. Maybe that’s a lack of imagination. But in reality, the lines that draw the Godstuff, that draw us to their stories that say ‘us’, aren’t there.A constellation’s a man-made illusion of connection. Its up to us to make them appear. Every stars’ it’s own island. But so what. They’re still beautiful and unfamiliar each night if you want them to be. So we continue with the stories. We make a shape and feel better.
The Constitution is my attempt at a shape.
WX: I like how you phrased that, “a place where another version of me is being told.” It might be all semantics, but I like the idea of a place-based selfhood as an alternative poetics to the more familiar multitudes-contained. Or being numerous, if we want to wave to Oppen. Something else that recurs in yr constitutional constellation are these amazing poems simply titled AMENDMENT, which as a word I love that is related to generosity and empathy, and is also inherently political. Can you say some things about the verb-ing of this? To amend, to revise, to speak back towards what was spoken before in the hopes or service of _________________? How do you understand both the abstraction of amending a self, and what the amendment poems themselves do to the united states of yr poetry? Why amend? What shape is an amendment?
BF: An amendment is an alteration, not a change. That’s an important distinction. Amendments are not major transformations.The shape of an amendment is a deformity. In this book, they come on as refractions or qualifications of emotional logic or language in the poems that surround them. They’re a dramatized representative of a disorder of voice and often perform as a symptom of turmoil. When you signal an attempt to create a law for the greater good, there’s always a debate as to what the greater good is. Who does it benefit and what do we gain? What do we lose? In this case, it’s the self that is up for debate. Amendments then are like those parallel conversations that hold court in the back of your head; the wound-and-cure kind you have to have to vet your decisions, or even justify your existence to the everyday. Sometimes they come up calling in a didactic voice that buoys you. Other times they’re that fucking demon trying to keep you down – two steps forward, three steps back, etc. It’s a turmoil, that instability. But to represent that turmoil feels real to me. It’s still a conversation, and one that positions itself to show the process of a progress. And an evolution is only ever hopeful, even if it just means being to digest something you once couldn’t just a bit easier.
Writing these poems has brought me to believe in the effort, in trying. There’s those days. You come to feel locked out of your own house. Trying gives truth to the idea of progress, that things will or can change, and poetry as an art form is a relevant manifestation of the reflection of that that endeavor. It’s all aim. You never know how a poem is going to land. The fact that a person in today’s world would put time aside, let alone put aside all the normative or just-to-get-by expectations, to begin a poem…it’s insane. And we do it. We give it our hearts and minds and life. But it’s a complicated life. Amendments are the dramatic voices of instability for my own decisions and desires in this regard. Giving credence to those voices, it’s made me more empathetic. Riding them out in a poem, I like to think I’m taking responsibility for them.
WX: Tell me a moment of human empathy, big or small, obvious or in disguise, that you witnessed in yr recent life that has stayed with you, and is important to tell here. Speculate how poetry created this particular moment.
BF: This past summer I crashed a friend’s car. It was an accident, but it was my fault because it was my responsibility to take care of that car. The morning after the accident, the woman I loved left me. It was a bad time and I was in a bad way. I was bent out of shape between jobs and broke as hell. But people rallied. They sat and drank with me and listened to me and helped me find a job. And phone calls would come in. Friends from around the country, people who I see maybe only once a year, if that, they’d call and check in or just talk. They gave me their time. When you watch your heart walk away with the person you tied it to and your bank account is as empty as you feel, you need that. You really do. It’s like receiving forgiveness. And that kind of empathy in time spent changes you. It makes you give back to the next friend in line.
This is why poetry matters. All of those people that went out of their way to help, all of them were poets. Every single one. Poetry doesn’t just build its community, it nurtures it too. It’s our orphanage where we all adopt each other. It extends so far past the page. The poets in the valley, here around Northampton,MA, I don’t know if people know it as it is, but people here, they’re just extraordinary. I’d go to war for these people. They’ve changed my life. I still can’t say why they helped. I’m not special. I don’t think I deserve the kind of kindness I’ve received. What I can say is that it was poetry that brought around in some kind of together.
WX: I share yr feeling that when we love we adopt. Were you ever made to read letters to a young poet? I make a lot of jokes about that book now, but at a particular time, everything in those letters was revelatory, profound, so impactful to me. I like that Rilke describes love and poetry as being the guardian of someone else’s loneliness and solitude. I am paraphrasing because I don’t care to look the exact quote up. He also encouraged young poets to “live the questions now,” he was so against answers and fixedness and certainty.
