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Light Millennium #15 Issue, May 2005

Making Innovative Literature Available for Everyone...
An Interview with Edward Foster

Poet, Professor & Publisher, Edward FOSTER.

by Figen BINGÜL*


Edward Foster is opening doors for avant-garde literature ignored by the mainstream publishers. He created the journal Talisman
, the first issue of which appeared in 1988 and which is committed to publishing important new works of American poetry. An innovative poet himself, Foster decided to publish and distribute books of poetry and founded Talisman House, Publishers, in 1993. It is now among the main publishers of avant-garde literature in the United States.

Foster tried to keep Talisman "as various as possible, avoiding mainstream work and work which all too overtly follows some theory." He adds that "the quality of the Talisman list over the last eight years or so, at least in poetry, surpasses that of almost any corporate publisher you could name." The philosophy behind his publishing house is best summarized by him in an interview for Double Change: "The notion that we can stop listening to this poet or that, or that there is a privileged group of writers who should be published while others are ignored, is the sheerest nonsense, and it's terribly destructive. It shuts people up, sets them aside, and establishes hierarchies of experts such as any democracy should be willing to deny. The result is fertile ground for corporations and institutions, which exist to perpetuate themselves. When they are in control, they teach a person not how to ask questions and where to look for something new, but rather what he or she should be looking for, what he or she should want to hear, and that in turn destroys the kinds of variousness that poetry can provide."

What really matters for Foster is that "as one of us after the other vanishes from this world, is that poetry itself survive in as much diversity as possible."

We can perhaps see this "diversity" in Foster's poems, such as this:

I Wind My Fingeres Round Your Wrist

The poppies on the Asian shore begin to bloom,
but my heart's bitter. I'm not allowed to say
which things I'd wish. Who's young beside this
Turkish shore? Who'd say it more?
Why can't I say wherever I would be?

Skip money (he had said); I want to be with you.
(Change verse to issues: happenstance
and cognitive concerns. Tell me true:
who's leaving me to be with you?)

The poem suggests how personal poetry can be. Foster discusses this in an interview for Here Comes Everybody: "I don't think it is possible, or at least desirable, to escape from personality and emotion in poetry." While not resisting personality and personal emotion in his poems, Foster manages to sustain just enough distance from his subject matter to avoid the charge of solipsism. Maybe this quote from Jack Foley in a review for The Alsop Review best defines what Foster's poetry achieves: "In writing, Foster found a way to let people 'hear' the 'terrible' things in his head while at the same time maintaining his distance. In their delicate interplay and precarious balance between presence and absence, what his poems 'say' is precisely the vanishing of the world."

What kind of a world is that is vanishing in Foster's view? What shaped him and his poetry? What are his inspirations? Every person has a story, and surely, his is not an ordinary one. In an autobiographical essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 26, one can find his account of many of the things in his life that brought him to this point.

Born in 1942, Foster grew up in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, which he says was an isolated New England town during his boyhood in the 1950s.

Influences from his family while growing up included his father's, grandfather's, and mother's interest in reading, which in turn gave him a deep respect for literature. His father was a pianist, a geologist, scholar, and teacher. Foster remembers that he started writing because his "father asked [him] to," noting that his father frequently proposed new things to challenge him. He also says that "the tone and character of much that [he] is was determined" by his grandfather, an Edwardian gentleman, who on the surface was "very mannered, but his interior perfectly still," and who could also appear "impudent and outrageous" at times.

Foster was seven when he witnessed his father's death; he was terrified and he felt guilty for not going near his father at his last moments. He felt the same way when his grandfather had a stroke before his eyes shortly after his father's death. He believed that he "had failed [his] grandfather and [his] father."

After his father's death, his mother supported the family, becoming the main figure in his adolescence. His mother at first worked as a cleaning woman and as a door-to-door sales person. Then she got a position as a teacher in Williamsburg and eventually became the principal of three schools in the town, where Foster, his mother, and his brother were the only "incomplete" family, not having a father who worked and a mother who didn't. These were the very conservative 1950s, and Foster, who was left to his own devices much of the time, was seen by others as not "well adjusted." During these years, his mother "became effectively [his] conscience" and her interest in books and art affected him strongly.

When he was twelve and entering adolescence, he was fearful that people around [him] could hear the terrible things in [his] head.” He also still believed that “[his] misery was somewhat [his] punishment” because he had failed his father and grandfather. So, he tried to stay away from people, spending much time in the woods with his "horrible thoughts."

Later, he was hired by the town librarian, and there he found the chance to discover many books. Meanwhile, his teachers concluded that he “was a bad influence” on other children. The school psychologist examined him and decided that he might do better at a boarding school and arranged for him to attend Williston Academy, where many of the students came from affluent and socially prominent families. He lived there for the next five years. In his junior year, psychologists gave him various tests that led them to conclude in their report that he had “serious adjustment problems;” although “intellectually serious and independent,” he saw life, they wrote, “through daydreams and uneasy retrospection.” Influenced, however, by his teachers including a poet and translator of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam named Horace Thorner, Foster began to take a special interest in writing as a career.

