Love is Not the Only Truth We Know (From her poem “Heavy Water”)
An Interview with Kate Foley
by Bryan R. Monte
On 27 April 2012, Amsterdam poet, Kate Foley, was interviewed in her Oud Zuid flat about her body of work. Foley is the author of four full poetry collections: Soft Engineering (Onlywomen Press, 1994), A Year Without Apricots (Blackwater Press, 1999), Laughter from the Hive, (Shoestring Press, 2004) and The Silver Rembrandt, (Shoestring, 2008), and two pamphlets, Night and Other Animals (Green Lantern Press 2002) and A Fox Assisted Cure, (Shoestring, 2012). Foley leads workshops in the Netherlands and the UK, she is a Versal magazine editor, and she was a David Reid Translation Prize poetry judge. Her first poetry collection was short-listed for the Aldeburgh Festival best first collection prize. Her next collection, One Window North, is due out from Shoestring Press in December 2012.
Bryan Monte: You had a very interesting childhood, didn’t you? You were raised by adoptive parents in London and some of your earliest memories, according to your poems, are of air raid shelters, isn’t that true?
Kate Foley: Oh, yes, air raid shelters definitely figured quite large because the Second World War started soon after I was born and we spent an awful lot of nights sleeping in them.
BM: So, you spent your early childhood in London during the Blitz?
KF: Yes, I did.
BM: I believe you’ve got one poem in Night and Other Animals, where you went down the street to play next to the “inside out” house, which was actually a bombsite. So that was part of your childhood?
KF: Yes, bombsites were our playgrounds and they were covered with a wonderful rash of purple from Rosebay Willow herb—its folk name is Fireweed. We used to roam all over the bombsites. And they were very dangerous and nobody cared, you know. They didn’t in those days.
BM: That’s very interesting as a child to have those sorts of early memories. You’ve also had a very colourful career with many different occupations. You were a nurse, a midwife, an archaeological conservator and also an administrator. Did I miss any other occupations or callings?
KF: Well, yes. I was a teacher also. I helped develop a conservation course, of which I was the head, at Lincoln College of Art. I was an administrator, but that job was as head of English Heritage’s Ancient Monuments Laboratory. I had a team of 60 scientists working in my department on all aspects of archaeological science and conservation. So, the main thrust of the job was both servicing archaeological excavations and building technology for ancient buildings, and doing research in that field. My scientists did a lot of research and it was very exciting.
BM: Well, that’s a very interesting pedigree for a poet. And your first book, Soft Engineering, was published when you were 56. Was there any reason that you waited so long to publish? Are you shy, do you consider yourself a late bloomer, or did you have other things to do?
KF: Well, very evidently I had other things to do. But I’ve written poetry since I was 11. I was at convent school and I had a very large, leonine, frightening English teacher called Miss Brennan. She had an absolute mane of hair and she got us to write a poem. And she read mine and said (in an Irish accent): “Do you realize, that’s poetry?” So after that, yes, I wrote sporadically but persistently. I wrote all the way through my nursing and my midwifery careers. But I never took myself seriously. I never thought I could be published, which was rather a mistake because the first poems I sent anywhere were to Socialist Commentary and Sean Day Lewis wrote very enthusiastically about these poems and published them. But I didn’t follow it up. Because I left school early—I was short of my sixteenth birthday—and I was in hospital almost immediately with TB—and because I didn’t go to university until I was in my early 30s, I’ve always felt that the education that I acquired has been piecemeal, pragmatic and certainly not “literary.”
BM: So in other words, you’re not, as I mentioned, the typical type of poet who read English at university, teaches there and produces a few books of poetry in between classes and corrections or on sabbatical.
BM: You just mentioned that you started writing poetry when Miss Brennan asked you to write a poem, but why did you continue on your own? What was your motivation to keep going all those years before you published your first book?
KF: Because I loved poetry. I loved reading it. I learnt screeds of it by heart at school. I can probably still recite the whole of “Ode to a Nightingale.” I was in love with words and also with what they could do, what they could express.
BM: Who were the people you aspired to be as a writer when you read their work? For example, who were you reading?
