Poetry anthology honors the public and private legacies of murdered combat journalist James Foley

By Stephanie Case

James Foley (above) is remembered by former classmate Yago S. Cura (below) in the new poetry anthology “Ghazals for Foley”

James Foley (above) is remembered by former classmate Yago S. Cura (below) in the new poetry anthology “Ghazals for Foley”

The first thing poet Luivette Resto remembers about James Foley is his grin.

“He had a smile that dominated his face,” Resto says — a magnetic, toothy, all-American beam, framed by a jawline that could cut glass. She’d pass him in the hallways at the University of Massachusetts on her way to a poetry class, where, almost always, he’d be teasing his friends with a good-natured smirk.

The last thing she remembers about Foley is an image on her Facebook feed: him kneeling in an orange jumpsuit, in the stark Syrian desert. Next to him, a masked man clenches a knife.

Foley, an American combat journalist, was beheaded by ISIS in August 2014 after nearly two years of imprisonment, his execution captured in a graphic YouTube video that shell shocked the Internet.

Foley’s death was covered in New York Times op-eds, CNN reports and a new HBO documentary, “Jim.” But his life was richer than any one news story could capture; he was more than just a victim of terrorism.

“He was my best friend,” says Yago S. Cura, a poet and former classmate of Foley’s at UMass’ MFA Program for Poets & Writers. He’s curated an anthology of poems called “Ghazals for Foley,” which debuts on Saturday at Gus Harper Art in Culver City. The book is brimming with memories of  his late friend.

I ask Cura for a memory or two.

“If we were at a bar, I’d keep you there ‘til closing time, telling stories,” he says.

In 1999, as two city kids in rural Amherst, Foley and Cura bonded over dancehall reggae, hip-hop and history. They swapped short stories and sonnets, and poured over Latin American poetry. Between classes, they taught English to pregnant and parenting teens at a Holyoke, Mass., care center.

“I could say unabashedly — and Jim would probably agree with me — that he was a pretty terrible poet,” Cura says with a laugh. “But he was an amazing fiction writer.”

Foley won an award from the Indiana Review for “Notes to a Fellow Educator,” a short story based on his experience teaching middle schoolers in the barrios of Phoenix, Ariz., with Teach for America.

After UMass, Foley encouraged Cura to take up teaching, while he switched gears to conflict reporting. He embedded himself with rebel fighters in the Middle East, filing stories on the ground amidst the chaos of the Arab Spring for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse. In April 2011, Foley was attacked and held captive by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces for 44 days, then made it home to the U.S.

But Foley wasn’t done. He flew back to the Middle East soon after, was seized in northern Syria, and never returned. His gruesome, publicized death —and the talk surrounding it — hit Cura, Resto and their community hard.

“The first narrative is that he was some unfortunate journalist,” Cura says. “The second is that he was predisposed to danger” — that by venturing back to the Middle East,
“he was asking for it.”

Neither of those characterizations rests well with Cura.

“We can’t sit there and vilify him and call his courage myopic,” Cura says. “Jim chose where his heart was: telling the [untold stories of Syrians], regardless of what may happen.”

To tell Foley’s story, Cura made a Kickstarter page to fund a book of poems about his friend. Submissions poured in from across the country: from a dozen or so former MFA classmates, an old professor, a friend from his teaching days in Phoenix, a reporter he was imprisoned with in Libya — even a handful of strangers.

Many of the poems are ghazals, an Arabic style of verse that predates the sonnet by centuries. Classic ghazals are songs of separation, mourning and loss, and these are no different; each page is darkly beautiful and haunted by memory.

Cura was on an L.A. bus when he first read Martín Espada’s entry, “Ghazal for a Tall Boy from New Hampshire.” As he eyed each verse, he sobbed in his seat. “That one decimated me,” he says. “That’s when I realized: this [anthology] could be a really powerful thing if done right.”

Cura’s own poem, “Ghazal for Hamza-Foley,” wrestles with Foley’s conversion from Catholicism to Islam during his second and final imprisonment, a mysterious change of heart Cura never fully understood.

“I think a good piece of art leaves you with more questions than answers,” he says.

Even now, Foley’s legacy is full of small surprises. After his death, fellow hostages shared how he was a beam of light in prison: organizing Secret Santas between the captives, playing makeshift games of Risk with prison scraps and never letting the daily torture break him.

Even later, at his funeral service, Cura met dozens of other best friends of Foley who shared stories of his generosity that he’d never heard before.

“How well do you really know a person?” he asks. “They can be your best friend, but there are certain things they do — certain acts of heroism and valor — that you’ll never know. Sometimes they’re little things that most people don’t see.”

But telling vital stories of global injustice “was a big thing that everyone saw,” says Cura. “It’s something that we should all aspire to — to have that courage and morality.”

A book release party for “Ghazals for Foley” begins at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 27, at Gus Harper Art, 11306 Venice Blvd., Culver City. Cura, Resto and eight others will read poetry dedicated to Foley. Proceeds from copies sold will benefit the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation.