by Rob Couteau
Rob Couteau: For one thing, I was really struck by the presence of death, or perhaps I should say the awareness of death, that comes through in a lot of the pieces in your new collection, A Looking-Glass for Traytors (Marsh Hawk Press, 2021)
Edward Foster: It’s very much there. I have been, throughout my life repeatedly touched by death: the deaths of good friends, and family. That’s the reality. But the reality is not the poetry.
One thing I did not discuss in that autobiographical piece I showed you is that, when I was fairly young, I guess I would have been about eight or nine years old, there was a girl who lived around the corner. My brother and I were friends with her. And it must have been in October or November at some point when her parents said that they were going to have a Christmas party for her, because they did not know if she would be there at Christmas time. And I recall that because I was just simply too young to completely understand what was meant by this. But I do remember that we did in fact go there, and there was a Christmas party. And I remember that she was in bed. And I can see now – but I did not understand then – how ill she really was. And in fact, a couple of weeks later we stopped by, and her mother was crying, and she said that she wasn’t there anymore.
I don’t think this sort of thing would happen that often now; I think that maybe medical training has gone farther than it used to. I don’t know; I may be completely wrong there. But for a young boy to encounter that, and other things too. I mention in that piece that I was often bedridden in the hospital, and one night there was something going on a cubicle next to mine. There was a girl that I had become quite friendly with, and she passed away that night. I was about eight years old at that time.
And my father did, one day, horribly, while in my presence, pass away.
So, yes, it was just simply a childhood that was deeply embedded in death and things that I think have had a lifelong effect and influence. I don’t think there is ever a day when I’m not aware of my father’s death.
Couteau: That’s a very early point in life to be confronted with so much brutal reality. And so, if we place what you just said into another context: You’re not at the beginning of your life right now; you’re at a point where we normally look back on life and try to digest what we’ve been through. So that must augment this death consciousness even more, because now you’re an older man.
Foster: And confronting that very thing of course. Yes.
Couteau: When I read this new collection of poetry, it strikes me that this death awareness is set in an even deeper relief. In this book it’s more highlighted than ever before. Would you agree with that?
Foster: I think the whole trajectory of the work is, in many ways, dark. It’s certainly there, in this particular book, and in a very strong way. The book was, for the most part, written before the coronavirus descended on us. But it has been pointed out by some people that it is a “coronavirus book.”
Couteau: I could see that, but at the same time – being aware of your overall work – I see this more as an extension of the bleakness that runs throughout your oeuvre. Both thematically and stylistically, I didn’t feel there was a big difference between this book and your previous work.
Foster: Yes, I think that’s very true. However, poetry is not autobiography. It may draw on autobiographical elements, but that’s all. That is true of all art. Take, for instance, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, which draws on things that he recalled: the burning of the family’s barn, his mother’s panic that she might not have caught an error in the book she was proofing, etc., etc. But it is not a record of his childhood. It is a film. Art dictates its necessities. And those necessities are not the ones that get you through the day.
Couteau: Somewhere in your memoir, you say that, particularly at a time when all the new software development was happening, and people were designing these very complex, baroque book covers, you felt that it was important for a publisher to maintain a distinctive look. Which also makes me think of Grove Press – remember the Grove Press book covers? They were almost all done by one artist. But with that in mind, this particular cover is a bit different from the typical Talisman design. And the size is much larger than your typical Talisman edition.
Foster: Yes, that’s correct. The look of the book had much to do with whiteness. That’s what dictated the design.
Couteau: You’re saying that, because of the larger page, there’s more whiteness.
Foster: That’s right. The larger page gives that possibility. Much of the poetry has to do with snow and winter. And white is the color of death. The whiteness in the text and the photographs carries over into the design. There were several different attempts. The poetry is never intentional, but the design is quite intentional. It’s done after the fact, and you try to do what will be most appropriate for the words and the photographs.
Couteau: With the larger margins and the extra whiteness, it nicely resonates with and echoes the theme of the void, which often occurs in your poems. It’s almost as if the words are, even more than ever, sitting in this void or suddenly appearing in it.
Foster: Yes, I would accept that.
Couteau: And yet, the typical Talisman book cover is often a sort of panoply of grays, and white and black. But with this book, you’ve got a very colorful painting on the front cover. And a color photo on the back cover, which is also atypical for you, yes?
