For six months, I had tried to read all of Ashbery’s published work—from 1956’s Some Trees to 2007’s A Worldly Country, more than thirty poetry books in all, as well as some detours into the essays of Reported Sightings and Selected Prose. It’s an astonishing body of work: wide-ranging, funny, wise, and always with the indelible stamp of Ashbery’s singular mind. His poetry imposes a steep learning curve on its readers—not because it’s full of allusions or theoretical traps, but because the language remains free and unstable throughout. Just when you think you have a foothold, you find yourself in a cloud. And much to his own surprise, this aesthetic has earned him nearly every major award a poet can earn—the Pulitzer to the Griffin—while he has remained steadfastly an outside presence in the poetry community. He has many imitators but no equals.
I met Ashbery in his New York apartment on a rainy January afternoon. His longtime partner, David Kermani, ushered me into the living room and took my coat. In person, Ashbery is quite a physical presence—not imposing, exactly, but grand. An illness has left him with a limp, but he moves with grace and assurance. He has startling blue eyes, which he periodically opens wide. Around his apartment, paintings by Trevor Winkfield and Jane Freilicher adorn the walls, books sit stacked on the floor, and, in an alcove room, a postcard of Parmigianino’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror has been propped above Ashbery’s typewriter.
We sat down in the living room facing the Hudson River, and for the next few hours Ashbery and I discussed his work. After the sun had gone down, Ashbery told me he would be meeting the poets James Tate and Dara Wier for dinner in about an hour, so I excused myself and went down to the street to hail a cab.
I. INFLUENCES ON THE SHORE
THE BELIEVER: Do you try to sit down and write poetry every day?
JOHN ASHBERY: No, not at all. Or even every week! I don’t like too much time to go by without trying to write, but on the other hand if I try to write more than what seems enough it invariably doesn’t satisfy me. So I purposefully don’t start again immediately after having written something. People seem to think I’m too prolific as it is, anyway.
BLVR: Do you keep a diary?
JA: No. I did when I was in high school, and I still have it actually. I obviously wasn’t doing anything of much interest. You know, I’d say “had a tuna sandwich for lunch.” (laughs). Also, I didn’t want to confide anything too personal in it either because I was afraid my mother would find it and read it, which I think she did. I kept it for I think four years. It’s sort of funny actually because about twenty years ago when I used to see an analyst I thought maybe if I showed him my early diaries he could figure out what’s wrong with me, so I lent them to him. I don’t think he ever looked at them, of course, but then when I asked for them back he couldn’t find them. And then he died. So I thought these diaries were lost, but by a strange coincidence about ten or twelve years later I got a call from a man who was an antique dealer. He had vaguely heard of me through a friend who had known about poetry. He bought the contents of an apartment on lower Fifth Avenue, my analyst’s apartment, and there he found these diaries with my name in them. He didn’t know who I was, but his friend said I taught at Bard (College), so he called Bard and then very nicely he came and brought them back to me. I said I’d really like to return your favor and he said no no it’s alright.
BLVR: When was this?
JA: About seven years ago.
BLVR: That’s so generous of him to not only find you but to return them.
JA: Yes, but then I started looking at them and they were so boring!
BLVR: I’m interested in how people try to keep track of the contents of their lives as it happens to them through language. Some people are very dedicated diary writers, and others I guess keep track or mark time through letters. Are you a very dedicated letter-writer?
JA: I was actually, especially since I lived abroad for the better part of ten years. In fact, I wrote hundreds of letters during that time and I’m trying now to collect them. Just to re-read them to find out what I did. I’ve gotten copies of my letters to many friends, like James Schuyler and Frank O’Hara and Jane Freilicher. I think I wrote many more letters than they did. I was rather lonely at the time and wanted to find out what was going on back in New York.
BLVR: How does it feel to look back on that time through the letters?
JA: I was living practically on no money during the time I was away and to be reminded of that is rather painful. If I had had even just a little money it would have been so much more pleasant. But it was a wonderful experience anyway, I’m glad I did it.
BLVR: Do you find yourself thinking of those friends—Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler—often, or is it a particular and removed part of your life?
JA: No, I do think of them, very often. And Kenneth Koch also and Jane Freilicher. Jane is still living—I guess she’s probably the only one. But Frank O’Hara died so long ago–actually 42 years ago–and I spent relatively little time with him. I met him at Harvard just a couple of months before I graduated, and he didn’t come to New York for another couple of years, and then I went to France. He actually came there on business for MOMA a few times when I was there, but when I came back it was just six months before he died, so my memories of him are very fond but somewhat remote now. I try to remember him and it’s not as easy as with some of the other people.
BLVR: I’m interested in how you think your reading practice and how you might read a book of poems or a novel or letters, how it might inform how you write.
JA: Well, I usually read for a while before I sit down to write poetry. One has to be reminded all over again what poetry is and how it works. So I read then. And I read quite a lot of novels and mainly I guess I think that will somehow affect my writing in a good way.