KF: Gerald Manley Hopkins who was a great influence on me when I was young, and Eliot, of course. We all read Eliot, even those of us who didn’t do much at school. And of course, before that there were the Romantics and the Georgians, though I think I’ve always been interested in what a modern idiom can do in poetry, and Hopkins was the first liberating influence. You could see there; you could do what you liked with words and you didn’t have to be grandiose or romantic.
BM: Well, that’s one thing I would say about your writing. It tends to be organic. It’s not formalist. It doesn’t generally fit within a standard poetic form like a sonnet or a ballad.
BM: You have a very keen sense of what to zoom in on. It’s almost photographic and cinematic. You zoom in on specific images and then cut quickly to others—definitely in the 20th century imagistic tradition. I think that in one of your other interviews you mentioned that you read a lot of H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) at one time.
KF: Yes, but not at that time, though. Much later. Lots of modern, English and in particular, American poets later. I am very keen on Adrienne Rich. And what she writes about poetry is fantastic. She writes better and more passionately about the meaning of poetry, the use of poetry, the bread of poetry in one’s life than anyone else I can think of.
BM: So in other words, in your poems we’re not going to find a lot of rhyme schemes unless they come up on their own.
KF: I started by writing rhyming poetry. Not everything I wrote by any means was rhymed. Much of it was a precursor of what I write now. I think there’s a kind of continuity. My mother, who was working in a Christmas card factory, could never understand why I wouldn’t write rhymes for cards—and cash—because I used to write rhymes for her on demand for colleagues’ or workmates’ birthdays. I used to write scurrilous rhymes when I was a student nurse about ward sisters, matrons, etc.
BM: Well, that’s very interesting that you mention your mother because your parents, nursing and illness, delivering babies, and young, new and mature love—are themes that run from your first book, Soft Engineering, to your last—A Fox Assisted Cure. For example, let’s start with the title poem, “Soft Engineering” where you start with the image of the sea licking the coastline and a mother cat licking her new-born kittens and use this to describe something very human at the same time: “Ceaselessly licking the coast/the sea is engaged in soft engineering./She tongues up heaped trickling spits/ of shingle, as a mother cat/ pridefully peaks up the wet fur of kittens.”
KF:…and soft engineering is a branch of engineering designed to sculpt the shoreline to avoid floods…
BM: You do write poems with different types of themes, but you also clearly write as a lesbian. You talked earlier about writing political poems. From what I’ve read of your body of work so far, I haven’t really encountered anything that is political in the sense that someone is holding up a big sign and you’re telling people what to think and what to do.
KF: Oh, I hope not! I devoutly hope not! Because I think that if your politics aren’t integral and ingrained, you turn people off. I would turn myself off if I wrote like that. One of my more recent poems, “A Short History in the Chapter of Stone,” is inspired by a woman under sentence of death by stoning for alleged adultery. I do write from my own life, but I also write from others’ lives as well.
BM: Well let’s start with your own life first. There’s a couple poems in your second collection, A Year Without Apricots, (Blackwater Press, 1999), where you write about a woman delivering a still-born child, “The French for Midwife,” and then at the end the babe is still-born and you talk about the grief the parents share related to that and how they express it differently. “Blue Glass Empty Pram” I think is another poem along those lines.
U. A. Fanthorpe commented on your eye for detail in her comments on A Year Without Apricots. She said: It shares the same qualities as Soft Engineering but runs deeper, darker, stronger. A light and exact way with words. A whole basket full of unexpected perspectives. (Foley) writes with Hughes type of visual accuracy. So you zoom in. You have one poem, “The Only Ghost,” where you write: “Breath finds you out/ when you hide/Hung in its swung moment of poise/ like the tide,/it waits /till you plunge.// You can’t fool breath,/ it searches out/your flaccid veins/ forcing them wide, like mussels in the pan.” That’s the attention to detail that she’s talking about.
Now the title poem of this collection, “A Year Without Apricots,” was that about someone with AIDS? Was it an elegy? You talk about apricots that fall from a tree before they’d had a chance to ripen in contrast to the wonderful fruit the tree produced the year before.