Foster: But I think the painting on the front cover, although it’s very rich in terms of color, doesn’t depend on this meaning or that. It’s an extraordinary image with its own refusal to speak. It has its own lack of insistence.
Couteau: Yes. I’m looking at it now, and I can see that. The colors are actually very muted. You’ve got a yellowish green and, as a nice compliment, a slightly violet red. But they’re very grayed, both of those chromas. Plus, the largest amount of visual space is occupied by a very flat middle-gray. And there are a lot of black lines; there’s a line that almost looks like a crucifix. And there’s nothing representational, although there is the implication perhaps of a horizon line.
Couteau: No one would ever know that you’re such a fun guy, Ed.
Foster: No one’s ever said that! Takes two for that. I’m waiting.
Couteau: Particularly with poetry, it’s very difficult, or almost inappropriate, to be approaching it in a Q&A format. And with your work, because you’re very insistent that this is a gnostic kind of creation, it makes the interviewer feel even sillier to be asking certain questions. But I could easily imagine that for some people who are reading your work – even if they know something about how you present yourself as a gnostic poet – there could be some confusion, because in many of your poems there are personal references. On the one hand, you’re saying that this is a nonpersonal voice or medium. But on the other hand, there are specific personal references all throughout your work. There are particular people, they have names that you mention, and even if their names are changed, they are actual people. There are also particular events that don’t appear to be invented, and there are also particular dialogues.
So maybe you can clarify something. I’m assuming that you’re saying: “The process is gnostic, but that is not to say that this gnostic voice isn’t going to select actual things – people, places, events, and even dialogues from my life – and formulate them in way that is completely nonintentional on my part.” Am I getting this right?
Foster: Actually, I think you said it. That is it. Yes. Of course, poetry makes use of one’s language, one’s activities, one’s feelings, and so forth. But the poem itself is the initiator. And then, in expressing itself, it will take on the language, the words, the experience, the feelings, and so on that are peculiar to the poet. In fact, otherwise, I think there would be something that would be kind of dishonest. Invented. At least to my point of view, it would be dishonest, because then it would be academic, and it would be using another kind of existence. An imitation. That’s not a good way to phrase it, perhaps, but I can’t think of anything else right now.
Couteau: If you took it to an extreme, you might be reduced to emitting radio waves that nobody could understand. I mean, the English language … this is your language, and as you’ve said before, you’re using the English language.
Foster: I think if one reads Jack Spicer closely one finds a similar kind of understanding.
Couteau: He says that poetry is coming from Mars.
Foster: From “East Mars,” exactly. You’re right; it comes from East Mars, but it has to pass through something. And given the time in which he was living, for him, it was a “radio.” The poet is a radio, and the poem is in passing through that radio. The radio is capable of doing certain things.
And the radio wave, as it moves through the poet, will pick up and utilize what it finds. Today one might say “the computer.” Computers have made us shift the language. An easy way to talk about this, one we all know, is to compare letters that we used to write with emails, terse, each at best a flash.
Couteau: It reminds me of what Ezra Pound says, that the artist is the antenna of the race …
Foster: Yes, the antennae of the race
Couteau: … you know, if you use a technological metaphor. If you’re using psychological language, you would say it has to pass through the personal psyche. Once it emerges from an archetypal level, it has to pass through the filter of that particular person’s psyche, correct?
Foster: The one thing to be clear about is that, when one does it, one should not assume that what one has encountered is strictly autobiographical. No. That’s not poetry. And yes, poems use what they find, and in that way the work is created. But it’s not a case of a personal expression or expressivity.
Couteau: So, what you’re referring to as “autobiographical” would represent a very linear way of writing.
Couteau: And since it’s linear, there’s no mystery to it, and it’s certainly not coming from that other place.
Are you familiar with that line from Rimbaud where he says: “It is wrong to say, ‘I think.’ One ought to say, ‘I am thought…’ ‘I’ is someone else.” Je est un autre: literally, ‘I’ Is an other.
Foster: That’s true.
Couteau: Decades later, Picasso responded to this remark by stating: “The work of art is the product of calculations, but calculations often unknown by the artist himself … So we must suppose, as Rimbaud said, that it is the other that calculates in us…. You start a painting and it becomes altogether different. It’s strange how little the artist’s will matters … He was completely right, the other, when he said, ‘Je est un autre.’”