BLVR: Are there particular things that you find yourself coming back to over and over again?
JA: Last June I had been re-reading the novels of Elizabeth Bowen, who I first discovered when I was about sixteen by chance at a library. I had never heard of her before, but I picked one up and started reading it then. So I’ve been going back to that to see what had interested me in the first place, savoring her writing, which is so refreshing and active. And then actually I got that new Elizabeth Bishop from Library of America sent to me, and I’ve been re-reading her. She was always one of my favorite poets and probably one who influenced me right from the beginning, but I hadn’t read her poetry in years. Again I was carried away by it and also by her wonderful letters. Almost every sentence she wrote has this wonderful distinction and even when she’s being bitchy, she did it in this wonderfully generous way.
BLVR: How often do you revise as you go? Do you try to get it down the first time?
JA: I do try to get it down the first time. I write very fast actually when I finally write. And then I go over and make corrections that seem called for and then I just put it away for a year or so. I don’t really look at them again until I feel it’s time to start sending them out to magazines or start putting together another book. In the meantime, they just kind of ferment or something. Then, when I do eventually look at them with an eye to publication I go over them again and make some changes, but usually I’ve made the necessary ones already.
BLVR: In the intervening time, do you show them to anyone else? Is there anyone you show it to if you’re trying something and you’re not quite sure if it’s working?
JA: Well, David always reads them, even though he’s not a poet or even much a reader of poetry, though he might have a different opinion about that. I find his opinion very helpful. When I was young and insecure about my poems I would show them to Jimmy Schuyler or Frank or Kenneth and we’d get together and read each other our poems, but as time went by we began to feel more secure so we didn’t feel we needed to go through that step. I don’t know now whom I would show them to. Maybe Jim Tate but he doesn’t seem like the kind of person who wants to do that himself, so I hesitate to do that to him. Well, I guess the answer is no, I don’t. Not at this point. Actually, I do sometimes show them to Mark Ford, whom you probably know. He’s a poet whose poetry I really like. And his remarks are often very entertaining and enlightening. We hardly ever see each other but we email each other quite often. I think I mentioned this in another interview, but I can’t remember if I said it or whether I read it somewhere. And this is not so much as showing your poems to people as talking about the writers who have influenced you as you’re sort of growing up. These writers are like people standing on a shore waving at you as you’re on a boat pulling away from the shore. They keep getting smaller and smaller and waving and smiling in the distance.
BLVR: As you’re drifting out?
JA: Yes. I just mentioned Elizabeth Bishop, whose one of those writers for me. I haven’t felt the need to read her poetry in a long time, re-reading it now I wish I had. I guess one sort of swallows these people whole and when one needs them and they stay inactive until the moment when they’re called upon to take over in the poems.
II. “THE FORM IS ALWAYS THERE, MENACING YOU”
BLVR: When you get a new book to read, do you start at the beginning and go all the way to the end?
JA: No, I don’t think I do. I may end up doing that, but I jump around in books at first.
BLVR: Do you think that informs some of the way you expect other people to read your own books?
JA: I think I read that way because that’s the type of person I am. I don’t proceed in a linear fashion, which is not something I’d recommend necessarily to other people. But I half-assume that people reading me will read the way I do, and so that’s kind of built into the way I write. Of course I could be completely mistaken, but I have to make that assumption to start writing.
BLVR: I wondered if there’s a reader in mind as you’re going, or if there’s a specific feeling or a general feeling about who might be on the other side, or if you’re not concerned.
JA: It’s not something I let weigh on me as I’m writing—“Is this reader going to understand this particular one?” and so forth. But certainly I always write with the idea of being read—though some people disagree. I don’t make any attempt to flatter the reader, but I certainly hope the he or she will come to it and make of it whatever it is I’ve put there. It’s impossible to know whom you’re writing for. I always quote Gertrude Stein’s famous line, “you write for yourself and strangers.” That about sums it up.
BLVR: I wonder too about your listening habits. I’ve heard that you’re interested in 20th century classical music, which often isn’t linear. I wonder how much that informs your writing?
JA: Probably a lot because I was very attracted to Schoenberg and serial music when I first started writing, thanks to Frank O’Hara, actually, who discovered a lot of things before I did, a lot of things I might not have gotten to or thought worthy of taking in. I was taken with the idea that the tone row is a fixed thing that goes into music, that the music is organized around it, that the composer is not free to improvise, though of course a lot of them do, not taking it literally. That was sort of interesting to me at the same time I first tried to write a sestina because there you’re thwarted every time you try to write the next line. The form is always there, menacing you. But I don’t just like that kind of music. I also like more conservative 20th century music. I guess my poetry is indebted to music because it’s something that unfolds in a linear way and it’s not something that can be taken in immediately like a painting. As much as I love visual art, I’ve never felt it’s been much of an influence on me. I love having it around, as you see. It’s probably the idea of not knowing yourself what’s going to come next, just as when you’re listening to a piece of music you don’t know what’s waiting around the corner.