What are some of the questions that THE CONSTITUTION is posing to its readers? What are some of yr capital Q questions?
BF: I remember taking it (Letters) out of the Boston Public library, but I never finished it. I should. I wish someone had assigned it. But then again I never read what I was assigned. Growing up, I was a pretty insufferable contrarian. I still haven’t read Moby Dick all the way through. I lived in Oakland for a little while, in 2004, and the first and only friend I made was Eric Lyngen from Book Zoo. He is such a great guy. I love his voice. I remember the day I was leaving, erratically moving back to Boston. We met at a café by my house. He took out this ancient, old, wise-looking edition of Moby Dick and put it on the table like an anvil. He’d asked if I’d read it. I told him no. He said to try – try and read it, once a year, until it clicks with you. If it’s not your year, if it doesn’t move you, put it down and wait until the next year when you’ll be different and you’ll try again. I’ve never forgotten that. You can’t know everything at once. I dont fucking want to. You have to be patient. I look forward to knowing what I don’t know. You’ve got to spread the revelations out. There are only so many.
The Constitution asks in what way are we responsible to the things that have created us.
How far are we determined by our conditions? It asks what’s the recourse to living in a poverty of love and a poverty of opportunity? Its less about finding the answer and more about finding the process finding the right question.
WX: I have also never finished reading Moby Dick. I started it last year with a friend, we had such noble intentions of reading and discussing it on summer nights, thinking all the thoughts that would be good to think. He DID finish it, but I like yr friend’s approach. Trying and bailing but never bailing on trying. That is so good. Trying is pretty related to what (at the time of this conversation) is happening on television: Sochi winter olympics. Are you a get-into-the-olympics guy? And if so, why? For some people I feel it is the allure of spectacle, of sensationalism, of narrative and creating narrative and a perception of communal experience–all of which are also ways I think about poetry, and ways I sometimes think about America. Can you talk about this trifecta of things: Olympics, America, THE CONSTITUTION by Brian Foley?
BF: I can’t say much about the Olympics, but I like a good spectacle. I need spectacle to relieve the pressure and nullify everyday anxieties and vulnerability I give up too much of my time to. I understand it’s a show of dramatic proposition, or a synthesis of living’s condition, isolated into its most dramatic performance, which does everything to make sure we don’t look or sound like ourselves. Being Americans, as I understand it, is to be afraid of not counting, not being accounted for, so we blow our things up bigger and bigger each time, to prove we are here, we exist. Ok? Sure.
I can think of the poems in The Constitution as performing similarly, though instead of blowing up, they’re already blown apart, and I’m snatching at the bits. But it is of a voice that’s elevated, by damage or displacement , or a recurring “or”. They’re lyrical elaborations synthesized to move or to make rememberance; like the way you only remember your own skin when impacted by a rain, or the way you become aware of your body when you fall out of health.
I’ve wondered how do you construct a spectacle in a poem? And I think spectacle is reliant on destabilization, and this is made partly by the sense of its sound. A poem’s deployment of music raises the stakes for sensory contagion. If we think of a spectacle as an extreme manifestation or exploitation, then a poem can press on our language to destabilize it, but not take it so far off the ground that we can’t comprehend it as of being of the world and recognize it as an experience of differentiation. If you take forms of linebreaks, dissonance, assonance, syntax, rhythm and raise it to a craze, it raises your attention, your pulse, your emotions, at least mine.
It might just be my background, but I can’t analogize poetry from music. And I think of poetry’s spectacled attempts as not so different from a traditional country or blues song. Some people really dig the sad songs, y’know. I’ve been one of those people. I like it when a sad song makes the hairs stand at attention, that are both devastating and invigorating at once. It feels like a renewal, that shape of feeling. Country or blues, the lyrics that come with them push around raw loss, then the melody mimics that mood with scales of minor chords, Nashville strings, pedal steel. It’s a beautiful collusion. We’re lived by and in this tradition, but what does it give us? Why does it persist? I think it draws attention to emotions that make us most vulnerable. And in recognizing that attention, it suspends it, possibly long enough to harvest a renewal. That’s ambitious thinking. But now I’m thinking spectacle is a contradiction. It’s seems to raise vulnerability just as much as it might aim to push it away.