That’s basically what you’re saying: There’s something else making the calculations.
Foster: Returning to Tarkovsky’s Mirror, when you watch the film, you’re not watching Tarkovsky’s re-creation of his life. You’re watching a film. To see The Mirror, then, as kind of a personal revelation is completely to miss the point, and not to see the film as a film but to see it as a kind of gesture to memory.
Couteau: You say that with gnostic poetry the final result of the poem is something that is created before you even sit down to compose the poem. How literally am I to take this? What I’m referring to here is that there’s this gnostic impulse or force that speaks through us, let’s say. So we learn how to listen, and how to wait expectantly, and pounce on it when it comes. And then, because we’re imperfect human beings, we go through this editing process, and quite often that’s very lengthy and tedious and so on. And then finally that final result comes. But can we really say that, literally, the final result is exactly what was pre-created? Or isn’t it a product that somehow combines the editing process with the thing that was there at the beginning? Can the writer take a little credit for a few of the twists and turns of that final process, or not?
Foster: I think after the work has announced itself and is there, then one does reflect on it. But personally, I think the best solution is to listen again. And listen to the words. And if the words take on a new movement, then one must be very careful to listen again, and again, and again, and again. Until one hears it the way it is.
I just don’t think of it as being an objective or critical thing, though I know it can be that for some. But in the way that I’m talking now, I don’t feel that is best. If something’s wrong, then listen again, and maybe it then grows in a different direction. But because I’ve written a fair amount of criticism, I think of this as a very different kind of thing to do. Where one is using one’s mind in a critical way, then one objectifies the work, and sees where it seems to have a value, and then adjusts language or the construction according to that revelation, or call it awareness.
Couteau: You’re reminding us that the editing process as you understand it may rely on a gnostic force. It’s not just you doing it, it’s also the other, yes?
Couteau: The other day, you said that your experience with Pan, or your interest in Pan, is really very visual, not intellectual. It’s a visual presence or awareness in your daily life.
Foster: Yes. Well, it might be useful to provide a little background here on whatever it is that I sense that Pan represents, at least for me. There’s a whole scholarly history about Pan, but in this case that’s irrelevant
What actually happened was, I was in Turkey, and going to, of all places, a gift shop. And seeing statues of Pan, I was kind of stunned, because you’d never see that in an American gift shop, at least not at that time. And it was a real revelation. Here was this image, here was this recognition of something that was deeply felt, and deeply present, and seeing that became, in the most serious way, an obsession.
Ecstasy is Pan’s reality. Though denied by Echo, he achieved ecstasy while she became no more than an echo of what might have been. Indeed, with his pipes, he created a transcendent music, and she was abandoned. He is the god of the wild, forever divided from convention, but her quality is mere repetition. Like his father Hermes, Pan also has the gift of prophesy, and, as such, with his music, he shares the seedbed of poetry. Fittingly, the great poet Pindar built a shrine to him.
I once lived a short walk from the site of a Byzantine temple to Hermes. Living where I did, I became more and more aware of Pan and Hermes. And of course, poetry, I think, is gnostic, but gnosticism is related to hermeticism, and, I believe, thereby, connected to Pan. And actually, I relate this kind of deep understanding and awareness to those statues in the gift shops, my memory of them, the awareness they evoked. And that has remained with me over the years. For whatever it’s worth, I see my gardens today as emanations of Pan. And I have many statues of Hermes and Pan there.
Couteau: You said that you wouldn’t expect to find something like this in an American gift shop. Were you referring to the ithyphallic quality of Pan?
Couteau: Among the many things we’d never find here! As if there’s no place for Pan in America.
Foster: Yes. But he’s there constantly; he’s a part of everybody that walks the streets. But it’s also something that the culture has tried to breed out, and failed to, because you can’t.
Couteau: Speaking of Pan, there’s a poem in your book called “Modern Times” that addresses a figure called “Allen.” There’s also a line that features “sweet hands” that are feeling the cherries and lettuce in a grocery store. Is this a reference to Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “A Supermarket in California”?
Foster: Yes, it is. But to answer you very quickly: there’s also another connection. It has to do with my being in Boulder once. I had gone to the grocery store, and I had bought some things there. And then, when I was back in my room, there was a knock on the door, and it was Allen. He said, “Have you gotten some food?” And I said, yes, I have. And he asked what I’d bought. And when I showed him, he was upset, because it wasn’t the “right kind.” i.e., organic. So I put everything back in the bag, and we went to the grocery store, and I got the right sort of tomatoes, and so on and so forth. It was just a wonderful moment.