Hoping to write fiction as well as poetry, he entered Columbia University. At this time, it was common for professors to argue that literature had entered a “silver age, not an age for poets but rather one for critics.” After completing his undergraduate degree, he returned to do graduate work in literature and American Studies and found himself writing the sort of critical and biographical works that his professors valued. He followed them in seeing the present as a “silver age,” an idea he now remembers as “silliness.” Writing no poems between 1968 and late 1970s, he eventually became a widely published professor, yet he recalls that personally he was in some “desperation” those days.

In the late 1970’s, a colleague advised him to apply for a Fulbright fellowship and leave the country for a while. He took the advice and, as a result, went to Ankara, Turkey, to teach. Turkey was in a chaotic state at that time. It was a period of widespread anarchy, and Americans were warned that they could be potential targets. Foster was at one point in fact warned by the American embassy not to go to the university campus. Still, he chose to remain in Ankara, in large part because of “Islamic and Turkish culture.” Here he discovered a world that seemed at some points familiar but that “gradually reveal[ed] itself to be radically different.” This non-Western culture made him question the seemingly natural and inevitable qualities in his own traditions, language, and culture.

During his years in Turkey, he came to realize that he was “free to do as [he] wished;” he felt independent, divorced from the world in which he had grown up. He felt “distanced from everything,” and “it didn’t matter.” He felt “unburdened of all the values and expectations which [he] had previously measured [himself].” Thinking about his father and grandfather, he “felt as if [he] understood them for the first time,” realizing that “their secret had been a capacity to be alone,” not opening to “public scrutiny.” He no longer found the “cruelty, ridicule, and indifference” from the world of his childhood to be as damaging as it had been -- as long as he continued to create.

Foster today continues to create as a poet, a publisher, and a professor of American Studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Below is the interview we made with him on 17 April, 2005:
"Turkey has one of the great literatures of our time."


- You must have been deeply affected by your father's and grandfather's deaths. How did their deaths influence your poetry?

Most children for the past two or three generations have lived with little knowledge of death. If a child should see, experience the death of those he loves, it will alter his sensibility.

- You "believed that [you] failed [your] grandfather and [your] father and that [your] misery was somewhat [your] punishment." So you decided to stay away from people during your adolescence. And just then you discovered Bodman, who was a writer from your own town and "he had died in the house which [you] were born." You find "his belief that he was horribly corrupt and must avoid people" very similar to your state of mind those days. Based on his example, you believed that one day your writing would be published too. Now, looking back at those times, do you still think that he was an inspiration for you? And, what other inspirations did you have besides him?

Bodman did not directly influence the poetry. He embodied a way of feeling and of being in the world that was easy to share. He was an extreme version of a certain kind of Yankee or New England personality that is not found very often today but used to be quite common: obsessively (even destructively) moral, or at least wishing to be so.

- In school years, your teachers had come to a conclusion suggesting that you had problems and were "a bad influence." Later on the school psychologists agreed on that you had "serious adjustment difficulties." In your university years at Columbia, you had a psychiatrist who said "it was best to be ‘normal’." Do you think that having "adjustment problems" in fact urged you to write? Is it a prerequisite to be outside of the ‘normal’ to produce art?

No, it is not necessary "be outside of the ‘normal’ to produce art." Living that way can make it possible to see some things more objectively, more clearly, but it also closes a person off from pleasures that others take for granted and that can narrow the work. On the other hand, to be perfectly ‘normal’ (if that were possible) could easily be a far greater restriction.

- You went to Turkey on a Fulbright and you taught there for two years. You mention that in spite of the anarchy taking place during the late 70’s, you stayed there because of the "seductions of Islamic and Turkish culture." You found out that the Western traditions, language, and culture which were assumed to be "natural and inevitable" lost their "reflexive certainty" when you were exposed to this new culture. What were the main characteristics of that culture that made you think so?

I can’t answer that question exactly; I’m talking in the passage from which you quote about questions of sensibility rather than fact. It wasn’t as much what I found in Ankara as what I didn’t find that made the difference. Things that I had thought were natural or essential to living in the world were just not there, and I found they didn’t have to be. What I found in their place was as good or better (often much better) than what I had left behind. I grew up, after all, in what at the time was a fairly isolated part of the world. That town is now mostly suburban, but then it was isolated by geography (in the hills of western Massachusetts in New England) and culture (which had more to do with the 19th century than the 20th). Elsewhere televisions, for example, were common, and we certainly knew about them, but there wasn’t one for us to see in the town until I was 10 or 11. At the same time, I think we felt fairly self-sufficient, even smug; few of my contemporaries had any sense of how isolated we really were and how much we were missing. The rest of the world had little reality for us.