WX: “a voice elevated by damage or displacement” makes me think of one of my favorite “Amendment” poems from the book that always catches me when I read or hear it, which I want to represent here. You write:
what’s felt addicts
even with eyes
it’s early enough
to be a few people
more false than
a billion years
before we know it
I turn a dark
into an explosion
it seems impossible
I’m not hurt
Can you tell me a story about this poem? What does it mean for you to speak through an impossibility of hurt, or, is it more like an inevitability?
BF: I’ve continued to think about stars and their light. How it takes so long for the light to get here; that when the light reaches us, depending how far away the star resides, we are effectively looking at the past. We are witnessing the light of something that took so long to get here, its celestial body that made the light could already be dead. It is a ghost light that we dwell in. This is a scientific fact, but it’s so far removed from immediate experience; the fact of this light becomes an abstraction. What covers you, the light or the feeling of the minute you’re living in, is only passing, is a past. But its also a passport. That is hard to inure yourself to, hard to remember when feeling intensely cages you in. The hope to get past the it when the it won’t always speak for itself. This poem tries to complicate the abstraction of what feel like a fact by talking simply, with a simple acknowledgment to the outside world.
WX: Subsequently: You just returned from a week long reading tour along the American rust belt. What was that like? What revealed itself to you and your constitution?
BF: I’ve been reading “Open City” by Teju Cole, and came across this passage
“… I recalled St. Augustine, and his astonishment at St. Ambrose, who was reputed to have found a way to read without sounding out the words. It does seem an odd thing—it strikes me now as it did then—that we can comprehend words without voicing them. For Augustine, the weight and inner life of sentences were best experienced out loud, but much has changed in our idea of reading since then. We have for too long been taught that the sight of a man speaking to himself is a sign of eccentricity or madness; we are no longer at all habituated to our own voices, except in conversation or from within the safety of a shouting crowd. But a book suggests conversation: one person is speaking to another, and audible sound is, or should be, natural to that exchange.”
And this is how it is. To comprehend the act of reading words has been demarcated to the individual’s own echo chamber. But I like the sound when words leave the mouth. And I like readings for the sociability. I like to get drunk and talk. And readings can give another dimension to a work, sometimes a performative one, and it can make the absurdity of someone giving over their life to sitting alone and writing, into what feels like a more natural act of energy.
The tour was short but I hope its effects are long. Reading with you and Luke Bloomfield every night, hearing the poems in different rooms, it makes you appreciate differently, listening and picking up new things in the same or different places. It feels expansive, that kind of listening, extending it, as you realize all things go further upon return. There’s a lot more possibility in the generosity of return.
For myself, I learned how to read them poems in the book. I know how to perform them and what they must do.I didn’t know I’d memorized them. But now that I have, I like to look people in the eye when I read. It’s intimate, maybe forceful, but in a way, so are the poems. It finally feels like I know how to talk to people about these things, talking to them through the poems. Its a relief.
WX: I have always loved that fact about starlight. By way of short things with hopefully long effects, can you indulge me with a poem or poet or book recommendation to close with? Something that you would never want to un-read, which has affected you and you want to recommend its effects to others? Sing us out with a thing you love.
BF: I’ll share this poem, “The Constructed Space” by W.S. Graham. To me it is a subversive love poem. Initially it seems a casual, but tautly articulated, acknowledgement of the relationship between writer and reader. But as it goes, more and more, it turns into a different kind of study of intimacy. As the poem unfolds it it is like that of a relationship between lovers. A relationship no longer there.There’s plenty of analogies made about readers/author as lovers. Sure. But the speaker is trying to understand how the experience of intimacy is created by digging in with the language of what it takes to make a connection, which is unknown, insufficient and uncanny. He hollows it out with his language, preferring to “say a silence”. And I think that is a beautiful thing to do for someone. The abstractions created that we construct for each other can also become the spaces we leave between each other. I see sadness but also absolution in this admission. And yet it is still a poem. The poem remains because “disguise is mortal”. We are not, but maybe only, our poems.
Brian Foley is the author of The Constitution (Black Ocean, 2014). His chapbook, TOTEM, is made out of jeans and was recently released by Fact-Simile Editions. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, The Fanzine, Everyday Genius, Denver Quarterly, and The Volta. He is the editor of Brave Men Press and works in Western Massachusetts.