Couteau: I remember you told me this story once before, and my impression was that he was sort of looking out for you in a way, right?
Foster: Yes, actually; and that was what was so charming. He really cared, as he cared for everyone.
Couteau: Getting back to this poem, I get the sense that we’re older men now, and we don’t have a lot of time left…
Couteau: …and we’re looking back at this joyous rapture that one could have experienced in so many different ways back then, which is somehow captured in that Ginsberg poem, which is a very Panlike poem. But we look at it quite differently now.
Foster: Yes. I think that’s true. Again, this isn’t the intention. But if you take that initial poem, “A Supermarket in California,” Allen was much younger then. Basically, you can never say what a poem is about; but you might say that what the poem might suggest that it’s really about desire. Being with these young men that he’s obviously attracted to, and the whole freshness of the vegetables and so forth. And yes, of course, at a certain point then, that’s not likely quite like that any longer.
Couteau: Right after that, in your poem, we read: “Disgust / Remains / You once / Were young” … “And now / There’s / Nothing here / To see.” That really struck me. You get the sense of looking back on this early part of life, where desire reigns almost supreme; and now, when you look at it, there’s not even anything there to look at. What once held you in its thrall now appears to be simply an illusion.
Foster: Well, things are different, though desire is absolutely intense, thrilling. That never alters.
Couteau: And the eighteen of one generation is completely different from the eighteen of another generation. Even if Allen was still among us, and you could turn snap your finger and turn him into an eighteen-year-old, he would have nothing to talk about with eighteen-year-olds today! They wouldn’t understand a word he was saying!
Foster: Oh, let me tell you, that is absolutely true! One of the great fascinations of talking with people who are eighteen now is how different we are than we were when we were their age.
Couteau: And it’s not all for the good. I’ve been reading these articles in the last few days about how a lot of millennials feel that any film that’s been made before 2020 should come with trigger warnings and labels – if not being outright censored or banned. It’s nothing less than a new form totalitarianism.
Foster: That’s right.
Couteau: The film channel Turner Movie Classics is actually doing this new film presentation where – to get around this problem of certain people having “issues” with showing Gone with the Wind or anything made before 2020 – they’ve got this panel of talking heads who introduce the film with this sort of politically correct standpoint and warn you that there are going to be these unsavory “outdated attitudes” that are coming up – heaven forbid! So this is their way of getting around the dilemma of pleasing the millennials by giving them a nod and saying yes, we’re giving you some dire warnings. But at the same time, there are those of us who still want to watch these classic films, so they’re attempting to woo both audiences, I assume for economic rather than ethical reasons. But again, my point is that it’s not all for the good.
Foster: I think it’s not for the good at all, no. We should be able to make our own decisions. We are not children.
Couteau: In your memoir, you said some wonderful things about your romance with form: your embrace of the power of form in aesthetics.
Foster: Yes. Again, in terms of the work itself, it’s not something that’s intentional. But it repeatedly emerges in all kinds of ways. Just today, finally, we’ve had some good weather, so I’ve been working in the gardens. And every plant, every arrangement, all of this has a formality to it that is, at least for me anyway, kind of inevitable. And I can respond more to that kind of thing. And why, I’m not sure. Actually, I tried, in that autobiography or whatever you want to call it, in that memoir, to deal with it. But I just couldn’t. So I gave examples.
Couteau: With highly sophisticated, artistically successful formal structures, do you see these as nonpersonal emanations – which I would regard as archetypal in their root – which then particularize in a certain way in a given moment in history? And that this structure, or the force that they’re emerging from, is non personal?
Foster: Yes, it certainly precedes one’s vision of the world. I’m totally aware that there are many people now who would disagree with that and say that it’s a kind of conditioning, a social conditioning, but I would not accept that.
Couteau: Of course, that’s because everything comes out of Marxism and economics!
Foster: No doubt, but not for me.
Couteau: I find it really interesting that you’re such an avant-garde writer; and yet, at the same time, you are firmly linked to tradition. You respect artists from generations before you, because their product is still very modern in that it still speaks to you. And here, I’m thinking of Henry James and Edith Wharton. They were writers that you were exploring very early in your life. I’ll bet most people who pick up one of your books would never guess Henry James, but I clearly see Henry James.