KF: Not everybody in that poem had AIDS. One indeed died of breast cancer. But yes, it was the years of AIDS and the AIDS deaths. And we lost two, my then partner and I, lost two people, very close friends, from it. I guess we were lucky and only lost two.
BM: So you were involved a bit in the AIDS crisis also. I lived in San Francisco at ground zero in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s and lost an ex-partner and about a dozen other friends and acquaintances. I’m still trying to write about these people all these years later. They’re long gone, but they’re still with me at the same time.
KF: That conversation goes on, the conversation with people who have died and the resolution that can come in a conversation after death. And of course I don’t mean that literally, but I think I’ve got a few poems, a clutch of poems, about the difficult relationship with my adoptive mother and I think that through writing those poems, a resolution begins to appear.
BM: Yes, that is an interesting observation because I can see you working through things in your pamphlet, Night and Other Animals (Green Lantern Press, 2002). The first long poem, “The Don’t Touch Garden,” is about your adoptive childhood, right?
BM: And the second one, “Night and Other Animals,” is about the break-up of your relationship?
BM: So these are two very powerful series on how you went through two transitions. So how did writing “The Don’t Touch Garden” help you related to being adopted and how did “Night and Other Animals” help you relate and work through the material of divorcing?
KF: Writing a poem is an organic process of sometimes constellating images round memories. “The Don’t Touch Garden” more or less built itself. But I felt as well as being a poem about me and from my perspective it was also very much from the perspective of my parents. They didn’t have the emotional equipment or the resources to deal with this small stranger that they acquired. And you will find, in that poem, “The Don’t Touch Garden,” a lot about my mother’s dilemma of having lost seven babies and my father’s inarticulate, but basically loving nature. Although I respect poets who are loosely called “confessional,” I don’t want myself to write deliberately confessional poetry. I want to write about the more accidental aspects of the process of becoming who I am. Does that make any sense?
BM: Yes, it does, and you’ve not only done it in “Night and Other Animals,” but also in the “The Silver Rembrandt” when you go through your ontology, the history of how you became the person that you are.
KF: Except that it’s not me. Seriously, “The Silver Rembrandt,” although it draws on my own experience, and every poet draws on their own experience, she, Lily, was a fictional character. She is not me.
BM: That is an important difference. But the chapbook, Night and Other Animals, that is (auto)biographical?
KF: Yes. Both those poems are biographical. And I think the purgative effect of “Night and Other Animals” is because it is a lyric poem. It’s not about blame; it’s about loss and about accommodation to loss. It’s about parting and I guess that’s how I made sense of the fact that I left my partner of 33 years and came to Holland to live with Tonnie.
BM: Did you know Tonnie at the time you came to live in the Netherlands?
KF: Oh, yes, of course. I came after I knew Tonnie. We met in Washington DC in 1993.
BM: So you came to Amsterdam in 1997?
BM: And there’s a little bit of your biography in “The Silver Rembrandt,” because you moved here and the main character, Lily, moves here and has her bag stolen at the main train station.
KF: None of what happened to Lily happened to me. The only thing that I share with Lily—apart from Amsterdam—is that she, in her way, was dedicated to her art although she was a failed painter.
BM: I don’t think you’re anywhere near failure.
KF: And also she had a failed relationship as many people do and so did I. No, I haven’t stood on a soapbox, painted silver outside the Rijksmuseum. I only wish I had the courage.
BM: Well, you seemed to know Amsterdam, or at least the art in Amsterdam fairly well before you even got here because that is intertwined in your own work. Did that come as a result of working for English Heritage?
KF: No. English Heritage and archaeological conservation obviously fed my work, but I was an archaeological conservator and I handled ancient objects, bits of crud and lumps of rust, and x-rayed them and that sort of thing. But I did have painting conservators working for me and I know quite a bit about the science behind painting conservation. And, of course, I met Tonnie—who at that point was teaching science to painting conservators at Maastricht—at an international conference.
BM: Well, you write a lot about painting. You mentioned angels and Rembrandt in your earlier poems. Isn’t it strange that you came to live within walking distance of the Rijksmuseum and all those wonderful Rembrandts? [Laughter]
BM: Did you think in the back of your mind that someday I’m going to end up in Amsterdam?
