Millennium #15 Issue, May 2005
Innovative Literature Available for Everyone...
An Interview with Edward Foster
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
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
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."
perhaps see this "diversity" in Foster's poems,
such as this:
Wind My Fingeres Round Your Wrist
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?
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?)
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.
1942, Foster grew up in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, which
he says was an isolated New England town during his boyhood
in the 1950s.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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,
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.
today continues to create as a poet, a publisher, and
a professor of American Studies at the Stevens Institute
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
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
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
- 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.
Millennium #15 Issue, May 2005