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LIDIA VIANU -- KATE FOLEY
To would be writers the only advice must be, read, WRITE Ėand donít be afraid
Interview with KATE FOLEY (born 21 July 1938), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: Your poetry is both lyrical and very strongly intellectual. You are an archaeologist by formation, I understand. Your view of the universe is different from that of people who do not put themselves in perspective. You have had an initiation in the immensity of the history of this earth. What is it like, to be at the same time an archaeologist and a poet?
KATE FOLEY: Archaeology is both a deeply romantic discipline and a profound corrective to romanticism. From my early childhood I was fascinated by archaeology but my own discipline, archaeological conservation, relied on a forensic approach to reconstruct the stories of everyday, humble objects. So although there was a thrill in handling an object for the first time in hundreds or thousands of years there was also a scientific objectivity; Ďthis much you can say; no more.í I am, as you say, a lyrical poet but I think I learned a kind of astringency from my scientific training. I hope it has created some necessary gaps and silences in my poetry. The immensities of archaeological and geological time do mean a great deal to me.
LV. You live in Amsterdam. Why have you chosen this city as residence? Is it more welcoming than London? Is Dutch culture important to you? Do you speak Dutch?
KF. For the simplest of reasons. Aged 59 I fell in love with a Dutch woman and followed her to Amsterdam where we later married, as you can in Amsterdam. And yes, almost everything about Amsterdam is more welcoming than is London. It is a truly international city built on a domestic scale. You can walk everywhere that matters. Itís unselfconsciously shabby but beautiful and the cultural life is vibrant while lacking in pretention. I enjoy Dutchness and Dutch culture, not least because of its close affiliation with English culture. Thereís a robustness of humour and outlook which I find attractive. But I am still struggling with the language. I can do the doctor and the market and the Aunts but the tv goes too fast and because I spend so much time reading and writing in English I still only read Dutch painfully slowly. So I think I will always be a friendly outsider.
LV. The same as UA Fanthorpe, RV Bailey, Jeanette Winterson, Nick Drake, you are a gay voice in literature. From the point of view of literary quality, being gay changes nothing. In point of subject matter, it makes you more relevant, deeper, it gives you resonance. Literature welcomes gay voices today as it did in ancient times, but not very often in between. I find being gay a source of intensity and freshness of perception. What does being gay mean to you, both in point of experience and literary rendering?
KF. This is a question I have never seriously asked myself. Why not? Iím not really sure. Being a lesbian is now as comfortable and ordinary as an old, well-worn pair of shoes. I can of course remember when it was far from comfortable, accompanied by guilt, angst, secrecy and the febrile pleasures of leading a double life!
I enjoy the access to queer culture and the tribal aesthetic and I am deeply affected by issues relating to women, including of course lesbian women but am I a Ďlesbian writerí? I think not although I am glad to be identified as a lesbian and indeed I often suffer pangs of guilt for not being more overtly political. I never set out to be elliptical or oblique but the only way I can get gay or lesbian issues into my work is obliquely.
Once upon a time I struggled with my sexual orientation. Since then being a lesbian has built itself so deeply into my persona that I almost never think about it. The task, it seems to me, is to be as fully human as possible and where you are placed on the spectrum of sexuality is only one of the issues that people have to grapple with. I want to be identified Ė 100% so Ė but not ghettoized.
However, I love other gay and lesbian writers and writing Ė the whole spectrum from bodice rippers and whodunits through to Adrienne Rich and a raft of other poets.
LV. I find you a rather shy poet. Tenderness is well hidden. The history of the world is more obvious. What prompted you into writing poetry? Feeling? Ideas?
KF. I hope very much that Ďtendernessí isnít too well hidden! I suppose like my politics, itís there but often ambiguous and sometimes diffuse. But it is feelings of tenderness that prompt me into writing most often, whether itís towards people, animals, things or landscapes. For example, in the poem Milk which interweaves my motherís life and mine, and uses milk as a metaphor for all she couldnít give her adopted baby, what started out as a poem about my Ďlacksí became very much a not un-tender portrait of her. I suppose itís a good example of the power of poetry to confer insight even on its writer. And I absolutely donít mean that this is a Ďtherapeuticí process. This isnít about the healing that can take place in therapy. Itís about selecting, reflecting, ordering, and if youíre lucky, making art and making sense.
A reviewer said (to my delight!) that I take personal experience and run with it, further than many poets. I do hope so because for me the only justification for using such personal material is to see it change and re-order itself under the strong lense of reflection.
Ideas are very important to me but it is always a strong lyrical jolt that gets me going.
As to what prompted me to write, it was the heady experience of finding, aged 11, that I could do it!
LV. I find what I call Desperado poets quite indifferent to the make up of verse, which is rhyme or sound-matching. Rhythm is all important in your poems. It is a rhythm of the mind and the body at once. What differentiates poetry from prose, in your opinion, nowadays?