KF: No. I didn’t—ever. Amsterdam is the absolute last place I ever thought I’d live. I don’t think I gave Holland a second thought.
BM: I do want to talk to you about what influence living abroad and living in Amsterdam has had on your writing. We did mention those times where Rembrandt comes up. But now that you’re here, how has living in Amsterdam changed your work?
KF: Well obviously, at a very basic level, there is a whole suite of different images. But I think it’s more that, yeah, it’s also about language. I mean my Dutch is not yet good. I don’t know whether it ever will be. Sometimes it seems to be going achteruit (translation: getting worse). But, grappling with living in a different culture and using a different language and becoming intimate with people with a different mother tongue is wonderfully expanding and your horizons stretch to accommodate. You realize that there is a world that is your world, but it’s seen through different eyes. And it helps you to somehow recognize that people carry their own worlds formed by their own culture and history.
BM: I like what you do in the poem, “Shokat Dancing.” “She’s humming, the heart/of a brown flower./Pixels blaze erratically/ off, on, pick up the DNA/of music, scribbled in the air.” You talk about this woman, who has some years and some experience, but she still does this beautiful dance and she’s a part of it, arthritic and enthralling at the same time. And you write about how she dances and you’re taken up in that. That’s one of many things I like about Laughter from the Hive. You have mature, domestic love where you talk about moving in together. You have portraits of older women, your lover, yourself, and street people.
KF: Adrienne Rich says something about “naming.” In fact, I have one poem in A Year Without Apricots for Adrienne Rich, called “The great blue heron.” It was inspired by her talking about a heron and writing about it and realizing it just isn’t about an artifact or a thing that you write about. It has it’s own existence, it’s own mysterious self. A part of your task as a poet is naming in that sense. In other words bringing to the page and to the reader the quiddity of people, animals and events. I don’t think I’ve got anything as pretentious as a poetic creed. If I did however, I think that would be it. It’s about the task of faithfully naming.
BM: I think you do a very good job about being specific with your poetry, focusing in on things. Are there any other poems that you’ve written about Amsterdam that you feel are very evocative?
KF: “Elm Trees Amsterdam” or “A Gift of Rivers”—that’s a bird’s-eye-view of coming in by plane to Schiphol. And I have poems about the dogs of Amsterdam, “Where are my bones?” The Dutch and their dogs—they’re dog maniacs, aren’t they? You go to the Vondelpark and there are all these dogs absolutely laying down the law to their owners who are going about scooping up the balls and throwing them to them.
BM: They have their owners well trained. I’ve noticed that too. It’s kind of a role reversal compared to what I’m accustomed to.
KF: I think it’s the liberality of Amsterdam that has done quite a lot of unlocking for me, just being in a culture where people don’t wear bicycle helmets and put their lights on, although it drives me mad when they do that.
BM: OK. On to “The Silver Rembrandt,” which we have established, is not autobiographical.
KF: It’s really not. Except in the sense that, like most poets, I mine my own experience for images. Lily actually goes from the East Midlands, which I suppose is an autobiographical element because I worked for about 15 years in Lincolnshire. Nevertheless, I say, and nobody ever believes this, but it is absolutely true, that this is not an autobiographical poem. It sort of makes me a bit sad that nobody will believe that I’m capable of creating a work of fiction. Well, I am!
BM: It’s lovely. It’s a long, sustained poem with 21 different parts and then you’ve got some of Rembrandt’s paintings that are interwoven with the text of the poem. So tell me, why did you pick certain paintings to use as illustrations? Mention two or three paintings that you remember and why you used them.