Foster: I’m not sure I could put it into words. It’s more a question of just responding.
I was talking on the phone yesterday to one of my former students, and he was saying that he had been reading Rabelais, and he was very excited about it. And I remember having a very similar kind of response reading Rabelais – I was a student at Columbia at the time – and liking it very, very much. Why? Well, I really don’t know why. I could say the same thing about Wharton and James. They had an immediate impact and an immediate appeal. And I just wanted to see where they lived and kind of, in a sense, know them. But again, I really can’t say why. I don’t know. And it’s the same thing with music. Brahms and Liszt, for example, have had an enormous appeal to me. And, above all, Bach. But once again, why this is so, I really don’t know.
Couteau: On the one hand, you’re this advocate of the nonpersonal, and yet you’re very intrigued by their personal lives. You even took me to Melville’s house, and to Wharton’s house. It’s almost like entering a time machine when you walk into those dwellings.
Foster: Yes. And seeing how their day-to-day life was organized, how they organized things. And imagining Melville seated at his desk, and looking out at Mount Greylock and seeing it as a whale rising from the sea. Or seeing where Wharton would lie in bed, late in the morning, writing. Yes. There’s something there that I can’t really articulate. It means discovering a state of being, I guess.
There was this time when I was in Newport, Rhode Island, because I was teaching at a school for young debutantes, as they were then called. And the house where James grew up was right around the corner. And the house where Wharton lived was down the road. I used to ride my bicycle by there every day.
Couteau: You include that anecdote in one of your essays. One of the reasons that I introduced the subject of James is that, when I read your memoir, and knowing you to the extent that I do, I have the sense that you actually did grow up in a different century. Considering the stories that you tell about your local community, it’s almost as if you’re a character from a Nathanial Hawthorne story, out in Massachusetts somewhere.
Couteau: So it’s not that unusual that you’d be fascinated by your erstwhile neighbors, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Herman Melville.
Even the way you describe your mother: the fact that she did not remarry was looked upon as an oddity when you were growing up. She was working as what’s now known as a single parent and taking care of you. But people looked upon that then as something peculiar.
Foster: Yes, I understand what you mean. It’s true. When I was growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, that was very different from what happened as a result of the 1960s and 1970s. Everything changed. But the deepest knowing, which is form, does not change.
Form indicates relationship, metaphor, which, when complete, is the essence of Pan, whether as a paradise garden or Wharton’s “decoration of houses.” Some will see this as style, something that can be mixed around like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. The end result of, say, a paradise garden is ecstasy, a pleasure, a sexual pleasure. That is the mystery of all art. Reduce it to style, and its beauty is lost.
Couteau: Could you make a general statement about the reader feedback that you’ve received over the years and how that might fuel your desire to work? I assume that, at least on some level, this must be important: that occasionally people contact you and thank you for all the work that you’ve done.
Foster: Oh, that’s true. What can I say except that, yes, of course, it is an agony to get the poem right, to obey what it dictates. It’s an agony. But then there is the pleasure, the sudden delight, and whether anyone else “gets” it is irrelevant. And yet, when all of a sudden somebody says … I remember once, years ago, I was giving a reading and this guy came up to me afterward, and he said, “I really, really appreciate your poem, ‘Salt.’” And I said, “Oh, that’s so nice to hear that.” And he said, “Yes. It got me through my divorce.” And I said, “What?” Yes. Well, what does that mean, I don’t know. I’m always amazed by people’s responses. It costs a lot to write the poem, but when it reaches somebody, however they receive it, the agony, the work, is all worthwhile.
Couteau: But this doesn’t surprise me either, because especially with the kind of work that you’re doing, and especially if you think about this country and all the banalities that are communicated constantly through the mainstream media, most people don’t ever hear an authentic voice coming from a stranger. And unless they have access to, or interest in, a book like one of yours, they’re never going to hear it. And so I think that, if and when they do hear it, it can really come as a shock and also as a great foundation of support.
Foster: Thank you. But please keep in mind, it’s not me; it’s the poetry. You just do what you do, what you’re told to do. What the words tell you to do. I have poet friends who want the world to know what they have given to poetry. In fact they have given nothing. It’s the poetry, if anything, that gives. As for the rest, we’ll die. All of us. Soon.