- You talk about the revelation in Turkey when you heard the call for prayer one morning. Then you "felt suddenly transfigured" and you came to the realization that you were "free to do as [you] wished" and you felt "independent." What was this revelation? Did being in a different cultural environment trigger this?

Again, this really is not a question I can answer with any clarity or precision. It’s the kind of question that requires poetry to be conveyed. It can be suggested in a poem, but it can not be defined. It was perhaps less the particulars of the moment that triggered this response as an accumulation of experiences over the preceding months.

- You published an essay "Poetry Has Nothing to Do with Politics" in 1992. You argued that writing for others’ expectations is no poetry at all. What do you mean by that?

I was arguing that poetry operates according to its own expectations rather than the expectations of the poet or the audience. Poetry fulfills its own terms and exists for its own ends. It operates outside political and economic structures (though it may use these things). When politics impinge on the poem, you get politics, not poetry. Anything can serve as material for poems, but that does not make it in itself poetic.

- You mention that poetry "requires sharp reflexes, knowing exactly and intuitively what to do at a given moment." How do you know that you find the right words at the right moment in a poem?

Emily Dickinson wrote, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me I know THAT is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know THAT is poetry." There are many other ways, clearly, but they all involve extreme physical, intuitive recognition. It’s been argued many times that poetry (actually all art for that matter) is at some point essential sexual, whatever the ostensible subject. I think that may be true.

- You teach courses in critical theory and in fact you use it to show "how inadequate the critical mind can be." And yet, it is the tendency for the average reader to look at the back of the book for some kind of praise about the work before purchasing it. Do you think that critical theory does not have any value? Is it thus meaningless to criticize any art? What is your opinion on art criticism in general?

Criticism has great value for me as a writer, but for the most part, it is its own discourse. It may elucidate, among other things, specific references in poems, the poet’s aesthetic notions, etc., but criticism is for the most part a way of using language and a way of thinking. It takes a poem or a painting or another work as its subject, but for me, the real interest in criticism is the way it uses language and thought.

- How and why did you start publishing? What were your supports?

Talisman began as a journal in the late 1980s and as a publishing house in the early 1990s. Both were established to do work that once might have been done by larger, often mainstream publishers. But with the consolidation of much of the American publishing industry under corporate banners, it was more difficult for experimental or innovative or avant-garde work to find commercial publishers. Talisman was created in large part to fill that need.

- What are your criteria to publish a book? What’s the philosophy behind Talisman House?

Talisman is very eclectic in the range of books it publishes. It avoids the mainstream (which has its affluent publishers, prizes, and review outlets anyway) and focuses on experimental or innovative or avant-garde work.

- What are the chances of a publishing house "outside of the mainstream" as Talisman House to survive amongst all the big chains of bookstores?

It’s not easy. We decided from the beginning that "we would pay our bills but not ourselves." So far we have succeeded; we have no debts.

- Your publishing house has offered many translations as well. Knowing that a translation has always an "otherness" in the language it’s been translated to, translated works have the risk of being less absorbed by the reader. In a translation, surely there are many concepts and meanings lost that might alienate the reader. How do you decide that a translation is worth publishing?

There are many criteria, but perhaps the most important is that the translation be a poem in its own right.

- Your publishing house, Talisman House, Publishers, made an interest in an unknown literature in America and had published Eda: An Anthology of Contemporary Turkish Poetry. Knowing that this book would not find many audiences, what made you publish this anthology?

Turkey has one of the great literatures of our time. I do not know why it is not more widely recognized in the English-speaking world. Recognition is long overdue. There are great translators, the best known of all being Talat Halman, of course, and there are other truly great translators of Turkish poetry such as Saliha Paker, Murat Nemet-Nejat, Onder Otcu, and many more. The translations needed to be published, and so we did the anthology plus a volume of works by Ilhan Berk as translated by Onder Otcu, and we hope to publish many more.

- What do you think of Turkish literature? It's not much recognized in America. Do you think if there were more works available in English, the American reader would be interested?

To say it again, Turkey certainly has one of the great literatures of our time. If the translations can be made available in the English-speaking world, recognition should follow. It's always an up-hill battle, of course, but it's a battle that needs to be fought.

- What are the criteria of a book to attract the American reader? Is it possible to talk about a formula to be a best seller?

I don't know what makes a best seller, nor actually do I much care. Some great American books were best sellers in their day, but most were not. I don't think books should be written merely to sell. It's fine if they do, but money should NEVER be the objective either for the writer or the publisher. As soon as money enters the pictures, good ideas and great writing can too easily be stifled.

Brossard, Olivier. "Interview with Edward Foster," Double Change (New York City, January 2002).
Foster, Edward. "Edward (Halsey) Foster," Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, ed. Shelley Andrews, Vol. 26

Here Comes Everybody: “Writers on Writing” January 04, 2005)

For more information on Edward Foster:

© This interview is accomplished for the Light Millennium by Figen BINGÜL, translator and general secretary of the Light Millennium.
Light Millennium #15 Issue, May 2005 - http://www.lightmillennium.org

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