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One Great Reader No. 15: Raymond Foye

Raymond Foye is a true book world polymath who since 1980 has lived in New York City’s infamous Chelsea Hotel. I wanted to quickly establish his hip bona fides. For further proof, admire this brief list of cool & influential spheres he has been a part of since his college days right up through the present: 

Studied film with Stan Brakhage at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; worked as a literary editor with City Lights Books for two years in the late 70s; contributed to the punk zine Search and Destroy; supervised fine art print projects and trade book editions with the artists Robert Motherwell, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Howard Hodgkin, and Frank Stella; traveled to India with Francesco Clemente and lived in Madras, where they founded the small press Hanuman Books, which published original titles by authors such as Cookie Mueller, Eileen Myles, Bob Flanagan, Patti Smith, Robert Creeley, Robert Frank, and Jack Kerouac; and was director of exhibitions and publications at Gagosian Gallery from 1990-1995. Since 1995 Raymond has worked as an independent curator, editor, and writer and is currently a contributing editor at the Brooklyn Rail. He also maintains his own imprint, Raymond Foye Books. Last but not least he is the literary executor of the estates of poets John Wieners, James Schuyler, Gregory Corso, and Rene Ricard. 

I just reeled off a bunch of bold-faced names and could go on, but you get the idea that the man knows and has worked with some of the most significant artists and writers of the past 50+ years. The stories he could tell…the below is but a sample. 

I hope Raymond Foye’s name is new to you and that you search for the many books he’s edited and published during his singular career so you don’t forget it. I’m not sure how you could once you know the above about him, but still, those behind the scenes in the arts and letters don’t often enough get the recognition they deserve and I’m very pleased he agreed to participate in this interview. – WDV

WDV: What’s the rarest book you own and what’s the rarest you’ve merely been able to flip through?

RF: I’m not interested in antiquarianism for its own sake. Acquiring a first edition doesn’t mean anything to me. Occasionally I see something I’d like to have, like Richard Brautigan’s Please Plant This Book, and I think about splurging on it, then I think, “OK, so you have it, then what?” I have so many books that if I don’t need a book for my work, or I’m not going to have to buy it again within five years, I try to get rid of it.

Maybe the rarest thing I have is a hand-colored copy of Gregory Corso’s Geometric Poem (1966, Milan) designed by Ettore Sottsass. It’s printed in large format in black-and-white. I paid Gregory to colorize it with gouache and watercolors, and he did a magnificent job. It’s a one-of-a-kind, therefore probably of considerable value. 

I’ve had a lot of valuable books stolen from me over the years. A copy of Andy Warhol’s Popism, profusely hand-decorated by Andy, with drawings on practically every page, that’s one I particularly miss.

The most valuable book I’ve had the pleasure of handling? Probably an illuminated William Blake, at Princeton University, and the Morgan Library.

Where was the best place to read in NYC when you first moved into town in 1980 and where is the best place now?

For me everyplace is a good place to read, and I very much enjoy reading in public places. Some of my favorites:.

  1. Main reading room of the NYPL on 42nd and Fifth (Rose Reading Room). Also the Mid-Manhattan NYPL, a great selection of books and none are mine (It’s why I like music on the radio: I can get very bored with my own things.)

  2. A nice cafe, but cell phones have made that prospect much more difficult. There are still some good reading cafes in Chelsea: Bergamot Cafe, Sullivan Street Bakery Cafe on Ninth Ave, La Grainne Cafe, La Maison du Macaron… I also used to like to take the subway out to Bushwick and Ridgewood to visit bookstore/cafes like Molasses or Topos. God knows if any of these places will survive.

  3. The subway.

I’m interested that you bring up “boredom.” I often feel the same way when looking at my shelves, seeing so many of the same books year after year, books I really want and intend to read but never will for a variety of reasons—it’s really best not to even think about all those I’ll never get to. But there is zero reason to feel boredom since reading spines is not at all the same as reading the contents of each book. Can you explain more about being bored with your own books?

Habituated patterns of behavior and preconceived ideas are things I struggle against. I’d rather consider things I haven’t considered before. I also struggle against the accumulation of objects. And a lot of these books and records and paintings represent a “past life” where I no longer want to be, because the emotional connections that brought me to these places no longer apply. When I was working with John Wieners, editing his work for Black Sparrow Press, he described his poems to me as “Old faces I don’t care to see again.” I understood what he meant. Or as Neil Young once said to an audience, “Too much of that old stuff and it’s good night.” I feel an obligation to the past but I don’t live in it. Perception is a demanding practice and it takes place in the present moment.

“I feel an obligation to the past but I don’t live in it.” Words to indeed live by. 

Tell me about an amazing writer who has been published but is criminally unknown by the public.

That would be a long list indeed. It seems like everyone knows the name Herbert Huncke but very few have read him carefully, savoring his skills with language, pacing and rhythm, voice, and the gift for storytelling. Recently I self-published a Selected Poems by Eric Walker, a poet-friend who hung himself in prison in 1994, aged twenty-nine. He’s a very important poet for these times (solidarity, ecology, the streets, resistance) and I wish more people would check him out.