KF. What do you mean by ĎDesperadoí? Itís a lovely term! Writing is still one of the few things I do purely by instinct Ė or at least, thatís how it begins. Yes, the rhythm sounds in my head and my body and I feel superstitiously that if I manipulate it too consciously Iíll lose it. I am interested in patterns and forms in so far as they help to express what I want to say. There is also a strong visual element in this but I canít work up an interest in formal verse patterns. I do use half and complete rhymes from time to time but so far not in a specific scheme. The big challenge for me is to undertake the task of revision without a formal template to work with, albeit with a very clear inner Ďlandscapeí for the poem.
If I could truly describe what is a prose poem I would also have the right tools to answer your question about the difference between poetry and prose. Pass!
LV. You do not write poems based on a script. The idea flows into a mood and then the poem is on its own, having to discover whether it is an act of the mind, the word or the soul. I find your poems are all these put together. Your poetry is a total art. Who were your masters? Who taught you how to write?
KF. Everybody has ancestors, donít they? I fell violently in love with Gerard Manley Hopkins aged about 14. He elbowed the romantic poets right out of the way and was a wonderful introduction to the more modern poets I then began to read. Also, when I was still at school, I loved a little known Victorian, Charlotte Mew and later, Eliot, and the Metaphysicals. Now I am deeply attached to Rilke and I also read a lot of American and other English language womenís poetry. And I mustnít forget H.D., a recent exploration.
But although I began to write early I didnít publish until very late. For many years I had no mentors, and no literary connections and it was just a question of processing things through 7 stomachs like any other ruminant until it came out right. I never wavered in my belief that I was meant to be a poet but it didnít really occur to me that I could be published.
LV. Sometimes contemporary poetry is dry and fails to communicate, although it is never encoded. Any human looks for stories, even when they read poetry. I think the nature of lyricism has changed, The language is no longer declamatory, not at all. Desperado shyness is one thing that keeps Desperado poets together. How do you make a poem intense?
KF. By throwing my heart in front of the poem and following it and then by stripping out all exaggeration, anything that is there for effect and seeing if I can live with what is left.
LV. Some of your poems are built on your own history, but not much is really clear. It is all veiled in layers of lyricism and images. What is the story of your life? I only know very little.
KF. I was born in a London convent, home for unmarried mothers, and adopted soon after by working class parents who acted much against the wishes of their family. My earliest memories are of the bombs and shelters of war time London Ė a smell of earth, and the beautiful, fiery night sky. Already an avid reader, the introduction to poetry in my fairly brief time as a scholarship girl at the convent grammar school struck very deep roots, which have long outlasted the religion that also came in the package. By the time I was 16 I was in hospital with TB and as soon as I was fit, I started nurse-training, partly in order to leave home.
My working life has included nursing, midwifery, teaching (children and university students) and for 25 or so years, working with archaeological material as a conservator. My last job, as Head of English Heritageís technical and scientific research laboratories, introduced me to such a rich vein of ideas and experiences of the material past that I am still drawing on it in my writing. On the way, I picked up an education, rather late and absolutely non-literary.
I donít see my inner life as being Ďveiledí in my poetry. For example the relationship which endured for some 33 years of my adult life and which ended when I came to Amsterdam in 1997 is both mourned and celebrated in the long Ďdivorceí poem Night and Other Animals. I hope the poem is reflective and transformative without being exploitative Ė but itís a very fine line to tread.
Another emotional landmark for me was receiving three letters from my biological mother, whom I discovered to be living in America, aged 86. Soon I shall be visiting the places where she lived and worked with my newly discovered brother. So here in Amsterdam a whole new family by marriage and in England roots and family to whom Iím biologically related.
I realise this is only a framework but I am very willing to answer any questions you may have. I feel that the richness, conflict, loves, hates and metaphors for my life really are to be found in what Iíve written. Although I very much hope it is digested and the product of reflection, it is certainly not censored.
LV. Is poetry an art of the present? Do you feel part of a community or a singular poet struggling with a hostile literary world?
KF. Why do the Americans write so much good poetry? Because they need it! Yes, absolutely poetry is an art of the present.
I donít feel I have a very significant place in the literary community of England. Itís growing a bit as I get more reviews, read more, do more workshops but these are occasional benefits. I am glad to be part of the Second Light network, too, but I guess living abroad necessarily means I am semi-detached.
What I do value is my fairly recent membership of an Amsterdam collective, called wordsinhere. It produces a yearly, high quality magazine called versal . I am a (small) part of the editorial team and I also am about to launch into workshops and other community based activities. I love being plugged in to a group of people Ėalbeit mostly 30-40 years younger Ėwho passionately believe that poetry is of NOW.
LV. Your poems have a short fuse, they blow up in the readerís face when least expected. Your language is strangely intense for someone who has never studied literature. But true poets are those with the gift, not the knowledge. What do you advise someone who feels like embarking upon writing poetry today?
KF. Yes, I think I know what you mean by a Ďshort fuseí which is not, however, incompatible with the sustained effort of the long poem. If I am proud of anything Iíve done it is the sheer concentrated work that went into The Donít Touch Garden, Night and Other Animals and The Bleeding Key.
To would be writers, the only advice must be read, WRITE Ė and donít be afraid.
7 May 2005