Reprinted from Time Out New York, February 14-21 2007 issue.
THE IRONY CURTAIN Some critics still try to penetrate Ashbery’s work. Photograph: Lynn Davis
Stop making sense
John Ashbery on form, slang and the meaning of his work.
By Daniel Nester
As last spring’s John Ashbery Festival at the New School made clear, some of the poet’s devotees are still trying to figure him out. But many readers have stopped worrying about what Ashbery means, opting instead to simply fall in love with his highly allusive, disjunctive, ironic lyrics. With this latest collection, A Worldly Country, the prolific author continues to cement his place in the canon. Just don’t look to him for answers—as TONY learned upon calling him at his Manhattan apartment, the genial author is usually bemused by his own work.
Any thoughts on having a festival in your name?
I didn’t go to much of it, actually. I was embarrassed. [Laughs]
Three talks on the program were called “How to Read John Ashbery Poems.” What would you have said if you were on one of those panels?
I don’t know how to read my work, so I probably couldn’t have. It’s impossible to know how one’s work looks to a reader.
April 7 has been named John Ashbery Day in New York City. There was a ceremony in City Council Chamber in your honor. How did you feel about that?
Well, of course I was very pleased. The ceremony took place where the municipal government takes place, and all kinds of other things were happening too. I felt like I was in this Vittorio De Sica movie—Umberto D. or something like that. A high-school band from Queens played—they were also getting an award from the city. I got a big proclamation, scroll-type thing. But what does a John Ashbery Day mean? Are people going to stop and pause and think for a minute?
Do you have any suggestions?
Well, I plan to spend the day as usual: lying around.
You’re often associated with experimental free verse, but you also use some conventional forms. In the new book, there is a pantoum [“Phantoum”], and the title poem is in rhyming couplets.
I’ve always used form occasionally. There’s the famous Robert Frost dictum of how free verse is like playing tennis without a net. I’ve always maintained that it’s harder to play tennis without a net. I’ve written pantoums before, and rhyme occasionally, but I use them as a kind of stimulus to write differently.
Your work is also known for its use of slang. What attracts you to it?
I guess it’s the reason we’re all attracted to slang: It’s a way of saying something differently in a semi-fashionable way.
Can you tell me one of your favorite bits of slang?
I remember one thing I overheard, in the early ’50s. A man was walking past with another man, saying, “You know, the little guy, Jake’s boss, the one who hypnotized me.” I’ve thought about that ever since.
What are your thoughts on live poetry readings?
I like the fact that people like poetry readings, because it gives me the chance to read my poetry to them and pick up some extra change. But I prefer reading poems to myself and not hearing it. This sort of goes against the wisdom that poetry is an oral art meant to be read aloud. There have been a few cases where I felt I learned something by hearing a poet read. Robert Creeley, of course. And Elizabeth Bishop, who gave very few readings. I heard her read once for about 15 minutes at the Guggenheim. When she finished, she just walked off the stage.
You have a house upstate in Hudson. I’ve heard that the town was once the red-light district of the Northeast. Were you around for any of that?
[Laughs] No, it had already past—it was in the ’50s. Governor Dewey had some very well-publicized raids on the brothels of Hudson. And also gambling. There’s a book about it that they sell in the Hudson train station: Diamond Street, which was the street where all this happened.
One of your new poems, “One Evening, a Train,” begins, “Still at it, friend?” You’ll turn 80 in July. Do you ever think about retiring from writing?
I certainly hope I’ll go on writing. It’s not unheard of that people are creative into their nineties. Composer Milton Babbitt seems to be. Robert Creeley was certainly productive up until the end. So it’s business as usual.
Bonus Questions and Answers
Have you ever been to a poetry slam?
No, I don’t think I would feel comfortable at one. [Laughs] To be slammed.
You live in an apartment in Manhattan as well as a charming house upstate in Hudson. Are there any differences in the poems you write in either place?
That’s an interesting question, but I don’t have the answer. Actually that rhymed poem, “A Worldy Country,” the title poem that begins the book, I found out recently checking it back, because I date everything—that I did write that one in Hudson. And of course that one seems different, but I don’t think it means I feel like rhyming in Hudson more there than I do in New York, or any determining factor in either place.
You do like living in these two different places?
Oh yeah. More than two I don’t think I’d like. We have another place to go to.
What are going to do with the rest of your day?
Well, I’ve been away for two weeks, so I have a bag of mail to attend to. I am going to try to get to Met to see the Glitter and Doom [German Portraits from the 1920s].