Eric Walker’s work is new to me. Are copies widely available since you self-published or was it a limited run? 

I printed six hundred copies. It’s distributed by Small Press Distribution, for now at least. There are copies on the internet, as a last resort.

Ideally you mentioning him here will lead to some sales.

What’s the greatest bookstore you’ve ever been in?

Arriving at City Lights Bookstore age nineteen. I felt like I was a pilgrim arriving at a holy shrine. 

You’d certainly not be alone with that response. Let’s talk about City Lights for a bit since you were a literary editor with City Lights Books from 1978-1980 and great readers around the world seem to have endless romantic visions of it. Do you remember what sections you spent the most time in that first visit? Did you buy anything? (I wonder how many copies of Howl they sell to tourists each year?) When’s the last time you were there and what was your feeling walking into and out of it then? Can you give us some memorable stories or anecdotes we’d likely not know about the famed bookstore? Take as much space as you want, I’m quite sure none of us will object…

I think the romantic visions are justified. Those books were like messages in a bottle. For those of us who grew up in small towns in America, finding a City Lights book was like a voice in the wilderness. It represented an alternative reality or sensibility to what one got at school, or in the media. When I first got to San Francisco the publishing offices were in a corner storefront on Grant Avenue and Filbert Street—Philip Lamantia’s apartment was directly upstairs. They closed that space and moved the offices to the second floor of the bookstore. When I worked there, Ferlinghetti arrived every morning slightly before 10 am and he was often there until late at night. I felt sorry for him because it was very hard for him to just sit in a cafe and enjoy an espresso, without having someone approach him about a manuscript they sent, or a book they wanted him to publish. A lot of hostility was directed at him by people, very unfairly. He had practically no peace in that regard, but he always handled the situation graciously. The operation wasn’t making a lot of money but that’s not why they were doing it. The thing I realized right away about poets like Allen Ginsberg and Bob Kaufman and Gregory Corso, was just how serious they were about what they were doing. And they weren’t doing it for the money. That’s a rare thing in America. These poets had a lot of fun and were always up for a good time—they loved parties and music and people, but they were terribly serious about their work. I observed how there was a vital relationship between art and life.

The first book I bought at City Lights was Tony Seymour’s pamphlet on Bob Kaufman, No Gods to Guide.  I spent practically all of my time in the basement, in the poetry section. It was quiet, there were tables where you could sit and read. Poets would wander in. Ferlinghetti’s paintings were on the walls. But keep in mind it was a small bookstore in those days, they hadn’t yet expanded next door. That was a travel agent called Vanni. The original City Lights was just that small corner triangle space on Adler Alley, facing Vesuvio’s bar, and the basement space. The publishing offices were upstairs, three small desks. I should say that I was never formally employed by them, I was doing freelance editing, but I had use of the offices and spent a fair amount of time there. I was editing The Unknown Poe, doing research and some ghostwriting on the Literary History of San Francisco for Ferkinghetti and Nancy Peters. I also worked on Allen Ginsberg’s Plutonium Ode, and a number of books that never happened: the poems of Samuel Greenberg, who was a proto surrealist poet who died of tuberculosis in NYC in 1917, aged twenty-three. Also a Collected Plays of Gregory Corso (which still hasn’t come out!). In 1980 when the editor Nancy Peters decided to take a year off they asked me to take over for that year, but the store manager Joe Wolberg blocked that because he felt I was too close to Gregory Corso, and Gregory had broken into the store twice that year already. It was pretty much because of that disappointment that I moved to New York. 

Pleasing morsels to satisfy us many fans, thank you.

Who is your favorite publisher today and what are three things that impress you most about them?

Shiv Mirabito of Shivastan Press in Woodstock and Kathmandu. The list is highly personal, the hand-printing in Nepal is exquisite, and Shiv keeps a great tradition going—of solo itinerant publishers on the hippie pilgrim trail in the Far East (like Angus Maclise). Runners up: Jim Fleming’s autonomedia, Lawrence Kumpf’s Blank Forms, Verso Books, Wave Books, and Zone. The musicians William Parker and John Zorn have also brought out some very important books on their own independent imprints.

Which writer who you’ve worked with required the least amount of editing?

I believe in a light touch when editing, unless the author asks for involvement. Probably Patti Smith. There was no reason to change a single word.

When’s the last time you were shocked by something in a book, either image or text?

Reading Naked Lunch at fifteen. In general I find shock value overrated, it’s usually very forced. I recently went through the archives of Boston’s Fag Rag publishing collective, at the Beinecke at Yale. That was full of things that were “shocking” by social standards then (not to me), and something no one could get away with today, which made me a little sad. I felt like people will never be that free ever again. Boyd McDonald’s Straight to Hell publications were similar. But I was past being shocked at that point.