BLVR: Talking with some people about your work, I’ve found that they appreciate it much more after they’ve heard you read it aloud. It’s clearer heard than read to some people, because I guess they’re not obligated to keep up. They just take in what they can. It’s like you say they don’t know what’s coming around the corner, so they can perceive and hear in a way that they can’t when they’re reading it on the page.
JA: It’s interesting because I can’t tell you how many people have said exactly that. In fact just yesterday I got a letter from someone inviting me to read at the 92nd St. Y and she said exactly that. I suppose that means there’s something not quite right about the poetry since it requires that extra effort from me. I guess I haven’t done what I’ve set out to do.
BLVR: It’s fascinating to me, because I don’t get the sense that you feel that the reading would be the logical end to a poem. Would you rather have people just read it on the page and be satisfied?
BLVR: Do you think poetry would be helped by a wider audience?
JA: I don’t know. This question comes up so often in reviews. “No one reads this poet so what demands does he have on our attention?” and so forth. It’s sort of like the Yogi Bera remark: “nobody goes there anymore it’s too popular.” It’s sort of like, people are alarmed that more people go to rock concerts than go to chamber music performances, but the people who go to both enjoy what they’re doing. Does it really matter how many of them there are? I suppose it would be alarming if there were only a dozen or so people who read poetry. But as I’m sure you know there are many more than is dreamed of in the mass media, or in the New York Times Book Review for instance. Of course critics say before the 20th century everyone read poetry, but I don’t think that’s true – although undoubtedly more people did. They say that since the 20th century began poetry has shut itself off from people by being so difficult and irritating. Maybe. On the other hand people seem to be attracted to poetry for just those reasons. It does require more effort and more attention, and it can be stimulating as a reader to give that to the poetry. As much as I like Carl Sandburg, I enjoy something that has a certain amount of crunch and resistance to it.
On the other hand, that’s my generation. When I was in college everyone was reading Pound and Gertrude Stein and Joyce and things like that. It was accepted that contemporary literature was going to be hard to understand and you dived in and found yourself swimming eventually. Today the word accessible appears over and over. I don’t think poetry should be inaccessible, but I also don’t think it should be easy of access either, because much of the fun comes from struggling with it, or at least it should. Of course, it’s also not necessarily true that difficulty is something one should automatically aspire to.
BLVR: I heard that you read your poem “Soonest Mended” at a political rally at Bard College—I don’t know if that’s true—but it makes me wonder what you might think could make a poem political?
JA: Well, I think it was at the beginning of the Iraq war, when there was a group of poets at Bard who had a reading. Obviously I wasn’t told that it had to be a political poem, but one can’t very well get up and read something that is totally narcissistic on such an occasion. I read “Soonest Mended,” and in fact I refer to it now and then as my “one size fits all” confessional poem, but it could be a “one size fits all” political poem, too.
BLVR: Do you think poetry and politics have a place of intersection?
JA: They certainly want to have one, but I’ve always objected to being told something that I already know or believe. Most poets have already been persuaded that war is horrible or that capitalism is greedy or any of the other things political poetry tries to beat into you skull. So, okay, we know this, let’s talk about something else. It’s sort of in a way insulting to be lectured in this fashion, though that certainly isn’t the view of the poets who write this kind of poetry. They certainly wouldn’t share my view.
BLVR: I think it’s a matter of respecting the reader, but also of respecting the challenge that a poem might bring.
JA: It’s got to function as poetry. It’s got to satisfy the particular hunger that poetry and only poetry can supply, that kind of satisfying meal as it were. There are certain overtly political poets who do have that capability and it’s hard to know exactly why. I’ve always quite liked Charles Bukowski’s poetry, for example, and in fact I even once gave it a prize. I was asked to choose the best poem in an issue of New York Quarterly and having read all the poems, I said, well this is really the best one. It does what it sets out to do, it is what it is without pretension of any kind.
BLVR: In a class I had with Jim [Tate], there was a student who was very adamant that your poem “The Skaters” couldn’t be understood without a clear understanding of Derrida, of Derrida’s idea of cultural traces and so forth. Jim let the student go on for a while and then leveled him with one of his looks. He said, “I know John, and I know John doesn’t give a shit about that.” So, I have to ask, now that I can, do you give a shit about that?
JA: Literary theory really doesn’t inform my work at all. When I wrote “the Skaters” in 1963 or ’64, I don’t think there was such a beast, in fact. On the other hand, if readers who are into theory find it offers a way into my poetry, I think any way in should be taken, probably. It’s not that I’m putting theoretical concerns down, they just aren’t mine. I guess because I’m writing poetry instead. I can see how they might very well be a useful way to come to terms with this poetry, which obviously requires some new kind of means of access, or at least does at the beginning. I didn’t mean for it to be that way, but I’ve learned, to my surprise, that that’s the way it is.