KF: OK. I used them in a way as a technique as a spacer and a change of tone between chapters if you like of Lily’s life. But they became a kind of meditative pause. Very quickly, looking at the first one, “Old Woman Reading,” you can image a child at primary school seeing that postcard and correlating it with her old grandmother. So that was the resonance with Lily’s life. But I realized when I was writing these poems that I was actually very much getting what it was Rembrandt was trying to do in the paintings. The small bit about technique. If I hadn’t had my own career in archaeological science, I wouldn’t have known about oolites and coccolites and burnt bone and rust and all of those things and the way they contribute to pigments. I’m very interested in process both in poetry and art. So yes, that came from a part of my life, but it is also at a point in the poem where it is relevant to Lily’s life. The painting about Titus, Rembrandt’s son, whom he lost, is at that point where Lily has lost a child. I hope that these poems, which have very utilitarian roles as spacers, resonate with the life in the paintings because that is what the painter and the poet try to do, to create resonances between his or her work and the reader or viewer.
BM: Well that brings us to an interesting concept also. I always like to ask writers how they write. How do things come to you? How do you record them?
[KF indicates her 3X5-inch pocket notebook]
BM: What do you write in this little book?
KF: I write a word. I write a phrase. I very rarely write a whole poem. And then I work in a layout pad, (10X14 inches) by hand.
BM: So once again, art comes into your writing. So it’s not lined; it’s just blank sheets of paper.
KF: Yes. I’m very fussy about what gets onto a page. I love the look of writing, or I used to when I had better handwriting than I have now. And I draw continuously too. Writing is a very visual thing for me. So it starts somewhere in here [points to her intestines]….
BM: ….In your gut….
KF: …or it may be something that I thought or I felt, but it’s most likely to be an image.
BM: So you start with the feeling or an image. How do you go from a few words to the completed poem? What happens in between?
KF: I work out of my [small] notebook and into my big pad and I juggle and I write things that chime with what I began writing. That’s it mostly. But sometimes I will sit down at a computer and I will just follow a thread and I will write the poem line-by-line and it’s more of a deliberative process then. And it’s got a kind of internal logic. If you’re going to ask me which poems came out of which process, don’t, because I can’t remember.
BM: Are your poems more related to accretion or subtraction or both?
KF: Well, they accrete first, but they quite rapidly then go into diminution. I’m a slasher and burner. I’m not, I think, on the whole, in love with what I write to the extent that I can’t throw it away.
BM: Give me an example of a poem that you’ve revised extensively.
KF: Well, yes, A Fox Assisted Cure.
BM: So, how many drafts did you go through with Fox?
KF: Twenty, maybe.
BM: So that was your most recent chapbook, released just a month or so ago. Could you comment on this long poem? It has almost 21 different parts, where basically you have a disabled young girl, about eight to ten years old, and she’s got some sort of malady. Do you know what the diagnosis is?
KF: Yes, I do because I did actually consult a doctor about this. Initially she had a virus, you know, one of these rogue viruses that takes a toll and gives you the equivalent of ME (Myalgic Encephalopathy). And, as a result of that, her thyroid began to malfunction. So that by the time the poem begins, she is immensely fat, virtually speechless and imprisoned in her chair. As you know, Fox was a type of designer accessory picked up by this ersatz healer that her mother had gone to in desperation.
BM: He’s an unconventional, holistic type.
KF: Sort of—with an eye to the cash register. It’s a poem about finding a kind of liberation and about risk, I think. And it’s a poem that a lot of people would say should have never been written because one thing you can’t do these days, because the Cliché Police will have you, is write about foxes and children because it’s been done. But I thought: ‘Stuff it.’
BM: Now that’s your most recent published work. What are you working on as your next book or project?
KF: Yes, I have another book due from Shoestring this year.
BM: What are some of the poems about? Can you divulge any of that information yet?
KF: Well, it isn’t a question of “divulge,” it’s a question of life, death, the meaning of the universe….
KF and BM: ….and the number 42!
KF: ….as Deep Thought once said. It’s a mixture as always. There are a few more overtly political/ecological poems. There are poems about aging because I am knocking on a bit, so it’s a state that interests me. There are poems about death because the older you get, the closer it gets—should you be so lucky. And I hesitate to say that there are poems that are “spiritual” because I think that’s very suspect—especially for me as an atheist—and I only speak for myself but there are poems about the possibility of growing a “soul.” Not that I believe anything persists of it, but I think it’s an essential task—for anybody—especially for poets.
BM: That’s very interesting. We’ll be looking forward to this book. Thank you very much for your time.
KF: Thank you.