Ah Boyd! One of my publishing heroes. I suppose for decades little in books has shocked most people when real (and more and more fake news online) usually does it for them. Still, it’s healthiest for the publishing world when it has new, edited titles which bother a lot of people. 

It’s very important to challenge prevailing values—all values, not just those of the establishment. I remember attending a reading that Boyd McDonald gave at Harvard, as part of the Gay Alumni Association. I’m sure it was one of his very few public readings. I went with Charley Shively, who was also on the bill. There was a poster for the reading as we entered and it had the Harvard seal with the Latin motto “Veritas.” Charley took out his pen and above it wrote, “In eros…(Veritas).” He was very witty that way. 

You don’t shock, so are there any particular sensations which you still turn to reading to bring about?

I would say every emotion you can conceive of. The pleasure of seeing something through somebody else’s eyes. Getting outside of one’s own head. And appreciating good writing the way one would appreciate a well made work, like a table. William Carlos Williams said the poem is first and foremost a “made thing.” Reading might be my greatest pleasure, certainly it is these days, along with listening to music and spending time in nature. Once I was walking down the street on the Lower East Side with John Zorn and there was a lottery sign in the window: the jackpot was $350 million dollars. “What would you do with $350 million dollars?” John said. “Well, I’d like to have more time to read,” I replied. “It doesn’t take $350 million to do that!” he screamed. Yes, good point. Zorn represents these same values I’ve been speaking about: taking responsibility for your own life. That’s where great art comes in: it helps you maintain your standards.

If you were given a thousand copies of the same book to randomly leave around the city for whomever to pick up today, what would it be?

The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (City Lights, 2019), that’s my Bible. He is one of the great literary imaginations of all time. He’s funny, joyous, and loving. And socially, he is very much a poet for our times. His work possesses what so much poetry today lacks: sentience.

How often do you bring a new book into your home?

As a publisher, editor, reviewer, and writer, I have books coming in pretty much every day, except Sunday. In terms of seeking things out on my own, about once every ten days. 

That’s a lot of words which your eyes pass over daily. Do you still like to do everything with print or are you fine toggling between that and digital files and processes?

I have consulted PDFs that I have downloaded for research purposes, but I have never read an ebook in my life. I find no pleasure in that experience whatsoever. The computer and the internet is my enemy, I think it’s evil, in fact I actually consider it to be the Devil. I don’t want to spend any more time on it than I have to. It’s the biggest struggle in my life, and it’s why I used to go to India and Nepal, and remote islands in Greece, for months at a time, just to get away from it. Keep in mind I remember the world before there were computers and cell phones. I remember in Madras in the 1980s, seeing Krishnamurti lecture, how much he spoke about the dangers of the personal computer. It was strange since the personal computer almost didn’t even exist at that point. In his later talks you can really see this becoming a major preoccupation of his. I understand now how prescient he was. He understood it was going to bring about a fundamental evolutionary change in humankind, in human consciousness. Vilém Flusser is another philosopher who has important things to say on this topic.

What are four books you are positive you will reread in your lifetime?

Remembrance of Things Past by Proust; The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet; Journey to the End of Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline; Chronicles Volume One by Bob Dylan.

Do you have any tales of significant books or authors that got away, ones you thought you’d be able to work on or with but ended up not doing so for one reason or another?

Robert Olivo was called “Pope Ondine” and appeared in many Warhol films, such as Chelsea Girls. I was his friend and was encouraging him with the writing of his autobiography, which was marvelous. He got sick and died (hepatitis, 1989) and the manuscript was at his mother’s house in Queens. She was a conservative Roman Catholic who blamed his death on Warhol and that circle. I tried to get hold of the manuscript but she said it was sinful and vowed to destroy it, and I’m afraid she did. 

Of whose literary estate would excite you the most to be the executor?

I’m the executor of the literary estates of James Schuyler, John Wieners, and Rene Ricard. It’s a lot of work and does not pay, so I’m not looking for any more. But, maybe James Joyce, because I have a great idea for a video game based on Ulysses.

The idea in that last sentence was likely never considered before by anyone reading this. Can you give a hint of what the experience and goal would be for the player?

I’m sorry, that’s proprietary information.

Well then here’s to hoping it happens.

Is there any chance anyone is working on a proper biography of Ricard? I’ve been wanting to read one for years.

People float the idea from time to time, but then they find out it’s a lot of work and no pay and the idea peters out. The perfect biography of Rene Ricard would be one like Samuel Johnson’s An Account of the Life of Richard Savage, a brief and remarkable book that William Burroughs insisted I read, when I first met him. He said, “It’s a book unlike any other book, about a person who was unlike any other person.” Some of these remarkable people I’ve encountered—Rene Ricard, John Wieners, Harry Smith: you really cannot put who they were into a book. Twenty-four hours in the life of Gregory Corso was so much more inherently epic than anything that could ever be written down. That’s why I sought them out.

And that’s why I sought you out. Thanks Raymond!

Raymond Foye, photographed by Allen Ginsberg

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