Howard Miller Interviews Brian Foley

Howard Miller: What first led you to begin to write poetry seriously?

Brian Foley: I grew up writing fiction. I went to school for it at Emerson College. I never learned the focus, but my senior year I learned about poetry. Peter Shippy was my teacher and he showed me Cesar Vallejo. I remember liking Vallejo because in Trilce he invents his own words. Such freedom confused me and I began writing more poetry. I started out writing flippant prose poems that had very little poetry in them. They were fun to write, but they gave nothing in return. Since then, the more I’ve read the more I’ve learned what it is I want from a poem.

HM: Are there particular writers whose work has significantly influenced your own?

BF: Without a doubt Charles Simic is the biggest influence. Not only as a writer, but also as a pointing finger. His translations of books by Vasko Popa and Slavko Mihalic have become extremely invaluable. Tomas Transtrommer has changed my game as well. Gregory Orr. Jack Spicer. Frank Stanford’s books other than The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. Its strange that many people brush off influences as if they’re beyond their reach. I don’t worry about doing something new. I worry about doing something good.

HM: Your work typically consists of short, intense lyric poems; what is there about this type of poem that you find particularly attractive?

BF: The architecture of a short lyric is inspiring to me. The conciseness, the ability, when done right, to travel a considerable distance in a short amount of time. The pressure to get it right, but to also leave it open as if it is still becoming. This practice applies to all parts of art I enjoy most. This is one reason why Guided by Voices is my favorite band.

HM: What kinds of sources do you most frequently draw upon for ideas for poems?

BF: I cannot write without reading. When I read I take notes. This often means I steal. I like to think of it as a tradition of recycled continuity, like the blues. I hope to eventually write a line or image that can be stolen and improved upon by someone else. This would further justify our shared experiences, which many say is the point of art, though really, I don’t know. I do know I find allusions and references to other things very exciting.

HM: Your poems most often are constructed from several disparate elements; how do you go about choosing which elements belong together in a single poem?  Is there some general guiding principle you follow, or is it different for each poem?

BF: Every poem is different, but there are things I try to keep away from. I don’t work with too many radical juxtapositions. I would like to, but making psychic leaps that satisfy don’t come as often as I wish. It is hard for me to shake the narrative out of a poem. It takes a lot of trust and confidence in yourself. Ultimately though those juxtapositions are what drive most of what I find most powerful in poetry. For example, Mathias Svalina is someone who creates wonders. There are so many, really, who create beautiful static, which feels more modern and risky, where as I feel as though I’m ringing a little antique dinner bell. As long as I enjoy the sound, though, it seems fine.

BF: Would you say there’s anything significant about the fact that, although your poems are relatively short, there’s a good deal of action in most of them?  That is, is this dynamic quality something you intentionally aim for?

BF: I look for an image that sticks in the skin like a splinter. An image that can carry you a considerable distance in a short amount of time. If there is a sense of action, it is because there is some vibration in there somewhere. That is what I hope for.

HM: Among other poetry-related activities, you run The Deep Moat Reading Series, a public poetry reading series; is the idea of the oral presentation of poetry to an audience an influence in any way on your own work?

BF: For years I was an author events director at a bookstore. I managed hundreds of readings. I realize many people dislike readings, particularly poetry readings, but I love them. I recognize they are mainly just a social gathering, but that in and of itself is valuable function. Hearing others read their work can be very informative. It can teach you how they see the structure on the page, how they made it. You can hear what works, what doesn’t. Being able to read a poem aloud well is a refined talent. It can change people. I’ve seen it.

HM: What would you most like readers to carry away from your work?

BF: A feeling of resonance. A feeling that nothing is final. Maybe a hunger. Maybe a remembrance of a line at an odd moment in the day spurning the want to come back and re-read the poem, to make sure the words are still there.

HM: What poets whose work is markedly different from your own are you attracted to?

BF: Despite everything I feel I project, Actual Air by David Berman is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it more than any other book I own. Its nostalgic and optimistic like nothing else. The way he recreates the world, his metaphors and imagination are wholly unique. I’ve always been attracted to poetry with a prevalent sense of humor like James Tate, Russell Edson and Michael Earl Craig. Its the horse I rode in on. And its the hardest thing, to write a good poem that gives with its humor. I come from New England. Like our winters, our humor is cruel. It’s not an easy thing to shake and I appreciate it when I find an affirming humor in another.